Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

City enhancement will bolster game

All Ireland Senior Club Football Championship Final 17/3/2010 St. Gall's (Antrim) vs Kilmurry-Ibrickane (Clare) St. Gall's captain Colin Brady lifts the cup as his team mates celebrate Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

For some time now serious concerns have been expressed about the growth and development of gaelic games in urban areas.

The GAA as such still retains a rural ethos, hardly surprising given that the vast majority of its clubs nestle in small parishes in quite remote areas.

But of late there has been a much stronger emphasis on raising the profile of the country's biggest sporting organisation in our cities.

And in consequence Belfast and Derry, the two largest cities in Ulster, are about to reap the benefits of this initiative.

Plans have already been unveiled for the massive refurbishment of Casement Park which will ultimately see a 40,000 all-seater stadium provided on the existing site.

This will of course serve to bolster the GAA not only in west Belfast but throughout the city and will certainly provide economic benefits for decades to come since it is proposed to stage many top-flight matches at the new arena when it is completed in 2016.

While the new-look Casement Park will be the flagship Ulster venue, of even more importance in terms of nurturing interest in GAA in the city area is the fact that Belfast City Council has announced a significant £7million capital investment in facilities for gaelic games.

This funding, coupled with a further £1m from Central Council, will see the development of four new GAA sites and eight new GAA pitches in strategic areas of Belfast.

This means that hundreds of participants will now have the chance to play games on excellent pitches with all ancillary facilities provided and this will surely be significant in spawning a new generation of stars.

Indeed, this will give the Association an important foothold in vital areas of its development in south, north and west Belfast at a time when it is most needed given the level of competition that it is facing from other sports.

As Ireland's second largest city, Belfast is of vital strategic importance to the GAA and the city council's initiative has already been warmly applauded by the Croke Park and Ulster Council hierarchy.

The GAA is certainly progressing in Belfast in playing terms, too. St Galls won the All-Ireland club football title three years ago with Colin Brady as their inspirational captain while the progressive Bredagh and St Brigid's clubs, where people such as Joe Brolly (pictured) are doing fine work, are proving nurseries for hundreds of exciting young players in the south of the city.

Both clubs host well-attended coaching sessions on a weekly basis and indeed both have attained success in football and hurling of late which has further helped to raise their respective profiles.

In the sphere of fund-raising, clubs such as these are innovative and energetic and this cements the notion that they will remain vibrant units for some time to come.

In Derry, there are five city clubs, although none of them enjoy a particularly high profile in terms of achieving success at a significant level.

But it is all the more to their credit that they have kept the flag flying and often in trying times, too.

The success of the Feile held in the city recently when scores of teams took part in an Under-14 extravaganza marked a big step forward for the GAA there and now that the Derry county board will host the GAA's Annual Congress in the city next month, the profile of the area will be given another shot in the arm.

The spotlight will certainly be on Derry then and given that some important decisions are expected to be made at Congress, the city could prove the starting point for the way ahead.

With Derry having been designated as the 2013 City of Culture, it is important that the GAA is seen to play its part in the myriad of events that will unfold over the coming months and Congress will kick-start a sustained programme of matches and shows that should see the Association cast in a very favourable light.

It is worth pointing out that the size and population of a city does not necessarily determine its success ratio on the field of play.

Some 1.2 million people live in the greater Dublin area yet the metropolitan side had to wait from 1995 until 2011 before they won an All-Ireland title.

Of course, the fact that enhanced facilities will now be provided in Belfast and that more are in the pipeline for Derry does not mean that titles at various levels will come rolling in.

What it does mean is that those who wish to participate in gaelic games will be furnished with the amenities, the coaching structures and a fixtures concept that will allow them to hone their skills in a positive environment.

And with the Ulster Council focussed on lending a new dimension to its admirable Integration Strategy, there is the very real possibility that people from non-GAA backgrounds might just come under the Association's umbrella.

To my mind that would be the mark of real progress and would certainly help to strengthen community bonds and further underline the strong influence that sport has for good in society as a whole.

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