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Declan Bogue: Rural clubs are battling extinction but issues cannot be solved by GAA alone

They don’t make them like this any more: the seven McGrath brothers who featured on Fermanagh county winning team of St Joseph’s, Ederney, 50 years ago (back) Colm, Leonard, Fr Sean, Ciaran and (front) Brendan, Tom and Anthony
They don’t make them like this any more: the seven McGrath brothers who featured on Fermanagh county winning team of St Joseph’s, Ederney, 50 years ago (back) Colm, Leonard, Fr Sean, Ciaran and (front) Brendan, Tom and Anthony
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

God bless those that preserve local newspaper cuttings.

A few of them have found their way under our noses as the St Joseph's club in Ederney get ready to celebrate the opening of a new pitch, stand and club rooms on April 26.

As it happens, 2019 marks 50 years since they last won a county league title, which followed on from the previous year when they won their only Fermanagh senior Championship.

On those teams were no fewer than seven sons of Hugh McGrath. More than half a Gaelic football team came from one house.

The newspaper clippings of the time are both a joy and also a throwback to a, let's say, less litigious time.

The pen-pics say of the late Colm, corner-back of the team, "has to contend with an explosive temper which earned him a caution last year".

Anyway, they don't make families like that anymore. Eleven children in all, crammed into a three-bedroom house in the townland of Edenaveigh.

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Nowadays, though, Ederney are in a bind with their minor (Under-19) team. They cannot field one.

Stuck up in the corner of north west Fermanagh, they had considered amalgamating with Drumquin, but the practice is forbidden as they would be crossing into Tyrone territory.

It's a familiar story. Elsewhere in the county, Teemore and Derrylin are fielding as St Aidan's. Roslea and Aghadrumsee join under the banner of St Gerard's.

Even in a football-mad county such as Tyrone, amalgamations are the norm. Augher, Clogher and Eskra are Gael Naomh Padraig. Glenelly join up with Gortin for Both Dohnaigh. Such a measure is necessary to keep young lads in football with drop-off rates as they are, but the relationships are seldom satisfactory.

Most clubs will have families that are synonymous with GAA in the area. There were seven McGurks on the Lavey panel that won the 1991 All-Ireland Club title, but greenbelt restrictions have made it harder for offspring to remain in the immediate vicinity.

Look at the rise in young families in a town such as, for argument's sake, Magherafelt, with the availability of starter homes.

Their children form friendships with other children in the town. The next thing, a flyer from the local GAA club is in the schoolbag inviting their child to come along and enjoy an evening of coaching and fun.

It's hard to deny them their friends for the sake of driving them 10 or 12 miles out to the club of your ancestors, where they know nobody.

Therefore, the town teams with the growing population are inundated with demand and don't even have the volunteers to cope with the numbers, while the satellite villages and country areas contract even further.

Is this the GAA's fault?

Well, the question has to be asked, what can they do? They are not town and country planners.

Rural clubs are the spine of the GAA but they are under threat.

Even though numbers are rising in town clubs, the idea of starting new clubs to cater for the numbers is largely seen as treasonous. That's not even getting into the difficulties in actually establishing and maintaining a club.

The GAA have been investing heavily in urban areas for the last 20 years.

Now, the results are evident. Na Piarsaigh in Limerick were formed in 1968, while Dublin's Cuala came along in 1974. They are now two of the best hurling teams on the island, having won three All-Ireland Club titles in the last four years.

Hurling has always been strong in Limerick, but a few years ago - funded by JP McManus - they aimed to increase participation in the city, directly benefiting Na Piarsaigh.

They put coaches into schools, hosted training camps on Saturdays and from a base of 8% of kids in the city playing hurling, that figure stood at 52% last summer - coincidentally the year Limerick seniors won a breakthrough All-Ireland.

In Ulster, there is now the beginnings of investment in Belfast with the Gaelfast programme. While the population is definitely there, the fear is that things might have been left too late.

Last summer, the storied O'Donovan Rossa club in Belfast hosted Ruairi Óg Cushendall on a warm summer's evening. They had one supporter there. For a club that reached the All-Ireland final 30 years ago last month, the interest has flatlined.

Rural clubs look at this investment with a mixture of envy and uncertainty.

Saturday week ago, there was one of those typically thought-provoking seminars in the Garvaghey GAA Centre, where club people gathered and swapped war stories of the difficulties.

It was a day when volunteers were reinforced by the clear evidence that they are all suffering together, while Dublin GAA has become the darling child of the Association with the obvious benefits shining through their senior football team right now. Solutions, however, are thin on the ground.

It's another case of the GAA must solve everything. When all you know or have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The only people to ask are planning authorities. You can't build acres of housing with no facilities to cater for people. Bigger schools need to spring up. Shops, supermarkets, leisure centres. How is this any of the GAA's remit?

Rural depopulation is a problem that threatens to decimate the GAA, but it cannot be solved by the GAA alone.

It's not like the Irish government is renowned for creativity or imagination towards problems, but something needs dreamed up and quickly - or its greatest generator of social cohesion is in trouble.

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