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GAA clubs are now beginning to see a chain reaction

By Declan Bogue

Before there was a GAA, the chief founder Michael Cusack sent a letter to two national newspapers noting that a meeting was to take place at Hayes' Commercial Hotel on November 1, 1884 for the 'Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of National Pastimes'.

Some years before, a stroll through Phoenix Park in Dublin had depressed him sufficiently to remark to his companion that it was time to "make an effort to preserve the physical strength of our race".

In the 131 years since the formation of the GAA, there is a sense that the Association has mutated into two competitions: the Sam Maguire and the Liam McCarthy.

That's where the glamour and the glory is, captured and packaged by television, kept humming along by the help of traditional and social media.

But getting back to Cusack's original intentions, ask yourself what are the national pastimes now? Anyone who finds themselves driving on a Saturday or Sunday morning would have to agree that cycling has become extraordinarily popular.

Rather than GAA clubs seeing this as a threat, they are happily embracing it.

Take Errigal Ciaran, for example. Nestled in south Tyrone, the parish covers the areas of Ballygawley town, Garvaghey, Glencull and Altamuskin, the townland of the ground.

There is a playing population of 300 with no hurling in the area to provide a distraction from the football culture. At the start of each year, it is common practice for the senior manager to host trials to whittle down the numbers and establish senior and reserve panels.

In an era when rural clubs are forced to amalgamate with others to field at underage level, Errigal have no such worries.

Yet, when they organised a cycling event in 2013, they were amazed at how many further members they could recruit. They cycled to Sligo, stayed overnight at the St Mary's club facilities and returned the following day.

On the way back, the 187 bikes were parked up outside Dessie McKenna's bar in Augher for a last refreshment before they pedalled the final seven miles to Ballygawley en masse.

Three-time All-Ireland winner Enda McGinley was one of those who took part and he will tell you of the influx of members from the local Clogher Valley Wheelers cycling club who fancied the challenge. Despite some not hailing from traditional GAA families, they were able to contribute to their local club and join in the camaraderie.

Last weekend, Belnaleck Art MacMurroughs club in Fermanagh embarked on arguably the most ambitious cycling trip by a GAA club.

With 185 cyclists on board, they called in on every single GAA club in Ireland and took a picture. In total, they visited 1630 clubs, hence their project title: 'Bike1630 - The Trek for Belnaleck'.

They gave a ticket to each club for their draw. The clever thing is that the top prize is a training weekend for a panel of 30 in the exclusive Lough Erne resort - the same venue that has hosted the G8 Summit, and where Donegal's footballers put the finishing touches to last year's All-Ireland final preparations.

Along the way, they met some characters. They lifted the Liam McCarthy Cup, got a bearhug from GAA President Aogan O Fearghail, ate sandwiches wrapped in newspaper in Cork and met up with Dublin All-Ireland winner Philly McMahon on his home patch in Ballymun (pictured with club chairman Malachy McConnell and Mark Fitzpatrick).

Some men hadn't been on two wheels since they were children but after 12 weeks of training, they pedalled 200 kilometres in two days. Fifty people manned the phones, calling ahead to clubs and 70 support workers provided fresh tubes, sandwiches, blister pads and shoulders to cry on.

Here's the real worth though. Belnaleck has become a bit of a commuter belt for people working in Enniskillen. Hence, you have a lot of people such as Lauri McCusker, a dyed-in-the-wool Enniskillen townie currently domiciled in the area.

He has thrown his lot in with the local club and is their secretary. On their ambition, he reflected: "It was absolutely mad. Boys who wouldn't have 'got' the GAA have now 'got' it like a hammer over the head."

There are many others like him who were exposed to the club for the first time. And once you are sucked in, you are never getting back out.

With a population rising in the area, they have managed to harness the 'blow-ins'.

Their reason for the draw is "our kids need a pitch". The club are growing and their single playing field will not suffice.

They need money, but they weren't prepared to wait for a handout.

Isn't that the sort of drive that Cusack was looking for as he took that dander through Phoenix Park?

You can visit the project's website on They will welcome donations to the cause.

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