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On the edge

Collation of national data can help GAA grassroots plan better for the impact of changing population trends

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Kerry legend Mick O’Connell at Renard Point overlooking Knightstown on Valentia Island, whose club has been battling to field teams in recent years

Kerry legend Mick O’Connell at Renard Point overlooking Knightstown on Valentia Island, whose club has been battling to field teams in recent years

Kerry legend Mick O’Connell at Renard Point overlooking Knightstown on Valentia Island, whose club has been battling to field teams in recent years

When your eye is automatically attracted to any shaft of light coming from the end of a tunnel you have been traversing for some time, you'll draw optimism from any situation.

Thus, Valentia Young Islanders GAA chairperson Deirdre Lyne sees potential benefit from the State advice to work from home in the current crisis.

"I work for the Government and I can e-work. If I can do it now, I can do it in the future from home," she asks.

More people adapting to home working means more people potentially uprooting and seeking a change in the pace of their lives. Island life. And that potentially converts to more numbers potentially playing GAA. And for a club like Valentia - home of Kerry legend and GAA icon Mick O'Connell - numbers are everything.

Prior to Congress last year they proposed a motion, carried by Kerry, asking that U-17 players be allowed to play non-championship matches, a deviation from the preclusion of U-17s from all adult competitions.

It was rejected. By last April, Valentia couldn't field a team for a junior championship match against Duagh. While it was a championship game, that the motion wouldn't have had any impact on, it still highlighted their problems nonetheless and their battle to survive.

It's a battle they are winning. Last year they fielded an U-14 team for the first time in a long time- having previously joined with Skellig Rangers at underage level - and won their 13-a-side division. Their U-16 team was also, solely, a product of Valentia. In two years' time up to 10 of that squad will be eligible for adult competition. The cavalry is coming over the hill.

Minimum

"We knew it was coming if we could just keep it together. We're not home and dry, we've another two or three years just being at the bare minimum but if we can just keep at it, there is light at the end of the tunnel," says Lyne, conscious that work and life could take them far away from their particular south-west haven.

In that sense, they are bucking the trend. But they are among the few in the more isolated parts of the country.

Rural depopulation isn't, of course, a GAA issue, it's a societal trend that the GAA is merely tracking and now doing its best to troubleshoot.

In 2017, Leinster GAA finalised a report commissioned by current president John Horan, then provincial chairman, on the problems facing rural clubs in their catchment area. It uncovered that there were 20 fewer clubs in the province outside Dublin than there were 40 years ago, this despite a population increase from 2002 to 2016 of over half-a-million people.

Incorporated into the report were the problems the growth in population in urban areas was throwing up for clubs, leading committee chair Sy Merrins to suggest that the Association "cannot look at either the rural or urban in isolation - both are interlinked, to varying degrees, in each county".

It estimated that by 2031, on current trends, up to 3.25m could be living in Leinster, 1.7m in Dublin, yet, with over half the population living in the province in 2016 144 fewer teams were registered compared to 2010.

Getting the balance right will involve some hard decisions over the next decade. Inevitably more rural clubs will have to come together at underage level, some may have to amalgamate entirely. Meanwhile, in the cities and even some provincial towns, the need for more clubs and more facilities is the more pressing problem.

To address that, the GAA's Community Development, Urban and Rural Committee have been putting together a dashboard tool, soon to launch, that will allow clubs to click on their own catchment areas, identify schools and their enrolment figures and measure them against the local population and their playing numbers.

As a bottom line, the GAA hopes to be able to provide its clubs with the data they need to make some of those hard decisions.

The chairman of that committee, Edenderry man Colm Cummins, says all the data is out there to interpret and after piloting in four counties, Kerry, Roscommon, Westmeath and Tyrone, they now feel they can roll it out to the other 28 counties.

"It will take a slight bit of modelling (to project future numbers) but we feel this is very valuable. We can display to whoever is looking at the system, how many eight-, nine-, 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds the whole way up within their catchment area there are in a given year. It's not pinpoint accurate because we have projected forward based on the 2016 Census. Using solid equations, developed by Future Analytics, for the purposes of what we are doing, we might be out by one or two but broadly, it's going to work for us."

The discipline of clubs to fill in an annual census of active playing numbers rather than use a database of underage members who enter at nursery level and may drift away will be pivotal.

"The key for us is to have that core data and that allows us to begin to look at the solutions. You could identify in some rural areas clubs in close proximity to each other that are going to struggle to field underage teams on their own so they begin to plan ahead rather than let it come to a head which has been happening," said Cummins.

Penetration percentages differ greatly from rural to urban. "In Dublin, they'd be doing very well to break 10 per cent. Go out to large provincial towns and you're heading to the mid-teens. In rural clubs, it's up 50 or 60 per cent. It's phenomenal."

And yet, because of natural migration, many continue to struggle.

Having data for urban areas can best identify strategic needs. Cummins sees a future where facilities may need to be shared because of a premium on space, membership numbers that ebb and flow and even the quality of club volunteers in a particular period.

In his capacity as chairman of this committee his measurement of success must be participation levels set against population of that area, not All-Ireland titles. In that sense, he sees real problems for Dublin.

"They're not going to get any sympathy but it is a major challenge. Brendan Waters is a member of our committee and he highlighted to us that in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area there are nine clubs, 550 teams, and yet there is only one pitch owned by one of those clubs. The rest are relying on local authority. Dublin do actually need massive investment in facilities," he reasons.

"There is no point in saying to all nine clubs that we are going to build three pitches for each of them, that's not feasible with land prices as they are in Dublin."

All-Ireland hurling champions Cuala have a base in Dalkey which they don't own but must spread their teams around seven different locations, as far away as Stepaside and Bray over the border in Wicklow, to accommodate their training and games programmes.

Strategic

When the club launched their strategic plan in 2017 to take them up to 2022, club chairman Adrian Dunne outlined how, in a meeting with the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Council, they were informed that there was enough available land to develop eight pitches in the next 100 years to accommodate the 50 clubs between Gaelic games, soccer and rugby.

For their part, Cuala spent €70,000 that year on training facilities alone and with membership targeted to rise to 3,000 by 2022, their logistics are only going to get more challenging.

Clubs with some of the biggest catchment areas in the country have nowhere to put their numbers.

Similarly, the Gaelfast programme in Belfast is expected to add numbers with little municipal assistance towards accommodating them. Cummins' committee sees GAA interventions being required, citing the success of Abbotstown as a hub.

"You even take Athlone, there's a couple of clubs on the Westmeath side, a couple on the Roscommon side," explains Cummins.

"At the moment they are all probably fine, they just have the balance right, but what our studies have shown there is potential for huge growth in Athlone. Participation levels are higher on the Roscommon side because it is more rural, there is potential to grow the area in terms of Gaelic games.

"So we gather the data, we inform ourselves, then we can make educated decisions about what we are doing. So you could find yourself in a position where you could do a cost-benefit analysis where an intervention in Athlone requires building a centralised facility to allow all these clubs to come in and help them to expand their participation. Take an overall approach rather than relying on the unit itself."

The demographic shift in the country will impact at all levels of society and the GAA is having to be most adaptable with new thinking on old concepts to strike the right balance.