THE ‘Gaelfast’ project was launched this week. After much toing, froing and tweaking, the £1million project to revitalise Gaelic games in Belfast will finally swing into action in September.
It’s been a long time coming – and not just for the current county executive. It’s 12 years since then GAA President Nickey Brennan stood under the Casement Park stand to launch ‘Lean Ar Aghaidh’, a five-year strategic plan for Antrim.
During his ‘cúpla focal’ at the launch, Brennan (inadvertently it would appear, with the benefit of hindsight) told Antrim County Board that all they had to do was knock on the door of Croke Park and ask for a few quid to develop hurling in the county, given their obvious geographical disadvantage in relation to the top hurling sides.
“We don’t have a blank cheque but if you come knocking on our door, we’ll not be found wanting,” said Brennan.
John McSparran made a number of presentations to the powers that be, illustrating some of the obstacles that Antrim hurling had to overcome, such as the cost of travel, food and accommodation that a minor team would have to overcome just to play a challenge game against a top tier county in preparation for an All-Ireland quarter-final.
It turned out that the signing of a cheque wasn’t as simple as Brennan made out. But now, 12 years later, current Antrim chairman Collie Donnelly officially launched the Gaelfast initiative in the grounds of Belfast City Hall.
Now the real work begins. It’s appropriate that I referenced Lean Ar Aghaidh. It was a strategic plan for Antrim for 2006 to 2011. In the forward to the plan, John McSparran stated that: “Lean Ar Aghaidh… will provide our county with the focus and direction needed for the next step on the ladder of success.”
It’s fair to say that it didn’t quite provide the desired outcomes.
The Gaelfast model is different. It is built on creating ‘hubs’ of GAA activity around new 3G floodlit facilities in various parts of the city, with pupils from local schools being coached at the hub, and then being streamed to a local club.
With apologies to those unfamiliar with the location of Belfast clubs and schools, the Woodlands hub could cater for pupils from St John the Baptist, St Oliver Plunkett, Holy Child and St Anne’s primary schools, and stream those children to local clubs such as St Agnes, St Pauls, Éire Óg, St John’s or whoever.
In the north of the city, the Cliftonville hub would cater for Holy Cross, Sacred Heart, Bunscoil Beann Madagháin, St Therese and Mercy primary schools and stream those children to Ardoyne Kickhams, Pearses or St Enda’s.
The theory is sound enough. The practice may prove to be much more difficult. I know from personal experience that, contrary to the mantra of former National Hurling Development Coordinator Paudie Butler, the only thing that is stopping kids from falling in love with hurling isn’t a lack of opportunity to play it.
Over the past six years I have spoken at the assembly halls of just about all the primary schools aligned to the Cliftonville hub. I have extolled the virtues of the GAA, exalted the fastest game on grass, eulogised heroes of the ash, as well as promising trips away, lifelong friendships, trips down south and just about any other carrot that I could think of to get kids interested enough to come along to training on a Sunday morning.
The response has generally been bordering on pathetic – given that the enrolment of the primary schools in the catchment area is close to 2,000 pupils. I thought that maybe I was just a poor salesman, so when Games Promotion Officer and Antrim senior hurler Simon McCrory took the P7s in one of the schools for a six-week block of coaching, I seized the opportunity to piggyback on the enthusiasm and eagerness that Simon would undoubtedly instil.
After the six weeks, the team played in a ground-hurling blitz against other schools that had also participated in a similar block of coaching. After the blitz, every child was given a letter personally addressed to their parents inviting their son or daughter along to their local club to build on the skills they’d been learning in school for the previous six weeks.
Out of 12 children who received letters, one went to the club training. For one session. And never returned. It’s a huge assumption to suggest that kids who sample hurling will automatically want to join a local club and that’s a huge challenge for the staff that are going to be employed in project Gaelfast.
The Antrim County Board are right to pitch the Regeneration Manager’s salary at £60,000 per year. That salary will attract quality applicants for what is a one-time only chance for Antrim GAA. The Regeneration Manager isn’t leading a coaching programme; £60 grand a year would be more than disproportionate methinks. He or she is leading a crusade to change the sporting culture of large swathes of Belfast city.
That is a mammoth task. For many of the communities that will be serviced by the hubs, the sporting DNA isn’t GAA; it’s MUFC, CFC or LFC. For the Cliftonville hub mentioned above for example, there’s 17 soccer clubs in the same catchment area as the three GAA clubs.
So what is needed is not an expert in coaching or even someone with a GAA background. The key areas of expertise are community planning, sports development, community leadership and empowerment, development of volunteers…
There are two or three generations of families in Belfast with barely a passing interest in Gaelic games. The stalwart families in individual clubs may have kept it going but the sense of community ownership that exists in rural areas doesn’t exist.
The GAA family in Belfast is dysfunctional. If Dublin is the Waltons, Belfast is the Simpsons.
To make it truly functional again, it’s not just a matter of increasing underage participation, building club-school links, coach education, officer training and all the other areas that appeared in Lean Ar Aghaidh 12 years ago. Gaelfast has to be different. It has to embed the GAA in the community in a way that will sustain after the current £1million funding has gone.