Thursday, January 27, 2011

How emigration is hurting Gaelic football

The sport of Gaelic football, one of the prototypical Gaelic games revived as part of the Irish national awakening of the 19th century, finds itself threatened thanks to the Irish economic collapse. The County Clare branch of the Gaelic Athletic Association--the governing body of the sport--warned that the young men playing the game are leaving the country.

Clare senior hurling manager Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin fears he may lose more players to emigration.

The Banner County was rocked last week by the departure of midfielder Brian O’Connell, who captained the team for the last three seasons, to Australia.

And O’Loughlin fears that O’Connell, 26, may not be the only departure from his squad in the months ahead.

O’Loughlin revealed: "In fairness to our county board, they have put together over the last two years a work committee, with three or four people involved in that.

"They are fantastic. They sit down, search and see are there any companies around the Clare and Limerick area (looking for people) to get guys something, even on a temporary basis, to see them through the season. We got two or three jobs last year that kept lads off the dole queues and this year, we have three lads not working. We’ll work hard to see what we can do, but is the environment out there? We’re not alone and this is a European problem. Unemployment has risen substantially over the last 12 months. We’ll see can we hold them here but it won’t be easy."

O’Loughlin, a successful businessman in his own right, noted: "Manufacturing companies have dwindled considerably. I see it big time in the Shannon Industrial estate. We’ve had multinationals folding after 25 or 30 years, with very little previous talk of them closing their doors. The Shannon Industrial Estate is fairly depleted if you drive through it. Dell and others have relocated to Poland and Hungary with the loss of thousands of jobs. Counteracting this is a big challenge but we have to come up with new ideas, know our cost base and see can we attract manufacturing companies. The situation is more severe than the 1980s, when I started out. Then, you could go to England or America but jobs there are very hard to come by as well."

Why does the domestic economic meltdown have such a direct effect on Gaelic football players? Shouldn't they be insulated by salaries. They are not, for they are amateurs: they don't receive an income for their sport. They do get compensation for expenses, and acquire a certain amount of cultural capital through name recognition, but that's it. Notwithstanding new schemes to provide financial and other assistance to players, the situation for many relatively marginal clubs seems dire.

[County board secretary Pat Fitzgerald] also highlights the fact that the survival of many clubs is being threatened because of emigration, as reported in The Clare Champion recently.

“Some rural clubs in the county, in a perennial struggle for survival, now fear woes of a more monumental nature – their very existence and identity. What had been a trickle of young players heading abroad to find employment has now turned into a steady exodus as the economic crunch continues to hold the country in a vice-like grip.”

He explains a county board survey showed in the last three years alone, over 200 players have emigrated. “Recently, in Shannon Airport, the extent of the problem facing clubs was graphically illustrated when no fewer than 17 players from three clubs in North Clare boarded flights for foreign destinations.”

He states the findings of the survey showed there was a 3% increase in emigration figures from 2008 to 2009, while this jumped dramatically to 15% in the last 12 months.

“It is not overemphasising the point to state that this represents a catastrophe for a great percentage of clubs because the loss of even a handful of established players can undermine a club, particularly small rural clubs with small catchments. Furthermore, there is no club that isn’t and won’t be affected, particularly in the next six months when a lot more are expected to leave.

“Against the backdrop locally, the Gaelic Players’ Association has also admitted that 15% of inter-county players are unemployed, which is 2% higher than the national average.”

The sport doesn't seem to be that well-entrenched outside of Ireland, concentrated in the Irish diaspora. There is, local to this writer, Toronto affiliate group and a youth organization offering four teams in Ontario, but the density of teams in Ireland seems absent. It is true, however, that Gaelic football is close enough to Australian rules football--a professional sport, with salaries--to attract Irish players to play the sport for an income. Or, as in the case of O'Connell, just to earn an income at all.

Clare hurling boss O'Loughlin says Brian O'Connell's decision to emigrate to Australia is a massive blow to the Banner County.

O'Connell, who had served as Clare captain for the last three years, moved Down-Under last autumn on a temporary basis, but has now returned to Australia for the foreseeable future.

"Originally, Brian was in Australia for three months from last October," said O'Loughlin on the Wolfe Tones, Shannon star, who is a qualified civil engineer.

"He came home before Christmas for his brother's wedding, but earlier this month he decided to go back to Australia long-term. He was in limbo with the job situation in this country not being very favourable, and while he was home he had plenty of time to think about his future.

"And the fact that some of his mates had already gone to work in Australia was also probably a major factor."

On O'Connell's attributes as a player, Clare legend O'Loughlin (right) said: "You'd always regret losing a player of Brian's quality, and as he was only 26, he was really coming into his prime as an inter-county hurler.

The sport's continued existence isn't at risk, as such, but emigration of a disproportionately large number of potential players--and spectators?--for a sport so geographically concentrated in a single island won't do good things in the short or the long runs. The GAA might be well advised to extend its benefits plan.

1 comment:

Chris said...

When I lived in the Bronx, there was a thriving Gaelic Football stadium in the NW Bronx, near 242nd St. and Broadway. I don't know whether it still exists (20 years ago now) but if you can't find Gaelic football players in New York City, you won't find them anywhere.