Ballymun's story a reflection of a wider truth for GAA in Dublin


LAST WEEK on Newstalk radio’s Off The Ball programme there was a discussion about Dublin champions Ballymun Kickhams whose rise to prominence for the first time in around 30 years has been one of the stories of the club season to date.

The angle taken concerned the extent to which this was a good news story for an area often perceived as embodying urban blight and social problems. In fact Ballymun is much like other clubs in Dublin in that it has relatively little interaction with these issues.

Two of the club’s better known alumni were interviewed. Val Andrews, whose managerial projects with teams at county, provincial and higher-education level has gone hand-in-hand with his club involvement, was quick to dispel the perception.

He pointed out that Ballymun earned the “troubled” tag simply by virtue of the iconic high-rise apartment blocks, which as he pointed out were unique in Ireland – and where the national genius for half-cocked planning led to a dense residential community without amenities or proper social supports, which became an incubator for social problems.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the suburb the housing estates and older, residential roads got on with the GAA’s business. As Andrews pointed out, the impetus for the club (which dates back to the amalgamation of CJ Kickhams and Ballymun Gaels as recently as 1969) came from country people or first-generation locals, who had a genetic disposition towards setting up and sustaining GAA clubs.

The outreach has improved and the county board tries to initiate projects that will enhance the inclusiveness of the games but the current economic environment is not one which is going to see adequate resourcing for such initiatives regardless of their social benefit.

“One of the failings of the GAA,” said Andrews, “is that we’re not that good at infiltrating working class areas, particularly in west Dublin. The sport of the working class people in Dublin has been soccer. It takes a while to get Gaelic into working-class areas.”

On the same programme former Dublin manager and captain Tom Carr, also a former Ballymun player, was asked to what extent the GAA targeted the areas, like the high rises.

“It didn’t,” he replied, “and the GAA still doesn’t. To an extent the GAA has given up on those areas and those areas don’t see themselves as GAA; they see themselves as soccer. In my time there were doctors, guards and teachers. That’s what made up the team I played on.”

For Andrews the big challenge in urban – as distinct from rural – areas is to establish a tradition within the catchment so that families growing up in Ballymun will almost automatically send their children to the club and that the generations will perpetuate that recruitment.

There’s nothing unusual about Ballymun in this respect. The GAA in Dublin is overwhelmingly middle class.

In an interview with this newspaper on the occasion of the GAA’s 125th anniversary, director general Páraic Duffy acknowledged as much.

“We have probably become a more middle-class game in Dublin. To be fair the Dublin County Board recognise that. But it is a major challenge because you have to commit so many resources and send in so many volunteers. The GAA asks so much of its clubs that it probably puts people off.

“In working-class Dublin soccer is by far the biggest sport. We have some very good clubs in working-class areas but overall participation and interest in our games is very, very low. In vast tracts of urban Ireland there is very little interest in our affairs. That’s the reality.”

That reality is yet another example of the pernicious effects of social inequality. Sport can play a hugely important role in maintaining children’s health by keeping them fit and combating the increasingly sedentary nature of modern pastimes as well as the emerging obesity crisis caused by poor diet and lack of exercise.

It’s a box that most – but not necessarily exclusively – middle-class parents will automatically tick.

Seven years ago in one of the ESRI’s reports on sport (the one the GAA liked because it illustrated the high levels of volunteerism within the association) the point was made starkly.

In The Social and Economic Value of Sport, it states: “A market system is not concerned with promoting access to sport on the basis of fairness. One justification for government intervention is to ensure that access to sport is not overly constrained by lack of resources or other forms of socio-economic disadvantage.”

“Secondly there is a similar bias within organised sport in favour of the middle classes. This can be seen in the fact that higher professional and managerial positions lead the way in an analysis of volunteers’ occupations.”

In his recent speech in New York, GAA president Liam O’Neill outlined the ambitious target of extending the overseas reach of the association so that the numbers playing the games internationally would outgrow the domestic playing base.

It was an interesting and dramatic vision for the future but it shouldn’t obscure the fact that there’s still room for growth at home, albeit in areas which traditionally haven’t been receptive.

It would be an irony were the GAA to find it easier to promote the games in Shanghai than in deprived parts of Dublin.

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