GAA helped from across the divide


The PSNI's sports and social club in Belfast has come to the assistance of a facilities-strapped county GAA team by providing training amenities for the Antrim ladies' team.

The Antrim team yesterday trained on one of the pitches of the New Forge Country Club in south Belfast, where on Wednesday the PSNI and Garda Síochána GAA teams will play a challenge match.

This marks another quiet but significant exercise in community bridge-building in Northern Ireland. Earlier this year, the predominantly Protestant Linfield soccer club provided training facilities for the St Mary's Teacher-Training College camogie team in west Belfast.

Elsewhere in the North, some of the old barriers between the different sporting codes, often based on religion or politics, have been slowly breaking down without any great controversy.

Women's and girls' GAA is flourishing in many parts of Ireland, including Antrim, but such is the success of the sport that there is a "desperate" shortage of training facilities.

The public relations officer of the Antrim women's team, Noel McGuckian, explained that attempts by the Antrim Ladies' GAA Board to find training amenities had failed and that it appeared that the team would be without suitable facilities this winter.

However, following informal contacts involving sports enthusiasts in Belfast, the PSNI sports club on New Forge Lane made it known that it had spare capacity. This contact developed to a point where the PSNI sports club was in a position to formally propose use of its extensive grounds to the Antrim team.

Over a week ago, the Antrim Ladies' GAA Board unanimously took the sports club up on its offer, explained Mr McGuckian, whose daughter, Sarah, plays for Antrim. The first training session at New Forge took place yesterday, with more than 30 female footballers turning up. Further training is planned for New Forge in the coming weeks.

"Our problem is that the demand for GAA pitches way exceeds the supply," explained Mr McGuckian. "There are only nine GAA council pitches in greater Belfast catering for men's and ladies' GAA teams. This compares with 85 soccer pitches. And that clearly isn't enough to meet the needs of all the GAA teams that want to train and play the game.

"We were delighted and grateful when the New Forge Country Club was able to help out. It's the sort of thing sports people do for each other. It means the players have somewhere to train and that we are in a position to develop a coaching strategy so that ladies' football can continue to grow."

On Wednesday, the president of the GAA, Seán Kelly, is expected to attend a match at New Forge between the Garda Síochána and the PSNI, which established a GAA team shortly after the association ended its ban in November 2001 on police officers in the North playing the game.