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Denis Walsh: Be grateful to the GAA people who give you something to grumble about

In an increasingly post-church, post-pub society, the GAA pitch remains the most vibrant social hub in Irish life

During Prime Time’s interesting piece about Casement Park on Thursday night one of the interviews took place in Michael Davitt’s GAA club. Panning around the complex for set-up shots the camera lingered for a couple of seconds on a sign tacked to an outside wall. “Before you complain ...” it read, “have you volunteered yet?”

Anybody who has ever been involved in a GAA club will know that complainants never need a license. Permission is assumed and exercised at will. For members of the club executive, or members of a management team, it is one of the occupational hazards. Somebody has something on their chest and they cough it up, like phlegm.

Sometimes these explosions arrive in a heated moment and those cuts usually heal more easily. Everybody knows what it’s like to fly off the handle and none of us is without sin. The deeper flesh wounds are more likely to come from a premeditated attack at a club AGM – some gripe or perceived mistreatment that had been curdling in someone’s mind for weeks or months. In those situations, sitting behind the top table can feel like being strapped into medieval stocks.

In the GAA the AGM season has started. The GAA prides itself on being the biggest volunteer organisation in the country, and while that remains true, the harvesting of volunteers is a far more taxing business now.


For a start, the term should never be taken literally. The dictionary definition of a volunteer is somebody “who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task”. The common understanding of that is somebody who puts their hand up and makes themselves available.

In the GAA, however, the reality is that most volunteers are somebody who was asked and said “Yes”, quite possibly after first saying “No”. They didn’t step forward, they were smoked out.

According to a study by about 36 per cent of volunteers don’t wait to be asked, but that study would have included the whole spectrum of community and charity organisations, most of which would not require a daily involvement or even a weekly commitment.

The percentage of so-called volunteers who wait to be asked in the GAA must be substantially higher. Anybody who has been chair of their club knows that the phone doesn’t ring with people offering to take up roles; anybody who has been to an AGM in the last 10 or 15 years knows that any roles not already filled by persuasion before the meeting starts won’t be filled on the night with raised hands from the body of the floor.

Once upon a time, leadership roles on the executive might have come down to a contest at a club AGM – or at least that possibility was always live; in the vast majority of clubs, however, those days are long gone. The pressure on club officers to the find their replacements when their term ends has turned into an onerous task in itself, on top of everything else.

The GAA are acutely aware that they are operating in a different climate now and that leisure time is a fiercely contested space. On the GAA’s website you will find a Volunteer Recruitment Toolkit, a really smart 37-page document, full of practical tips and relevant case studies from clubs around the country. The key word in the title, though, is “recruitment”. Getting people on board involves making a pitch.

According to the survey, between 17 per cent and 33 per cent of people volunteer on a regular basis, for an average of 5-12 hours per month. For any job on a club executive or with a club team – at any level – 5-12 hours a month just wouldn’t cut it. The clock doesn’t start when you drive through the gates of the club grounds and it doesn’t stop when you leave; the hours on the phone keep ticking; the thinking time spreads like gas.

When clubs are looking to fill positions of responsibility, there is no way of sugar-coating that. Widespread uproar greeted the leaked list of conditions and strictures being imposed by a club manager in Galway last week, but there is no club player or manager who will put in as many hours as a club chair or club secretary. The people sitting on their hands at the AGM know this too.

This sounds counterintuitive – because volunteering is essentially an unselfish act for the benefit of others – but, in a GAA setting, you must have a clear sense of what you want from it. For this to work, it must be a mutually gratifying transaction. It cannot be an act of martyrdom for the sake of the jersey. There are no songs about GAA martyrs.

Everybody knows the hazards. If you’re involved in a juvenile team, parents will give out – a toxic practice that has reached epidemic levels. If you’re involved in an adult team, players/parents/supporters will give out. Only one team can win the championship. It probably won’t be your team. You must be convinced that being at the heart of all this will deliver some kind of personal satisfaction, come what may.

Every club chair goes into the job with great ideas and notions about the difference they can make and are very soon swamped by the minutiae of day-to-day club life. When you’re up to your neck in it there is an involuntary temptation to catastrophise accidents and incidents that, to any detached observer, might seem trivial. Being immersed in it, though, can inflict those distortions.

And still, thousands upon thousands of people are prepared to make the commitment and put up with the cuts and bruises. There are still any number of good, compelling reasons to do it. In an increasingly post-Church, post-pub society, the GAA pitch remains the most vibrant social hub in Irish life. Having common cause with your neighbours remains one of the most invigorating feelings that sport in Ireland can offer. Making time and making sacrifices intensifies the experience. You might not realise that it’s made for you until you try it.

But if you’re going to an AGM over the next couple of weeks determined to sit on your hands, at least remember the people who deserve your thanks.