Third-level colleges are an important part of the GAA but they’re not the most popular subjects for advocacy. In fact they can arouse resentment. When the burnout debates were raging there was an undercurrent of the colleges getting away with their fixtures being unaffected as everyone else’s were coming under the microscope.
There are persistent calls for the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups to be transplanted back to the first term to ease fixtures congestion despite the modern drift to semesterisation with Christmas exams making this impractical in academic terms to say nothing of the now routinely late running of club under-21 (and senior) competitions.
Defending the colleges against these demands in his annual report five years ago, director general Páraic Duffy said such attitudes were, “disrespectful of the players and those who coach our games in the colleges sector.
“It also overlooks and devalues the contribution that this sector has made to the development of our games in several important areas – in the raising of playing standards, in the training of administrators, and in the investment in our games and infrastructure.”
Gaelic games’ presence in colleges has been part of an expanding landscape in recent decades, as third level has grown dramatically to around 30 institutions in this state (nearly 50 for GAA purposes) – a welcome opening up of third-level education, which sees well over 50 per cent of the school leaving population participating.
Scholarships and bursaries are now widely available for those who excel at football and hurling, placing the games on an equal footing with other sports.
Yet there is a growing problem with the sector, as the age of inter-county players drops and more and more inroads are made into the colleges by inter-county teams.
Training sessions are harder to organise with a full complement and it’s often as much as can be done to get players to play the actual matches. The camaraderie that is such a valuable part of the third-level experience is harder and harder to generate, as players are pulled from pillar to post.
Waterford hurling manager Derek McGrath said at the weekend that he would prefer if the league could be organised in such a way to allow students at this time of the year concentrate on college activities. At this point in time that’s as likely as discovering a new energy source but as an educator he’s aware of how unsatisfactory the situation has become.
If there is one overriding factor in the positive influences of the third-level game, it is enjoyment. Young players, many of them away from home for the first time, find a community in the GAA club based around the games and they can readily find administrative roles, as there’s no-one else to run the show.
They make friends and contacts, which frequently sustain lifelong involvement in the association.
The difficulties however have been spotlighted this month as the GAA however unintentionally has acted to marginalise the sector.
Ironically it all happened in a perfect storm that otherwise looked a good news story when at the end of last year Derry club Slaughtneil won three Ulster titles and understandably looked for an additional week between All-Ireland football and hurling semi-finals.
The football semi-final, which the Derry club won last Saturday, couldn’t be moved because of a wedding involving the community of opponents St Vincent’s and the only option according to Croke Park’s CCCC was to fix Slaughtneil’s hurling semi-final against Dublin champions Cuala for the last weekend in February. Another option to play the hurling match in January had been turned down by Cuala.
The problem is that three of the club's Dublin players, Cian O'Callaghan, Colm Cronin and Jake Malone are also with UCD. The Fitzgibbon final will be played on the same day as the All-Ireland club semi-final. There may be no clash, as UCD are away to a strong Limerick IT this Wednesday in the quarter-final and there is no certainty that they'll win – especially as it's not expected the Cuala players will be available for the match.
, whose phosphorescent displays for Ballyea have helped them to the All-Ireland final, will be able to play for UL should they reach the Fitzgibbon weekend because of his club’s semi-final opponents.
If Slaughtneil win the hurling semi-final there will have to be a rescheduling of the club finals, both of which are traditionally played on St Patrick’s Day, as it clearly would be unfair to expect anyone to play two matches on the same day but another club, UCD, has been asked to compromise its potential challenge in one of the GAA’s oldest competitions.
When Cashel and Kiltormer proved inseparable in a club semi-final in 1992 that required two replays, the final had to be deferred. There’s always a solution.
The mess is of course a function of the fixtures chaos that has occupied so much of the GAA’s energies and if the concept of a calendar year for the club championships were to be introduced as proposed, this clash wouldn’t happen. But it has.
The late Joe McDonagh is to be commemorated at the end of this month when his alma mater NUI Galway, formerly UCG, hosts the Fitzgibbon Cup weekend. There will be a dinner on Friday week at which contemporaries from the 1977 Fitzgibbon will honour the memory of the former GAA president, who represented his college in both football and hurling.
Publicity for the event includes the information that four members of that UCG side, including McDonagh himself, went on to lead their counties around Croke Park on All-Ireland final day; three of them, Conor Hayes and Pat Fleury who would also manage finalists, and Joe Connolly lifted the Liam MacCarthy. Another member of the team was Cyril Farrell, who managed Galway to back-to-back titles. If Joe himself was unsuccessful in 1979, he went on to hold the highest office in the GAA.
Four captains, three managers and one president from one (albeit outstanding) Fitzgibbon winning side make the point: it was fertile ground for leadership.