"It is an attack on the people that we are," says Hugh Lynn of the current Athlone boundary review implications which, if sanctioned according to local fears, would see the transference of 35 square kilometres of Roscommon to Co Westmeath.
The area under scrutiny includes Roscommon's two banner GAA clubs, the 2013 All-Ireland club champions St Brigid's and Clann na nGael, the traditional standard bearer for Roscommon football, whose 20 county championship titles include the one most recently played.
Lynn, a long-serving Roscommon GAA administrator, was among 1,500 people who attended a meeting in the Athlone Silver Springs hotel on Monday evening.
They were there to pledge support for a campaign against what they fear will be a recommendation that the Monksland, Bealnamulla and Hodson Bay areas of Roscommon should fall under the ministrations of Westmeath county council – and in effect become part of that county.
The ‘Save Roscommon’ campaign is concentrating on the economic consequences of such a move but the potential disappearance of Roscommon’s flagship GAA teams from within the county borders is also causing considerable anxiety among GAA people in the county.
“We are a small rural county with a population of 57,000 or so. You are talking about taking 7,000 people out of Roscommon if this goes ahead,” says Séamus Sweeney, the current chairman of the Roscommon GAA county board.
“We would be failing in our duty if we didn’t stand up and fight this. We are just passing through: it is for future generations that we are speaking up. We are very fearful of it. But people power has huge influence and the clubs in Roscommon are united. We had people on Monday night from the four corners of the county, from St Ronan’s above in Arigna down to Loughglinn over to Tarmonbarry. And they will fight tooth and nail to make sure that this doesn’t happen.”
The review was commissioned by Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government
in June of last year, with similar committees established to review Carlow, Drogheda and Waterford. In outlining his reasons, Mr Kelly said that the “rationale for boundary alterations is to bring the administrative jurisdictions into line with the current settlement and development position”.
“The reviews I have announced are clearly warranted given the significant overspill in each of these cases into another county,” he explained.
A department spokesman this week stressed that nothing has been decided: that any speculation as to the findings of the committee or on the eventual outcome is merely that. Still, it has provoked a strong response, none more so than that of Independent TD Denis Naughten, who invoked the historical imperative with his call to bureaucratic arms
“Three hundred and twenty-five years this summer the Orangemen, led by Dutch general Godart de Grinkel, marched from Mullingar to take the Connacht town of Athlone and after a ten day bombardment they eventually took Athlone Castle. Now we have another set of ‘invaders’ marching from Mullingar. This time they want to take over the economic heart of county Roscommon and we have to stop them.”
The issue illuminates the sharp divide between a theoretical local governmental initiative and the consequences feared by those living in that community under review. The general theme of the meeting on Monday night revolved around the prospect of a portion of Co Roscommon carved up and assimilated into Westmeath – and, by extension, Leinster. The anticipated outcome of the review has been described as “a land grab”.
"Emotions are running very high," says Canon Liam Devine, who is well known in Connacht GAA circles.
“People were sardined into that room and there is real concern about the consequences of this for Roscommon. Monksland is the most economically vibrant area in the county and has the youngest population. Losing that area would have terrible economic consequences for the county. It began as a townland and through the work put in by Roscommon County Council it gradually evolved into the industrial centre of the county.
“People didn’t believe that this was going to happen at first; they felt that it was some kind of joke. It beggars belief. And a lot of people are up in arms now and many Westmeath people don’t want it either. They are sort of embarrassed about it.”
The possibility that two premier Roscommon GAA clubs would – at least officially – belong to Westmeath provides the campaign with the most potent symbol of what a change of would mean.
St Brigid’s ground would remain in Roscommon but a significant portion of its catchment area would fall under maroon and white shade in the event of a boundary alteration. The assumption is that both sides would be permitted to continue playing under the jurisdiction of Roscommon GAA regardless.
There are precedents, the most obvious being the case of Ballaghaderreen, the border town transferred from Mayo to Roscommon under the local government act of 1898 but whose club team still falls under the umbrella of Mayo GAA.
“The crucial thing is that the club was founded in 1885,” argues Lynn. “The move to Roscommon happened in 1898. So the link with Mayo was already established. A more relevant example, I think, is Arndnaree; that area was moved from Sligo to Mayo at the same time as Ballaghaderreen. But because the club was formed in 1949, they play their football in Mayo rather than Sligo.
“I would be fearful of what happens when someone decides to establish a new club in the area that is under review now. The truth is that we don’t know the full implications for Roscommon GAA but the implications of moving 7,000 people out of the county can’t be good for it. And I know that Clann na nGael and St Brigid’s are frightened by it.”
The consequences of the Ballaghaderreen transfer are still alive today. The Connacht Council debated a motion to move the club into the Roscommon GAA community in the 1990s but it was defeated after a vote. In 2012, it produced the anomalous occasion of two clubs from the same county competing in a Connacht club final: Ballaghaderreen, the Mayo champions faced St Brigid’s, the Roscommon representatives.
As it transpired, after winning that match, St Brigid's then ended up facing Westmeath and Leinster champions Garrycastle in the All-Ireland club semi-final. The clubs are geographically separated by the river Shannon and have strong connections: the match was dubbed 'the battle of the Dolans' and St Brigid's captain, Daragh Donnelly, played with Garrycastle in his formative years. Anthony Cunningham was manager of Garrycastle for that match: he had previously been manager of St Brigid's and lived in nearby Kiltoom.
The uniqueness of that match reinforced the fact that as well as being carved up by county boundaries, Ireland is, for many people, also notionally divided into the strongholds of local GAA clubs which, while unofficial, are fiercely observed.
And they are helping to inform the concerns of the Roscommon GAA community now. As they see it, the boundary review threaten the fundamentals which have enabled the GAA to prosper throughout the country: loyalty to parish and county identity and tradition.
When St Brigid’s went on to win the All-Ireland in 2013, the team walked the Andy Merrigan Cup across the Shannon, or from Westmeath into Roscommon. Their Westmeath neighbours turned out in force to applaud the journey. Roscommon’s geography means that strong cross-county affiliations have developed among its border clubs.
Séamus Sweeney is a member of the Shannon Gaels club, whose catchment area runs right up to the bridge crossing into Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, the catchment area of the St Mary’s GAA club. The civic development there is similar to the Athlone situation in that business and residential interests share a practical and geographical closeness to Carrick-on-Shannon while people retain strong emotional attachments to Roscommon. For many people, Shannon Gaels is a means of reinforcing county identity.
“Is that the next area that will be taken from us?” Sweeney asks. “Lanesborough and Ballyleague are side by side too. Could the same happen there? So we are looking at this as an attack on the county. And the Roscommon County Board will do what it takes to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
Current St Brigid’s and Clann na nGael players may have no difficulty in retaining their allegiance to Roscommon but for the generation of players up for minor or senior consideration in 15 or 20 years time, the issue of county loyalty may be a more complex issue – particularly if Westmeath football is thriving at that time.
Roscommon is one of the few ‘smaller’ counties to have made significant strides at minor and U-21 grade in the past decade: the prominence of St Brigid’s has underpinned that.
“It is not just St Brigid’s who are worried,” says Ger Aherne, a retired Brigadier General, a spokesperson of the Save Roscommon campaign and a former player with the club.
“It is also Clann na nGael, our neighbouring club, because far more of the area under question is in Clann na nGael country than is St Brigid’s. So we would be significantly affected but it would be catastrophic for them. But, for instance, Creas is an area bordering with Ballinasloe . . . the club areas and catchment areas are close to the town. What if a similar situation arises there?
“There is no way the GAA can continually make exceptions and permit clubs belonging to one county to continue playing with another. The example given about Ballaghaderreen predates Independence.”
The counter argument is that Ballaghaderreen’s affiliation to Mayo has lasted for over 125 years and the GAA loyalty to Mayo hasn’t been at all diluted by its transference into Roscommon. The same may well be true should the review lead to reconfiguration of the Roscommon county borders. But Ballaghaderreen has the advantage of being right on the borderline between the counties: some of the St Brigid’s catchment and all of Clann na nGael would, in effect, be absorbed into the newly expanded Westmeath if the campaigners’ fears are realised.
The issue is not open to a local vote: the January 27th deadline allowing people to register their submissions on the matter either online or to post them to Aras na Contae in Mullingar, has been extended until March. The issue is likely to be the chief topic of conversation in Hyde Park when Roscommon begin their league programme in a few weeks’ time.