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Mon 26-Sep-2005 8:41
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Parish or ‘Perish’ Rule?
Myths and mythology are important in our personal lives and public lives.
As an organisation that is more than a hundred and twenty years in existence, the GAA has more than its share of myths. One of the most pervasive that about the role of ‘de parish’ in the Association’s history and folklore. Every now and again, often depending on what is happening in the AIB club championships, it gets another whirl. A lot of this carryon comes from people who never blacken the door of a parish church, chapel or meeting place and who would be hard put, if challenged, to name their local parish priest, or the patron saint of the parish, let alone know the times of Saturday evening or Sunday masses.
The parish myth might be tolerable as harmless old guff if it was confined to match programmes, chats over pints in the local pub or even the writings of certain journalists. The problem is, that it has ensconced itself into the Rules and county byelaws of ‘Dis Great Association of Ours’ where it exercises an increasingly malign influence on our affairs.
Sometimes you might get the impression that the Parish Rule has been a feature of our native games from time immemorial - that the real cause of the Táin Bó Cuailgne row was not the stealing of a prize bull, but whether Ferdia’s transfer to play hurling with Ardee was valid in the eyes of Cú Chulainn and the Games Administration Committee of Na Fianna. Other proponents leave you with the impression that just as the seven were about to leave the famous billiards room of Hayes’s Hotel on that dark November night in 1884, their work done, that someone – say, Bracken or Cusack – called them back and said ‘Lads, we need to stick something in here about a Parish Rule!’
The reality is quite different. For at least twenty years after its foundation the GAA nationwide grew and prospered without any Parish Rule. It then began to creep in to different counties at different times – for example, Westmeath (early 1920s), Galway (1966), Kilkenny (1953), Tipperary (1934) and Limerick (1945). Two major counties, with large urban populations, Dublin and Waterford, have never had a Parish Rule. Far from being some sort of ‘core value’ of the Association, the Parish Rule has been patchy in its application and adherence over the years and needs to be re-assessed from time to time.
The Strategic Review Committee looked at the Rule in 2002. County Committees, it recommended, should relax, or even replace, the Parish Rule where its relevance in defining community has decreased and should introduce byelaws to define the geographic boundaries for club membership. They felt that a strict interpretation of the ‘one-club-per-parish’ rule ‘would not be universally appropriate going forward. If participation is to increase, flexibility will be required, particularly at underage level, where schools create new community boundaries which affect young peoples’ views of local identity’.
In the context of the Committee’s reference to schools as a basis for defining club loyalty, it is interesting to note that in the ‘parish-free’ zone of Waterford, the three most successful hurling clubs are all schools related: Mount Sion and De la Salle are based on the famous academic nurseries of the same name and Ballygunner is a club founded in 1954 by the visionary Principal of the local national school, the late Jimmy McGinn, go ndéana Dia grásta air. In Dublin, of course, there is the famous example of the Saint Vincent’s club, based on Saint Joseph’s CBS, Marino and, incidentally, founded by a Waterford-born Christian Brother. A real case of ‘Briseann an dúchas …’
In related findings, the Strategic Review Committee recommended that the aim ‘should be to maximise the number of viable, sustainable clubs in each county, each of which should, ideally, provide for all Gaelic games … In urban areas, no club should be allowed to serve a catchment area population of more than 25,000; in rural areas and towns with populations of less than 80,000, no club should serve a catchment of population of more than 5,000’.
The Review Committee’s recommendations are welcome insofar as they underline that ‘club’ need not always equate with ‘parish’. But why confine the ‘catchment area’ proposal to large urban areas, when so much of what passes for ‘rural’ Ireland today is just an elongated extension of the nearest town or village, with a commensurately high population density? The other problem I see is that responsibility for drafting and interpreting the Rule is left with county committees. What other large organisation would allow something as fundamental as this to vary from county to county? Borrowing an ecclesiastical analogy, it would be like the Catholic Church decreeing that while observance of the full Ten Commandments was required in Kerry for membership of the Church, nine would suffice in neighbouring Cork!
Even in the two years since the Review Committee reported, the pace of change in rural Ireland has quickened and the associated issues with the Parish Rule have intensified. Kerry seems to have had several difficulties with the Rule as had Laois and Wexford. The issues are becoming particularly acute in Leinster where the Greater Dublin sprawl has fanned out into Louth, Meath, Kildare, Wicklow and even into Laois, Offaly and Carlow. Not only are we talking about thousands of new houses being built, but also thousands of ‘Dubs’ have moved out in search of a better lifestyle for themselves and, especially, their kids. Civil Service decentralisation will intensify that process. For many of these people, the first real roots they put down in their new home is when the children go to school and the school becomes the main focus of their identity. Later on, when they bring the kids a half a mile up the road to the local GAA club, to their chagrin, they find that they are living ten yards on the wrong side of some culverted stream and so face a ten mile round trip to their ‘parish’ club. Many of these people are staunch GAA people but they have never encountered a Parish Rule. Instead of facing into the Byzantine GAA theology and bureaucracy surrounding the Rule, to enable their kids play with their school friends, they drop out and take the kids playing rugby or soccer where no such restrictions exist. Increasingly in the Leinster counties, and in counties like Galway, Cork, Tipperary and Limerick, this process will sound the death knell of underage GAA unless it is addressed.
The respected County Secretary of Meath, Barney Allen, recently described underage football there as ‘on the edge of the abyss’ and called for ‘nothing less than a root and branch examination of the state of the game’. The usual response to this kind of message is to call for more underage coaches, programmes in the schools and so on. However, the root cause of Meath’s problems lies in demographics. South of a line from Drogheda across to Dunboyne the population is increasing rapidly with wealth levels are well above the national average and GAA is booming in towns like Dunboyne, Dunshaughlin and Ratoath. North of that line, however, the story is one of clubs in parishes with small or static populations failing to field underage teams or – where they do field – failing to complete their competitive programme. The reason? Because so many kids are turning to soccer. The solution? Encourage clubs to strengthen themselves through amalgamation or by recognised flexibility about the Parish Rule. Not far beneath the surface in Meath there is seething discontent about the Rule and it will be interesting to see if Barney Allen’s ‘root and branch’ review faces up to this.
My view is that small clubs now lose more than they gain under the current Parish Rule. Changing demographics are dictating that the clubs prospering now are the former rural clubs on the edge
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