The GAA was founded in 1884 in Thurles under the stewardship of Michael Cusack, with the aim of promoting Irish national pastimes, notably Gaelic football and hurling. Inevitably, considering the make-up of Ireland demographically at the time, the Roman Catholic Parish became the nucleus of the organisation, as the vast majority of clubs built themselves around the catchment area under the stewardship of the parish priest.
129 years is a long time. Ireland has changed dramatically, no more so in the past 15 years with the rise and crippling fall of the mythical Celtic Tiger. According to the 2011 census, 84% of the population still consider themselves to be Catholics. However, in practical terms, the number falls much lower, with the vast majority of people attending Mass only on ‘the big days’ like Christmas and Easter. Similar to Dublin fans, where 60,000 will pack Croke Park for an All-Ireland Semi Final on a sunny August Sunday, but you might get twenty die-hards on a bitterly cold January Wednesday for an away O’Byrne Cup game.
Club transfers remain a sticking point in the GAA today, with high profile cases in the past few years alone including the likes of Éamon Fennell and Seanie Johnston. Both found transfers refused repeatedly, only to eventually succeed after numerous appeals. I wonder how many GAA players are aware today that the first club they play for, in the majority of cases the club they were dropped into by their parents, hold legislative power over them for the rest of their playing days? According to GAA law, in Dublin by any standard, a player owes allegiance to their initial club. Any player seeking a transfer, for whatever reason, must have this transfer ratified by the club they intend to leave. Pending appeal, a club can refuse a transfer on any grounds.
Small towns in Ireland have their clicks, their favourites. GAA clubs, based around these, are no different. If a player finds themselves unable to gel in a team, prosper as a player, for whatever reason, they may have little choice but to change clubs. Considering the primary motive of the GAA is the development of our national games, surely then transfers need become an essential element of the game, in order to allow players, in certain circumstances, to continue playing football or hurling? In no way do I recommend a whole-sale allowance of transfers, which would result in larger clubs taking advantage of talented players in small clubs. It’s something worth thinking about though.
Parochialism in the GAA is not necessarily an entirely negative thing. The recent decision of dual inter-county star Ciarán Kilkenny’s decision to return home from Australia and dedicate himself to Dublin and Castleknock GAA was a credit to himself, his club and the GAA as a whole. In truth, the heart and drive of the GAA derives from a community. Community being the optimal word here. Having celebrated Dublin’s All-Ireland victory in my local clubhouse, and seeing a Skerries man deliver Sam Maguire back to the county, and his home town, after 16 years, in no way can I claim that the GAA is not a locally founded and dependent organisation. But I do feel that the GAA need to place players at the heart of the organisation, not the parish. Ireland has changed, and will continue to do so. The GAA must do the same.