The emigration question for Donegal GAA

Alan Foley


Alan Foley

At the Glenswilly annual dinner dance on New Year’s night at the Silver Tassie Hotel, club secretary Barry Pat McDaid and guest speaker Joe Brolly shared a conversation about Gaelic games.

At the Glenswilly annual dinner dance on New Year’s night at the Silver Tassie Hotel, club secretary Barry Pat McDaid and guest speaker Joe Brolly shared a conversation about Gaelic games.

McDaid spoke about the impact emigration was having on the game and was interested to learn of Brolly’s take on the matter. A barrister by trade, Dungiven native Brolly is now a member of the St Brigid’s club on the Malone Road in Belfast. At the club, he told McDaid, there were precious few players upping sticks and emigrating.

St Brigid’s are known as being a club primarily of the middle class and their players are lucky enough to be well educated with their career paths taking shape. Other clubs, from poorer areas in the city, also seemed to have scant few moving on. They, according to Brolly, are people who have always struggled to get by, whether in good times or in bad, but seldom move far from home. The real problem, the RTE pundit insisted, was for the rural clubs.

It was an interesting take but one that wouldn’t necessarily be transferrable to Donegal. Taking Glenswilly and their neighbours Termon as examples, the two clubs are built from the same mould. Both have played in their first two county finals apiece in the last decade and sit within 10 miles of Letterkenny as sparsely populated areas.

They are essentially two of the younger clubs in the county, in an era when the powerbase has shifted from south to north. Three years ago Termon were in the Raidio na Gaeltachta SFC final against St Eunan’s. This calendar year, though, will see them in Division Three and competing in intermediate football, while Glenswilly are senior county champions. A gulf has grown between the previously inseparable twins.

“It’s understandable players put their own lives first but we’ve been fortunate the side has been going well in the last three years and some players have decided to stick around,” McDaid said. “We’ve only really lost Sean Burke, who’s home for Christmas but returning to Australia. But with a number of lads finishing up college this year we expect some of them will be looking at the United States and Australia.”

Glenswilly learned how to get over the line last year and their players were committed to the task of obtaining the Dr Maguire. The first championship is always the sweetest. Termon, on the other hand after getting so close not so long ago, have seen interest levels dwindle as their slide gathered momentum.

“We reached senior county final in 2008 and then were promoted to Division One the following year but that was almost the problem,” Termon county committee delegate Anthony McGrenra said. “Maybe it happened a little too fast for us as the year afterwards we lost our first four games. We were losing every week and players who weren’t working decided to move elsewhere. To be honest, we’ve not recovered from that and are now in Division Three.”

Picking the fat off the respective cases of Glenswilly and Termon confirms success, or lack of it, can weigh heavy on young men’s minds, sometimes even more than circumstances.

Naomh Conaill, 2010’s beaten Ulster finalists, have still one of the strongest hands but now the heads are turning. “We have been very lucky in that we have lost nobody over the last few years but there are rumours doing the rounds that three of our senior team are thinking of going to Australia,” secretary Pasty Furey warned.

Naomh Columba went back to Division Three this season but a fine season beforehand, which showed glimpses of their former selves, meant there were few to move on from one of the county’s most rural outposts. “We have been lucky enough and have not been badly hit,” chairman Denis Ellis said.

In the largest town in the county, both Letterkenny Gaels and St Eunan’s independently came to similar conclusions. Regardless of how the town is split both clubs should never have problems in terms of fielding teams, but the issue is quality over quantity.

“What affected us was four students going to America last summer,” said Letterkenny Gaels PRO Sean McBrearty. “We’ve about eight students on the senior team and that means players could continue to go back. In the long term I’d be concerned. When the students finish up in college it’s unlikely many of our players will be based locally.”

Charlie McAteer, the St Eunan’s secretary, was of a similar opinion after he saw Jonathan Scanlon’s senior panel shredded last year in the championship as the team failed to reach the last four for the second time in succession, after winning three successive championships beforehand.

“We have a lot of students in the panel but they are going in early summer as we just can’t get work for them,” McAteer said. “It’s awkward replacing these players with others of similar quality and we suffered badly in the championship. Young players are getting promises of this and that from America and you can’t always compete.”

With lots of students scrimping and saving all year the summer provides the one real window of opportunity to get some money. Seasonal jobs, though, are in much lesser supply nowadays although there are some positive stories.

The Atlantic Ocean battered Killybegs for long enough but those involved at Fintra at happy with their quota.

“We seem to be somewhat bucking the trend,” said a relieved Killybegs secretary MacDara Woods.

“The majority of our panel are only 17 or 18 but we try and get them some sort of work and there’s quite a few of the players working part-time at Austin Daly’s Topaz,” said Orla McGee, the Naomh Padraig of Lifford secretary. It’s the same in with Fanad Gaels and Fanad Fisheries and Downings is one of the few places capable of adding significantly to its workforce in the summer months, while Kilcar caters well for its own.

“We’ve got pretty used to players having to move around and it’s part of the fabric here,” said Dowings chairman Manus Connor, who himself spent 30 years in Philadelphia. “It’s always been the same but in fairness there’s a few of them getting into the hotels and the bars in the summer and that helps us. At the same time, though, we don’t really know from one year till the next.”

A scattering of the less fortunate clubs certainly don’t know from one year to the next. Sean MacCumhaill’s chairman Terry O’Reilly made a few calls this week and learned as many as eight of the club’s players, both hurling and football, are considering jetting off. At some smaller clubs, things are even worse.

“Twenty,” is Milford chairman Pat Curley’s answer when asked to have a stab at the number of players who’ve left his club since 2009. “Twenty would be the number that covers and players and those capable of replacing them. Two years ago we got to the junior final and this year we got relegated from Division Three. We need to do more to keep these young men. The GAA should be more pro-active and bring in coaching in national or secondary schools. A bit of assistance would keep them at home.”

It’s a similar story in Convoy, where the local St Mary’s club, who already would have had a limited pool to choose from, are also losing players on a steady basis, with as many as 10 having left in the last two years and little to keep them at home. “Who can blame them?” said chairman Oliver Prunty. “There’s not too much here for them.” Robert Emmet’s from Castlefin are unlikely to field a reserve side come the new season.

Na Rossa’s Pat Boyle said: “We have been badly hit over the last few years. We have lost up to nine players.”

Last year, Four Masters footballers coped reasonably well but, as chairman Sean Dunnion noted, the hurling panel was cut into ribbons. “Our hurling team was decimated last year, losing 11 players, which meant that we could not field and had to amalgamate with Ballyshannon,” he said.

The story in Ardara was more encouraging for the clubs, but, as chairman Stephen McCahill, warns, it’s a bit like the survival of the euro - sometimes you might think everything is held together only by the fear of what might happen if it all falls apart.

“We have been one of the lucky clubs in that we have really lost no one to emigration in the last few years,” McCahill said.

“Other than Conor Classon, who went away just for the summer we lost no one else. I’m not sure what it is going to be like this year we had a team meeting over the Christmas because the new manager wanted to find out who was available to him.

“At that meeting a number of players indicated that they were considering leaving alright but there was nothing definite, but the reality is given the lack of employment in the area we probably lose a few players. I can’t see us being able to hold them.”

The snowball effect is something that is causing concern for clubs. With certain players twiddling their thumbs at home and positive stories and sunny photographs appearing on facebook and the social networks take a few miles off the journey, the homely faces lessening trepidation of the unknown.

“We have four players currently in Australia and Lee Boyle is in London,” said Naomh Mhuire secretary Donal Sharkey. “They all emigrated over the couple of years and there are rumours that we may be about to lose a few more this year.”

Gaoth Dobhair outgoing team manager Sean ‘Nancy’ Gallagher said: “We really lost no one over the last few years. James Carroll went to America last summer for a few months but other than that we have been lucky enough. But there is talk of four or five going away this year.”

Sometimes uncertainty can provide the biggest cause for fear of all and the priority of emigration within the GAA is certainly moving up the list.

And just because one case is different from the next it doesn’t mean that it’s any less important. A bit like the recession, for the clubs of Donegal, it looks like it will have to get worse before it gets better.