WHEN Dara Ó Cinnéide speaks it is always worth listening. One of the deep thinkers on gaelic football in his beloved Kingdom, the former Kerry great is fascinated by the changing demographics within the county, and he has pinpointed several growth areas that must be watched with interest in the next ten to fifteen years.
t the moment, there is only the remotest possibility that another rural club will emulate An Ghaeltacht’s county championship victories of 2001 and 2003, and as East Kerry and other divisional outfits become more powerful, will the big town clubs even start to suffer?
Witnessing the four semi-finalists in the minor championship over the weekend – East Kerry against North Kerry, and Mid Kerry versus St Kierans – would add to those concerns.
“What will be very interesting over the next five, ten, fifteen years in Kerry is what’s going to happen in Milltown, Ballymac, Churchill, Listry, Firies? They are the growth areas in Kerry. That’s where people are building houses and taking out mortgages, that’s where the demographic is exploding by 192 per cent and 300 per cent in certain cases,” he said.
“Killarney and Tralee, you’ll not get any rural person to feel any sympathy for them. They have unrestricted access to players. We are bound by parish rule here. If you’re born in Killarney, you can play for three or maybe four clubs. If you’re born in Tralee, you can play for any one of four clubs. As recently as a couple of years ago, we lost a number of players to Dingle because they were living just inside the Dingle border. Likewise, they probably feel the same way about us.
“Na Gaeil this year, I’m sure, would take your right arm to win an intermediate. There is a sense of our story in them, even though they’re an urban club. They’re moving nicely up the ranks, novice, junior, intermediate, will they get to senior? They definitely have the population and the demographic, they have the organisation behind them, they now have two county players, and they have a strong Gaelcholaiste, Scoil Mhic Easmainn school base around them as well.
“They are an interesting club to study. But the fascinating clubs over the next ten years are going to be the Milltowns, the Listrys, the Churchills, the Firies, the Ballymacs, their figures at primary schools are significant. So the challenge for Kerry GAA is to look at that and say: How do we get them facilities? Can we get all these primary school boys playing football for their senior clubs and, if so, how is that going to impact on our facilities? Do we need to provide more for them?”
The 2004 All-Ireland-winning captain was almost spellbound by a presentation made to clubs recently by Joe Crowley of the Kerry County Committee, who had made a detailed examination of boys’ school attendances over the last 15 years and the amount of footballers that progressed from primary level all the way up through the ranks. Ó Cinnéide takes up the story.
“Joe has compiled a load of facts and figures about school attendances, of all boys, what happened between the years 2005 and 2020. How many boys attended every national school in Kerry? The follow-on from that was what clubs do those boys from the national schools represent? In some cases, you could play for two or three clubs. And then what’s happening in 2020, and how many of those players are active club members, club players, in their club teams?
“There were shocking findings there, surprising in a good way and surprising in a bad way. One of the big stats that jumped out was that the primary school kids of Listowel town, who would primarily play for Emmets in the long-term, of 2005, by 2020, seven per cent of them were actively playing for Listowel Emmets.
“We talk about South Kerry and all the problems that they have, in terms of demographics, and rural decay, their figures are stark in terms of the amount of players that they have coming out of the primary schools and secondary schools, but they’re the best in the county in terms of player retention, because they all hang in there, and they still manage to field teams at senior level, because of necessity more than anything else.
“At the moment, (An Ghaeltacht) are fielding teams at under-7, under-9, under-11, under-13, under-15, under-17, under-20, junior and senior, and there aren’t many rural clubs that can say that without amalgamating. We’re just about holding on to the edge of the cliff, in terms of our figures, in terms of our participation, where we are at.”
Holding on to the edge of the cliff. How many clubs have already fallen off? How many more will do so in the next few years? Plenty of food for thought for everybody who loves Kerry football on the long, winter nights ahead.