Saturday, October 09, 2021

Lacken Sarsfields GAA chairman, Paddy Connor, getting water bottles, pitch markers and jerseys ready in advance of a team training session last season. The team has been unable to fulfil its last two championship fixtures having lost their opening match by 50 points. Picture: David Farrell Photography

By Aonghus Ó Maicín

News of Lacken’s inability to fulfill championship fixtures on both of the past weekends wasn’t just a knife to the soul of the proud North Mayo community. It hurt an entire county. In times like these, rivalries are put aside and clubs come together like a tragedy-stricken family. For in time it’s a story that will not be looked back upon as an anomaly. Lacken’s predicament is simply a by-product of rural Ireland long being nothing but an afterthought to those who can make a difference. And that’s not set to change. Lacken’s is a story set for many iterations.
The late journalist John Healy may have first published his seminal series of articles concerning the death of an Irish town in 1967, but even the passage of time has failed to rob it of its relevance to today’s reality. His investigation into rural decay in his hometown of Charlestown received a level of acclaim that could – and should – have compelled society into action. Yet the situation, it seems, has only deteriorated. Initiatives and grants are proffered from time to time without matters ever been tackled from the root. And the GAA isn’t immune from criticism in this regard. In fact, when Healy first addressed the issue over half a century ago he even attempted to coerce the GAA into meaningful action, noting the considerable influence it had on Irish society.
“[The GAA] has a massive organisational network, superb funds, and a status in the rural community held by no other lay organisation,” he wrote. “Yet, who today can list what it has contributed, as an organisation, to preventing or solving the social problem of rural decay?” He added, “The twice-a-year singing of ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ and ‘Amhrán na bFiann [sic]’ in Croke Park is not preservation or rural renewal.” The association’s attempts at arresting the decline have always been feeble, to say the least, but the last 20 years have been particularly exasperating for rural clubs, the need to keep the game ahead of rival sports in urban areas ostensibly trumping the need to merely survive elsewhere. But it’s difficult to discard the sense of any future actions by the association being futile. The time for acting collectively, as an association, has passed. Young people are evacuating their villages and towns at perhaps a more alarming rate than in the 1960s when Healy addressed the issue, decades of more neglect and decay finally coming home to roost. No services. No investment. No young people to line out for their local club.
Lacken, it would seem, are just one victim of the Establishment’s indifference, and there are communities right across the country limping despairingly towards a similar fate.
It’s a tragic outcome for a club with a decorated past that is by no means ancient history. The club rose like a phoenix as recently as the 1970s, capitalising on some bright underage talent in the parish to win senior league titles, before playing Knockmore in the 1984 senior county final. And although they failed to add to their single senior championship triumph in 1917, they left their mark on the county scene, producing a number of high-profile names within their humble pocket of land for the county team.

Ireland rugby star Caelan Doris doing some light training on Lacken Strand on Good Friday last year. Doris played underage football with Naomh Padraig, the amalgamation that Lacken GAA is part of, but the club is struggling badly for numbers at adult level. Picture; David Farrell Photography

As club stalwart Charlie Collins told Mark Higgins of this parish last year: “Knockmore people would still often say that we should have won one championship around that time, because we did have a great team.” At the time of writing, no Knockmore native has stepped forth to refute those claims.
Establishment Ireland will argue that they provide funds and much-needed assistance to clubs like Lacken, the Sports Capital Programme (SCP) being one page in the book of evidence they will readily turn to in a bid to back up their point. But for all the money the programme pumps into rural Ireland, it also serves as an example of the stretching dichotomy between rural and urban areas.
In the last round of grant allocations via the Sports Capital Programme which were announced in 2019, 28 of the 29 projects receiving in excess of €100,000 were located in Dublin, although the capital only received 20 per cent of the total €37,084,304 that was distributed. This is despite the programme claiming to “prioritise the needs of disadvantaged areas”. When regional, as opposed to local, projects are included, Dublin still received 32 of the 41 allocations in six-figure territory.
There’s an argument to be made that rural projects are at fault and are simply not asking for as much in their submissions as their urban counterparts; but considering a percentage of the funds required to fulfill a project need to be fundraised, and given urban areas have a greater capacity to fundraise large amounts, it’s no surprise such trends have emerged. Those trends seem to be travelling in only one direction, too.
In the 2017 round of allocations, Dublin received almost 68 per cent of all six-figure grants while in 2015 the largest urban area in the country received 26 per cent of all grants within that bracket, similar to the approximately 34% it received the year before.
Of course, laying the blame of all rural Ireland’s difficulties at the door of the SCP would be unfair. The recent trends merely offer a glimpse into the views of Establishment’s attitude towards rural Ireland. Lacken’s plight, like so many others, will matter little to those who make the decisions regarding who prospers and who doesn’t.

Paddy Connor, chairman of Lacken Sarsfields GAA Club, pictured at the club grounds. On the back of a 50 points defeat to Kilmovee Shamrocks in the opening round of the Mayo junior football championship, Lacken saw no option but to forfeit last Sunday’s scheduled Round 2 match away to Achill. Picture: David Farrell Photography

If anything, Lacken’s perseverance throughout the decades, overcoming the middle of the 20th century to thrive in the ‘70s and ‘80s, was nothing short of a herculean feat, but one which is unlikely to be repeated. They are rowing against a current that has become too strong to conquer. They have drifted too far from the shore for the GAA to cast a buoy and the Establishment are too indifferent to bring about meaningful measures to tackle the scourge.
Only Lacken knows if they can muster what’s needed to make it through the winter months to step out onto the pitch again in 2022. You can only hope that they can. But whatever happens in the coming months the end is regrettably near and it’s a fate facing most of the county and country.
The evidence to suggest Castlebar, Ballina and Westport won’t be facing similar predicaments to that of Lacken in 40 to 50 years’ time should current trends persist isn’t irrefutable. It’s a reality steaming down the tracks, with rural clubs simply the first stop on the way.
“No-one shouted stop” in Healy’s time, not even the GAA. And it’s too late for the association to find the bottle now.
For the decline to be arrested, the right people need to care.

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