Small Rural Clubs and Amalgamations
By Marty Bellew
I made the decision to move from Belfast to North Antrim a load of years back. Well, actually, my wife made the decision for me. Her mother’s family, from Cushendall and her father’s from Loughgiel, when someone with that genetic mix tells you to do something there’s no point in arguing. My own family are Naomh Gall people through and through. My nieces and nephews and their fathers are all very active in the club to this day. The youngest brother, Ciaran, ‘Barrett’ migrated to the North West a few years back and is the current net minder for Setanta Hurling Club in Killygordon, Donegal. He claims he’s the best keeper in the county – he’s not! But he loves every minute of playing for his club and the great friends he has made along the way. A small club offering him an experience to match the childhood memories spent in the hustle and bustle of Belfast playing for St Galls.
When you move away from the place where you grew up, one of the biggest decisions you have to make is deciding on a club for your children. It’s more important than picking a house or a school, it’s life-changing and something my wife and I did not take lightly. With her mum being a Regan from Cushendall and her father being a McFadden from Loughgiel, naturally we chose … Naomh Padraig North Antrim, as our club.
Naomh Padraig was formed 8 years ago to serve a purpose, a vision. That being, to provide sporting opportunities for children in small rural communities with dwindling populations. Numbers in small rural Primary schools are on the decline, aided by a government turning their backs on them through cuts to funding and the withdrawal of key services. Likewise children from small rural communities need the help and support of others to sustain and develop their national games. Naomh Padraig started off as an amalgamation of Armoy, Carey and Cushendun. Cloughmills joined in a little later too. The trend in recent years, within the GAA, has been for families to bypass their small local club for the big established neighbour. For many it is the easier option and can you blame them? Life is hectic, these are stressful days we live in and people look for ways to counter that.
My family threw ourselves headfirst into the club. I didn’t want to drop our kids off at the
pitch for someone else to have to give up their free time. With the limited abilities I have I offered my services as a coach. Eventually I became safeguarding officer too, my reward for non-attendance at that year’s AGM. I haven’t missed an AGM since due to the fear of ending up as toilet attendant, fundraising committee member or worse, coach of the pre-schoolers – my daughter is four now and I can’t control her let alone 15 more like her. My wife plays an active role in the life of the club too. She is finding her feet in the role of PR whilst washing kits, serving food and some. We will get her to the
other side of the fence eventually. She just doesn’t know it yet!
The early years of an amalgamation are tough. The first few AGM’s were feisty, some believed in the system and others decided it wasn’t for them. There is some politicking goes on. Have you ever listened to a conversation between an Armoy and a Carey man? Then Cushendun want hurling played one way and Cloughmills another, you slowly get the picture. Our various clubs want matches and training to be at their home ground, naturally. They want the very best for the children of their area. Why wouldn’t they? Those children have the same GAA hopes and dreams as children from more populated places. But there is a way!! Eventually, with the will of the collective, and through great leadership, Naomh Padraig found its feet. Through trial and error, give and take, we discovered amalgamations can be hugely rewarding, they can be a success, whatever that means. People from those small rural communities started to buy into the process and numbers slowly began to rise. What started out as a couple of hurling teams grew to fielding teams at every juvenile age
group. Then came the Camogs!! Initially a pipe dream, developed by the most underappreciated members of any GAA club, women! They have been phenomenal in getting teams up and running, sourcing kits, coaching, leading and organising fixtures – something they need a lot of help with from the higher powers. They have led the club by example along with the help and support of a few very talented men. In recent times Naomh Padraig has begun the process of feeding players back into the parent clubs, and even some to county teams. Something we could only dream of in the early years. Dropoff levels are tiny – a great indication that something is working. The recent successes of Carey Faughs and Cushhendun at intermediate level have been supported in some small part by the development of players through the Naomh Padraig system. There are plenty more on their way.
My families’ experience with Naomh Padraig has been rewarding and enriching. We have found a home from home. The pride and energy people from small rural communities have in themselves is endearing. Outsiders, blow-ins to the club, add another dimension, they see something different. We heave a Kilkenny man, a Bellaghy man and people from places in Ireland I have never even heard of, all offering a fresh perspective. We have even dipped our toes in Gaelic football on the odd occasion, a culture shock to the hurling men of North Antrim. I have enjoyed the arguments between a few colourful characters in our club over it. I may even have stirred it up from time to time.
The foundations of the GAA, the beauty of our sport is its people. All of them, including those from areas suffering from depopulation. Being involved with small communities standing up against this trend has been inspiring. Do they have to work harder than the big established clubs? Do they have greater problems to solve? Undoubtedly, but working through these challenges is what makes it all worthwhile. It builds character, it builds resilience and it instils pride.
Thanks to everyone in Armoy, Carey, Cushendun and Cloughmills for welcoming us with open arms into your clubs – our clubs. They’ve been some of the happiest days of our lives.