The report was written last year as Letterkenny Gaels pushed to have a part of the town – the parish of Aughaninshin – recognised as a Gaels-only area where it could draw players from.
That would have left St Eunan’s with Conwal and Leck.
However St Eunan’s claim splitting the town would break a decade-old agreement, and say the boundary issue could hit other clubs in the county.
A meeting of clubs in the county next month is set to vote on the issue. And it is even set to be discussed at Letterkenny town council monthly meeting.
Here is the Peter Quinn report in full:
MEABHRÁN DO COISTE DHÚIN na NGALL
I was asked, by a representative of Coiste Dhún na nGall, to examine the respective merits of the claims made by the two G.A.A. clubs currently operating in Letterkenny viz. St. Eunans and Letterkenny Gaels, on the need for boundaries to determine the catchment areas of the two clubs within that town. I set out below the nature of my investigation and, ultimately, my conclusions and recommendations.
Until relatively recently, Letterkenny was a single Parish, which was, by far, the biggest Parish in Raphoe Diocese, on a population basis. It has since been divided into two Parishes, each with its own church. According to the Diocesean web-site, the two Parishes of ‘Aughaninshin’ and ‘Conwal and Leck’ are still the two biggest Parishes in that Diocese, with ‘Conwal and Leck’ being almost twice as big as the third biggest Parish and both of the Letterkenny Parishes having a population which is a multiple of that in the majority of Parishes in this Diocese. A number of senior clubs in Donegal are selecting from population bases as low as 15% of that of either of the two parishes in Letterkenny.
At present, each of these Parishes hosts three or four primary schools and each has at least one second-level school. The primary-level school-going population in the town is well in excess of 2,000, according to Diocesean figures.
Not only is Letterkenny the largest settlement in Donegal, but demographically, for much of the past decade, it was also the fastest growing town in its size category in Ireland and, for part of that decade, it reputedly had the most rapid growth, in its category, in Europe.
According to G.A.A. policy, as provided in its strategic review of 2001, the population of Letterkenny would justify the existence of three clubs, though, in major settlements, that policy is taken as an aspiration rather than being mandatory.
Soccer and rugby are already strong in Letterkenny, as are basketball, swimming, athletics and golf. In St. Eunan’ College, soccer is now the field sport with the highest profile, and throughout much of Donegal both soccer (in particular) and rugby are well organised and are clear threats to the G.A.A.’s position in the County.
There is an acceptance that increased participation in Gaelic Games, in this town, is a priority for the G.A.A. in Donegal. There is also a concern that any dispute within the G.A.A.
fraternity may have the ultimate consequence of encouraging potential young players to give their primary allegiance to other codes. In Letterkenny and in other parts of Donegal, there is, and there is likely to continue to be, considerable cross-over between Gaelic Games and other codes.
The Two Clubs
St. Eunans is a long established club, having being founded more than eight decades ago. It was, for most of that period, the sole G.A.A. club in Letterkenny. It has had an outstanding run of success, over the past decade, and is easily the foremost club in Donegal at present. Its success on the playing field has helped it to attract playing members, who come from outside Donegal, to reside in the town.
In the past, O’Donnell Park (owned by St. Eunans) was Donegal’s premier ground, but problems with flooding reduced its status. Those problems have now been rectified and it has again started to attract occasional, major, non-championship, inter-county games. Currently, it has two pitches – a full size ‘Prunty’ pitch, with a stand for 2,500 spectators and total capacity of close to 10,000 and a second ‘training’ pitch.
Some years ago, following the establishment of Letterkenny Gaels, this club developed a St. Eunan’s Academy, for coaching and developing young players and has been attracting up to 200 children, between male and female, to its Sunday morning sessions. Its overall youth coaching programme is very comprehensive, involving a large number of coaches, both males and females, and both football and hurling. It also uses members, who are unemployed, to undertake coaching within local schools, where it provides an extensive programme.
This club has also acquired other parcels of land, some of which are also used in coaching under-age players, leaving it with total property extending to close to sixty acres, in adjoining parcels (the aggregate area was not confirmed during this analysis – the foregoing figure was provided by the club).
It also has a Club House, with a bar licence and eight changing rooms. It has invested approximately €1.75 million in its more recent developments, including borrowing €750,000 (these figures were also provided by the Club and accepted as accurate). All its facilities are vested in the G.A.A.
Letterkenny Gaels is a relatively new club; it has been in existence for approximately fifteen years, when its application for affiliation was supported by the St. Eunans representative(s) on the County Board.
The Gaels currently participate mainly in the lower leagues at adult level, but their recent under-age performances in football have been quite good. They also participate in hurling, where they are reasonably strong, competing in Division 1, as compared with Division 2 in football. Its progress in football is demonstrated by the fact that it has recently had two representatives on the County Minor panel and another on the under-16 squad.
The club has its own dedicated G.A.A. pitch, within a complex, which it shares with the local rugby club, which is expanding its activities in the Letterkenny area. There is, therefore, major cross-over between Gaelic games and rugby in this part of the town. The current arrangements provide for a dedicated G.A.A. pitch, a dedicated rugby pitch and a pitch which is shared, with each club having use of it for an agreed part of the year. The quality of its playing facilities is confirmed by their use for under-age finals in Donegal.
This club is planning a major physical development scheme, in conjunction with the rugby club. The proposed investment is budgeted at €750,000 and Letterkenny Gaels will have to undertake major fund-raising; it believes it needs some guarantee of numbers, if it is to become involved in such expenditure.
I met with representatives from both clubs, separately, on two evenings in Ballybofey. The agenda for the first of these meetings was entirely open and both sides were represented by three officers. The second meeting, which was also attended by three representatives from each club, was designed to clarify a number of issues which arose from the earlier meeting and to try to identify potential areas of agreement. In both of those meetings, arguments were advanced forcefully and there was clear evidence of differences in perspective, on a variety of issues. I then held a third meeting at which both sides were present together. I also reviewed demographic data from both CSO sources and Raphoe Diocesan sources.
I do not propose to rehearse all the issues presented to me on those occasions; instead, I set out below the main issues raised by the two parties, as identified by me – I recognise that the two Clubs may hold a different view of my summary of each of their positions.
The Case Presented by Letterkenny Gaels
Letterkenny Gaels are seeking the introduction of defined catchment areas for each of the two clubs within Letterkenny, based on ecclesiastical boundaries and citing the provisions of Treoraí Oifigiúil in relation to ‘Playing Eligibility’ – specifically, the definition, of ‘Home Club’ and its reference to “…a player’s native Parish…”.
Effectively (and they accepted this), the town would then be divided for G.A.A. purposes, with each club having identifiably distinct catchment areas and boundaries. They accepted that Aughaninshin Parish currently contains many families whose heads of household or other family members have a strong affinity with St. Eunans; that includes many who had played for that club in the past and would probably wish their offspring to play for it too. They recognised that this had the potential to create dissention and they offered to accommodate St. Eunans, in any manner agreeable to an Coiste Contae, in retaining such members and potential players, including accepting special provision which would allow the off-spring of former St. Eunans players or senior club members to opt for that club. However, they clearly anticipated that, over time, Letterkenny Gaels would have the active support of almost the entire G.A.A. fraternity in the Aughaninshin Parish.
They argued that the development of their club was being constrained by the strength, success, resources and profile of St. Eunans, as well as by its tradition within the town. In the absence of a dedicated catchment area, the Gaels could never develop to their full potential. In particular, they felt disadvantaged and discouraged by the fact that, when they undertook coaching in any of the schools in the Aughaninshin Parish, St. Eunans responded by sending their coaches into that school, thereby splitting the allegiance of the pupils.
They expressed the view that rugby was much better co-ordinated in its support for local schools – providing a united front to potential new members.
Letterkenny Gaels also indicated that the club was now facing critical issues, in that it was proposing to embark on a major programme of physical development, with huge financial implications and that the club needed some level of assurance about its “…supply chain of young people…” if it was to justify undertaking this investment.
However, they explicitly recognised that St. Eunans had a very well organised under-age structure – probably “…the best in Donegal…”; that they had “…raised their game…” in response to the formation of the Gaels (including in hurling activity) and that they were
putting major effort into ensuring that they would continue to have access to all the best players in Letterkenny.
Ultimately, they proposed to focus the development of the club on the schools and the young people who attended those schools in Aughaninshin parish. Their expectation was that, over time, the young players from Ballyraine etc., who were currently being attracted to train with St. Eunans, due to both that club’s success at senior level and peer pressure, would eventually align themselves with Letterkenny Gaels, if the parish rule was applied and they were given sole access to the schools within their parish.
The Case Presented by St. Eunans
St. Eunans accepted the need for a second club in the town, given its population, and indicated a willingness to work with the Gaels in strengthening the Association in Letterkenny. They would accept the creation of a Letterkenny Board as a mechanism for increasing participation in Gaelic Games among the youth of the town.
However, they rejected the division of the town on a parish basis, citing the following two main reasons:
(i) affiliation of Letterkenny Gaels was accepted on the explicit understanding that boundaries would not be introduced within Letterkenny; and
(ii) their club’s membership (playing and non-playing) currently derives from all parts of the town, and has done so down through the years.
There are, they claimed, socio-economic differences between the two Parishes, which render primary population statistics useless as a basis for determining boundaries within a town, where the majority of parents of potential young G.A.A. players are former St. Eunans players.
They asserted that they have become the premier club not just in Letterkenny, but in Donegal, by providing good facilities and the most comprehensive programme of coaching and player development in the County. If the Gaels wished to become an equally strong club, they would have to match the efforts of St, Eunans.
Using the schools as an argument for separate catchment areas ignores the fact that, in virtually every staff room in the town, there are members of the St. Eunans club and any such proposal would be extremely divisive within the schools.
According to them, the existing transfer system allows players to transfer within the town and should be left as the best route for resolving problems within Letterkenny.
St. Eunans argued that there was a need for more investment in coaching in Letterkenny; but the main focus should be on raising the profile of Gaelic Games in St. Eunans College and not on splitting the town, by introducing boundaries. There are enough young players to satisfy the needs of both clubs, but introducing a boundary would result in loss of support from both the business community and others and would have a particularly adverse effect on St. Eunans and its playing base. Specifically, they argued that those who do not currently support the Gaels would not support them after the introduction of a boundary either.
Ultimately, for St. Eunans, the only acceptable solution was for Letterkenny Gaels to increase their efforts at promoting the games to the youth of the town and match St. Eunans on that basis; that would improve their access to players, raise standards within the town and benefit the G.A.A. as a whole.
Based on my analysis of the data and information provided to me, the following main conclusions arise (other matters also arose, but they are not germane to the current issue):
(i) There is a clear need for a second club in Letterkenny and it should be viable in both playing and financial terms; a third club is not on the agenda, at present, and could not easily be accommodated in Letterkenny;
(ii) Club affiliations and all related issues, including territorial implications, are entirely a matter for each individual County Board, according to Treoraí Oifigiúil;
(iii) Donegal has not, to date, adopted the so-called ‘Parish Rule’ as part of its bye-laws (and neither have several other counties – particularly in Ulster);
(iv) Even if Donegal adopted a ‘Parish Rule’ as a bye-law, it would not necessarily apply to urban areas (the former ‘parish rule’ had an explicit exemption for urban areas) and Letterkenny is a new urban area, though it was not specifically covered in the former rule;
(v) St. Eunans provide a more comprehensive under-age development programme than do Letterkenny Gaels, but it has vastly more resources and experience, and it is, and will continue to be, very difficult for Letterkenny Gaels to compete in that environment;
(vi) Members and supporters of St. Eunans live in all parts of Letterkenny and many of those who live in Aughaninshin Parish do not identify with the new club, with which they never had any affiliation;
(vii) Failure to reach some form of agreement has the potential to damage the G.A.A.’s capacity to achieve its optimal status within Letterkenny.
Clearly, Letterkenny Gaels are operating at a significant disadvantage at present and this is adversely affecting the club’s development – but that is primarily attributable to their relatively short existence.
Based on my analysis of the issues involved and on my conclusions as set out above, I hereby make the following recommendations for action by Coiste Chontae Dhún na nGall and for consideration by the two clubs:
(a) Coiste Dhún na nGall should take the lead in establishing a Letterkenny Board designed to promote under-age coaching and games development in the town, using the G.A.A.’s coaching and games development structures and processes as set out in national policy i.e. with no formal competition among younger age cohorts and a focus on skills development; the Letterkenny Board should include equal and multiple representation from both clubs, and should also include one representative from each of the local primary schools; it should be chaired by an officer of an Coiste Chontae; its activities should be based in the facilities of both clubs, on an equitable basis, and any informal competitive activity should involve members of both clubs, on a shared basis; terms of reference for this Board should be determined by Coiste Dhún na nGall.
(b) Coiste Dhún na nGall and the two clubs should understand clearly that participation in any under-age coaching programme(s), organised by either club, bestows no right of membership and that membership must be awarded entirely in accordance with the Association’s Treoraí Oifigiúil, at the ages specified therein for youth and full membership, respectively.
(c) Coiste Dhún na nGall should not impose boundaries within Letterkenny, at this point; instead there should be a ‘stand-still’ agreement for the next five years, during which time both clubs would compete for members throughout all of Letterkenny and the effectiveness of the Letterkenny Board in raising standards could be assessed.
(d) All coaching within the town’s primary schools should be co-ordinated by the Letterkenny Board, using resources provided by an Coiste Chontae, in tandem with any resources provided by Comhairle Uladh or Ard Comhairle and those provided by the two clubs; unilateral coaching activity at primary school level, by either club, should be prohibited, unless it has been sanctioned in advance by the Letterkenny Board.
(e) Coiste Dhún na nGall should seek special support from superior bodies to assist with coaching and games development in Letterkenny and should devote some of those resources to specific coaching initiatives by Letterkenny Gaels for those in the 14-18 year age-group.
(f) The Letterkenny Board should co-operate with Coiste na nÓg, at County Board level, in promoting Gaelic Games within the second level schools and colleges in Letterkenny.
(g) The progress of the Association’s games within the town should be monitored by the County Committee, on an annual basis, to ensure that all young people have an opportunity to participate in them and, in the event that some schools are not being catered for on an adequate basis, it should be prepared to make whatever adjustments to these recommendations, it deems appropriate.
It is reasonable to expect that the two clubs may have differing views on the foregoing recommendations. Their views should be considered by Coiste Dhún na nGall, prior to finalising action on whatever recommendations are accepted.
Peadar Ó Cuinn 25u Bealtaine 2010.