County Galway Cumann na mBunscol Secretary, Pat Kelly believes increasing levels of participation in gaelic games and athletics among national school pupils, along with fostering respect among players towards referees and others, should be the primary objectives of the organisation heading into the future. Since its foundation in 1995, Cumann na mBunscol has provided countless hours of fun and enjoyment for national school children the length and breadth of the country. In many respects, the organisation has been the lifeblood of the GAA, nurturing a great love of Gaelic games among the masses.
That said, even an organisation such as Cumann na mBunscol faces on-going challenges, particularly at local level. Despite providing a comprehensive programme of games annually, be it through the INTO Mini Sevens or the various school championships, Kelly insists more can be done to entice, and more importantly keep, young people involved in sport. He cites his own school, Craughwell NS, as an example. Boasting of two hundred and eighty pupils, he notes that out of, say one hundred and forty boys, only thirteen to eighteen can line out in the hurling or football championships each year. “What about the rest?” asks the School Principal. He says that other codes, such as soccer and rugby, seem to place their emphasis on participation rather than competition, and while there is still a place for competitions, he believes getting greater numbers out on the playing fields has to become the priority. “We tend to look at these competitions from an adult perspective, not a child’s, who simply just want to play.”
Kelly highlights the avid opposition to the dismantling of U-12 county championship by GAA headquarters as one example. While recognising the value of the competition, he says the reason clubs have opposed the move is because the GAA are selling the ‘Go Games’ format as “non competitive”. However, he adds: “I have never seen two kids playing with a ball who weren’t competitive. Again, it is the adult perspective against the child perspective. I would look at something like the ‘Go Games’ as creating greater levels of participation by more children, and we need that. “When I see the players who we have lost on the way up, in our own club and other clubs, it is disappointing. Some of these guys fell away because they were a bit over weight or just couldn’t wield the hurl at the time. It is amazing though to see them in their later teens and they are already washed up as hurlers. It is a travesty that it is happening.
The Craughwell native, who has played key roles in the promotion of hurling and camogie in the area over the years, says that has direct consequences for clubs’ senior teams, in that they are narrowing their player base considerably, simply by cultivating just the talented players at U-12 and U-14. He says there is a mentality that if a player excels at U-14, he will do so at senior. In contrast, if a child does not make an impact at U-12 or U-14, clubs have the tendency, unintentionally, to marginalise these players. “As a result, once they are picked for U-14, it is seen that these are the guys who will be picked up along the grades. The other lads then don’t bother and they go to play other sports. And we are losing those guys. What people don’t realise is that those U-14 players were the best players at ‘that’ time. I believe we are losing a huge volume of potential.”
Cumann na mBunscol, itself, is endeavouring to change this mindset. Kelly explains: “We are moving towards a situation where more children will participate than before. They will play a number of games where you have, say 10-a-side, playing four quarters, and all the children that want to play will be allowed to play for two quarters. That is what we are heading towards, and we have to do that so more and more children play hurling, football, camogie and girls football. Another tool Cumann na mBunscol is using to promote participation is modifying the rules to ensure all players are involved in the games. “Already we have one hop, one solo in football and I can see the day where we will also have lift and strike in hurling. “The reason we are doing that is to have more participation so that smaller players aren’t dominated by the one big player. Everybody agrees that is good, the one hop, one solos, because it takes the big player out of the game. It also ensures we can actually get more children on the field playing our games in some sort of meaningful way.”
Another key issue for Kelly is fostering respect among young people for referees, their mentors and other players. This initiative, though, is not only child orientated, but it is also aimed at those over-exuberant parents who, too often, engage in abusive language and behaviour towards officials. “This year we are promoting a ‘Respect’ initiative,” outlines the County Secretary. “Basically, we are going to try and show more respect for everybody. Ideally, what we would like to do is have the panels line up behind the manager before a game and shake hands with the referee. Also, only the captains would be allowed to communicate with the referee. Imagine that working in the GAA! “We do, though, need this sort of stuff. We are going to try and have a Fair Play award, but we have not exactly worked out the details of that yet.
We also want to try to welcome the referee to the GAA club. Not have the referee walking in and everybody looking at him and avoiding him. “Secondly, we are going to be asking referees that if players use abusive language or indulge in unsporting behaviour, the referee might go to the coach and say ‘replace that player or I am going to have to send him off.’ “The same way on the sideline. If a person other than a player is using foul language or acting in an unsporting manner, it is recommended that the matter is brought to the attention of the designated team representative or the designated teacher and that he or she would then talk to that person. Where the behaviour continues, the game will be terminated.”
Although Kelly is passionate about the need for improvements, he also highlights that there are great people working on behalf of Cumann na mBunscol, under County Chairperson Gerry Hussey. These include Paul Gannon, who organises the Connemara Football Finals, Christopher O’Neill and Maireád Nic Dhonncha, both of whom spearhead the organisation’s athletics initiatives locally, Inverin’s Fearghas MacLochlainn, who, almost singlehandedly, has revived national school handball in the county, and Supermac’s Pat McDonagh, who sponsors the comprehensive booklet produced every year. Under the guidance of these people, along with the many others who selflessly give their time to the organisation, Cumann na mBunscol continues to flourish. Although gaelic games remains the founding rock on which the association was built, Kelly believes it does not matter what discipline a child embraces, be it athletics or handball, as long as they are active. “Simply, Cumann na mBunscol ties in with our curriculum, in that the focus is on the child’s holistic development,” says Kelly. “That has to be the point of school sport.”
Written by Stephen Glennon.
February 12th 2010