Lattes and lineballs: How the GAA conquered the Dublin suburbs

The year was 1998 and a new GAA club that had just opened in west Dublin was inviting children of all ages to give Gaelic football and hurling a go.

A five-year-old who had just started Scoil Oilibhéir in nearby Clonsilla was one of the first to partake in the so-called Tír na nÓg sessions. That boy was Ciarán Kilkenny and almost immediately he stood out as one with immense talent.

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Fast-forward 21 years and the club, Castleknock GAA, is on the cusp of opening an enormous and architecturally striking clubhouse worth in the region of €1.5m, while tomorrow Kilkenny will be a pivotal part of an all-conquering Dublin team vying to make history and become the first county to win five successive All-Ireland Senior Football titles.

If these are good times for one of the fastest-growing sports clubs in the country – and for its illustrious poster-boy who is also a gifted hurler – it’s never been a better time for the GAA and its stranglehold on middle-class Dublin.

In just 20 years, the GAA has managed to win the hearts and minds of swathes of the capital that, previously, would have had only the most tangential of relationships with hurling and Gaelic football.

Others, who would have had no sense of the GAA growing up, are now keenly supportive of their own children’s obsession with the games – a love fuelled by the unstoppable rise of low-cost, volunteer-led children’s GAA summer camps and a primary school competition that has quietly become huge.

Charlie Spillane, chairman of Castleknock GAA, believes the growth of the GAA in middle-class Dublin has been nothing short of a revolution. “There’s been a huge rise in the number of children who are not just taking up GAA, but sticking with it, too,” he says. “Once their friends get involved, they want to get involved, too and there’s a trickle-down effect.

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“Years ago, it was Man United this, Liverpool that. You’d never see a child carrying a hurl. Now, you don’t just see them with hurls, you see them proudly wearing their Dublin or club jersey.

“And,” he adds, “GAA clubs have always been great places for people to get to know one another, and that’s as much the case here as it would be down the country. There’s a great sense of community in this part of west Dublin now and so much of it is based around Castleknock.”

Castleknock attracts huge numbers of children every year and it’s the job of Naas woman Maria Bergin to make both hurling and football as appealing as possible to them, especially for those who come from families with no GAA backgrounds.

Bergin is Castleknock GAA’s full-time games promotion officer and she is paid by the Dublin County Board. She visits local schools, organises training sessions and coaches children as young as four in the rudiments of both hurling and Gaelic football.

She lists off the multiple nationalities – including Iranians and Nigerians – that she has coached since taking up her role a year ago this week. “It’s an amazing way to help people integrate into Ireland and to make friends,” she says.

“We make sure that we are welcoming to everyone and we really try to be inclusive. We make it fun, too and, as I’m quite girly the way I look, we’ve no problem getting girls in, too.”

Every Saturday morning, Bergin runs a nursery for four to seven-year-olds in a green space in the heart of the sprawling Carpenterstown area, a few kilometres west of Castleknock village. “You can’t miss us,” she says. “Anyone coming to the area and moving into one of the new houses would see how vibrant it is, and how much fun the kids are having – and they’d bring their own children along, too.”

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Huge increase

Some of those children graduate into Castleknock’s underage set-up and there are so many teams that virtually everyone gets their game.

Kevin O’Shaughnessy is a Castleknock club man who is also the strategic programme manager with Dublin GAA. He says the success of underage initiates are best illustrated by the upturn in the number of children playing. “Over the past five or six years, there’s been a 50pc increase in the number of boys playing GAA while the girls’ figure is probably closer to 100pc.

“I think the GAA has done very well in appealing to those who want to embrace aspects of life that are intrinsically Irish. Playing Gaelic games differentiates you from other people. And that’s why you see such a growth in Irish people playing GAA in all parts of the world.”

Michael Wiley has been heavily involved in the club for years. Gaelic football and hurling constitute the bread and butter of a large chunk of his life now, but it wasn’t until he married and had children that the GAA started to register in a meaningful way.

“It was soccer all the way for me when I was growing up,” he says. “We moved into this area in 1989/90 and had our children in 93 and 95. The eldest joined the club in 99 and loved it and, as a parent you find yourself pitching in and it just becomes this really important part of your life.

“My wife and I would say that, thanks to our children playing in this club, we’ve met most of our friends and got to know so many people. There is a community aspect that cannot be underestimated.”

There are commanding views of Castleknock’s pristine floodlit pitches from the upstairs meeting room at the clubhouse, but Charlie Spillane points out that the large green space below, with the Dublin Mountains in the distance, is only part of it. They field so many teams each week that they use pitches all over west Dublin.

The club has come a long way. The men’s senior team began life in the 10th tier of the Dublin Senior Football Championship. It is now in the top division and, for the moment at least, more dominant on the pitch than local rivals, the long-established St Brigid’s.

Across the city, in Dalkey, the GAA is thriving like never before. The southside coastal village has long been a byword for wealth and prosperity. In the 19th century, it was favoured by the Protestant professional class and so-called ‘Castle Catholics’. Today, it’s home to some of Ireland’s wealthiest people and even the most modest house is priced outside the reach of only a tiny fraction of the population.

‘Hiberno-cosmopolitan’

And it’s here that Cuala GAA is to be found. From comparatively humble beginnings, it has become one of the country’s super-clubs. At least two Cuala men will line out in the starting 15 for Dublin tomorrow and, in hurling, the club won back-to-back All-Ireland championships in 2017 and 2018.

It’s a story that seems to embody the ‘Hiberno-cosmopolitan’ idea proposed by Dalkey native David McWilliams in his bestseller, The Pope’s Children. The economist argued that new generations of well-heeled professionals were picking aspects of Irishness that appealed to them – such as hurling and the Irish language – and rejecting traditional forms of Irishness, like a devotion to the Catholic Church.

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that there are many Hiberno-cosmopolitans – or hi-cos, as the acronym-loving McWilliams puts it – in Dalkey and the des-res areas such as Killiney and Monkstown that fuel much of Cuala’s underage playing contingent.

Earlier this year, Cuala announced a new jersey sponsor to replace the departing Davy stockbrokers. As part of the deal, Amgen, an American biotech company, will offer an education bursary every year. Announced at a photo-shoot at Croke Park and attended by GAA President John Horan, the news attracted considerable publicity and irritation from clubs with a fraction of the clout.

For Oisín Gough, who captained the club to its first All-Ireland title, the growth of Cuala mirrors the rise of the GAA in areas of Dublin that would not have been strongholds in the past. “Growing up, it felt as though Cuala was a bit separate to Dalkey, but now it feels as though its an essential part of the community.

“When we got back after winning the All-Ireland there were a thousand, maybe 1,500 people out to greet us and many of them wouldn’t be associated with the club. They were proud of what we’ve achieved. And in the run up to those All-Irelands, you had red-and-white [the club colours] everywhere, including shops where there would be no affiliation with the GAA.”

Gough believes the GAA’s drive to make the games accessible to kids of all backgrounds has paid dividends. “We used to call it the Nursery at Cuala and I was there in its second year. It was just this really fun and engaging way to start playing the games and I think it was used across all clubs in Dublin at that time.

“And I think that’s contributed a lot to the current successes that the men’s football team has had; also the men’s hurling side, the camogie team and the ladies’ footballers [Dublin Ladies will be bidding for three successive football titles when they play Galway in the final on September 15.] And success breeds success: with Dublin doing so well, you’ve more kids on the streets with Dublin jerseys and more that want to take part.

“I think the GAA is more welcoming than it has ever been. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or if you come from a GAA family or not, and there’s no pressure on children not to play other sports. You’ve kids that will play Gaelic football, hurling, soccer, rugby, you-name-it – and that’s great.”

Pat Daly is one of the architects of upsurge in child participation in Gaelic games. He is the GAA’s director of games development and research, and he is heartened about how parts of Dublin that had little prior interest in hurling and Gaelic football have embraced the codes over the past 20 years.

“The key was to get young people interested,” he says. “Number one is Cumman na mBunscol [the GAA’s schools leagues]. That’s where it all starts – in the primary schools. And Cumman in Dublin, under the leadership of David Gough [the Meath man who will referee tomorrow’s final], has become a very formidable body.

“Then the clubs have got themselves organised and are doing very good work in terms of providing games every weekend and the growth of the Cúl Camps complements that. You’ve also got a lot of clubs in Dublin that would have Easter and Halloween camps. Look at the employment of full-time games promotion officers in clubs. If you add all that up, then the growth of the GAA across Dublin makes sense.”

Daly is heartened by the transformation of the GAA in the capital – not just in terms of participation numbers, but how the games impact on communities.

“I remember being in college in Dublin in the 1970s and sometimes it felt like an Anglicised place. There were large parts of the city where Gaelic games had no penetration in, whereas now there are very few places where the GAA isn’t part and parcel of life. That’s been a huge change.”

But while the GAA has successfully sold itself to middle-class Dublin, there are concerns that it is not reaching working-class areas.

“You can never generalise, because there would be a good GAA presence in somewhere like Finglas,” Daly says. “But in north Clondalkin and parts of Tallaght, Gaelic games wouldn’t have a profile there as much as you’d have elsewhere.

“It can be difficult to penetrate parts of Dublin, because it’s not that you’re trying to develop the games there, it’s the social problems you might have to overcome.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Charlie Spillane in Castleknock.

The club, he says, is keen to expand its reach but it can have difficulties achieving its targets outside the middle classes.

For now, his attention is focused not on tomorrow’s sell-out final, but on next Saturday when the clubhouse is officially opened by An Taoiseach. Leo Varadkar, he points out, is a native of the parish and his nephews play with the club.

“I first started following Dublin football during the Heffo’s Army years,” he says, in reference to the team managed by Kevin Heffernan that lit up Gaelic games in the 1970s. “But there was no club I was affiliated to. It was just the county team.

“Now, it’s all about the club, and this,” he says, taking in the playing pitches with a sweep of his hand, “is the grassroots.”

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