Where are GAA players going?
Young men from GAA clubs all around the country are moving to clubs in London and New York.

One of the most fascinating barometers of the Irish economy is published not by the ESRI, the Central Bank or any of the many stockbrokers paid to monitor the state of things. If you want to understand what is happening on the ground, go to www.gaa.ie.

As well as fixtures, news, updates and analysis, the GAA’s website is a mine of sociological information. One monthly little gem tells us who is transferring from which club and where they are going.

For the last few years the club transfer list was pretty standard, reflecting young players moving around the country to where they are working or studying.

So lads would transfer from clubs in Dublin to Cork or Waterford, depending on jobs. Obviously, much of the movement was to Dublin clubs as the capital sucked in resources to fuel the boom.

This month’s figures, however, reveal something startling. We are seeing a huge increase in young men moving from Irish clubs all around the country to clubs in London and New York.

This barometer — let’s call it the GAA Club Transfer Index or GCTI for short — doesn’t lie. More significantly, the huge surge in emigration it reflects will not be picked up by official statistics for months, if not years.

According to the GCTI, emigration is on the increase from all over Ireland and it is recurring in precisely the age group that we need most — our young, fit people. What makes the change in the index all the more startling, is the dramatic turnaround in fortunes between the beginning of the year and now. In January, not one club player transferred to a club outside Ireland. This month, over one third of all transfers involved lads leaving the country and signing up for clubs in New York and London.

So Paddy is moving again. Historically, it has always been so. When things are going well here, we come home and when things turn down, we go. Such migration patterns are not normal.

For example, in the 1980s Ireland and Spain suffered from the same levels of unemployment — 19pc in both countries. This lack of opportunity prompted 400,000 young Irish people to leave the country. By contrast, the Spaniards hardly budged. The GCTI is telling us that this is happening again.

Over the years, the GAA has been a brilliant indicator of economic and demographic trends. For example, in the 1980s, emigration in rural Ireland was so severe that many villages couldn’t find 15 young men to field a team on a regular basis.

Equally, the boom years were a bonanza for the GAA. New clubs opened to cater for the huge outward move to the new suburbs of Meath, Kildare and the peripheries of all our main towns.

Wherever a series of new estates were built, GAA clubs followed. GAA clubs, outside decking, Woodies DIY and Dominos Pizza went together. Much to the chagrin of many commentators, these new suburbs in “Deckland” thrived. Communities formed quickly and, at the centre of these new neighbourhoods, was the ever present GAA club.

In older suburbs where the GAA had not been traditionally strong, the boom led to a rekindling of interest in Gaelic Games. It also spawned a new subspecies — the GAA Mum. The GAA Mum emerged ferrying children around like a demented taxi-driver every Saturday morning. My own neck of the woods, Dun Laoghaire (never a GAA stronghold), has become flooded with these new hyper-educated, assertive, clever, ambitious and aspirational “GAA mums”. Interestingly, the GAA won the battle for the hearts and minds of the new middle class in suburban Ireland.

Mothers who never had any dealings with the GAA, either as children or young women, are signing up their kids and getting involved in the GAA over and above other sports. Today’s GAA mums are a very different breed to those who made the sandwiches years ago.

They are part of the resurgence in a well-managed, well-marketed sporting institution which runs itself professionally and towers over other sporting organisations. Because it is ubiquitous, across all classes and regions, the GAA is a fantastic leading indicator of social change.

Unfortunately, the social change it is capturing now is emigration. The return of emigration has profound ramifications for all of us. If Irish young men are going now, when both the US and the UK are close to recession, they must feel that their chances there are better than they are here. This is damning.

The implications for tax revenue, the budget deficit and house prices are straightforward. The less young people you have, the less tax revenue you have and the more expensive public projects become. As for house prices, if the GCTI is accurate, the implication for house prices is simple — they will fall further. This is bad news for not only the housing market but for the banking sector too because without a vibrant, young population, much of the dynamic of an expanding economy disappears.

In addition, most studies reveal that the most able people emigrate while the not so talented or ambitious might be more likely to stay at home and be on the dole. Emigration is self-selecting and it reinforces a downturn, not just in terms of the quantity of people in the country, but the quality too.

The political implications of a return of Irish emigration, coupled with net immigration into the country are again straightforward. People will get angry if “our own” are forced to live in Queens or Camden while the country plays host to all sorts of foreigners. This is not a racist comment; it’s a political reality.

The GAA Club Transfer Index is pointing to massive social change and a return of emigration but don’t expect to hear about this from our authorities. If you want to see why there will be tearful reunions at Dublin airport for the first time in decades this Christmas, don’t wait till the experts report back; head down to your local GAA club and see what’s happening to the teamsheets.

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