Emigration hits hard - GAA teams left decimated as Ireland's youth leave home


Irish actor James Nesbitt, star of
Irish actor James Nesbitt, star of "The Hobbit"

Some Cheltenham tales from the brilliant Cork jockey Davy Russell and the Belfast actor James Nesbittin a moment or two, but first a very worrying story from a quick visit south to Waterford late last week.

Invited down as a guest of the Ladbrokes betting chain for a game of golf at the wonderful Mount Juliet, a Jack Nicklaus design, we then made our way onwards to a Cheltenham preview night in the Woodlands Hotel on Suirside.

There, everyone from the great John Francome and the legendary Mick Fitzgerald to Messrs Russell and Nesbitt -- and messers might be closer to the truth -- gave us their big tips for the racing festival that will bring Ireland to a halt next week.

The Cheltenham insight was the main function of the long drive south down the motorway built for the people of Waterford, or so legend has it, by their former TD (member of Parliament) Martin Cullen.

But a tale told to me over dinner that evening about one local GAA club - in that fine county that is home to the great John Mullane -- is a tale worth repeating and one that will strike a chord, I am sure, in the Bronx and Queens.

Just a couple of years ago, a parish not a million miles from Waterford City won the county intermediate football title with a team made up of the best and brightest young men in the well known parish.

Last week, the same GAA club resumed training for this year’s championship, coached by a man who is now of my acquaintance after we met courtesy of the Ladbrokes preview night.

This man, John is his name, explained to me exactly how emigration is hitting GAA teams up and down the country, and his story is worth an audience.

When his team got back on the training field last week, only four members of that intermediate winning squad were still in the country and able to play for their club.

The rest of the starting team from 2011, 11 medal winners, had either emigrated or moved away from their hometown within the island of Ireland in search of employment.

Their team, like so many others across the land, has been decimated by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. They are now forced to consider 17-year-olds for senior championship football this summer simply because they don’t have enough grown and fit men left in their parish to fill their team.

John assured me his story is not unique. He knows of many other clubs in Waterford and across the land with similar tales to tell.

And no doubt, many of you reading this column in New York, if you have managed to stay with me this far, have left your football and hurling teams behind in Ireland.

It’s a problem I’ve read about and heard discussed on the radio, but it was only when I sat down and heard John’s tale in person last week, that I realized just how real emigration is for so many GAA clubs and so many young people all across our country.

Cheltenham will attract some of the new diaspora from cities all over the U.K. next week, and a great time they will have if the preview night in Waterford was anything to go by.

Nesbitt, co-owner of 2012 winner Riverside Theatre, was a laugh a minute as he tried to persuade Russell to keep Michael O’Leary’s First Lieutenant out of the Ryanair Chase in order to leave the field to his defending champion.

And Russell was the star of the show, a man with a quip to match his whip and a line for every occasion.

He did say that Sir Des Champs, also owned by O’Leary, is the best chance he will ever have to win the Gold Cup and I believe him because he proved, on the night, that he is a man of honesty, integrity and no little wit.

In one race, he told us to back the ambulance as it had the best chance of finishing third.

And looking at the field for another race, he admitted that he would “rather ride” the Kathy Barry of Irish folklore than “any of the yokes” entered.

Russell and Nesbitt did indeed help to make the visit south a memorable one – but that GAA story will live with me long after Cheltenham 2013 is put to bed.

And by the way, the best tip I heard on the night was for Jezki in the Supreme Novices Hurdle, the opening race on the opening day next Tuesday. Enjoy.