Last week’s survey by Social Entrepreneurs Ireland highlighting the Gaelic Athletic Association as the ‘greatest force for social change’ is yet another endorsement for what is arguably Ireland’s most important institution.
The research revealed how the GAA’s dedication to funding, developing and nurturing entrepreneurship in Ireland marks it apart as a driving force for social change.
The findings may have raised a few eyebrows within the world of Irish sport but it certainly would come as no surprise to the near one million people involved in GAA activity.
Rooted in every parish and community in Ireland, the GAA is ideally placed as a catalyst for change and has always emphasised the fact that its remit extends beyond its games.
Within the sporting context, the GAA has also been to the forefront in the battle for hearts and minds with the local club playing a pivotal role as a social hub in the community. This in turn is attracting greater numbers to Gaelic games although the Association has identified that it remains relatively weak in some of the poorer urban areas.
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The survey also reveals that Irish people place great importance in cultural identity and a sense of community – two pillars of the GAA’s ethos. With such a strong positive identity in Irish life it is not surprising therefore that people look to the GAA to lead on matters of social concern such as unemployment and suicide prevention.
What isn’t referenced in the survey is the part that many county GAA footballers and hurlers play in their communities as active role models.
The GAA is sustained by the county game and its amateur players who, through their on-field endeavours, also contribute enormously to the cultural and social fabric of the country.
However, Irish society also benefits hugely from the contribution players make off the field; supporting local charities, encouraging sporting activity, coaching and developing juvenile players, fundraising for clubs, endorsing government initiatives, promoting health and implementing change.
And this is an aspect of the player’s role which the Gaelic Players Association is focussing on through a new leadership program aimed at identifying and nurturing the many transferable skills elite players possess.
The object of the program is not only to assist players with their personal development but also to enhance the contribution they make to Irish society; indeed strengthening the GAA’s ability to operate as a force for social change.
An example of this work in action is the number of county players now involved as ambassadors for Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health in Ireland. These players were inducted by GPA charity partners Headstrong and are now involved in promoting key messages to young people in Irish society.
Young people can readily identify with high profile players but unlike their counterparts in professional sport, these players remain rooted in their own communities and are thus accessible to groups on the ground.
Harnessing this aspect as a point of strength, the GPA intends to drive social change as part of its own social responsibility, by using players to promote the status of sport within the Irish education system and in Irish society, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. A GPA Community Camp was run by players for children for the first time this year, a model which will be rolled out nationally in 2013.
This week the GAA launched an initiative aimed at reducing alcohol consumption and raising funds for clubs in the New Year. As always, two profiled county players were placed to the fore to promote the initiative. However, on this occasion both were there as representatives of their clubs.
It is perhaps one of the GAA’s strongest and most unique aspects – even its elite players who perform at the highest level in front of 80,000 spectators remain part of the community and part of their clubs.
And it is an aspect which, while not always highlighted, is integral to the GAA’s ability to operate as a force for social change.