If you were asked to name an area of Dublin where primary school children struggled to name GAA icons such as Stephen Cluxton or Ciarán Kilkenny, you would probably opt for a southside rugby enclave. But with no recent history of camogie, Gaelic football, hurling or ladies football, the adjoining northside suburbs of Darndale and Priorswood have long been barren territory for the GAA.
So much so that Tony Dunne, the locally-based Games Promotion Officer employed by the association, who is working on a project aimed at promoting Gaelic games in the area, says local children struggle to identify with the six-in-a-row All Ireland Gaelic football winning squad – the greatest the game has ever seen.
But all that is starting to change as part of a programme which is the brainchild of O’Tooles GAA Club, based a stone’s throw from Darndale and Priorswood at Ayrfield’s Blunden Drive, but which traditionally draws its membership from Coolock.
According O’Toole’s juvenile committee chairperson, Michael Cunningham, “you do not regularly see children wearing GAA tops in Darndale and Priorswood, as you would elsewhere in the city. We have a lot of work to do to change that, but it is slowly changing and is a battle worth fighting.”
The project began in January, and after the break for the summer, will resume in September as O’Tooles continue in their bid to create a GAA community.
“Slowly, we are starting to see kids from Darndale and Priorswood wearing O’Toole’s tops,” said Cunningham.
The social and economic difficulties which beset the Darndale area have been well documented over many years. In 2019, Dublin City Council assumed a central leadership role in tackling these longstanding, complex and engrained issues.
As a first step, it engaged Dr Jack Nolan, a retired Assistant Garda Commissioner, to undertake an in-depth review of the area, engaging with stakeholders and residents. This process resulted in the publication of a report, ‘Darndale – a long view of an enduring challenge.’
In their submission to the review, O’Tooles cited disappointment and frustration that many children who took up Gaelic games in the area fell away as they got older. Now, the club has embarked on a bid to change that in a move designed to create a GAA community in Darndale and Priorswood and enlarge its own membership and player base.
In tandem with work by Dunne in the local primary schools, the first step, following campaigns involving social media, printed flyers, and signage has been to establish a Gaelic football nursery for four to seven year-olds which took place at Darndale Community Centre on Saturdays between 11.00am and 12 noon, the first of its kind in the area. Over thirty children attended the free coaching sessions weekly, before a summer break, most of whom had never played GAA previously.
In the short-term, the club hopes to add camogie and hurling sessions and Easter and summer leagues in the locality, while its key medium term aim is to secure an outdoor playing pitch in Darndale to ensure greater visibility for O’Tooles in the area.
“We assumed everybody in Darndale and Priorswood knew of us. When we began to promote the club it was clear this was not the case and that was when we knew we needed to put boots on the ground and start doing a whole lot more. The response has been amazing,” says Cunningham.
O’Tooles have made its grounds at Ayrfield available for school matches and sports days for Darndale and Priorswood, as well as busing in children for coaching sessions.
“Membership from Darndale and Priorswood is increasing. We had noticed that most of our primary school children attended St Paul’s National School in Ayrfield, so in many ways it was a no brainer for us to go into Darndale and Priorswood. But we had to make parents aware of our existence and ensure what we did suited them,” Cunningham added.
“After months of talking to parents we have seen a huge increase in numbers from the Darndale nursery for our summer camps at O’Tooles. It is slowly coming around. We can see parents chatting about O’Toole’s on social media. It is going to take a lot of work, but I think we will get there. The support and enthusiasm shown by parents has been inspiring.”
Dunne says he would like young people in Darndale and Priorswood to identify with the O’Tooles’ ethos. “We want to lay the foundations of a culture which will develop. For children from Darndale and Priorswood to be part of O’Tooles, to identify with the club and enjoy the lifelong bonds that generates.”
Dr Nolan, chair of the Darndale Economic and Social Plan implementation group, said the work of all sports clubs in the area is critical to its ongoing social development.
“Sport celebrates the vitality of youth, community spirit and the bonds which tie us together,” said Dr Nolan.