A Perspective on Irish Volunteering

We have been delighted to host a visitor to the project recently. Marnix Kelfkens visited Ireland on holiday last year and returned in January to conduct research for his Masters in Cultural Anthropology and Sustainable Citizenship. Marnix has some interesting thoughts below on the culture of volunteering in Ireland. CSO stats show 28.4% of people over the age of 15 volunteer consistently in Ireland putting a value of EUR 2bn per annum on the hours contributed on the basis of minimum wages.     

I have been delighted to spend the last three months in Dublin researching how sport can help people integrate into Irish society. I’m from Utrecht, a smaller city in the middle of the Netherlands, only an hour from Amsterdam. For the most part in the Netherlands, we play football and almost no one has heard of Gaelic Football, has ever held a Hurley or even knows the rules of Rugby ! I am very familiar with the role of sports and integration in the Netherlands, as I did sport science and focused on this subject for my Bachelor’s degree. I came to Ireland to see how another country was using sports in this manner.

One of the things that attracted me was the diverse amount of sports in the country. Where in my home country we have one dominant sport (football), in Ireland the GAA, rugby and football all compete with each other for players, coaches and spectators. I am a life-long fan and season ticket holder for the world famous football club, Ajax Amsterdam but for me, it was a wonderful experience to see Gaelic Football and Hurling games in Croke Park from Hill 16. Another unique highlight was to be a part of the great atmosphere in the pubs during the Ireland vs England rugby match in the Six Nations Championship on St Patrick’s Day, when Ireland won a historic “Grand Slam”.

Being so acquainted with the sport and integration setting in The Netherlands it was very interesting for me to see the differences, between these two countries, in the position of sports within society and the way it is used as a tool for integration. Something I very quickly noticed was the difference in the amount of volunteers in sports, and in other areas of social activities for that matter. Where in the Netherlands a large portion of the projects would be funded or run by the government, in Ireland I saw that most projects run entirely, or for the most part, on voluntary work. This can both be seen as a positive and a negative. In the Netherlands we might have more bureaucracy regarding such projects, where in Ireland the solution often seems to be a more direct approach by the community. The different projects that I visited in Ireland might be dependent on a few people giving up a lot of their free time, where in the Netherlands, the government would make sure of the continuity with institutional support. This gives successful local projects the chance to grow into other locations nationwide. It opened my eyes to be here for a few months, talk to people running projects and observe the differences. The subtleties of the culture of volunteering in Ireland make for a completely different outlook. In some ways, this gives the Irish government a free pass from directly funding and supporting local projects in a more efficient and sustainable way that builds social capital in a more meaningful structure.

From an outside perspective, it seems the way different sports are imbedded into Irish society is unique and something to cherish, and the amount of volunteers involved has and still does astonish me. I think this unique sports environment can be a great way to help people who want to become a part of Irish society. In my opinion, there is potential for this to deliver even more benefits for social cohesion in Ireland with better government involvement in existing community activities.

Marnix Kelfkens, University of Utrecht.

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