We must not let evil de­stroy the vol­un­teer spirit

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - JOHN GREENE

IN March 2011, Lyn Sav­age from the Ladies Gaelic Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion vis­ited Slane to talk to school­girls aged be­tween 10 and 12 about tak­ing up foot­ball. A small num­ber of girls had dab­bled in the game but weren’t overly keen on join­ing in with the boys and there wasn’t a sep­a­rate out­let for them. That was about to change.

The lo­cal GAA club was at­tempt­ing to set up its first girls’ team and the LGFA had agreed to help. For years, the As­so­ci­a­tion has been run­ning a very suc­cess­ful pro­gramme de­signed to help new clubs. It’s called Gael­ic4Girls, and Slane was one of the clubs cho­sen for as­sis­tance that spring. Step one in­volved a visit to two lo­cal na­tional schools, step two was a six-week train­ing pro­gramme for the girls at the lo­cal pitch and step three was the car­rot — tak­ing part in a na­tional blitz that sum­mer in Croke Park.

The club had to pro­vide at least one coach to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the six weeks of train­ing, all un­der Lyn’s watch­ful eye. I can’t re­mem­ber how ex­actly it came to pass, but I ended up be­ing that coach.

It wasn’t some­thing I had planned, but on re­flec­tion it was prob­a­bly in­evitable. Many of us are lucky enough as chil­dren to en­counter peo­ple who will leave a last­ing im­pres­sion on us. When we think back on our child­hood they are part of a warm friendly feel­ing we get, and this can have a pro­foundly pos­i­tive im­pact on us as we go through life. Isn’t that the point of teach­ing and men­tor­ing chil­dren?

Pearse Park in Long­ford is the site of many of my fond­est child­hood mem­o­ries. It was greyer then, as I re­mem­ber it, and bore lit­tle re­sem­blance to the com­pact lit­tle sta­dium of to­day, but it was no less spe­cial a place in the eyes of an im­pres­sion­able boy, es­pe­cially one lucky enough to have ac­cess all ar­eas, as I had be­cause my fa­ther was a county board of­fi­cial.

Mickey Finn, only ever known as Du­rango, was the care­taker back then. Mickey lived alone, was fond of a drink and was more than five times my age. But it didn’t mat­ter. He had a bun­dle of keys that opened ev­ery door and gate in the place, and pretty much ev­ery­where he went I fol­lowed. If he was mark­ing the pitch, I marched along­side and poured the lime when needed; if he was open­ing the gates, I pushed them when he turned the lock.

Paddy Houri­can and Jimmy Keenan were even older. Paddy col­lected money at the old turn­stile on the Camp Road and I of­ten joined him to sort the cop­pers into piles in the shabby bis­cuit tin he used. Jimmy Keenan was a star of the Long­ford team that won the 1937 ju­nior All-Ire­land and he looked after the score­board. When I started, Jimmy could make his way up the lad­der to sit on his deck chair, binoc­u­lars at the ready for any­thing that might hap­pen at the Town end.

We even fea­tured in a photo mon­tage in the Ir­ish Press when I was just 11. In one of the pic­tures he has his binoc­u­lars raised, stu­diously fol­low­ing the play. I’m be­side him, ready to record the next score on the board. As I got older, and he got older, I proved use­ful run­ning up and down the lad­der.

Also as I got older I gained ac­cess to the in­ner sanc­tum, count­ing the day’s tak­ings with Tom McLoughlin, Tommy O’Brien, Jimmy Fox, my fa­ther and oth­ers.

Then there were the games, the ones I watched, and the ones I played in, un­der the shrewd gaze of men like John Mur­phy, Fr Peter Burke, Noel Flynn and John Bannon.

The mem­o­ries of match days re­main deep and vivid. The clunk of the heavy old metal turn­stiles; the crunch of studs on stones as play­ers made the long walk from the dress­ing room to the pitch down the old lane along Plun­kett’s field; the crackle of Amhran na bhFiann blar­ing out from an old tape recorder; Speedy McCor­mack’s point with the out­side of the right foot from un­der the old stand against Gal­way; the day in 1984 when All-Ire­land cham­pi­ons Kerry came to town; the county fi­nal saga be­tween Mostrim and Ardagh in 1985; and Paddy Doris and Teddy, his dog, two more per­ma­nent fix­tures in Pearse Park’s rich cast of char­ac­ters.

I was a mes­sen­ger boy, pro­gramme seller, car park at­ten­dant . . . it didn’t re­ally mat­ter, be­cause there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I was safe in the sanc­tu­ary of Pearse Park.

Four years ago, my im­age of Pearse Park was shat­tered. The front page head­line in the Long­ford Leader on De­cem­ber 6 screamed: ‘Child abuse investigation un­der­way’.

“Gar­dai are in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­le­ga­tions of child sex abuse in Long­ford dat­ing back to around the year 2000,” the pa­per re­ported.

Some of the al­le­ga­tions cen­tred on Pearse Park. The report con­tin­ued: “A spokesper­son from the Garda Press Of­fice con­firmed that an investigation was un­der­way.”

It turns out that for some boys, my child­hood par­adise may well have later be­come the scene of their worst night­mare. If my happy mem­o­ries of that place are part of who I am, what does that mean for those who were al­legedly abused there?

This is what Fr Brian D’Arcy meant last week when he spoke on RTE’s Cut­ting

Edge about the Tom Humphries case: “That girl has got a life sen­tence that no­body’s go­ing to talk about. And be­lieve you me, it is a life sen­tence and noth­ing can change you from that.”

He added: “Peo­ple scream­ing and shout­ing at each other . . . you’re talk­ing about some­thing you don’t know about. Only those who have suf­fered abuse, are try­ing to deal with it, been de­stroyed by it, know what it’s about.”

It is a se­ri­ous re­spon­si­bil­ity to take charge of a group of chil­dren in any walk of life — sport­ing or oth­er­wise — and most of us have, at some point, come across teach­ers or coaches who clearly are not suited to it. We have seen the an­gry coach be­rat­ing a child on a side­line, or the an­gry teacher scold­ing a child far be­yond what that child is ca­pa­ble of en­dur­ing. These are the teach­ers who can turn a child away from the joy of learn­ing, or the coaches who can force a child away from the joy of sport.

So when it came to a misty April Sun­day morn­ing six years ago I was ap­pre­hen­sive. I wasn’t sure what to ex­pect, or even how many girls would turn up. That first morn­ing we crept into dou­ble fig­ures; the girls en­joyed it, and the fol­low­ing week a few more came, hav­ing been en­cour­aged along by their friends. We were off and run­ning, even if I wasn’t sure where it would all end, if a team would grow out of these ses­sions, or if I was the right per­son to take it on. As a coach I was very green and naive, and I knew noth­ing of how ladies foot­ball in Meath was or­gan­ised. I wasn’t even sure of the rules.

The en­thu­si­asm of the girls was in­fec­tious in those first two weeks. And the club knew it could not grow un­less it was cater­ing for girls on an equal foot­ing to boys. The dream even then was to one day en­ter a ladies team in the Meath cham­pi­onship. But I was not con­vinced it was go­ing to work.

Then, in the hours after that sec­ond train­ing ses­sion, my frag­ile con­fi­dence in what we were do­ing — and my own role in it — took a hit. A col­league phoned with the news that a well-known sports jour­nal­ist was be­ing in­ves­ti­gated for child sex abuse. He was in­volved in un­der­age coaching.

It was Tom Humphries.

A week later he was named in pub­lic for the first time by the Sun­day World, and at our third Gael­ic4Girls ses­sion that day, there were nat­u­rally a few ques­tions.

At first, I was afraid par­ents might pull the plug on our fledg­ling project. But they didn’t. They trusted in us and what we were do­ing. They could see the im­pact foot­ball was hav­ing on their daugh­ters. And we car­ried on. What else could we do? Mon­sters walk among us, hid­ing in plain sight. It turns out some chil­dren are not so lucky. It turns out some chil­dren are not safe in places where they should be safe. Ev­ery time a Tom Humphries is un­masked it tears a hole in so­ci­ety be­cause there are men and women all over the coun­try who have been in­spired by oth­ers be­fore them to work in their com­mu­nity with the young, the old, the sick, the vul­ner­a­ble. It’s the vol­un­teer spirit. It’s what the coun­try is built on.

That May, Lyn Sav­age pre­sented 18 girls with Gael­ic4Girls cer­tifi­cates; in July we went to Croke Park and took part in the na­tional blitz; and in Au­gust we en­tered a team in the county un­der 13 league — our first ever team. Last week, I dug out a photo from that May morn­ing six years ago. Of the 18 girls, 10 are still play­ing foot­ball. We all must carry on.

My child­hood par­adise may have be­come the scene of their worst night­mare

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.