Low lie the fields of Athenry

Last week, Gal­way club St Mary’s was sus­pended from all ju­ve­nile hurl­ing and foot­ball ac­tiv­ity un­til it com­plies with the find­ings of a re­cent GAA in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The hear­ing fol­lowed over a year of claim and counter-claim which have rocked the fa­bled hurl

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GAELIC GAMES - PAUL KIMMAGE

LET’S start with the ads. The two mam­mies chat­ting in the car as their boys play foot­ball in the Londis ad. The rugby-ob­sessed kid who dis­cov­ers he’s be­ing trained by Paul O’Con­nell (“I’ll take it from here”) in the Lidl ad. And — my favourite — the be­fore and af­ter scenes in the Avon­more ad where a team of young boys are sit­ting in a dress­ing room with their coach.

In the ‘be­fore’ scene, he is boost­ing their con­fi­dence be­fore they run onto the field: “It’s a beau­ti­ful day,” he an­nounces, “per­fect for our pass­ing game.” The cue for a sud­den crack of thun­der and a tor­rent of rain: “Okay, plan B,” he shrugs. “Let’s get stuck into them!” And the boys cheer.

In the ‘af­ter’ scene, the kids have re­turned to the dress­ing room with drenched and mud­died faces. The coach smiles and ex­tends his arms: “Okay lads, very proud of you, 12 goals.” The cue for a mag­i­cal pause: “They’d have scored at least 15 against any­one else!” And the boys cheer.

You’ve seen it, right? And — just guess­ing here — you like what you see? What’s not to love about a coach like that? And kids like those? And the col­lec­tive joy when win­ning isn’t the only thing? You’re think­ing: ‘This is how it’s sup­posed to be.’ It’s what we’re be­ing sold by the gov­ern­ing bod­ies ev­ery day:

“The IRFU seeks to pro­mote the wel­fare of all Age-Grade Play­ers so that they de­velop to the best of their abil­ity in a safe and fun en­vi­ron­ment. We want to wel­come young peo­ple to the game so that they can thrive in our care.”

“The Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion of Ire­land is com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that chil­dren can par­tic­i­pate in all foot­ball ac­tiv­i­ties in a safe en­vi­ron­ment . . . Par­tic­i­pa­tion in foot­ball should be fun, en­joy­able and pro­vide a plat­form to learn and de­velop life skills, make new friends and en­hance per­sonal growth. The safety and wel­fare of all chil­dren is paramount.”

“The Gaelic Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion is com­mit­ted to cre­at­ing and main­tain­ing the safest pos­si­ble en­vi­ron­ment for all young peo­ple who wish to par­tic­i­pate in our Gaelic Games and ac­tiv­i­ties. We will take all prac­ti­ca­ble steps to pro­tect them from dis­cernible forms of abuse — from harm, dis­crim­i­na­tion or de­grad­ing treat­ment and shall re­spect their rights, wishes and feel­ings.”

The mes­sage is clear: ‘Send us your kids. We’ll take care of them.’

Re­ally?

ST MARY’S, Athenry is one of the most fa­bled clubs in the GAA. Eight county cham­pi­onships, eight provin­cial ti­tles and three All-Ire­lands, this is hurl­ing coun­try, and home to some of the best to have played the game: Eu­gene Cloo­nan and PJ Mol­loy and Joe Rab­bitte and Brian Han­ley and Michael Crim­mins and Pas­cal Healy and Cathal Mo­ran and Brian Feeney and Gerry Keane and Bren­dan Keogh.

Our story be­gins on a warm Fri­day evening at their train­ing ground in Car­naun where a fa­ther is sit­ting in his car with the win­dow down, and two moth­ers are chat­ting by the perime­ter fence as a group of young hurlers — the St Mary’s un­der 12s — are tak­ing in­struc­tions from a men­tor. The word ‘fuck’ can be heard by the fa­ther.

Paddy Kelly is not like the guy in the Avon­more ad. A de­voted and loyal ser­vant to the club, he has been coach­ing kids for years and lets them know when they don’t per­form. Does the fa­ther get out of his car and re­mind him that coaches should lead by ex­am­ple? He does not. Do the moth­ers com­plain that the use of foul lan­guage is a breach of the Code of Best Prac­tice? They do not.

It’s just Paddy be­ing Paddy. “What the fuck did you do that for?”

“What is wrong with that boy?” “Will you fuck­ing move to fuck!” But not ev­ery­one agrees. In Novem­ber 2016, the abu­sive lan­guage and some other is­sues are raised by par­ents at the Athenry Ju­ve­nile AGM.

A month later, on De­cem­ber 13, two mem­bers of the “con­cerned par­ents of the U-11/U12 Hurl­ing team” de­liv­ered a let­ter to the Athenry club chair­man, Sean Keane, out­lin­ing their di­ap­point­ment with the stan­dard of train­ing. There were 16 sig­na­to­ries to the let­ter.

They wrote: “For the com­ing sea­son and in the fu­ture, we are ask­ing you, the Se­nior Club, to take a care­ful in­ter­est in the Ju­ve­nile Club to en­sure that the wel­fare of our chil­dren is fully pro­tected.”

They said they wanted their chil­dren to keep play­ing for the club but were wor­ried this might not hap­pen. “We write this let­ter to pre­vent any un­pleas­ant­ness in the fu­ture,” they con­cluded.

The month is Fe­bru­ary, 2017. Two 10-year-old boys — up­set by the lan­guage and at­mos­phere on the team — de­cide they would rather play for the un­der 14s. There are some train­ing ses­sions with a new coach, Ed­die Brady, and they are in­vited to join the older boys for a game in Loughrea. That’s when the melt­down be­gins. ‘Com­plainant A’, the fa­ther of one of the boys, drops his son at the dress­ing room door and is sit­ting in the stands as the team runs on to the field. He spots the coach, Brady, and then scans all the jer­seys but can’t find his son. A mo­ment later the club’s ju­ve­nile sec­re­tary, John Cloo­nan, en­ters the field, and a mo­ment af­ter that his son fi­nally ap­pears.

The game be­gins and dad thinks no more of it. He has no idea his son is up­set un­til a neigh­bour’s boy comes rush­ing into the stand and ex­plains what hap­pened.

Two days later, on Mon­day, March 13, he places a call to Gearoid O’Maoilmhichil, the Na­tional Chil­dren’s Of­fi­cer in Croke Park, that goes straight to voice­mail: “I’m not avail­able right now, please leave a mes­sage. Go raibh maith agat.”

He calls again.

“I’m not avail­able right now.”

And again.

“I’m not avail­able right now.”

And again.

“I’m not avail­able right now.” And is al­most spit­ting blood when he fi­nally gets through.

O’Maoilmhichil cau­tions him for his emo­tive lan­guage and in­sists that he can­not con­sider any com­plaint that is not made in writ­ing. He also ad­vises that there are struc­tures in place at both club and county lev­els to deal with the is­sues he has raised. But the fa­ther has been to the club and is not for turn­ing: Dear Gearoid, Fol­low­ing on from our tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion, dur­ing which you ad­vised me to put any com­plaints I had in writ­ing, we (the let­ter is co-signed by his wife) wish to re­port an in­ci­dent which took place in­volv­ing our son and the Athenry GAA Ju­ve­nile Club Sec­re­tary John Cloo­nan. The in­ci­dent oc­curred on Sat­ur­day 11th March 2017 at the dress­ing rooms of the Loughrea Hurl­ing Grounds be­fore the start of an U14 Cham­pi­onship hurl­ing match be­tween Athenry and Loughrea. Af­ter tog­ging out with the rest of the Athenry team, and just as the team be­gan to run on to the pitch for the start of the game, our son and another player were asked to stay back in the dress­ing room by John Cloo­nan (who in­ci­den­tally is not a se­lec­tor or man­ager of this team). John shoved the door out, and at this point our son and the other player were on their own in the dress­ing room with John. What hap­pened next is as fol­lows: John Cloo­nan told our son and the other player that they “got a jersey to play to­day, but it would be the last time they would get an Athenry jersey.” The way in which John Cloonon pre­vented (our son) from leav­ing the dress­ing room with his team, and then the sub­se­quent man­ner in which John spoke to our son in the dress­ing room has made (our son) to feel very in­tim­i­dated. More­over we feel quite strongly that John Cloo­nan has breached Un­der­age Code of Be­hav­iour guide­lines in­so­far as he spoke to our son alone, con­trary to the rec­om­men­da­tion given in the GAA pub­li­ca­tion “our Games Our Code” page 9, where it states (that coaches should) ‘be ac­com­pa­nied by at least (bold) one other adult at coach­ing ses­sions, games and in un­der­age team dress­ing rooms.’ We wish to re­port this to you Gearoid, as we feel very strongly that we would not get a fair hear­ing from our own club. Thank you for tak­ing the time to read our let­ter and we look for­ward to hear­ing from you.

It wasn’t the first time O’Maoilmhichil had been served no­tice of prob­lems at Athenry.

In July 2015, the par­ents of a 12-year-old boy had lodged a com­plaint with St Mary’s and the Garda Siochana, al­leg­ing that a coach had grabbed their son and another player, and shoved them into the dugout dur­ing a game.

The case foundered. The com­plainants felt their son was then be­ing marginalised; the club felt it was do­ing what it could to in­clude him.

O’Maoilmhi­cil ex­tended his sym­pa­thies but could of­fer lit­tle else.

“I hope,” he wrote, “that as we are now aware that the find­ings fol­low­ing your com­plaint in­di­cated that it was not pos­si­ble to pur­sue any ac­tion against the named coach that it will be pos­si­ble, once we are as­sured of the full im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Code of Be­hav­iour in the Club, that your son may wish to and be per­mit­ted to re­turn at some stage in the fu­ture to play­ing with his Club again. Much I am sure will be learned from what has hap­pened.”

But two years later, what ex­actly had been learned?

On March 28, 2017, five days af­ter alert­ing the Gal­way County Board to the let­ter he had re­ceived about the in­ci­dent in Loughrea, O’Maoilmhi­cil sent a rec­om­men­da­tion to the county sec­re­tary, John Hynes. “A pre­lim­i­nary ap­praisal of what has been for­warded to us might sug­gest that the mat­ter could be dealt with as an al­leged breach of the Code of Best Prac­tice in Youth Sport.”

Hynes sought ad­vice from Pat Mon­aghan, the County Chil­dren’s Of­fi­cer, who sug­gested that the in­ci­dent should first be in­ves­ti­gated by the club: “They need to fol­low the guide­lines and any con­flict of in­ter­est must be catered for as well.”

Three days later, Hynes sent a di­rec­tive to Keane, the Athenry chair­man: “Your club should es­tab­lish a three-per­son com­mit­tee to re­solve the mat­ter lo­cally and make rec­om­men­da­tions. If un­able to com­ply sat­is­fac­to­rily for what­ever rea­son, within the Club, the mat­ter could be re­ferred to the County Chil­dren’s Of­fi­cer.”

Two months passed, and another four let­ters of com­plaint had ar­rived on Hynes’ desk. He sent a re­minder to Keane, and a rec­om­men­da­tion to Caro­line McLough­lin, as the Athenry sec­re­tary, to meet with the com­plainants “to doc­u­ment and clar­ify their al­le­ga­tions and con­cerns”.

On June 1, 2017, he in­formed Mon­aghan that if the club did not ful­fil their com­mit­ment to meet the com­plainants within five days, they should pro­ceed with­out de­lay. Mon­aghan con­curred and sent a re­ply on June 6: “The Athenry sec­re­tary hasn’t fol­lowed up so it’s time to pro­ceed. As this is a Child wel­fare rather than a Rule is­sue, I think it bet­ter to re­fer to the hear­ings com­mit­tee with Michael Mon­aghan as chair­man. I will ad­vise him to­mor­row.”

On June 26, 2017, Michael Mon­aghan pre­sented a file on the case to the Gal­way Child Wel­fare Hear­ings Com­mit­tee at a meet­ing in Loughrea and con­cluded: “In the in­ter­est of fair­ness and trans­parency and fol­low­ing our de­lib­er­a­tions and dis­cus­sion we rec­om­mend that the case should be heard by the Na­tional Com­mit­tee of Child Wel­fare un­der the di­rec­tion of Gearoid O’Maoilmhichil.”

The club’s po­si­tion is that they at­tempted to me­di­ate with the com­plainants dur­ing this pe­riod. The com­plainants say this is not the case.

O’Maoilmhichil pressed ahead and a hear­ing was set for Oc­to­ber 18 last at the Mal­dron Ho­tel in Oran­more. The com­mit­tee was chaired by Fearghal Gray, the Co Clare Chil­dren’s Of­fi­cer, who was as­sisted by De­nis O’Boyle and Oliver Don­agher and an ob­server, Michelle Harte. There were four com­plainants and three re­spon­dents.

On the day, the com­plainants were ac­com­pa­nied by their wives; the re­spon­dents by the Athenry of­fi­cials — the chair­man (Keane), the sec­re­tary (McLough­lin) and the trea­surer (David Dono­hue) — who had agreed to rep­re­sent them.

Gray ex­plained his role and how the process would work. Re­spect and the pri­macy of con­fi­den­tial­ity were em­pha­sised be­fore the floor was of­fered to the com­plainants as the re­spon­dents took notes. Three hours it lasted. They were to re­sume two weeks later, on Wed­nes­day, Novem­ber 1, for wit­ness tes­ti­mony.

Then some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary hap­pened.

Five days be­fore the hear­ing re­sumed, the club sent a text to a se­lec­tion of mem­bers: “You are in­vited to a con­fi­den­tial meet­ing of all par­ents to in­form you of an im­por­tant is­sue af­fect­ing your sons u12 hurl­ing team. Please at­tend in Car­naun club­house to­mor­row Sat 28 Oct at 11 a.m. Any queries to Caro­line McLough­lin.”

Forty to 50 peo­ple showed up. They were ad­dressed by the chair­man, the sec­re­tary, and the trea­surer. The im­por­tant is­sue, they ex­plained, was a “sit­u­a­tion” that had arisen and some com­plaints that had been made.

The sec­re­tary: “We have been to the first part of the hear­ing with Croke Park and we’re get­ting ready for the sec­ond part. We just wanted to let par­ents know in case par­ents had any con­cerns or ques­tions. Or if they need any more in­for­ma­tion, that’s re­ally what we’re here to do.”

The chair­man: “Caro­line has out­lined it there. We at­tended a meet­ing with Croke Park of­fi­cials last Wed­nes­day week in the Mal­dron Ho­tel. The com­plainants laid out their side of it that night and we have a chance next Wed­nes­day night to give the clubs side of it.

“In the cli­mate that we’re in, ev­ery­thing is taken very se­ri­ously. But as well as hav­ing a duty of care to the chil­dren that come un­der our care, we also have a duty of care to the peo­ple who coach them. And we’re putting up a very stren­u­ous de­fence that noth­ing (un­to­ward) hap­pened at all.”

The sec­re­tary: “We’re con­scious that this is a con­fi­den­tial process. We don’t want this to be dis­cussed pub­licly. We do not want peo­ple’s rep­u­ta­tion — on ei­ther side — (to be dam­aged.) We un­der­stand that all of th­ese peo­ple have chil­dren and are mem­bers of the club, so we’re not try­ing to make it any more di­vi­sive than it is. We just hope we can come through this and not have friend­ships lost or peo­ple fall­ing out.

“The al­le­ga­tions I sup­pose in of them­selves we have to take very se­ri­ously. And Croke Park are tak­ing them very se­ri­ously. We will re­fute ev­ery sin­gle one of them and de­fend the re­spon­dents as vig­or­ously as we can.”

The trea­surer: “There is a lot of sec­ond-hand stuff go­ing around so as a club we felt it was ap­pro­pri­ate to in­form the par­ents. We didn’t want peo­ple to hear it down town and say ‘Je­sus! What’s go­ing on in Athenry GAA club?’ We want to be up­front with peo­ple. We want to show that we have noth­ing to hide as a club, and that the three peo­ple in­volved have noth­ing to hide.”

The sec­re­tary: “They asked us if we wanted them to be here but, to be hon­est, they’ve gone through a fairly rough cou­ple of weeks and their heads are fried. They just needed a break from it. They’ll be glad to come here and talk to ye again another day if any­body wants to speak to them, or ask them any ques­tions. But we felt . . . take a day off.”

This com­pas­sion for the re­spon­dents was a re­sponse, cu­ri­ously, that had not been ex­tended to any of the com­plainants, who all say they were nei­ther in­vited to the meet­ing, nor asked how they were feel­ing, and what­ever the ini­tial in­ten­tion, it wasn’t long be­fore the gath­er­ing had be­come a rally for the troops as the au­di­ence nailed their colours to the mast:

“I’ve no prob­lem with Paddy or John.”

“I’ll sec­ond that.”

“The young lads are mad about Paddy.”

“John Cloo­nan is an ab­so­lute saint in my eyes.

“If the play­ers could put half the fire in their bel­lies that Paddy Kelly has there’d be a lot more sil­ver­ware around here.”

“John Cloo­nan does sav­age work. We couldn’t re­place him with three men.”

“I’ve two lads and they wor­ship

Paddy.”

“Bad lan­guage is part of the game.” “If th­ese guys are pun­ished you’ll get no­body to do any­thing next year. The club will fall apart!”

Then the spot­light turned to the com­plainants.

“I think ye should tell us who’s mak­ing the com­plaint?”

“Is it true they by­passed the club and went straight to Croke Park?” “It sounds like an agenda.”

“Are they here?”

(Laughs)

“What was their ev­i­dence like?” “Were they well pre­pared?”

“It’s hard to know,” the sec­re­tary replied.

“That’s open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion,” the trea­surer said.

The au­di­ence laughed.

Two days later, McLough­lin sent another text: “Thank you to all the par­ents who at­tended our in­for­ma­tion ses­sion on Sat­ur­day and voiced their sup­port for our vol­un­teers. Many peo­ple have asked what they can do to

“No one be­lieves more firmly than Com­rade Napoleon that all an­i­mals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your de­ci­sions for your­selves. But some­times you might make the wrong de­ci­sions, com­rades, and then where would we be?”

Ge­orge Or­well, ‘An­i­mal Farm’

help. It is to­tally a per­sonal de­ci­sion but if you would like to send an email in your own words sup­port­ing the three men please send it to sec­re­tary. athenry.gal­way@gaa.ie and please in­di­cate if you would be will­ing to speak on their be­half at the hear­ing on 1 Novem­ber. Thank you very much, Caro­line.”

The com­plainants were de­spon­dent when they learned what had hap­pened, and be­came wor­ried about the sec­ond night of the hear­ing.

“Our hope was that our son would be in­ter­viewed in a child-friendly man­ner but the club had en­sured that wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen,” ‘Com­plainant A’ says, adding they would not sub­ject him to an or­deal with such a large crowd gath­ered at the ho­tel.

“We made a mis­take and brought our son,” ‘Com­plainant B’ says. “We walked into the ho­tel and there were peo­ple from the club ev­ery­where — the restau­rant, the foyer, the cor­ri­dors, ev­ery­where . . . I met one of my neigh­bours and asked, ‘What are you do­ing here?’ She says: ‘I can’t tell you that.’

“Fearghal Gray wasn’t im­pressed. He’d been get­ting emails from them at all hours and was an­gry that the con­fi­dence of the first meet­ing had been bro­ken.”

It was another three months — Fe­bru­ary 15, 2018 — be­fore the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was com­plete and Gray de­liv­ered its con­clu­sions. And shortly af­ter that when the club cel­e­brated the news on their web­site: St Mary’s GAA Athenry wel­comes the re­cent con­clu­sions of the Na­tional Code of Best Prac­tice Hear­ings Com­mit­tee, with no neg­a­tive find­ings for the club of­fi­cers and coaches in­volved. Child Wel­fare is of paramount im­por­tance in our club. There­fore, the coaches and of­fi­cers en­gaged with the hear­ing pro­ce­dure fully and in good faith at all times. We are happy to re­port that the mat­ter is now fi­nally closed and would like thank ev­ery­one for their sup­port dur­ing this dam­ag­ing process. St Mary’s Athenry con­tin­ues to en­cour­age chil­dren to play our sport har­mo­niously in our com­mu­nity and re­mains 100% com­mit­ted to child wel­fare.

It was true that the com­plaint against Paddy Kelly had been re­solved by me­di­a­tion af­ter he had writ­ten a let­ter of apol­ogy. And it was true that one com­plaint against John Cloo­nan had been deemed in­con­clu­sive as there was in­suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence to up­hold the al­le­ga­tion.

There is also no sug­ges­tion that ei­ther John Cloo­nan, Paddy Kelly or any­body else in­volved has bro­ken any laws. Both men are loyal stal­warts in the club and widely re­spected in the com­mu­nity. The com­plaints re­lated to GAA guide­lines for un­der­age coaches and men­tors.

But the state­ment posted on the web­site was at odds with what the re­port ac­tu­ally said as the hear­ings com­mit­tee’s over­all ap­praisal of the club’s ap­proach was scathing.

Eight weeks ago, Gray sent the club a with­er­ing re­minder of their con­duct dur­ing the com­mit­tee’s hear­ings and their obli­ga­tions to its find­ings. Here are some ex­cerpts from Gray’s re­minder: “It is a duty of care for all that the club con­sider the find­ings of the Hear­ings Com­mit­tee. The com­mit­tee also have con­cerns as to a ma­jor ig­no­rance of child safe­guard­ing pol­icy and prac­tice at club level by both club men­tors and club per­son­nel which was ap­par­ent at the hear­ings and also the man­ner in which some club mem­bers con­ducted them­selves prior to and at the hear­ings.

“The hear­ings com­mit­tee see it as a duty of care to chil­dren that no men­tor is per­mit­ted to be alone with chil­dren at any stage as a clear breach of the Code of Best Prac­tice oc­curred when John Cloo­nan, by his own ad­mis­sion, was alone in a dress­ing room with two chil­dren while ful­fill­ing his role as a club coach.

“This is a most se­ri­ous mat­ter and the club is re­quired to en­sure that no such op­por­tu­nity presents it­self again where this could re­oc­cur.

“The club is also re­quired as part of the find­ings to en­sure that Mr Cloo­nan at­tends a Gaelic Games Child Pro­tec­tion in Sport work­shop within the next six months and once he at­tends the work­shop that you record his cer­tifi­cate num­ber and pass this to the County Chil­dren’s Of­fi­cer for ver­i­fi­ca­tion pur­poses.”

The let­ter con­tin­ued: “Dur­ing the Hear­ings club per­son­nel dis­played a re­mark­able ig­no­rance as to ei­ther the ex­is­tence or the con­tent of the Code of Best Prac­tice in Youth Sport, they were un­aware as to cer­tain reg­u­la­tions re­gard­ing ac­cept­able lev­els of be­hav­iour for good coaches . . . Taken on face value this is a re­mark­able state of events that such stated lack of knowl­edge or ig­no­rance of pro­ce­dure could be present amongst so many, all of whom would be deemed to hold po­si­tions of re­spon­si­bil­ity in the Club.

“This is a chal­lenge for the St Marys Club . . . No club should per­mit cir­cum­stances to be cre­ated whereby those in roles of re­spon­si­bil­ity should be per­mit­ted to be un­aware of such key safe­guard­ing pro­vi­sions par­tic­u­larly those who work with chil­dren

“The con­duct of some per­son­nel pur­port­ing to rep­re­sent the Club at the Hear­ings was at times most dis­ap­point­ing. Se­nior club mem­bers showed a dis­tinct dis­dain from the out­set for the Hear­ings pro­ceed­ings and at times for those on the Hear­ings com­mit­tee and the com­plainants. The con­duct of Club mem­bers who ap­proached and re­mon­strated in the ho­tel foyer with com­plainants or wit­nesses, some of whom were X years of age, was at very least un­nec­es­sary and in poor taste and at worst could be seen as in­tim­ida­tory.

“It does a club of the stature of St Marys a se­ri­ous dis­ser­vice. Equally un­ac­cept­able was the man­ner in which some peo­ple pur­port­ing to rep­re­sent re­spon­dents dis­played a lack of re­spect to the Hear­ings by ig­nor­ing the pro­ceed­ings as they slouched across their ta­bles par­tic­u­larly while (tes­ti­mony) was given by some of the com­plainants or wit­nesses. [This is un­der­stood to be a ref­er­ence to the sec­ond night of the hear­ing, which was at­tended by a large crowd.]

“The cam­paign that was ini­ti­ated to gather let­ters of sup­port and to for­ward such let­ters af­ter 1.00 am to my­self (and I un­der­stand to the Na­tional Child and Safe­guard­ing Man­ager) on 31 Oc­to­ber 2017, from your email ad­dress was most in­tim­ida­tory and in­ex­cus­able. It set a tone for the sub­se­quent hear­ings that has ap­par­ently con­tin­ued till this day.

“Now that the Hear­ings are com­pleted and the rel­e­vant de­ci­sions made I trust the Club Ex­ec­u­tive will im­me­di­ately set about play­ing its part in im­prov­ing or where re­quired in es­tab­lish­ing the nec­es­sary child safe­guard­ing pro­vi­sions in the club.

“Fi­nally, I note in the last num­ber of days, with some amaze­ment, the con­tents of a club state­ment on the Hear­ings due to the ex­treme in­ac­cu­rate na­ture of its con­tents. I would re­quest that it is re­moved im­me­di­ately. Should you choose to de­lib­er­ately mis­rep­re­sent the find­ings of a Na­tional Hear­ings Com­mit­tee, as the state­ment has done, I will have no op­tion but to re­quest that the mat­ter be raised by your County rep­re­sen­ta­tive at Cen­tral Coun­cil as an un­der­min­ing of pro­ce­dures au­tho­rised in rule 1.13 by Cen­tral Coun­cil it­self.”

But the state­ment was not taken down.

Ten days ago, we put a se­ries of ques­tions to the Athenry chair­man, Sean Keane [See sep­a­rate panel]. A meet­ing was ar­ranged for Mon­day at 7:30pm in Loughrea but at mid­day, Keane sent a text apol­o­gis­ing for the late no­ti­fi­ca­tion and re­quest­ing we post­pone un­til the Club had heard from Croke Park.

On Tues­day morn­ing, the state­ment was still show­ing on the Athenry web­site. On Tues­day af­ter­noon, it had been re­moved.

A meet­ing of the Na­tional Man­age­ment Com­mit­tee (at­tended by Tom Ryan, the new CEO, and the new pres­i­dent, John Horan) had con­vened in Croke Park and sent St Mary’s a num­ber of di­rec­tives.

A Child Safe­guard­ing Risk As­sess­ment was be­ing con­ducted on the club and their ju­ve­nile hurl­ing and foot­ball pro­gramme was to be post­poned un­til an asses­sor had es­tab­lished they were fully com­pli­ant. They were also be­ing re­moved as a host to the up­com­ing Feile com­pe­ti­tions.

On Fri­day, we were con­tacted by two mem­bers of the Athenry club ex­ec­u­tive who agreed to give the club’s side of the story un­der the guise of anonymity. Here are some ex­tracts:

Athenry Ex­ec­u­tive: What is the pur­pose of this ar­ti­cle?

Sun­day In­de­pen­dent: The pur­pose of the ar­ti­cle is that five kids who were mem­bers of your club, who loved hurl­ing and loved play­ing for your club, have now ei­ther quit the game or are play­ing with other clubs. I’m try­ing to ex­plain how that hap­pened. And I’d like you to ex­plain how that hap­pened.

AE: The man­age­ment of the Un­der 14 team would have made nu­mer­ous at­tempts with the com­plainants in­volved to try and see if they could come up with so­lu­tions for their kids to play. And the par­ents them­selves would have been con­tacted di­rectly mul­ti­ple times over the last 12 months in terms of try­ing to find a res­o­lu­tion, but never once did the in­di­vid­u­als con­cerned en­gage with the club. They went to Gal­way County Board, they went to Croke Park but never once did they en­gage with us. We only be­came aware in early Oc­to­ber last year that there was a hear­ing in the Gal­way County Board — never once were we made aware of that. And then, on a Thurs­day night, we got a bun­dle of doc­u­men­ta­tion in PDF for­mat with about 50/60 pages and were asked to at­tend a Na­tional Code of Best Prac­tice Hear­ing within 48 hours.

SI: Yeah, I’m lis­ten­ing to what you’re say­ing but I have a cou­ple of is­sues. I’ve a small moun­tain of pa­per­work in front of me here that dates to Novem­ber 2016, when 16 sig­na­to­ries — a group of con­cerned par­ents — con­tacted the club, wrote a let­ter to Sean Keane. How can you tell me with a straight face that the first you heard of this was last Oc­to­ber?

AE: Can we give you a lit­tle bit of back­ground? That let­ter was sent in, that’s true, but the ma­jor­ity of the sig­na­to­ries on that let­ter have re­tracted them­selves from it, and have dis­tanced them­selves.

SI: Okay, well can we just clar­ify that the first you heard of this was not in Oc­to­ber, it was Novem­ber 2016, so that’s one dis­crep­ancy. Would you like me to point out some more?

AE: You are con­fus­ing the is­sues.

SI: I am not con­fus­ing the is­sues. You were con­tacted by the Gal­way County Board in March of last year. You were asked to form a com­mit­tee and to meet the com­plainants and doc­u­ment their com­plaints. That did not hap­pen. You did not meet the com­plainants. So again, don’t tell me the first you heard of this was Oc­to­ber, be­cause I’m look­ing at the email that says you were in­formed in March.

AE: No, what we meant was that the first we heard of this in terms of a Na­tional Com­mit­tee was Oc­to­ber .

. . Can I give you a lit­tle bit of back­ground that we men­tioned?

SI: Sure.

AE: I’m not sure if you’ve in­ves­ti­gated the club but you may have seen our role of hon­our. If you do a study of our club we’ve won the most un­der 21s in Gal­way, the most un­der 18s, the most un­der 16s, and a good few un­der 14s but we have never won the un­der 12 cham­pi­onships. And that is as a re­sult of our pol­icy. Our pol­icy with un­der 12s is that it’s all about par­tic­i­pa­tion. It’s about de­vel­op­ing the player, de­vel­op­ing the per­son. It’s not about win-at-all-costs.

A few of th­ese par­ents that took um­brage, they wanted their kids to be on teams that were win­ning. They wanted to be putting pres­sure on all of the other kids and that’s to­tally against our club ethos. Our ethos at that level, from 6s when they start to 14 years of age is all about par­tic­i­pa­tion.

At un­der 16 it gets a lit­tle bit more se­ri­ous and there’s a bit of an em­pha­sis put on com­pet­ing and win­ning, and at mi­nor it gets se­ri­ous. But at un­der 12 it’s all about the child and the in­di­vid­ual and de­vel­op­ing them as a per­son; it’s not about win­ning. Some of th­ese par­ents, one in par­tic­u­lar, said he was embarrassed Athenry were so bad at that grade. But look, our play­ers will de­velop into bet­ter peo­ple and that’s what we’re about in this com­mu­nity. And I hope you get that across.

SI: I’m lis­ten­ing to you.

AE: There are a lot of good peo­ple in this club. One of those peo­ple (tar­geted) by the com­plainants, for in­stance, is one of the ma­jor pa­trons of the Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal in Dublin. His son has been through a can­cer fight. He raises money ev­ery year for the chil­dren’s hos­pi­tal. Th­ese are the peo­ple that you are po­ten­tially at­tack­ing.

The ju­ve­nile chair­man of our club is bury­ing his brother to­mor­row — a life­long sup­porter of our club. This is what we’re talk­ing about here. We would plead with you that names would be left out, par­tic­u­larly this week­end. And that you would take that un­signed let­ter from those wor­ried par­ents into con­text — that it’s not about win­ning for us.

SI: No, I agree, it’s not about win­ning, so let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of what it is about, be­cause the com­plaints weren’t about win­ning. There was no men­tion of win­ning in any of the com­plaints.

AE: Paul, we’re in the com­mu­nity. That’s what drove this. It’s a small com­mu­nity. Peo­ple talk. That’s what drove it.

SI: Well, I’m of the un­der­stand­ing that the com­plaints, or at least one of them, was about abu­sive lan­guage by Paddy Kelly.

AE: Well, lis­ten, we know Paddy since we were both 12 years of age. Paddy Kelly is a pil­lar of our com­mu­nity. He may use an odd bad word ev­ery now and again — is that a sin? Do peo­ple go to jail for that? So don’t give me ‘Paddy Kelly said this’ and ‘Paddy Kelly said that’, he is a leader in our com­mu­nity. I could give you a list as long as the road to Dublin with peo­ple vouch­ing for Paddy Kelly.

SI: I un­der­stand that but (the use of bad lan­guage to­wards kids) is against the rules of the As­so­ci­a­tion.

AE: We went through a Na­tional Hear­ing process in re­spect of that al­le­ga­tion, and there was no find­ing. What was rec­om­mended by the Com­mit­tee in re­spect of that al­le­ga­tion of bad lan­guage was me­di­a­tion. And both par­ties en­tered into me­di­a­tion, and me­di­a­tion was agreed.

SI: And Paddy Kelly wrote a let­ter of apol­ogy as part of that me­di­a­tion.

AE: Well again, what is the is­sue here Paul?

SI: The is­sue is that if you (read) the Code of Best Prac­tice you will see in very clear writ­ing that foul lan­guage should play no part in how a coach deals with kids. They are not al­lowed to swear in front of kids. That’s the is­sue. Are you telling me that didn’t hap­pen?

AE: We’re fully aware of that, Paul. But are you go­ing to write an ar­ti­cle on ev­ery coach up and down the coun­try? Be­cause don’t tell me that ev­ery coach up and down the coun­try uses ex­em­plary lan­guage ev­ery day they deal with kids. Don’t tell me that. SI: I’m not telling you that.

AE: We’re all liv­ing in the real world here.

SI: I’m telling you it’s against the rules.

AE: Get real.

SI: It’s against the rules of the As­so­ci­a­tion.

AE: And that is­sue was dealt with by a hear­ing com­mit­tee. It went to me­di­a­tion and in our view it’s closed.

SI: I called John Cloo­nan and he de­clined to speak to me but (he sug­gested) that some­body from the club would be in touch to talk on his be­half. So that’s the con­ver­sa­tion we’re hav­ing now.

AE: Yeah.

SI: He was found in breach (of the Code of Best Prac­tice) when, by his own ad­mis­sion, he closed the dress­ing room door on two young kids. Can we ad­dress that please?

AE: Just to get that state­ment right, by his own ad­mis­sion, cor­rect, he spoke to two kids but in terms of the dress­ing room door it wasn’t closed. And the con­text of what (he’s sup­posed to have said) was com­pletely in­cor­rect and in­ac­cu­rate. The two kids at the time were un­der 11. This was an un­der 14 game. They got a jersey but weren’t on the team sheet for the day be­cause they were 11 and play­ing un­der 14, and our ethos within the club, as we said, is to de­velop play­ers skills.

That was the con­text of the con­ver­sa­tion. That was what he said. There was an ac­knowl­edge­ment of that, and a find­ing in the hear­ings — the only find­ing out of 20 al­le­ga­tions — and it was based on John’s ad­mis­sion, be­cause that’s the kind of per­son he is. But the con­text of what he spoke about has been in­cor­rectly doc­u­mented in all of the cor­re­spon­dence we re­ceived from Croke Park in late Oc­to­ber.

SI: I’ll just quote you what Fearghal Gray said: ‘This is a most se­ri­ous mat­ter and the club is re­quired that no such op­por­tu­nity presents it­self again.’

AE: Yeah, and we’ve taken ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion in that John has gone, or is sched­uled to do a re­fresher course on the safe­guard­ing of chil­dren, etcetera, so we have ad­hered to the find­ing and the re­quests of the com­mit­tee. Or John has.

SI: So we agree that this was a breach of the Code of Best Prac­tice? AE: Yes.

SI: I’m just cu­ri­ous about the fact that Fearghal Gray had to send you a scathing email re­mind­ing you of the find­ings of the hear­ing and the mes­sage on (the Club) web­site which seemed to deny, com­pletely, what those find­ings were?

AE: I pre­sume you’ve seen that let­ter he sent?

SI: I’ve seen the let­ter.

AE: It’s laugh­able. We all work in the real world here. Who sends out a let­ter from an or­gan­i­sa­tion that’s not on headed pa­per? That’s not signed, or dated, or ad­dressed to any­one. That’s not how you con­duct busi­ness. We love the games but the way the GAA is run is just ridicu­lous. And this is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of how badly it is run. There’s no sig­na­tures (on the let­ter). The names are just typed up.

SI: So you’re say­ing Fearghal Gray didn’t write it?

AE: Well it’s not signed. And un­less a let­ter is signed, I wouldn’t take any ac­tion. We’ve sent a strong let­ter back to clar­ify where this let­ter came from, and re­fut­ing ev­ery­thing in it. We have not had a re­sponse.

SI: The state­ment on the web­site was re­moved on Tues­day af­ter­noon? AE: That’s cor­rect.

SI: And you’ve had a di­rec­tive from Croke Park?

AE: Well, un­for­tu­nately, the di­rec­tive out of this whole thing is that there are 350 young kids in Athenry who are will­ing to play hurl­ing and foot­ball that have been hit with a pos­si­ble sus­pen­sion.

SI: But you’ve agreed to com­ply with the find­ings of the hear­ing?

AE: Well, the find­ings are all hearsay.

SI: Have you agreed to com­ply or not?

AE: Yeah, we’re go­ing to com­ply with them.

Yes­ter­day morn­ing, the Sun­day

In­de­pen­dent re­ceived an email from Sean Keane. Yes­ter­day af­ter­noon two mem­bers of the ex­ec­u­tive spoke to the sports edi­tor, John Greene. They said the club dis­putes the claim that it did not ad­dress the com­plaints from the start. They said they in­tended to ap­peal the sanc­tions im­posed. They also said they in­tended to com­ply with the directions from the GAA.

On Fri­day, we phoned Croke Park and put the club’s con­cerns about the authen­tic­ity of Fearghal Gray’s let­ter to Gearoid O’Maoilmhi­cil. He sighed and put us on hold and pulled the let­ter from a file. “There’s a big word called de­nial here,” he said. “And we’re not tak­ing about the river.”

St Mary’s GAA club in Athenry; left the state­ment on the club’s web­site which was re­moved on Tues­day af­ter­noon; and, right, some of the reams of cor­re­spon­dence which has built up over the course of the con­tro­versy.

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