Dermot Crowe

Trav­eller com­mu­nity have been wel­comed by St Pat’s, and Wick­low club is reap­ing re­wards

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - DERMOT CROWE

Trav­ellers, if they play at all, usu­ally quit be­fore adult­hood. They marry much younger than the great ma­jor­ity and there is no grand tra­di­tion of Trav­ellers play­ing at high lev­els for long.

JUST over 40 years ago, Jimmy Maughan scored the first of four Mayo goals which helped floor a hotly tipped Dublin in the All-Ire­land mi­nor foot­ball fi­nal. Maughan was a stylish cen­tre-for­ward with a nat­u­ral air of con­fi­dence who went on to play for a num­ber of years with the se­nior team and won a Con­nacht se­nior medal in 1981. He was also a set­tled Trav­eller from Ballinrobe.

Maughan wasn’t a pioneer for his com­mu­nity, nor was it his place to be. His en­deav­ours might have in­spired other Trav­ellers to play but it didn’t al­ter the land­scape to any great de­gree. Trav­ellers didn’t flood into GAA clubs in vast num­bers as a re­sult. They re­mained marginalised in sport as much as in so­ci­ety it­self.

Forty years later a group of men gather in a Wick­low ho­tel on a November night. All share one thing: a de­vo­tion to the blue and white of St Pa­trick’s GAA club in Wick­low town. There is the club chair­man, John Gill, a Gal­way ex­ile. Michael Neary is a for­mer county hurl­ing goal­keeper, now man­ager of the club’s se­nior hurlers. And the seven oth­ers present have hurled, and most still do, for the club. They dif­fer from Gill and Neary in one re­spect: all are mem­bers of the Trav­eller com­mu­nity.

St Pa­trick’s, re­cent win­ners of the Wick­low se­nior foot­ball cham­pi­onship, field three adult hurl­ing teams where the ma­jor­ity of play­ers on each one are Trav­ellers. Jim O’Brien, now 42 and re­tired, started play­ing se­nior hurl­ing when only 16. Within a cou­ple of years John ‘Dee’ O’Brien, his cousin, had fol­lowed him on to the team and now it is com­mon to see the se­nior hurlers field up to eight play­ers from the Trav­eller com­mu­nity.

In the last three years, with Neary at the helm and back­boned by Trav­ellers, St Pa­trick’s reached the se­nior cham­pi­onship semi-fi­nal and were close on two oc­ca­sions to mak­ing the fi­nal for the first time since 2002. Hurl­ing has en­abled a level of in­te­gra­tion and ac­cep­tance which wider so­ci­ety of­ten de­nies. Of the O’Briens play­ing for St Pat’s, the most renowned hurler is Andy, who has been one of Wick­low’s lead­ing marks­men for many years and rep­re­sented Ire­land in shinty. They call him “county Andy”.

They have bucked the trend in a big way. Trav­ellers, if they play at all, usu­ally quit be­fore adult­hood. They tend to marry much younger than the great ma­jor­ity and there is no grand tra­di­tion of Trav­ellers play­ing at high lev­els for very long. Jimmy Maughan is a glow­ing ex­cep­tion. But for it to work they also need a will­ing host not tainted by prej­u­dice. The St Pat’s chair­man, Gill, over­sees an open-door pol­icy which has made this club a wel­com­ing place.

It is not a char­ity — with­out th­ese play­ers there would prob­a­bly be one hurl­ing team, if that. The play­ers are a valu­able com­mod­ity and re­source; it is a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial re­la­tion­ship. They have earned their keep. “Our club is rooted in the lo­cal com­mu­nity and our team struc­ture is de­ter­mined by the lo­cal de­mo­graph­ics,” says Gill. “Cur­rently St Pat’s se­nior hurl­ing team has a high per­cent­age of play­ers from the Trav­el­ling com­mu­nity. As a club we make no dis­tinc­tion be­tween play­ers from the set­tled or Trav­eller com­mu­nity — all are treated equally, and if good enough skill­wise they will make the team.

“As the largest GAA club in the county, with Gaelic foot­ball, ladies’ foot­ball, hurl­ing and camo­gie, our club ethos is sim­ple: to pro­mote Gaelic games, treat all equally and pro­mote, get and gain re­spect. Play­ers from the Trav­eller com­mu­nity are an in­te­gral part of adult hurl­ing in our club, and with­out th­ese play­ers our club would not be com­pet­ing at the level we are now com­pet­ing at.”

Neary has made much of this pos­si­ble in re­cent years by be­ing will­ing to take over the team and he has made this meet­ing pos­si­ble too. The play­ers were re­luc­tant to agree to talk ini­tially. They ask not to have their names pub­lished, then later give their con­sent. The sus­pi­cion of me­dia coverage is based on a life­time of un­flat­ter­ing press de­pic­tions of their peo­ple and the ex­pec­ta­tion that noth­ing will change.

Hurl­ing is dif­fer­ent; it has earned their trust. In this en­vi­ron­ment they be­lieve they are on a level play­ing pitch. Sport grants them a li­cence to ex­press them­selves, to achieve goals and to as­pire to some­thing that has a com­mon ac­cep­tance and re­spect.

Of the ap­prox­i­mately 30,000 Trav­ellers in Ire­land, Wick­low has less than a thou­sand in the whole county. The num­bers aren’t es­pe­cially high com­pared to other coun­ties and Wick­low town doesn’t have an un­usu­ally high level of Trav­ellers ei­ther. Most of the play­ers in St Pat’s had hurl­ing in their fam­i­lies. Their fa­thers played or they started play­ing in St Pa­trick’s Na­tional School in the town for the first time, at least in an or­gan­ised way. They cite the in­flu­ence of a re­tired teacher, Andrew Cornyn. A Cavan na­tive, he now lives in Kerry and taught in the school for 37 years.

“Ini­tially, there weren’t Trav­ellers there but when they came they were in­ter­ested in hurl­ing,” he says. “I think they had Wexford con­nec­tions. I lined out with the lo­cal St Pat’s hurl­ing team;, they only had a ju­nior team at the time. If they had only 14 I got a game. I had an in­ter­est in it but no great skill. When they won the in­ter­me­di­ate hurl­ing cham­pi­onship in the club I think there was only one from the town on it. They were from all parts of Wick­low and beyond. We de­cided to do some­thing about it. I got in­volved in pro­mot­ing hurl­ing in the school. It grew out of ne­ces­sity. It took on a life of its own.

“They (Trav­ellers) ex­celled at hurl­ing. They are al­ways hurl­ing around the roads and the park, and I knew some of their fa­thers and they played at ju­nior level within the county. By and large they con­tin­ued play­ing and some, like Andy O’Brien, went on to play for the county.”

This is not the case else­where. Rathkeale in Co Lim­er­ick has a large Trav­eller pop­u­la­tion, with own­er­ship of 80 per cent of all pri­vate prop­erty in the town ac­cord­ing to a lo­cal com­mu­nity ac­tivist a few years ago. But they have al­most neg­li­gi­ble im­pact on the lo­cal GAA teams.

Pat Shea­han is the Rathkeale chair­man. “They are very tran­sient. They’re all gone for the sum­mer,” he says. “The town is an is­land in the sum­mer time. You walk down and there is no­body down there. We have a very small bit (of Trav­eller par­tic­i­pa­tion) at un­der­age. We have never re­tained fel­las af­ter they get to 15 or 16, and the rea­son is that they are gone. By the time a young Trav­eller lad is 15 or 16 he is not go­ing to school any more, he is gone away.”

Even in Tuam, which has a long-set­tled Trav­eller pop­u­la­tion that’s higher than the na­tional aver­age, there hasn’t been that level of in­te­gra­tion. Most of it has been with hurl­ing teams, but hurl­ing is the poor re­la­tion in a foot­ball strong­hold like Tuam. Michael He­hir is a garda and player-man­ager of the lo­cal ju­nior hurl­ing team. A few years ago one of their play­ers made the Gal­way county un­der 16 panel, and cur­rently they have around 25 per cent par­tic­i­pa­tion on their ju­ve­nile and adult teams from the Trav­eller com­mu­nity.

“They make friends,” says He­hir, a bub­bly Clare na­tive. “They do in­te­grate. Sport is a great way for meet­ing peo­ple and mak­ing friends. They have their own tra­di­tions. They get mar­ried young. We have al­ways found you might get a drop-off from 16-19. But the ma­jor­ity do come back, any­one that is good at it.”

Bun­clody in Wexford has had a set­tled Trav­eller com­mu­nity for generations that’s mod­er­ately en­gaged in Gaelic games. The club chair­man Gabriel Wade is in­volved with an un­der 13 team that has three from the com­mu­nity in­volved and there are gen­er­ally a few play­ing at all ju­ve­nile grades. But at adult level the most no­table im­pact they have made is on their sec­ond hurl­ing team, which plays at ju­nior level.

“They pre­fer hurl­ing more than the foot­ball,” says Wade. “That is the back­ground, what their par­ents and grand­par­ents would have played. In the sec­ond hurl­ing team maybe five play. Very few make first-team stan­dard.”

Due to the ten­dency to marry early and start fam­i­lies, giv­ing the com­mit­ment be­comes an is­sue. “When it comes to age 26 and 27 they are more free but they will struggle to make the first team by then,” says Wade.

Al­though there is a link and some in­volve­ment, Wade says that it is low given the size of the lo­cal Trav­eller com­mu­nity. In Bun­clody Na­tional School, they ac­count for roughly 25 per cent of the pupils. Wade has been in Bun­clody since 1986 and Trav­ellers were a part of the com­mu­nity then. He has seen the keen in­ter­est Trav­ellers have in at­tend­ing matches when their rel­a­tives are in­volved. This cor­re­sponds to what Michael Neary has seen in Wick­low: some of their most ar­dent fol­low­ers at club and county level are from the Trav­eller com­mu­nity once they had some­one from their own back­ground in­volved.

St Pat’s is well ahead of the field in break­ing down bar­ri­ers, but the play­ers don’t want to be seen as dif­fer­ent, which also partly ex­plains their re­luc­tance to talk. “We were wor­ried about the club get­ting bad pub­lic­ity, but it couldn’t — there has to be more pos­i­tives than neg­a­tives,” says Jim O’Brien. “There have been stud­ies done na­tion­ally in the last year or two re­lat­ing to men’s health, and the aver­age life ex­pectancy of the Trav­eller man is 59 years of age, which is very low. The rate of sui­cide in our com­mu­nity is very high. And with us be­ing in­volved, so many Trav­ellers in­volved in the sport, it’s a great thing.”

You hope this might in­spire oth­ers? “Oh yeah, ab­so­lutely. I am in­volved in coach­ing at this stage. Even when they give it up, if they are in­volved in coach­ing they are still in­volved in a healthy out­let. With Trav­ellers, young Trav­ellers es­pe­cially, drink­ing was be­com­ing a big prob­lem. But while in­volved in sport, that helps them.”

But there are prob­lems, in­vari­ably. Sledg­ing has been an is­sue for the GAA, and to those who use it as a means of try­ing to up­set an op­po­nent, any dis­tinc­tion or nov­elty will be con­sid­ered fair game. They have learned to ex­pect a cer­tain amount of it. A few years ago in a ju­nior match in Wick­low, the Gar­daí had to be called to defuse a tense sit­u­a­tion that de­vel­oped af­ter a loose re­mark aimed at the Trav­ellers was heard from the stand. Andy O’Brien pur­sued a case through Le­in­ster Coun­cil al­most four years ago af­ter claim­ing he was vic­tim of racist abuse in a Kehoe Cup fi­nal against Meath.

The Trav­ellers who play for St Pat’s don’t want to be seen as want­ing pref­er­en­tial treat­ment. They do ex­pect the same treat­ment as ev­ery­one else. “It has less­ened con­sid­er­ably,” says Neary of in­ci­dents of abuse on the field. “You have a lot of play­ers on the county panel so they don’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate the same way any­more. But there are some play­ers out there who use it. We see it as a sign of strength, be­cause we have started to be­come com­pet­i­tive.”

“We would al­ways talk about it be­fore we go out on the pitch,” says one of the play­ers, “be­cause we know it may hap­pen. So you have to be ready for it.”

An­other chips in: “In a match we’d be giv­ing it too, you know like? We are not all saints ei­ther.”

Does it still get un­der your skin? “Oh I’d laugh at it,” says one player, “I have an­other brother who wouldn’t.”

Do you all feel that way? “I’ve learned years ago to just ig­nore it com­pletely,” says an­other.

The youngest player here, just out of mi­nor, is Ge­orge O’Brien. From his early teens he hurled with Cuala in south Dublin be­cause he didn’t have a team in St Pat’s. All of those ex­pe­ri­ences and in­ter­ac­tions help de­velop bet­ter un­der­stand­ing in both di­rec­tions. But they would not sur­vive if they weren’t able to play at the level they do or demon­strate the dis­ci­pline they do rou­tinely or of­fer the com­mit­ment.

For a few years, hurl­ing in St Pat’s stopped and the adult play­ers had to go else­where to play. When it was re­vived around 2011 they had trou­ble get­ting peo­ple to take over the team. Neary knew some of the play­ers through pre­vi­ous stints with other clubs and from his time work­ing on sec­ond­ment for his job in the court ser­vice as a Le­in­ster Coun­cil games pro­mo­tion of­fi­cer in Wick­low and north Wexford. He man­aged the county from 1999 to 2004 and was county team trainer for the last two years.

“They strug­gled three years ago to get some­one to look af­ter the team,” says Neary. “It was a big step for me to go into that club at that stage. Since then the con­nec­tion has got stronger and stronger. The last two years I was asked to take over two of the other top teams; it was an easy move to make, I had a very cushy num­ber with top fa­cil­i­ties. But I feel that out­side of St Pat’s there isn’t a big ap­petite to take on the po­si­tion and a change of man­age­ment could see things go in the other di­rec­tion. That is a big risk, the play­ers need sta­bil­ity.

“The se­nior play­ers drive a lot of what is hap­pen­ing in St Pat’s. They came to me, asked could I do it. When they came to ask me, I was un­de­cided about it. I had an­other cou­ple of of­fers from out­side the county at the time and was look­ing into taking a break. Even­tu­ally they per­sisted and I said OK, I will do this.

“They were all mem­bers of the Trav­eller com­mu­nity who ap­proached me. If you go to any hurl­ing match in the county, if they are not play­ing them­selves you will see a large con­tin­gent of play­ers watch­ing the game. They are huge sup­port­ers of the county team. They go to Done­gal, Derry and Down, you will see Pat’s fol­low­ers there. Th­ese are sav­age four or five-hour trips.”

Neary is cur­rently de­cid­ing if he will carry on for a fourth year, but get­ting to a county fi­nal re­mains a tantalising goal. “It’s a big chal­lenge when 75 per cent of your team is go­ing to be mem­bers of the Trav­eller com­mu­nity. Let’s be hon­est. I am not too sure how easy it would be to at­tract some­body to that. You are in the un­known cat­e­gory — there is no other team with such num­bers. Lots of peo­ple told me ‘don’t go near them’ and all this. But I don’t be­lieve in that; it is a chal­lenge for me.

“I knew they had play­ers who were ca­pa­ble of play­ing at a higher level. I knew they had to make se­ri­ous changes in dis­ci­pline, to their style of play. Some played as in­di­vid­u­als a bit. We needed to ad­dress that. We also had the best for­ward in the county at the time, Andy O’Brien. In the semi-fi­nal last year against Bray, I think he got 3-6. I knew all about him. So I needed to de­velop more play­ers and de­velop that team ethos more. And sta­bilise the team de­fen­sively, they were con­ced­ing a lot of scores. I would have seen that.

“I am a huge be­liever in dis­ci­pline — they had to stop talk­ing back. Pre­vi­ously we could have been a bit loose with our tongue; we tightened all that up. What has hap­pened is that we have be­come very dis­ci­plined.”

Neary was born in Glas­nevin, hurled with Na Fianna and made the Dublin panel in 1986. Af­ter get­ting mar­ried he moved down to Wick­low. Be­ing in­volved with a team packed with Trav­ellers has nat­u­rally deep­ened his in­ter­est in the plight of that com­mu­nity. The ex­tent of their in­volve­ment in a se­nior hurl­ing team is off the charts, way beyond the norm, and wor­thy of ad­mi­ra­tion. But how many spon­sors will line up to sup­port what they do?

“If they were not com­pet­i­tive peo­ple would not care.” says Neary. “Re­al­is­ti­cally three of the strong­est for­wards in Wick­low are mem­bers of the Trav­eller com­mu­nity — two from Pat’s and one from Bray. So they are very wel­come in the county set-up be­cause they are ob­vi­ously go­ing to con­trib­ute. I am not too sure if the wel­come will be that open for the next group of play­ers.

“I know the prej­u­dice they can suf­fer, the day-to-day prej­u­dice that af­fects their lives — I know, I have been with them for three years. Now there are two sides to ev­ery­thing, I don’t want to paint them as angels. I know how it is. But I know how ar­eas like fundrais­ing and team bond­ing can be chal­leng­ing.

“I think it is re­ally im­por­tant that the team is treated on a level play­ing pitch when it comes to matches. Ob­vi­ously the team needs to be re­spected and treated fairly from all lev­els be­cause there have been oc­ca­sions where it hasn’t been the case. They need to be treated fairly by all lev­els of the As­so­ci­a­tion. I am a bit con­cerned that this is not al­ways the case in im­por­tant games when im­por­tant calls are be­ing made.”

With only half a dozen se­nior hurl­ing teams in Wick­low, Neary says that the county needs all the hurlers they can muster. They have beaten all teams in the Wick­low se­nior cham­pi­onship in re­cent years ex­cept the cur­rent cham­pi­ons Gle­nealy. Last year they were in Tul­lam­ore where their Le­in­ster league fi­nal against Bally­bo­den, which they won, acted as a cur­tain-raiser to the Le­in­ster SHC game be­tween Gal­way and Dublin. The win­ning team pho­to­graph was taken with a large crowd in the back­ground — some­thing they will all trea­sure for years to come, the Trav­eller and non-Trav­eller play­ers and men­tors who were part of that day.

The close re­la­tion­ship and mu­tual de­pen­dence that ex­ists be­tween Neary and his play­ers is clear from be­ing in their com­pany. “Every team knows that when they play St Pat’s they have a game on their hands,” he says proudly. “That is huge for me and for them that is very sat­is­fy­ing — they have gone from no-hop­ers to challengers.”

And he adds that there is still room for im­prove­ment. He might be think­ing of the next step in what has al­ready been an in­cred­i­ble and unique jour­ney. There is so much the world could learn from it.

The Trav­ellers who play for St Pat’s don’t want pref­er­en­tial treat­ment

I am a huge be­liever in dis­ci­pline, they had to stop talk­ing back

Photo:s Tony Gavin and Piaras Ó Míd­heach

St Pat’s se­nior hurl­ing coach Michael Neary and club chair­man John Gill. Above: The St Pat’s se­nior hurl­ing squad

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