Saturday 23 September 2017

'It was horrific' - GAA All-Star Christine O'Brien on the tragic death of her husband and raising their children without him

After losing her husband suddenly in 2008, Christine O'Brien couldn't find solace in the sport she loved, writes Cliona Foley. But all that changed when she discovered Gaelic4Mothers&Others

Three-time All-Star Christine with her children (from left) Molly (15), Daniel (8), and 11-year-old Brid at their home in Meath Pic: Damien Eagers
Three-time All-Star Christine with her children (from left) Molly (15), Daniel (8), and 11-year-old Brid at their home in Meath Pic: Damien Eagers

WHEN the Royals were queens of Leinster football in the late 1990s, three-time All-Star Christine O'Brien was belting in goals and leading from the front.

They never got to the Holy Grail of an All-Ireland senior final as their semis pitted them against the great Waterford, Monaghan and emerging Mayo team of that era.

But Christine (44) was integral to the Meath team who made their breakthrough with a Junior All-Ireland title in 1994 and went on to win four Leinster seniors in a row from 1997 to 2000.

She was immersed in the GAA off-pitch then, and still is, as a games development administrator for Meath County Board, a job which includes coaching girls and boys in schools and clubs, as well as teaching coaches.

Christine back in 2000, when she played for Meath Pic: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Christine back in 2000, when she played for Meath Pic: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

"Camogie was actually my number one sport," reveals Christine, a decade after retiring. "I played both sports for Meath, but football took over back then because we were much more successful at it.

"After I retired from inter-county football I played county camogie for another three years and still play with my club Boardsmill. I always suffered with my back and, as I got older, I found camogie easier on the body. The stick does more of the work for you," she explains.

If anyone understands the value to girls and women of playing team sport it is Christine, especially after her life took a heartbreaking twist eight years ago.

Her husband Keith Fagan was also extremely sporty, but around Christmas 2008 he got the flu and a cough that he couldn't shake. Three months later he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Christine was pregnant with their third child at the time; Daniel was only three months old when Keith died in September 2009.

"It was horrific. We were both 36, had been together since we were 21, and Keith was so healthy. He never smoked and played every kind of sport imaginable.

"Molly was just seven and Brid was two. Molly's seventh birthday was the week before Keith died," she recalls. "He wanted to get her a bike, so that's what we did, and had her party up in his room in Beaumont."

After Keith's death, Christine wanted to scream at the world, and not even sport eased her turmoil.

"I went back to club camogie the following February but very reluctantly. I was so angry that, every time I went out on the field, I actually doubted that I could trust myself to contain that anger," she admits candidly.

"I also felt the pressure of not being able to play [well] because my mind wasn't where it needed to be, so I was doubly frustrated. I really hated playing and it probably took two years to get past that."

Counselling via Meath's palliative care team and sticking with sport eventually helped navigate a path through her grief.

"I wasn't someone who would ever talk about things. My friends would tell you that. I wouldn't open up to them so I did my grieving and my crying on my own. Then the local palliative care team suggested a counselling service to me. I probably only went to just a handful of sessions at the time, but being able to talk to someone I didn't know was actually helpful," she notes.

"I didn't think I'd be as open as I was but the counsellor was so nice and relaxed that I found I could talk and tell him all the things that were making me really angry.

"It was definitely easier to talk to a stranger at that time. He had no judgments to make on anything. An awful lot of tears came with that and it did help.

"People would say to you 'oh you're so strong' but I always say I'm not. I just dealt with it because I had three young kids at the time.

"People saw a certain Christine that faced the public but there was a very different Christine at home," she admits.

"Apart from my family and great friends, the GAA was my saviour," she adds.

But Christine has returned to football in a new form, thanks to Gaelic4Mothers&Others; the small-game, non-competitive blitz format which has been such a huge hit for the ladies' football association (LGFA).

"There were lots of times I felt I shouldn't be there, when I felt so sad and had lost so much. I found no joy in sport for a long time but it gave me head-space and physical fitness plus a way back into society.

"When you lose your partner you're not doing so many of the things you used to do together so socially I also needed to get back playing," the mum-of-three reflects.

"Even when you eventually go out socially you feel you shouldn't be there, or that you're making other people feel uncomfortable, but that's not a factor when you're playing sport.

"I'm eight years down the road now and I love playing again, especially being with all the girls."

Being a busy single parent only affords time for one competitive sport now, and that is camogie. Christine won a county intermediate medal last year and Boardsmill are already into this year's senior semi-finals.

"Oh, I'm usually corner-forward or full-forward. Sure, where else would you put a 44-year-old?" laughs Christine.

But she has returned to football in a new form, thanks to Gaelic4Mothers&Others. "The whole idea of Gaelic4Mothers&Others is to have fun, so you don't keep score. Myself and Patricia Guy introduced it in our club three years ago.

"Apart from us it was genuinely 30 mammies who had never kicked a ball in their lives at the start. We used to train late Friday or Saturday because they wanted no one to see them.

"As the year went on they didn't care who saw them. Now we're known as the loudest training crew in the club!

"There are lots of girls and women out there who maybe didn't get the opportunity or have the confidence to play a team sport when they were younger," notes Christine.

"Gaelic4Mothers&Others is ideal for them. It's played in a fun atmosphere but is still a great physical and social outlet. All you need to learn is how to catch and kick."

As a mum of two sporty girls and coach of her club's U12 to U16 camogie squads, she feels the social aspect of team sport is key to keeping girls involved in sport.

"It is a generalisation, but young boys tend to want to get competitive very quickly, whereas the social element seems to matter more to girls.

"Team sport helps girls' health and fitness and happiness. I think I'd advise people to help them find one they like and really support them to stick with it.

"Even with our Gaelic4Mothers team you can see it's a great social release for the girls. They are getting great exercise but in a fun environment with friends.

"Myself and Trish decided not to solo the first year and didn't teach the girls to solo initially. We just concentrated on catching and kicking so everyone could be part of the game."

O'Brien has become a football leader again, just in a very different way.

But, as a former All-Star, does she not miss the competitive element?

"No, it's nice that there's no pressure on you to do anything. We don't keep the scores but you still enjoy scoring.

"When a team is doing well and enjoying it I think the mothers get to realise just what a great feeling that is, and how their kids feel out on a field too."

For info on the Lidl Gaelic4Mothers&Others programme, see www.ladiesgaelic.ie. The LGFA also has a 'Gaelic4Girls' (G4G) initiative, which is a very useful entry point for young girls into a very social version of team sport.

Their G4G is a 12-week taster programme of coaching and fun, non-competitive blitzes, especially designed for girls aged between eight and 12 who have not played the game before or been registered with a club.

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