IT is Wednesday afternoon as Joe McCrohan pulls up outside a ramshackle house a few miles from Cahirciveen and raps on the reinforced corrugated iron sheet that serves as a front door.
Mick Murphy greets him with familiar warmth and beckons him inside to a world that has stood still for generations. There is no toilet or running water and just enough electricity to light a single bulb. Potatoes simmer in a large pot that sits on an old camper stove beside him on the concrete floor.
McCrohan will call once a month maybe, to see if Mick is alright or if there is anything he needs from town. Mostly just to listen, though. He'll idle half an hour away hearing Mick fondly reminisce about the two South Kerry championships he won with Renard. Or how he famously won the 1958 Rás Tailteann even though he'd only taken up cycling a few months previously.
He'll tell Joe how he arrived in Dublin on a bright August evening in 1958 and slept rough that night before joining the start of the Rás the following morning. Then there was the relentless drama of the race itself: the falls, the broken bones, the delirium and the ecstasy. He promises to tell it all in the story of his life. He will call it The Convict of the Road and sell it to the highest bidder.
Murphy has lived in these primitive conditions all his life. The majority of it alone. Not that he has ever minded. He has always cherished his independence and resisted pressure to change his ways. He is blissfully stuck in a time warp. He has his makeshift gym -- a weight made of concrete slabs held together by a wooden pole -- that sits beside his bed. He has his books, his medals and his memories. "No man nor God will move me," he says.
Yet, for all Mick professes his happiness, a part of Joe feels no man pushing 80 should be entirely alone or so set in his ways. As a rural development officer, Joe helps organise outings for elderly single men in the area. In the past two years they have held 10 outings and catered for over 200 of the most vulnerable men in south Kerry. So far Mick hasn't joined them. But Joe isn't giving up the battle.
He knows there are Mick Murphys dotted all over the country, not as eccentric perhaps, but just as alone and equally stubborn about seeking help. If you needed a starting point to study the growth of rural isolation, then south Kerry was the place to start. According to the statistics, 11 per cent of the population is over 65 and, by 2026, that figure will have risen to 25. More of them live in south Kerry than anywhere else.
McCrohan has worked for the South Kerry Development Partnership since 1998. Even then the telltale signs were evident. Pubs shutting at a rate of knots. Post offices and remote Garda stations going by the wayside. Marts and creameries closing or drastically scaling back their operations. In the 1980s, McCrohan says, there were 280 milk suppliers in the Cahirciveen area. Today there are 21. The fabric of rural life slowly coming apart at the seams.
He knows parts of south Kerry where one in three men live alone. A recurring story: men who inherited the family farm and stayed while their brothers, sisters and friends left in search of work. The real tragedy, he thinks, is that the pattern of their lives was inevitable yet nothing was ever done to prevent it. "Most people would see a man living alone and they'd think sure he's grand. We'll leave him alone, keep away, that sort of thing. It wasn't right but that's the way it was done."
About 10 years ago they came up with a small idea to stage free health clinics at three marts in south Kerry and the overwhelming demand astonished them. It wasn't that the resulting queues informed them of the depth of the problem in the area -- they knew that anyway -- more the realisation that if you put something on, the men would come. You just had to provide the incentive.
From his travels around the country presenting RTE radio's Farm Week, Damien O'Reilly had become acutely aware of the issue. In early 2008, O'Reilly had come to Kerry to witness the situation there first-hand. At the mart in Listowel he found a retired farmer willing to talk about the emptiness of his life: the long days with no human contact, the constant fear of attack that was his daily companion.
It is truly shocking now to listen to the programmes O'Reilly made for Farm Week and observe the huge gap between the rural world he portrays and the affluent society that prospered during the boom. It isn't that the old world has disappeared, but it has been pushed into the margins, away from public view. When a group of elderly men visited áras an Uachtaráin three years ago, four of them had never been to Dublin. One had never made it past Tralee.
"You'd hear some incredible stories," says O'Reilly. "In Kerry, I was told about a farmer who had suffered a heart attack while milking the cows and his body wasn't discovered for two days. It wasn't until the milk lorry called and the driver saw the cows in an agitated state in the yard. Nobody had missed him. Things like that would really shock you."
* * * * *
Last month, President Mary McAleese stood before an audience of 200 in Lucan Sarsfields GAA club in west Dublin and spoke engagingly of its special place at the heart of the community. Her visit had a dual purpose: to celebrate the club's 125th anniversary and to officially launch the GAA's social initiative, a project that has been close to her heart since the idea was first conceived three years ago.
She explained how her travels around the country during the 13 years of her presidency had alerted her to the fact that there was a critical problem at the heart of our society. She would attend senior citizens' events with her husband, Martin, and the same theme became a recurring source of conversation. "The vast majority would be well attended by women," she said, "but not so by men."
Three years ago, O'Reilly visited the áras to interview the President. As they spoke, cattle grazed contentedly on the meadows outside the window. Yes, she smiled, she was a farmer too. Her mother and father had come from humble farming stock from Derry and Roscommon respectively. She shared an affinity for rural life and the people whose lives, for good and for bad, were shaped by their relationship with the land.
And she sensed their vulnerability now. It was no accident that when it came to suicide older men were the second highest risk group in the country. There were plenty of available services but, for whatever reason, they were reluctant to use them and the pace of modern life had further isolated them. "Loneliness is a lot more lonely today," she said. "More difficult to cope with."
It was Martin McAleese who had first got in contact with O'Reilly. He had heard the broadcasts on the plight of rural isolation and they had tallied with the conversations he had been having with his wife for several years. Out of that came the idea of inviting a group of elderly men to the áras for a workshop and, in turn, that led to the notion of expanding the work being done in Kerry on a nationwide basis.
From the beginning they realised that for the project to thrive the GAA had to be the primary vehicle. A couple of weeks before the President addressed the gathering in Lucan, Michaela McAreevy had been buried in Tyrone. It struck her how, in the face of such appalling tragedy, the GAA had once again showcased our best qualities as a people: organising, rallying, comforting, rescuing hope from total devastation.
And as the light begins to fade on her second and final term as President, it doesn't seem premature to speculate that the social initiative she helped to inspire will stand as her greatest legacy.
* * * * *
IT was mid-2010 and Seán Kilbride was settling into his retirement. He had spent 42 happy years in the army and was curious to see where the rest of his life would take him, never imagining it would bring him so quickly back to his first love. The GAA was casting its net for a suitable candidate to lead its Social Initiative project. A former colleague had mentioned Kilbride's name and, like that, he was drawn in.
At first he was wary. There were the long drives from his home in Athlone to Croke Park to consider as well as the regular trips around the country. More early morning starts, more time away from home. But the challenge intrigued him too. It was daunting, but it was new and the possibilities seemed endless. It was a blank sheet. A green-field site. The more he thought about it, the more it stoked his competitive juices.
More than two years had passed since the McAleeses had dreamed up their scheme and, if it hadn't exactly died, the progress wasn't as sustained as they'd hoped. Initially, four counties had been chosen as pilot areas: Kerry, Fermanagh, Mayo and Wexford. Good work had been done, but it had been no more than a qualified success.
"The GAA conducted an analysis of the project," says Kilbride, "and arrived at a few conclusions. One was that it had to be set up in the form of a charitable trust. The GAA would host it and provide resources, but the funding would be external. It also needed a full-time co-ordinator and had to become a club rather than a county-based initiative."
Last October, Kilbride held a seminar in Croke Park and was greatly encouraged by the response. Martin McAleese opened it and people flocked from all parts of the country at their own expense. Anybody with a vested interest in the project was represented: the IFA and HSE, Men's Health Forum, Pobail, An Garda and various retirement groups. Each bringing specific knowledge and fresh ideas about how to tackle the same problem.
And although it isn't an exclusively GAA project, Kilbride supposes it would be a useful start for the Association to examine its own conscience on the issue of rural isolation. All those former players, administrators and supporters who reach a certain stage in their life where they drift away and are never encouraged back. What does it say about us that we neglect the most vulnerable members of our society?
"We claim to be more than a sporting organisation and, if we are, it isn't enough that we look after our under 18s or whoever. I don't think it's in our mindset to look after all age-groups. It shouldn't be like, okay they're players, some of them will be coaches or administrators and the rest we forget about. We need to change that way of thinking. We should be looking at ways to include all our community in our activities."
He bristles with ideas. If change is inevitable, he wonders, then why can't it be for the better? Alternatives to pub life, perhaps. The CEO of Irish Heart Foundation is a former colleague and, together, they have discussed the idea of creating walkways around clubs. He has spoken to the Croke Park stadium director about special packages, to the head of ticketing about prices and to the rural transport people about travel. Simple ideas but effective.
Although funds are obviously tight, he knows it is enthusiasm and a sense of responsibility that will ultimately determine the initiative's success. It encourages him that Martin McAleese will remain as a patron even after he leaves the áras and he can call on an advisory board that includes O'Reilly and Professor Eamon O'Shea of NUIG, one of the country's foremost thinkers on issues facing the elderly.
"Someone said to me in the early days that this sounds like an idea whose time has come. We have an ageing population and I think the recession has forced people to think that real happiness might be in your community, not in Marbella or Florida. It's about making a difference to people who might be going through tough times in their lives."
After two years they will pause and take stock. He knows there will be tough days ahead, trying to convince hard-up clubs to commit money and resources to a project where the tangible benefits will accrue off the field. His initial target was to get 90 clubs involved spread out over 32 counties, and they have exceeded that total. By the end of the year he'd like to have 10 clubs signed up per county and, down the line, he envisages it opening out to men of all ages and women too.
"The challenge is to keep drawing people in," he says. "Club by club by club. It's hard work but it's worth doing. Ultimately, I'd hope to convince them that it should be part and parcel of a club's activities. Automatic. That they would see the value of it and appoint a sub-committee, make it an essential part of the club's structure."
* * * * *
TOM REILLY studied the sea of happy faces around him and smiled. A group of 48 men from a knot of tiny villages on the Cavan-Leitrim border enjoying a day out in Croke Park, happy in each other's company. Reilly had spoken to a man who had spent most of his life in Manchester and had worked at Old Trafford. "He said he'd never seen anything like Croke Park. It's nice to hear things like that."
A few had come from Reilly's home village of Blacklion, including Eddie McManus. As a boy, Eddie had seen Cavan beat Mayo in the 1948 All-Ireland final. Andy Kelly had boarded the bus a few miles down the road in Swanlinbar. At 81, he was the oldest of the group and remains the active president of his club. That day Swanlinbar would face St Mary's, Cahirciveen, in the All-Ireland Junior final. The last time any Cavan team reached an All-Ireland final was 1952. They held little hope of winning, but what matter? They were in Croke Park and they were alive.
"There's an energy and life about it," said Fr Tommy McManus of Corlough. "It's not just lads sitting around having a chat. A lot of men are a bit reluctant about going to senior citizens' outings. But there's a bit of get up and go about this. Lads here might be elderly in years, but they're young at heart."
Seán Maxwell stops to chat outside the museum. Maxwell served for 20 years as Leitrim County Board treasurer, a lifetime devotion to club and county behind him. He reminds you the day was made possible by the work of Marie O'Reilly and the Cavan Peace 111 initiative and laments the fact that the GAA, in his eyes, has been slow to rally around the project.
"The GAA has a responsibility to it and it'll be their fault if it dies," he says. "Because from what I can see they still have not got behind it. I've been to a few club and county board meetings and I have not heard it discussed. If it isn't taken up by the boards then give it two years and it's dead."
Right now that seems an unlikely fate, however. Tom Reilly is already thinking ahead to next month when they'll take a group to Cavan town to see Shane Connaughton's new play, The Pitch. And down south, Joe McCrohan looks ahead to a sightseeing tour of Valentia Island in April.
He hopes to get 100 people signed up and, you never know, maybe this time Mick Murphy will finally relent and agree to join them.