Joe Brolly: Community beats hype every time - the GAA should note how happiness stems from strong local bonds

13 May 2018; Ian Burke of Galway in action against Aidan O'Shea of Mayo during the Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Mayo and Galway at Elvery's MacHale Park in Mayo. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

Shaun Mullan was the strapping young captain of the Ballerin senior football team.

He had been married to Sinéad two months earlier. Last November, he was out for his morning cycle on the Glenshane Pass, when just at the Maghera turn-off, he was badly injured in a collision with a van. He was airlifted to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast but despite desperate attempts to revive him, he died. Life came from death. His distraught young bride donated his organs, and four people are alive and well today because of her act of humanity.

Last Saturday night, I was honoured to be invited by the Ballerin GAA community to a celebration of Shaun’s life at Friel’s in Swatragh. The club were unveiling their new jerseys for every age group, with optforlife on the front. But the best bit was on the back. Above the numbers, instead of a sponsor, Shaun’s nickname: Elvis.

Because of the huge numbers, a marquee had to be erected. I was directed to a parking space when I arrived by club men and women wearing the Elvis jerseys. The marquee was filled with the buzz of chatter. Brian Deighan told me that out of the blue, a signed Dublin jersey had arrived earlier in the week, sent by Ciarán Kilkenny, enclosing a donation.

I spoke with Sinéad, who was in great spirits, wearing her Elvis jersey of course. Likewise Shaun’s family, who embarrassed me by thanking me repeatedly for coming. There was a sofa on stage and when the marquee was at bursting point, the formalities began. If you could call them formalities.

Owen Mulligan, older now, without the blond locks, but no wiser. Brendan Devenney, wearing a silver suit, like a boy band gone wrong. Joe McMahon, looking fresh and well, laughing at every word that came out of Mulligan’s mouth. Conan Doherty compered it very well under relentless pressure. As Mulligan said to him at the interval: "Never worry kid, you can’t get any worse."

It was all very funny and life-affirming. A classic example of a GAA community coming together to support each other. The sort of evening that makes me realise what the GAA would be capable of, if we really put our minds to it.

In January 1882, 11 men from the tiny Italian village of Roseto Valfortore emigrated to New York. They ended up finding work in a slate quarry 90 miles outside New York. They bought a bit of land amongst the rocks, built a few homes, and soon, a steady flow of Rosetans were joining them. By the turn of the century, there were almost 2,000 of them and they had built their own town, called Roseto, complete with their own church, schools, factories, festivals and 22 civic societies.

They were entirely self-sufficient, and they flourished. Maybe no-one would have heard of them, but one day in the 1950s, Dr Stewart Wolf, professor at the medical faculty of Oklahoma University, was invited to give a talk in the town. After he had spoken, he had a few beers with a local doctor, who described something very unusual. "You know, I rarely find anyone from Roseto under the age of 65 with heart disease. They live very long lives here."

Wolf was intrigued. Within a few weeks, a team of medical and sociological researchers had descended on the village. Teams set up booths where the entire population came to give blood and have ECGs taken. The initial results were so astonishing, so out of whack with what was happening everywhere else in the US, that eminent researchers soon arrived from all over the country.

In Roseto, virtually no-one under 55 showed any signs of heart disease. There was no suicide. No alcoholism. No drug addiction. Little or no depression. Little or no anxiety, no peptic ulcers. The crime rate was nil. As Wolf put it: "These people are dying of old age. That’s it."

The research teams explored every possibility. Was it their diet? Olive oil? Fish? The answer was no. The Rosetans cooked everything with lard. They ate more sweets and fatty foods than average Americans. Dieticians from Harvard found that a staggering 41 per cent of their calories came from fat. The villagers smoked heavily. Obesity was common and in general, exercise was not part of their daily lives. Genetic experts studied immigrants from Roseto Valfortore who had settled in other parts of the US, to see if the Rosetans had a genetic make-up that pre-disposed them to longer living. This was another dead end.

In the end, through a process of elimination, they came to a startling realisation. Rosetans lived longer because they were contented. Rosetans visited each other’s homes on a daily basis. They stopped and talked on the street. They ate communally at trestle tables in their gardens. Communal living was the norm, with three generations living under the same roof. The town had a strong ethos of equality. The wealthy were discouraged from flaunting that wealth. If a villager suffered financial or other misfortune, an accident at work for example, the neighbours rallied around. They all knew each other. They shared. They looked out for each other.

The key to their extraordinary wellbeing wasn’t any of that newfangled, superficial crap that has been packaged up for sale by the 'Wellness' industry. It was the strong safety net that the people had, the knowledge that they didn’t need to worry because the community would always be there for them. After a decade of painstaking research, the researchers concluded that it was their social cohesion that gave them long, fulfilled lives.

Villagrande is a small town in Sardinia. The renowned Canadian sociologist Susan Pinker was fascinated when she learned that in common with many other Sardinian villages in what has come to be known as 'The Blue Zone' (because of the great longevity of the 1.5 million people living there), they had the largest number of centenarians in the developed world, more than 10 times the average. So she embarked upon a major study.

She saw that the villagers live communally. The village square is a hub of meetings and conversation. Everyone knows everyone. They have long meals. Again, three generations habitually lived together under one roof. Looking after the elderly is seen as a privilege and pleasure, as a way of life. As she put it in her study: 'As people age there, they are always surrounded by extended family and neighbours, unlike most of the developed world where people are isolated from each other.'

They went through the checklist. Discovered that the villagers live on a high fat diet. That they like to smoke.

After a seven-year study (entitled 'What reduces the chance of dying most?') by an eminent research team, the findings were the reverse of what most people might think. Diet had minimal impact on living longer. As did obesity. They discovered that the simple flu vaccine prolonged life more effectively than exercise, which also had little or no impact.

The two top predictors of long life, way ahead of all other factors, were: in second place, close relationships; and, blazing a trail in first place, social integration, i.e. how much you interact with people face-to-face as you move through your day.

Several major studies have shown that social integration — feeling part of a close-knit community — strengthens the body’s immunity and resilience. So, women with breast cancer who have very good face-to-face social networks are four times as likely to survive their illness as women with poor social connections.

In-depth research on this phenomenon, led by Steve Cole at the University of California, shows that social contact switches on and off genes that regulate the rate of tumour growth, and the level of cancer-killing lymphocytes in our blood. So, men with active friendships and social support are far less likely to have heart attacks than more solitary men. And people who have had a stroke are better protected by social support than medication.

Working with a large British sample, Australian researchers Catherine and Alex Haslam found that socially integrated people recover much faster after an illness than those who are solitary. Regular face-to-face contact in a strong community is, as Pinker puts it, 'a powerful vaccine.' Its effect on the brain is to lower cortisone (which causes stress) and produce dopamine (which causes happiness).

So, in Sardinia’s blue zone, they have very low rates of dementia, and are four times more likely to survive cancer. In a nutshell, their community bolsters their immune system.

It is the culture of any given place, the way the community is structured, that has the most profound impact on who we are, how long we live, and how fulfilled our lives are. In spite of legion examples at local level, from Slaughtneil to An Ghaeltacht, from Ballerin to Drumragh, from Cooley to Corofin, we have done nothing at national level to take advantage of what is being done piece-meal in our communities, and expand it into something that would have major beneficial impacts not just for GAA communities all over Ireland, but for the country itself.

In a society where a quarter of the population has no-one to talk to, imagine the powerful role we could play. Look at our network of clubs, our finances, our sense of fellowship. Yet instead of concentrating on this, we take it for granted. The GAA nationally has become fixated on a few senior county teams, playing a few big games a year, allowing elitism and commercialism to conquer us bit by bit.

After the night for Elvis gave us yet another tantalising glimpse of what we are capable of as a community, I went to Castlebar on Sunday to watch two teams playing over-hyped, commercialised crap.

Which is more important?