'I feel ashamed as an Irish person that it's happening in our country'
Huddled up in sleeping bags beneath the canopy of the Brown Thomas department store in Limerick city centre, most of them were wide awake.
It was a sleepout without much sleep. It would take more than one night to get used to the cold and rain, the street lights and traffic, the noise of raucous throngs milling out of bars and clubs and fast food joints.
Over 50 GAA county players from Clare, Limerick and Tipperary had assembled to make their local contribution to the nationwide show of solidarity with the homeless. The national total exceeded 400 as players past and present, female and male, staged sleepouts in Belfast, Dublin, Cork and half a dozen other locations. Over €200,000 was raised.
The Midwest chapter figured they’d reach €30,000 when the final tally was reckoned. The money would go to local homeless charities, Thomond House and Novas, with whom they’d liaised as part of their preparation.
“But it’s not really about the money,” said Timmy Hammersley, the former Tipp hurler who’d been involved with the initiative since its earliest days in September. “It’s about changing people’s attitudes, creating more empathy for people who are homeless.”
It was coming up to 4.0 on Sunday morning. Earlier that night two men, one from Glasgow, the other Limerick, approached the group looking for help. One needed a bed, one asked for coffee and a sandwich. A representative from Novas took care of their needs. Further up O’Connell Street, a young woman from Moldova sat on her square of cardboard, a blanket covering her legs, paper cup withering in the rain.
“I feel ashamed as an Irish person that it’s happening in our country,” said Seamus Hickey, the veteran Limerick hurler.
So when the initial call went out, he was keen to get involved. The project was conceived and driven by a nascent voluntary group called Gaelic Voices for Change. Its mission is to mobilise GAA county players, retired or active, in campaigns for community action on social issues. With the support of the Gaelic Players Association and its camogie/ladies’ football counterpart, the WGPA, they decided to address the homelessness crisis.
A research engineer in manufacturing technology, Hickey (30) is also chairman of the GPA. Co-ordinators in every county were contacted through theirs and the WGPA’s network of members. “It was basically an invitation,” explained Hickey, “people who had a social conscience and wanted to do something about it could get involved.”
A crucial first step was to study the issue. Before they could educate others, said Carol O’Leary, they first had to educate themselves. A full-back on the Clare camogie team, 25-year-old O’Leary is a secondary school teacher. “At the beginning I knew nothing about it,” she recalled, “but we met up with the charities here and it’s when you get talking to them that you learn more and understand it better, and that in turn drove us on more to do something. This is just a very small contribution in comparison to what they give — the work that they put in at nights and days is amazing.”
Hammersley (30) works with the SpunOut youth organisation in Dublin. He took on the logistics and co-ordination role for the Midwest. He too was keenly aware that for all the planning and preparation the sleepout required, it would not make a substantial change to a complex problem.
He mentions Fr Tony O’Riordan, a Jesuit priest who’d worked with marginalised communities in the city. “Fr Tony spoke to our group and he said, ‘One thing you’ll find out tonight is how cold you can be and how hungry you can be. But you won’t ever feel what homeless people feel.’ Like, ‘Jesus, who cares for me?’ And maybe one thing that we can do is show (them) that we do care. We can just be there and get a groundswell going among the GAA community, show that we’re not outside this problem, that these are our people, this is our country.”
All three are agreed that there is untapped potential among Gaelic players in terms of influencing societal issues. “Yeah, definitely,” said O’Leary. “I think whether you have a profile or not, you can effect social change. But obviously if you are a person with a profile it does make it a lot easier to spread a message and (get) people to listen.”
Traditionally one of the three conservative pillars of Irish life, along with the Catholic Church and Fianna Fáil, is a campaign like this evidence that the GAA’s younger generation is moving towards a more left-wing and liberal world-view?
“This is apolitical,” replied Hickey, “because regardless of who’s in power, the crisis is getting worse. Politics has changed, society has changed, the GAA has changed dramatically in the last 15, 20 years.”
“I think we’re facing new issues,” said Hammersley. “I know people who might traditionally be Fine Gael voters, for example, who are really shocked by this scenario as well. I think you’ll go a long way to find anyone, whatever their politics, who’s happy about 3,000 children being homeless. This (issue) is bringing in people from all over the (political) spectrum. And one thing we’re united in is pure and utter solidarity with the people who are suffering.”
The old stereotype of homeless people, he added, is that it’s self-inflicted through alcohol and drug addiction. This is simply not true anymore.
The old stereotype of the GAA player is changing too, said Hickey. “The GPA and WGPA have championed issues like mental health and that was a difficult conversation for (previous) generations, it wasn’t appropriate or manly or whatever. I feel our generation is becoming more and more encouraged to be comfortable in our own skin. And if you want to speak out on any particular issue, then you should. We’ve done the groundwork (on homelessness) to be able to say what we think, and not feel judged for it — and not be particularly concerned with people who do judge us.”
In the frigid dawn of Sunday morning they rolled up their sleeping bags and headed for home. Left behind were the citizens of the streets, stranded without warmth and love at Christmas, but not on this night entirely forgotten.