John Greene: We must not let evil destroy the volunteer spirit
In March 2011, Lyn Savage from the Ladies Gaelic Football Association visited Slane to talk to schoolgirls aged between 10 and 12 about taking up football. A small number of girls had dabbled in the game but weren't overly keen on joining in with the boys and there wasn't a separate outlet for them. That was about to change.
The local GAA club was attempting to set up its first girls' team and the LGFA had agreed to help. For years, the Association has been running a very successful programme designed to help new clubs. It's called Gaelic4Girls, and Slane was one of the clubs chosen for assistance that spring. Step one involved a visit to two local national schools, step two was a six-week training programme for the girls at the local pitch and step three was the carrot - taking part in a national blitz that summer in Croke Park.
The club had to provide at least one coach to take responsibility for the six weeks of training, all under Lyn's watchful eye. I can't remember how exactly it came to pass, but I ended up being that coach.
It wasn't something I had planned, but on reflection it was probably inevitable. Many of us are lucky enough as children to encounter people who will leave a lasting impression on us. When we think back on our childhood they are part of a warm friendly feeling we get, and this can have a profoundly positive impact on us as we go through life. Isn't that the point of teaching and mentoring children?
Pearse Park in Longford is the site of many of my fondest childhood memories. It was greyer then, as I remember it, and bore little resemblance to the compact little stadium of today, but it was no less special a place in the eyes of an impressionable boy, especially one lucky enough to have access all areas, as I had because my father was a county board official.
Mickey Finn, only ever known as Durango, was the caretaker back then. Mickey lived alone, was fond of a drink and was more than five times my age. But it didn't matter. He had a bundle of keys that opened every door and gate in the place, and pretty much everywhere he went I followed. If he was marking the pitch, I marched alongside and poured the lime when needed; if he was opening the gates, I pushed them when he turned the lock.
Paddy Hourican and Jimmy Keenan were even older. Paddy collected money at the old turnstile on the Camp Road and I often joined him to sort the coppers into piles in the shabby biscuit tin he used. Jimmy Keenan was a star of the Longford team that won the 1937 junior All-Ireland and he looked after the scoreboard. When I started, Jimmy could make his way up the ladder to sit on his deck chair, binoculars at the ready for anything that might happen at the Town end.
We even featured in a photo montage in the Irish Press when I was just 11. In one of the pictures he has his binoculars raised, studiously following the play. I'm beside him, ready to record the next score on the board. As I got older, and he got older, I proved useful running up and down the ladder.
Also as I got older I gained access to the inner sanctum, counting the day's takings with Tom McLoughlin, Tommy O'Brien, Jimmy Fox, my father and others.
Then there were the games, the ones I watched, and the ones I played in, under the shrewd gaze of men like John Murphy, Fr Peter Burke, Noel Flynn and John Bannon.
The memories of match days remain deep and vivid. The clunk of the heavy old metal turnstiles; the crunch of studs on stones as players made the long walk from the dressing room to the pitch down the old lane along Plunkett's field; the crackle of Amhran na bhFiann blaring out from an old tape recorder; Speedy McCormack's point with the outside of the right foot from under the old stand against Galway; the day in 1984 when All-Ireland champions Kerry came to town; the county final saga between Mostrim and Ardagh in 1985; and Paddy Doris and Teddy, his dog, two more permanent fixtures in Pearse Park's rich cast of characters.
I was a messenger boy, programme seller, car park attendant . . . it didn't really matter, because there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I was safe in the sanctuary of Pearse Park.
Four years ago, my image of Pearse Park was shattered. The front page headline in the Longford Leader on December 6 screamed: 'Child abuse investigation underway'.
"Gardai are investigating allegations of child sex abuse in Longford dating back to around the year 2000," the paper reported.
Some of the allegations centred on Pearse Park. The report continued: "A spokesperson from the Garda Press Office confirmed that an investigation was underway."
It turns out that for some boys, my childhood paradise may well have later become the scene of their worst nightmare. If my happy memories of that place are part of who I am, what does that mean for those who were allegedly abused there?
This is what Fr Brian D'Arcy meant last week when he spoke on RTE's Cutting Edge about the Tom Humphries case: "That girl has got a life sentence that nobody's going to talk about. And believe you me, it is a life sentence and nothing can change you from that."
He added: "People screaming and shouting at each other . . . you're talking about something you don't know about. Only those who have suffered abuse, are trying to deal with it, been destroyed by it, know what it's about."
It is a serious responsibility to take charge of a group of children in any walk of life - sporting or otherwise - and most of us have, at some point, come across teachers or coaches who clearly are not suited to it. We have seen the angry coach berating a child on a sideline, or the angry teacher scolding a child far beyond what that child is capable of enduring. These are the teachers who can turn a child away from the joy of learning, or the coaches who can force a child away from the joy of sport.
So when it came to a misty April Sunday morning six years ago I was apprehensive. I wasn't sure what to expect, or even how many girls would turn up. That first morning we crept into double figures; the girls enjoyed it, and the following week a few more came, having been encouraged along by their friends. We were off and running, even if I wasn't sure where it would all end, if a team would grow out of these sessions, or if I was the right person to take it on. As a coach I was very green and naive, and I knew nothing of how ladies football in Meath was organised. I wasn't even sure of the rules.
The enthusiasm of the girls was infectious in those first two weeks. And the club knew it could not grow unless it was catering for girls on an equal footing to boys. The dream even then was to one day enter a ladies team in the Meath championship. But I was not convinced it was going to work.
Then, in the hours after that second training session, my fragile confidence in what we were doing - and my own role in it - took a hit. A colleague phoned with the news that a well-known sports journalist was being investigated for child sex abuse. He was involved in underage coaching.
It was Tom Humphries.
A week later he was named in public for the first time by the Sunday World, and at our third Gaelic4Girls session that day, there were naturally a few questions.
At first, I was afraid parents might pull the plug on our fledgling project. But they didn't. They trusted in us and what we were doing. They could see the impact football was having on their daughters. And we carried on. What else could we do? Monsters walk among us, hiding in plain sight. It turns out some children are not so lucky. It turns out some children are not safe in places where they should be safe. Every time a Tom Humphries is unmasked it tears a hole in society because there are men and women all over the country who have been inspired by others before them to work in their community with the young, the old, the sick, the vulnerable. It's the volunteer spirit. It's what the country is built on.
That May, Lyn Savage presented 18 girls with Gaelic4Girls certificates; in July we went to Croke Park and took part in the national blitz; and in August we entered a team in the county under 13 league - our first ever team. Last week, I dug out a photo from that May morning six years ago. Of the 18 girls, 10 are still playing football. We all must carry on.
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