Pioneers in embracing integration: How one Wicklow club has welcomed Traveller community
St Pat's well ahead of the field in breaking down barriers and they are reaping rewards
Just over 40 years ago, Jimmy Maughan scored the first of four Mayo goals which helped floor a hotly tipped Dublin in the All-Ireland minor football final. Maughan was a stylish centre-forward with a natural air of confidence who went on to play for a number of years with the senior team and won a Connacht senior medal in 1981. He was also a settled Traveller from Ballinrobe.
Maughan wasn't a pioneer for his community, nor was it his place to be. His endeavours might have inspired other Travellers to play but it didn't alter the landscape to any great degree. Travellers didn't flood into GAA clubs in vast numbers as a result. They remained marginalised in sport as much as in society itself.
Forty years later a group of men gather in a Wicklow hotel on a November night. All share one thing: a devotion to the blue and white of St Patrick's GAA club in Wicklow town. There is the club chairman, John Gill, a Galway exile. Michael Neary is a former county hurling goalkeeper, now manager of the club's senior hurlers. And the seven others present have hurled, and most still do, for the club. They differ from Gill and Neary in one respect: all are members of the Traveller community.
St Patrick's, recent winners of the Wicklow senior football championship, field three adult hurling teams where the majority of players on each one are Travellers. Jim O'Brien, now 42 and retired, started playing senior hurling when only 16. Within a couple of years John 'Dee' O'Brien, his cousin, had followed him on to the team and now it is common to see the senior hurlers field up to eight players from the Traveller community.
In the last three years, with Neary at the helm and backboned by Travellers, St Patrick's reached the senior championship semi-final and were close on two occasions to making the final for the first time since 2002. Hurling has enabled a level of integration and acceptance which wider society often denies. Of the O'Briens playing for St Pat's, the most renowned hurler is Andy, who has been one of Wicklow's leading marksmen for many years and represented Ireland in shinty. They call him "county Andy".
They have bucked the trend in a big way. Travellers, if they play at all, usually quit before adulthood. They tend to marry much younger than the great majority and there is no grand tradition of Travellers playing at high levels for very long. Jimmy Maughan is a glowing exception. But for it to work they also need a willing host not tainted by prejudice. The St Pat's chairman, Gill, oversees an open-door policy which has made this club a welcoming place.
It is not a charity - without these players there would probably be one hurling team, if that. The players are a valuable commodity and resource; it is a mutually beneficial relationship. They have earned their keep. "Our club is rooted in the local community and our team structure is determined by the local demographics," says Gill. "Currently St Pat's senior hurling team has a high percentage of players from the Travelling community. As a club we make no distinction between players from the settled or Traveller community - all are treated equally, and if good enough skill-wise they will make the team.
"As the largest GAA club in the county, with Gaelic football, ladies' football, hurling and camogie, our club ethos is simple: to promote Gaelic games, treat all equally and promote, get and gain respect. Players from the Traveller community are an integral part of adult hurling in our club, and without these players our club would not be competing at the level we are now competing at."
Neary has made much of this possible in recent years by being willing to take over the team and he has made this meeting possible too. The players were reluctant to agree to talk initially. They ask not to have their names published, then later give their consent. The suspicion of media coverage is based on a lifetime of unflattering press depictions of their people and the expectation that nothing will change.
Hurling is different; it has earned their trust. In this environment they believe they are on a level playing pitch. Sport grants them a licence to express themselves, to achieve goals and to aspire to something that has a common acceptance and respect.
Of the approximately 30,000 Travellers in Ireland, Wicklow has less than a thousand in the whole county. The numbers aren't especially high compared to other counties and Wicklow town doesn't have an unusually high level of Travellers either. Most of the players in St Pat's had hurling in their families. Their fathers played or they started playing in St Patrick's National School in the town for the first time, at least in an organised way. They cite the influence of a retired teacher, Andrew Cornyn. A Cavan native, he now lives in Kerry and taught in the school for 37 years.
"Initially, there weren't Travellers there but when they came they were interested in hurling," he says. "I think they had Wexford connections. I lined out with the local St Pat's hurling team;, they only had a junior team at the time. If they had only 14 I got a game. I had an interest in it but no great skill. When they won the intermediate hurling championship in the club I think there was only one from the town on it. They were from all parts of Wicklow and beyond. We decided to do something about it. I got involved in promoting hurling in the school. It grew out of necessity. It took on a life of its own.
"They (Travellers) excelled at hurling. They are always hurling around the roads and the park, and I knew some of their fathers and they played at junior level within the county. By and large they continued playing and some, like Andy O'Brien, went on to play for the county."
This is not the case elsewhere. Rathkeale in Co Limerick has a large Traveller population, with ownership of 80 per cent of all private property in the town according to a local community activist a few years ago. But they have almost negligible impact on the local GAA teams.
Pat Sheahan is the Rathkeale chairman. "They are very transient. They're all gone for the summer," he says. "The town is an island in the summer time. You walk down and there is nobody down there. We have a very small bit (of Traveller participation) at underage. We have never retained fellas after they get to 15 or 16, and the reason is that they are gone. By the time a young Traveller lad is 15 or 16 he is not going to school any more, he is gone away."
Even in Tuam, which has a long-settled Traveller population that's higher than the national average, there hasn't been that level of integration. Most of it has been with hurling teams, but hurling is the poor relation in a football stronghold like Tuam. Michael Hehir is a garda and player-manager of the local junior hurling team. A few years ago one of their players made the Galway county under 16 panel, and currently they have around 25 per cent participation on their juvenile and adult teams from the Traveller community.
"They make friends," says Hehir, a bubbly Clare native. "They do integrate. Sport is a great way for meeting people and making friends. They have their own traditions. They get married young. We have always found you might get a drop-off from 16-19. But the majority do come back, anyone that is good at it."
Bunclody in Wexford has had a settled Traveller community for generations that's moderately engaged in Gaelic games. The club chairman Gabriel Wade is involved with an under 13 team that has three from the community involved and there are generally a few playing at all juvenile grades. But at adult level the most notable impact they have made is on their second hurling team, which plays at junior level.
"They prefer hurling more than the football," says Wade. "That is the background, what their parents and grandparents would have played. In the second hurling team maybe five play. Very few make first-team standard."
Due to the tendency to marry early and start families, giving the commitment becomes an issue. "When it comes to age 26 and 27 they are more free but they will struggle to make the first team by then," says Wade.
Although there is a link and some involvement, Wade says that it is low given the size of the local Traveller community. In Bunclody National School, they account for roughly 25 per cent of the pupils. Wade has been in Bunclody since 1986 and Travellers were a part of the community then. He has seen the keen interest Travellers have in attending matches when their relatives are involved. This corresponds to what Michael Neary has seen in Wicklow: some of their most ardent followers at club and county level are from the Traveller community once they had someone from their own background involved.
St Pat's is well ahead of the field in breaking down barriers, but the players don't want to be seen as different, which also partly explains their reluctance to talk. "We were worried about the club getting bad publicity, but it couldn't - there has to be more positives than negatives," says Jim O'Brien. "There have been studies done nationally in the last year or two relating to men's health, and the average life expectancy of the Traveller man is 59 years of age, which is very low. The rate of suicide in our community is very high. And with us being involved, so many Travellers involved in the sport, it's a great thing."
You hope this might inspire others? "Oh yeah, absolutely. I am involved in coaching at this stage. Even when they give it up, if they are involved in coaching they are still involved in a healthy outlet. With Travellers, young Travellers especially, drinking was becoming a big problem. But while involved in sport, that helps them."
But there are problems, invariably. Sledging has been an issue for the GAA, and to those who use it as a means of trying to upset an opponent, any distinction or novelty will be considered fair game. They have learned to expect a certain amount of it. A few years ago in a junior match in Wicklow, the Gardaí had to be called to defuse a tense situation that developed after a loose remark aimed at the Travellers was heard from the stand. Andy O'Brien pursued a case through Leinster Council almost four years ago after claiming he was victim of racist abuse in a Kehoe Cup final against Meath.
The Travellers who play for St Pat's don't want to be seen as wanting preferential treatment. They do expect the same treatment as everyone else. "It has lessened considerably," says Neary of incidents of abuse on the field. "You have a lot of players on the county panel so they don't differentiate the same way anymore. But there are some players out there who use it. We see it as a sign of strength, because we have started to become competitive."
"We would always talk about it before we go out on the pitch," says one of the players, "because we know it may happen. So you have to be ready for it."
Another chips in: "In a match we'd be giving it too, you know like? We are not all saints either."
Does it still get under your skin? "Oh I'd laugh at it," says one player, "I have another brother who wouldn't."
Do you all feel that way? "I've learned years ago to just ignore it completely," says another.
The youngest player here, just out of minor, is George O'Brien. From his early teens he hurled with Cuala in south Dublin because he didn't have a team in St Pat's. All of those experiences and interactions help develop better understanding in both directions. But they would not survive if they weren't able to play at the level they do or demonstrate the discipline they do routinely or offer the commitment.
For a few years, hurling in St Pat's stopped and the adult players had to go elsewhere to play. When it was revived around 2011 they had trouble getting people to take over the team. Neary knew some of the players through previous stints with other clubs and from his time working on secondment for his job in the court service as a Leinster Council games promotion officer in Wicklow and north Wexford. He managed the county from 1999 to 2004 and was county team trainer for the last two years.
"They struggled three years ago to get someone to look after the team," says Neary. "It was a big step for me to go into that club at that stage. Since then the connection has got stronger and stronger. The last two years I was asked to take over two of the other top teams; it was an easy move to make, I had a very cushy number with top facilities. But I feel that outside of St Pat's there isn't a big appetite to take on the position and a change of management could see things go in the other direction. That is a big risk, the players need stability.
"The senior players drive a lot of what is happening in St Pat's. They came to me, asked could I do it. When they came to ask me, I was undecided about it. I had another couple of offers from outside the county at the time and was looking into taking a break. Eventually they persisted and I said OK, I will do this.
"They were all members of the Traveller community who approached me. If you go to any hurling match in the county, if they are not playing themselves you will see a large contingent of players watching the game. They are huge supporters of the county team. They go to Donegal, Derry and Down, you will see Pat's followers there. These are savage four or five-hour trips."
Neary is currently deciding if he will carry on for a fourth year, but getting to a county final remains a tantalising goal. "It's a big challenge when 75 per cent of your team is going to be members of the Traveller community. Let's be honest. I am not too sure how easy it would be to attract somebody to that. You are in the unknown category - there is no other team with such numbers. Lots of people told me 'don't go near them' and all this. But I don't believe in that; it is a challenge for me.
"I knew they had players who were capable of playing at a higher level. I knew they had to make serious changes in discipline, to their style of play. Some played as individuals a bit. We needed to address that. We also had the best forward in the county at the time, Andy O'Brien. In the semi-final last year against Bray, I think he got 3-6. I knew all about him. So I needed to develop more players and develop that team ethos more. And stabilise the team defensively, they were conceding a lot of scores. I would have seen that.
"I am a huge believer in discipline - they had to stop talking back. Previously we could have been a bit loose with our tongue; we tightened all that up. What has happened is that we have become very disciplined."
Neary was born in Glasnevin, hurled with Na Fianna and made the Dublin panel in 1986. After getting married he moved down to Wicklow. Being involved with a team packed with Travellers has naturally deepened his interest in the plight of that community. The extent of their involvement in a senior hurling team is off the charts, way beyond the norm, and worthy of admiration. But how many sponsors will line up to support what they do?
"If they were not competitive people would not care." says Neary. "Realistically three of the strongest forwards in Wicklow are members of the Traveller community - two from Pat's and one from Bray. So they are very welcome in the county set-up because they are obviously going to contribute. I am not too sure if the welcome will be that open for the next group of players.
"I know the prejudice they can suffer, the day-to-day prejudice that affects their lives - I know, I have been with them for three years. Now there are two sides to everything, I don't want to paint them as angels. I know how it is. But I know how areas like fundraising and team bonding can be challenging.
"I think it is really important that the team is treated on a level playing pitch when it comes to matches. Obviously the team needs to be respected and treated fairly from all levels because there have been occasions where it hasn't been the case. They need to be treated fairly by all levels of the Association. I am a bit concerned that this is not always the case in important games when important calls are being made."
With only half a dozen senior hurling teams in Wicklow, Neary says that the county needs all the hurlers they can muster. They have beaten all teams in the Wicklow senior championship in recent years except the current champions Glenealy. Last year they were in Tullamore where their Leinster league final against Ballyboden, which they won, acted as a curtain-raiser to the Leinster SHC game between Galway and Dublin. The winning team photograph was taken with a large crowd in the background - something they will all treasure for years to come, the Traveller and non-Traveller players and mentors who were part of that day.
The close relationship and mutual dependence that exists between Neary and his players is clear from being in their company. "Every team knows that when they play St Pat's they have a game on their hands," he says proudly. "That is huge for me and for them that is very satisfying - they have gone from no-hopers to challengers."
And he adds that there is still room for improvement. He might be thinking of the next step in what has already been an incredible and unique journey. There is so much the world could learn from it.
Sunday Indo Sport