Sunday 23 March 2014

My Address to the GAA's Inaugural National Health and Wellbeing Seminar

During the Summer of 2013, 14 of my club colleagues and I took part in an event to cycle from Malin to Mizen Head over four days to raise funds for our new club development. As we departed Donegal, leapt through Leitrim, sailed through Sligo, rolled along the roads of Roscommon and galloped across Galway over the first couple of days, we spoke amongst ourselves of how truly beautiful our country is when viewed from the perspective of the open road and the slower pace of a bike.
 We crossed through Clare and limped on through Limerick, climbed Molls Gap and descended the other side, gliding into Glengariff and finally motored on to Mizen Head. Each village and town had its differences, its own unique identity and landmarks that set it apart from all the others. However, there was one constant throughout our journey. 

That constant was the GAA fields proudly located in each and every hamlet, village, town and city we traversed. Some were new developments, pristine fields and clubhouses with the most up to date amenities for its players and administrators whilst others reflected the natural wear and tear of a busy and oft used facility, whose ball alley walls were eroded from the impact of a million sliothars as a result of the daily practice of its players to fine tune their silky skills, the same way a coastline erodes from the daily waves of the ocean. You could feel the history and romance in these old venues, the thousands of souls who must have graced these sacred grounds, performing feats of magic and bravery with their camans and feet and hands. Similarly, you could visualise the new local heroes that were going to emerge in the modern club developments and create their own history, memories and unbreakable bonds of friendships over the coming decades.
The sights of these venues heartened us and filled us all with a renewed pride and enthusiasm, knowing that we are a part of an organisation that is far bigger than us all individually but connects and binds our communities and our people in a myriad of tangible and intangible ways.  

An organisation that is owned by no one but belongs to all. An organisation that reaches from the top of Malin Head to the tip of Mizen head and everywhere in between.
 An organisation whose membership spans the ages and the sexes, where there is an outlet for the athlete and the administrator, the electrician and the engineer, the employed and unemployed, the old and the young.

It’s for these reasons and many more that there is no organisation better placed within our island to embrace the challenges to enhance the Health and Wellbeing of our members and our communities.
This area covers a broad spectrum and one of those is the Mental Health and Emotional Wellness of our people.

 Our members give a lot to our organisation in terms of effort and energy and I firmly believe we in the Gaelic Athletic Association have a sacred responsibility to these same people and the wider community to create the atmosphere and culture where people can feel the safety in facing up to their inner problems and create the support structures to help them on their path back to health.
That we can say to our people that it’s okay to not feel okay, affirm and encourage the message that it is an act of strength, courage and most of all, kindness to yourself to address your emotional difficulties and seek some assistance.

That our clubhouses, gyms, ball alleys, meeting rooms and GAA fields can become a sanctuary of support for these people the same way they did for me during my difficulties.
Over 800 people on this island of Ireland end their lives by suicide each year but in reality the figure well over a thousand. The graves of our dead from these deaths may appear to be silent but they are sending out a powerful message that is echoing loudly across our land of the internal turmoil many of our people are enduring.

 Over 60,000 are admitted to A&E departments each year with self harming injuries, the method that is used by many of our women in despair to give outer, physical expression to their inner pain, shattering the myth that our female population are more effective at dealing with or discussing their real emotional issues.
The startling reality is that Ireland has the highest rate of suicide amongst young females in Europe and the second highest amongst young men.

 But these are only the tip of the iceberg. What of our countless thousands that are living lives of quiet desperation and silent misery. The World Health Organisation says that by 2030, Depression will be the number one health problem in the world.
Let’s not just focus on the statistics and numbers for these never tell the human story behind them. These people are our brothers and sisters, our Mothers and Fathers, our sons and daughters, our friends and neighbours, our hurlers, footballers and camogie players, our coaches and Chairmen, our Secretaries and ladies committees, our men that line our fields and man the scoreboards.

It’s the 18 year old young man I spoke to during the week from Belfast who loves his Gaelic football but because of his attraction to other young men, is hurt each time a fellow teammate, supporter or coach, either unwittingly or purposely uses the word ‘gay’ in a derogatory and belittling manner and forces him further back in to his shell, denying him the opportunity to feel free to express and live this part of his life and so no longer gets enjoyment from participating and competing in our games.
 It’s the 67 year old woman in Laois who writes to me and describes the isolation and loneliness she feels since the death of her husband who was a lifelong member and officer in her local GAA club and now feels forgotten about in her local community.

It’s Galway hurler Niall Donoghue who thrilled thousands in this venue less than 18 months ago on All Ireland Hurling Final day with his hurling skills and bravery, yet now lies cold in a grave in Kilbeacanty after ending his life through suicide last year. I visited his grave on the outskirts of Kilbeacanty and it brought me back to how close I was to doing a similar thing myself. As his cousin Niall McDonagh and I knelt and said a quiet prayer, the heavens opened and hailstones hurtled from the skies and Niall’s final resting place reminded us both of the absolute finality, utter tragedy and immeasurable loss that suicide is. We visited his home place, I sat, spoke and ate with his beautiful but broken hearted father Francis who would gladly trade every medal and achievement his son ever attained to just have him walk in the door again each evening.
My travels around Ireland over the last few months, giving talks to schools, sports clubs, Mental Health organisations and meeting with individuals has exposed me to the carnage that depression, addiction, suicide and unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety is causing throughout our land to our people, our families and our communities.

The cacophony of screaming and distress, mostly silent or behind the masks we each wear daily, largely goes unheard and unseen.

Each day I receive e-mails, letters or phone calls from people that are struggling with their Mental Health and many are from people who are suffering in silence. They endure this daily and nightly misery on their own, carrying the burden of despair and fear because of the stigma and taboo that still surrounds this issue in our country.

Our health and Wellbeing committees can do much to break down these taboos and stigmas and help to end this killer silence.

    A man was walking along a deserted beach at sunset. As he walked he could see a young boy in the distance, as he drew nearer he noticed that the boy kept bending down, picking something up and throwing it into the water.
Time and again he kept hurling things into the ocean.

As the man approached even closer, he was able to see that the boy was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach and, one at a time he was throwing them back into the water.

The man asked the boy what he was doing, the boy replied,"I am throwing these washed up starfish back into the ocean, or else they will die through lack of oxygen. "But", said the man, "You can't possibly save them all, there are thousands on this beach, and this must be happening on hundreds of beaches along the coast. You can't possibly make a difference."

The boy looked down, frowning for a moment; then bent down to pick up another starfish, smiling as he threw it back into the sea. He replied,
"I made a huge difference to that one!"

So it is with us in the GAA. We can and have to make a difference for the person that is in reach of our hand. We can make a difference for the boy in Belfast by ensuring our venues and fields are places where all can feel welcome to play no matter the colour of their skin, the God they pray to or whom they choose to love.
We can make a difference for the 67 year old woman in Laois to ensure that she doesn’t have to feel she is isolated and alone and forgotten about.

We can’t make a difference for Niall Donoghue, his life has ended but we can and we have a responsibility to those many others experiencing inner turmoil.
The Persian poet Rumi says ‘Yesterday I was clever and I wanted to change the world, today I am wise and so I am changing myself.’  We have to be wise and innovative and creative and brave in transforming our culture within our organisation in how we view and value ourselves and those around us.

No matter how technologised our society becomes, the cravings of the human soul and spirit and heart will never change. The inward yearning of each human being to be valued and appreciated for their own unique and sacred presence, the desire to love and be loved, the need to belong to something outside of themselves has and will always be at the core of each individual we encounter.     
By being imaginative and courageous, our Health and Wellness committees can help to promote that environment where the above needs can be met so that first and foremost, it’s the presence of each individual in our association that is valued above all else, that it’s the richness and fullness of our people’s inner lives that is far more important than the richness of our Treasurer’s accounts or the fullness of our trophy cabinets.

 In that atmosphere of respect, our members can emerge from the protective shells that we all build around aspects of our true selves and so be able to live far more healthier and fulfilled lives and where those in distress can feel the necessary safety and support to be able to break their silence and begin their journey back to wellness.
I genuinely find the modern GAA player to be a phenomenal species. Driven, disciplined, committed, loyal, supportive, broad minded. They go out on a field and for 70 minutes play a warrior’s sport with ferocity, passion and fire. When the game is over, I don’t believe the current generation of players are leaving their warrior spirit on the field until the next game.

They are carrying the mantle of it with them in to their dressing rooms, training fields, homes, workplaces and communities.  They are evolving into warriors of the soul and spirit.
They are determined that the issues that are affecting them and their teammates are not allowed to be hidden, silenced and not spoken about like times of old. They are passionate about showing solidarity with their teammates and are willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with each other, whether it be with issues like addiction, unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety, sexuality or Mental Health.

We in our Health and Wellbeing committees need to tap into and build on that spirit.
My journeys and experiences of the last number of months have exposed me to stories of terrible tragedy, pain and darkness and I have shed a lot of tears in that time.

Everywhere I go though, I also see the seeds of hope for our present and our future. There is a growing momentum amongst our people to see and embrace change in how we are within ourselves and with each other. There are more of us realising that the dogmas and ways of old are no longer acceptable and more again are beginning to find their own voices and throw off the shackles of repression that have manacled generations of our people.
 There is a voracious hunger amongst our people for knowledge, guidance and support in these areas. Again, I see a major role for our Health and wellbeing committees in these areas.

I also get great hope and inspiration from the initiative shown by Dessie Farrell, Siobhan Earley and the other staff in the GPA. Their energy and enthusiasm for progress, their appetite for work, their awareness of the needs of their members and the support structures that they have built and continue to build to facilitate the progress and growth of their player’s inner and outer lives is an example to organisations the world over.  
The GAA has enriched my life in a myriad of magical and wonderful ways. I still get great satisfaction and enjoyment from competing and playing hurling as I currently near my twentieth year of adult hurling with my club in Cloyne. There was a time however where it looked like I mightn’t make it to a fifth year.

I know from my own experiences that without good Mental Health and Emotional Wellness, there is no health and no capacity to truly enjoy the experience and reap the intangible benefits of being a player or a member of our magnificent association.
 The development of better facilities, the advancements in our coaching standards, the growth and increased use of sport science have all helped to improve the lives of our players and administrators but they mean less and little to a member that is gripped in the tentacles of depression, whose life is filled with unhealthy levels of stress or anxiety or is afflicted with gambling, success, alcohol, sport, drug or work addictions.

It’s why I truly feel that the work that we have been tasked with in our Health and Wellbeing committees could be the most important work that any GAA committee has ever been assigned to undertake.
The challenges confronting the members we represent are vast and complex but our island’s wider society has always looked to the GAA to lead the way in rising with and embracing the difficulties of our times. In some areas we have succeeded and in others we have failed.

More than ever, our people need us to lead the way and be the beacon of light and bedrock of support to empower them to be able to deal effectively with the various Health and Wellness issues they are experiencing.

Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism once said:

‘This existence of ours is as transient as Autumn clouds
To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance,
A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky,
Rushing by like a torrent down a steep mountain.
We have stopped for a moment on our cosmic journey to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share, to play hurling, football, camogie and to manage our games.

This is a precious moment, but it is temporary, as the lives of Donal Walsh in Kerry, Cormac McAnallen in Tyrone and many others have shown. If we can share this moment with caring, lightheartedness, authenticity and love, we will allow the opportunity for each of us to live with freedom in our minds and joy in our hearts and create a far better world and sporting organisation for us all to live, work and play in. And then, and then, this moment will have been worthwhile.
The National Health and Wellbeing Committee is genuinely looking forward to working with you all in a joint effort to ensure that this moment, this time and our era together will be a worthwhile experience for all of our members and communities in both our inner and outer worlds.

I wish you all well on our continued journey together.


  1. Conor,as a teen girl living in a village in Cork which has been wrecked by suicides for the past number of years ,I just want to say thank you for standing up for those who are afraid or can not seek help.I am not yet 18 and I have seen far too many people take their lives over the past couple of years.But ,it hasn't been until your recent blogs and interviews that I have gained some knowledge about what the true meaning of depression is. You have undoubtedly become a beacon of light for many people across our country. Your honesty and almost poetic use of language have managed to slowly erode people's opinions about mental health. By discussing it you are engaging us in this extremely important topic. I merely want to say a quick thank you for putting yourself out there. Your work is crucial to the young and old around our little island , and my thank you really isn't enough!
    Best wishes in the future

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