One for the GAA fans – “New York, we’re on our way”

Firstly, a short apology to you and a self-adminstered rap on the knuckles for me, for the shocking state of neglect in which I’ve left the blog lately. I’ve half a dozen semi-structured posts in drafts, but a busy schedule of commitments over the past few months (most notably, helping to get the new Mayo supporter’s group, Club ’51 off the ground) has ensured that most of my writings lately have had a distinctly sports-flavoured theme.

Anyway, here’s a piece I wrote for the lovely folks in the Mayo News during the week, about looking forward to the 2014 GAA Championship, and our upcoming trip to the Big Apple to play New York GAA in the first round. Enjoy, and normal service will return soon.

Now that the long evenings are kicking in, the dark days of winter are starting to feel like a distant memory and with them, the deflation of last September’s All-Ireland defeat. I don’t know about you, but that winter felt like a hell of a long one.

The last time I had the pleasure of writing for this fine publication, I was scribbling in feverish anticipation from exile in Dublin just before the final. The spirits were high, the dream was alive and I was harbouring gleeful fantasies of watching the next-door neighbours whipping down the blue flags in disgust (SIX of them, no less) while we painted the street green and red.

We all know how that turned out.

Thankfully, we’re emerging from hibernation. The neighbours have finally taken down the blasted bunting and washed the blue paint off the cat. After a roller-coaster of a league, the Green and Red Army are cranking up the engine for another shot at the big one. And what a beginning we have in store. Mayo’s Championship adventure begins, not in the salubrious surroundings of Hyde Park or Pearse Stadium, but smack bang in the middle of the Big Apple. As away games go, it’s a bit of a stretch, and a long way from McHale Road, but the Mayo faithful are taking it in their stride and are decamping in their droves to NYC for the May bank holiday weekend.

And in their hundreds they are going. Down west for Easter, I ran into a few familiar faces from the schooldays around Ballina. Nearly everyone I met had the bag packed for the Bronx. Some, I suspect, might have difficulty telling their free-ins from their free-outs, but they’re coming along for the party regardless. It’s curious, for a county that still feels the effects of the downturn more than most, but where Mayo football is concerned, being sensible is scoffed at. The New York fixture has been on the cards for a while, and for many, this is the holiday of a lifetime combined with the love of a lifetime. So you can bet your bottom dollar (see what I did there?) that the piggy banks have seen serious action over the past few months in order to make this trip a reality. And given GAA President Liam O’Neill’s recent remarks on the future of New York in the Connacht Championship, it’s possible that this could be one of the last opportunities we get to see Mayo play in Gaelic Park. So there’s a sense of Carpe Diem around this one.

This trip is about more than just the football, however. The football is only an excuse. Rather, this is a chance for Mayo people to reconnect with family and loved ones in the US and beyond. It’s a chance for emigrants all over the US to reconnect with home. And that goes far beyond Mayo – you can bet that a significant number attending will have no Mayo connections, but will relish the chance of a taste of home and of the Championship that would otherwise be off limits, for whatever reason. I’m told of a family with members in Ireland, France and Chicago, who haven’t stood in the same room in over 25 years, convening in New York. Many others making the trip will be meeting new family members for the very first time. This goes far, far beyond football. It’s the trip of a lifetime to the City That Never Sleeps. (It’s fair to suggest that much of the Mayo support heading over there won’t be sleeping much either.)

For New York GAA, meanwhile, this is the culmination a year’s worth of hard training. Unlike others in the Championship, they don’t have access to the back door. It’s do or die for them on May 4th. This is as good as it gets, and you can be sure they will pull out all the stops to greet Mayo, both on and off the pitch.

Behind the scenes, in the dark days of winter, encouraged by the defiant determination of James Horan’s camp, the faithful were galvanising themselves for another year. One of the results of this was Club ’51, a supporter’s club set up by the fans for the fans, to get behind the team. The club quickly grew legs, and as well as providing practical information on where to park your car at an away game, it has proved a lifeline (some might say a support network) for those of us suffering the hangover of a disappointing September. Being involved in the club has demonstrated to me beyond all doubt the resilience, the optimism, the sense of fun but mostly the proud, infallible spirit of the Mayo people when it comes to football. Club ’51 is embarking on a mission to demonstrate just how far-reaching the Mayo support is, and planning to send a flag on tour around the world to be photographed with fans in all sorts of far-flung places. The first stop on that journey is New York.The authorities have been alerted, the hatches have been battened and the Naked Cowboy will be naked no more, but clad in Mayo’s finest cloth. We’ll be painting the town red … and green.

May the 4th be with you. New York, we’re on our way.

Photo: Bryan Sweeney (via Joe.ie)

Photo: Bryan Sweeney (via Joe.ie)

This post was originally published in the Mayo News on Tuesday 29th May, 2014. 

Mental Health, Mixed Messages and the Green Ribbon

It’s May, a new summer season is upon us (apparently), and around us a new conversation is finding its feet. Discussion of mental health issues and suicide, in particular, has never been more prominent than in recent times, yet rarely has the conversation been so intense and the messages been more mixed.

We’ve had weeks of robust debate around abortion, where the term ‘suicide’ has been bandied around frequently, carelessly. Public discussion is hugely important in shaping perceptions of mental health, and regardless of the abortion issue, suggestions of large teams of professionals having to ‘verify’ the state of mind of a suicidal pregnant woman arguably sent a subtle, but potentially very damaging message.

We’ve witnessed also the late Donal Walsh’s impassioned campaign against suicide. At 16, Donal knew he was dying, and spoke eloquently of his anger that some of his peers were choosing to end their lives, when he so badly wanted to live. There is little doubt that Donal’s brave handling of his illness earned him respect and admiration. While he may not have fully acknowledged the mindset that drives someone to take their own life, nevertheless if his sentiment, ‘suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem’ resonated with just one young person and made them think twice, then it hit the mark.

Another to add his voice to the discussion has been musician Niall Breslin, who’s spoken candidly about the crippling panic attacks he suffered for years. The significance of someone like Bressie – likeable and popular among the younger, more vulnerable demographic – talking openly  about his own mental health simply cannot be underestimated.  He is also an active campaigner who insists that suicide should just not be an option; it “should not even be part of the conversation”.  Instead, he focuses on the practical, and is adamant that young people need to know exactly where to turn. While there are many options, he says, quite correctly that they are not always clear or obvious, and they need to be so. Bressie has also highlighted the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption – something that for various reasons is routinely ignored in mental health discussions but undoubtedly contributes in no small way to the problem.

What’s great about Bressie’s input is not just the way he normalises mental health, but his reassurance that mental ill-health is treatable, and that we have the power to make positive changes. Too often these conversations focus on negative outcomes like suicide, but it’s vital to show that frequently outcomes are positive, people do recover and that we can and should take steps to mind our minds like we do our bodies.

Last Saturday, the spectacularly poignant Pieta House Darkness into Light walk saw 40,000 people in parks nationwide rising before dawn, donning yellow t-shirts and walking together towards the sunrise in a powerful show of solidarity, remembrance, and hope. The emotion was palpable – unsurprising considering that pretty much every participant had in some way been touched by suicide. All were walking to send a powerful message that change is needed, and quickly.

May is Green Ribbon month. Like pink ribbons are synonymous with breast cancer, the green ribbon is an international symbol – of challenging the stigma of mental health problems. See Change, the National Stigma Reduction Partnership has launched a month-long campaign to get people talking openly.

We are however, already doing that, and often the advice given to those who are struggling is to “talk”. What we don’t acknowledge is that often, starting conversations is the hardest part, and that many of us simply don’t know how. Even harder is knowing how to listen, without necessarily offering solutions which may not be helpful. The Green Ribbon campaign offers helpful, practical tips. Simple things. Ask someone how they are. Don’t feel the need to jump in with a solution – just listen. Be patient. Sometimes, tiny things like a text message make the biggest difference.

Above all, we must realise that collectively we all have responsibility. An act of kindness costs nothing, while simply looking out for those around you can be priceless. This is the season of hope. Let’s make it a mission to spread some light this May. And get talking.

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Published on Newstalk.ie on Friday 17th May 2013