Spending time reaps bigger rewards than flashing cash
By Ewan MacKenna
Go back to the flats yis shower of knackers.
Over the years, Paddy Christie got used to hearing it. So much so, he’d smile and tell culprits on sidelines across Dublin that if that was the case, he must be rich — after all, he lived in a house and additional property assumed wealth. But he never got used to his players having to hear it. The GAA was supposed to be about pride of place but this was his U10 Ballymun Kickhams team back in 1996 feeling nothing but shame about where they came from.
U2 once wrote ‘I see seven towers but I only see one way out,’ but if football was supposed to be about moments of escape, then you had to be unbreakable to think that lyric was inaccurate.
Such sentiments were shackled to them and followed that team all the way through their teenage years like a dark and heavy shadow.
By minor level, those in the club remember present-day corner-forward Ted Furman being singled out for particular humiliation. “Nigger,” was said to his face during a game, followed by “go back to your banana tree”. But if any of them reacted, those flats were brought up again and the inescapable cycle started all over. Cry without weeping, talk without speaking, scream without raising your voice.
“It’s still there, the knacker jibes, and it’s so offensive, particularly because it comes from people who should know so much better,” says club chairman Tom O’Donoghue. “Women are the worst, by far. I call them the Hyacinth Buckets. People think socially and culturally they are superior to us. With some kids it’ll make no difference but I tend not to let it go uncommented on. But sadly there are some people that you can’t talk to.”
O’Donoghue was there when it all started. His parents moved to Ballymun from Carlow in the 1950s, allowing him to witness Ireland’s worst planning disaster unfold. The seven 15-storey towers, the 19 eight-storey blocks and the 10 four-storey complexes were initially seen as the future of social housing and a desirable place to live for those uprooted from the inner city. But that perception didn’t linger. With the only shop in the area being initially located in the back of a van, there was an inevitable alienation and a coarse poverty that spread like a modern plague.
“I remember it,” he recalls. “Quick enough people started talking about here as if it was Rwanda or some warzone.”
“The moniker of Ballymun, there’s a prejudice against it and there always will be,” adds former chairman and former Louth and Cavan manager Val Andrews. “People have preconceived notions. If you say Ballymun to a country person, they’ll think working-class crime and drugs. But Ballymun Kickhams is a unique spectrum of humanity. It goes from the head of the debating society of Trinity to people who got into big trouble with the law. From highly educated consultants to people with no education at all. It’s a mix of purely Dublin backgrounds and first generation Dubs. Unique.”
But there’s another aspect that makes it unique. Soccer has always been the game of the ghettos in Ireland but not here. Indeed, by the 1980s, football was even threatening to make the area recognisable for something that was actually positive. Present-day manager Paul Curran may come from the other side of the city, but even he recalls a powerful side that won two county titles.
“An incredible team. About nine inter-county players — Rock, Hargan, McCaul, Sheehan, Deasy, Kearns, Carr and more. You always knew what you’d get. Honest and tough and talented.”
As good as they were though, Christie maintains that team very nearly brought the club to an end. He sees it as a warning every successful club should heed because with the senior side constantly flirting with glory, eyes were closed to the underage structures. By the mid-1990s, as a 19-year-old student who was years away from becoming one of the game’s great full-backs, he was forced to do something about it.
“We were rag-ball rovers,” remembers Christie. “I couldn’t believe how bad it was. Nearly the end of the line. It wasn’t that we were struggling to field teams from U10 upwards, there were no teams. There were dregs left lying around so all I could do was start at the bottom and start that U10 team and bring them up. But it wasn’t just about the club, it was about the area too, because the importance of getting kids out, having a social setting, that can’t be overvalued here.”
Since they won this year’s Dublin senior title, everyone has referred to the 13 of Christie’s U21 team that graduated and started the county final against Kilmacud Crokes. But from that U10 team there were the four diehards of Furman, Eddie Christie, Philly McMahon and Davy Byrne who wandered down to the local park for a training session because there wasn’t much else to be doing. The latter two came from the four-story block on Sillogue Avenue and would go on to play for Dublin, but initially, Christie laughs as he describes them as maniacs.
“In fairness the whole team were wild but fellas from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were always very appreciative of people spending time with them. People say give them money and that’ll help but I always found it was time that helped. They were always thanking you. Afterwards I did summer camps in other areas, and kids wouldn’t do what you’d say. You always felt they knew what was best for themselves.
‘My dad is this, my mom does this.’ I’ve never seen that here. The Ballymun kids could be difficult, there might be a few digging matches, but in general when you got them onside they were great.”
As they grew older, they grew mentally and matured through football. But physically? That was a different story. Going out to play juvenile games, Christie always noticed the stature of opponents and after a while it clicked with him.
“We were coming across the park and coming up against lads who had a nice glass of orange juice from Superquinn for breakfast with a bowl of cereal and a nice piece of toast. Our lads had Meanies all over their faces. The bigger ones would have the Mega Meanies.” The inadvertent Messi-style engineering wasn’t suited to football fields, but there was at least a trade-off.
“Davey Byrne has a vertical jump that’s crazy. Now growing up, whether he was jumping or why he was jumping, he’d probably laugh himself,” continues Christie. “McMahon, very pacey, maybe he was running a lot. And they’d all have very good ball skills. Why that is? Maybe it’s because they were there for so long, hanging around with little to do, kicking ball on the street. Also because of the environment, the fellas with a raised level of aggression, they could channel that. Some of these kids, in school it’s a negative thing, but on the field it’s not and when the battle was on, they’d usually come out on top and you could rely on them.”
He describes it as an outlet that kept guys sane. Andrews describes it as an outlet that saved lives. By 1999 Declan Small had started another U10 team and the club again began to bloom after too many cold and dark days. Coming back from lecturing in Tralee, Andrews admits that Kerry had taught him to think big in a way Ballymun never could have and he even decided to try and push for the first all-weather GAA pitch in the country to be developed. His vision meant he was forced to carry around a piece of turf in a Perspex box for three months and one night, he mentioned the figure of €1.2m to the treasurer.
“I was sure he had passed out. Genuinely. There was a bit of ‘Where do you think you are going building pitches like that out in Ballymun?’. In Foxrock you wouldn’t have had that problem.”
Then again, in Foxrock you could fundraise far more easily but in Kickhams, membership has always stayed low and local lottos have never really succeeded like they have in other places. Yet they built it and the kids came. Winter training for children could suddenly consist of more than indoor games of soccer. But with a huge debt left behind, the club put teams together that would attend every one of the five clinics a week held by Noel Ahern and Pat Carey in local bars. “We went one week, myself and Val were deputised for that,” recalls O’Donoghue.
“The pub opened at 10.30, we ordered some coffees, Noel came in and we got a very malevolent glance from him. Such a look. ‘For f**k sake will ye call off the dogs,’ he said. ‘No Noel, we won’t and I’ll tell you why. I’ve a pain in my arse going around for 20 years to politicians, including your brother, and getting nothing when all we are doing is something good for people’. Finally we went in and sat down, and we were under so much pressure. We ended up getting €400,000 though, granted at a time when money was fired about.”
Soon after, the majority of the flats came down. The local gardaí will tell you that helped as up to then, gangs would see them enter the towers, could run through the landing and into flats and hide, making drug dealing relatively safe. But it’s far easier to tear down walls compared to perceptions and this isn’t solely a happy story, it’s far more complex than that.
Sure, the club continued to prosper, not so much because of the pitch, but because of the people and they were Dublin U21 champions in 2007 and 2008. Last year they even won the Féile Peil na nÓg with a team Christie believes to be far more talented than the one that fuelled the current senior side. Yet still the abuse follows them.
“Most clubs are grand once they beat you,” he says. “But when we win, some clubs think they are better than us and get so nasty.”
“We can’t get carried away either,” notes Andrews. “Tearing down a lot of the flats has helped but is it really social engineering? Does it really address the social imbalance and wealth imbalance? It doesn’t. The chances of doing well in college coming from Ballymun? There are no expectations. Okay, as a club we are important but we had an U16 team one time and it’s become a who’s who of those locked up. We tried our best.
“There are fundamentally good people here but if you’ve one footballer who hangs around with six guys who smoke dope, will he convert them? No. But what the club does do is show people from different backgrounds that we are all the same. It can show them there is no reason why they shouldn’t have expectations and succeed. That’s a success even if we don’t win another game for 30 years.”
And that’s why their Dublin title and tomorrow’s Leinster campaign means more than any trophy. Recently Andrews heard some kids saying, “Yeah, Ballymun, we are the best in Dublin.”
It’s the same in Christie’s primary school where a couple of kids in the yard are kicking ball and talking about getting a bus to the far away land of Mullingar tomorrow. It’s more than a game here, you suggest to Curran, who only took charge of the senior team in January 2011. “Absolutely, so many of these players would have been growing up in Ballymun as 10-years-olds when things weren’t as calm as they are now. It’s a huge achievement to get these fellas to where they are. I’d like to think it’ll do the same for the next generation too and the success this year might help as it’s made people proud of Ballymun and given them a spring in their step for a while anyway.”
Suddenly they are reaching for the sky in a way the towers never did.
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