Dr Ciarán Kearney: ‘We need urgency without a constant sense of emergency’

Dr Ciarán Kearney: ‘We need urgency without a constant sense of emergency’
Among many other things, Dr Ciarán Kearney is a researcher, one who was aware of the coronavirus threat. ‘There have been warnings about this for a good period of time about what was ahead. And there will be a time when those who neglected the warnings may be asked to account for that. But now is probably not the time,’ he says. Picture: Gerd Curley

For years, the football manager Paddy Tally has had a figure alongside him.

Dressed entirely in black, sporting a cap with the flag of the Republic of South Africa, itself a symbol of the end of apartheid.

With Tally, he has been deep in the background of management teams in Derry, St Mary’s University, and now with Down.

Those in Ulster with nerdish tendencies will have noticed him pop up in similar roles with Kilcoo and Trillick footballers and Dunloy hurlers.

Dr Ciarán Kearney’s chief role, according to one player that worked under him, is one of building a culture around a team.

Hang on. We know what you are thinking. Sounds a bit, well, fluffy?

But speak to players that have worked with him and managers that have brought him in and you get a sense of what he can bring.

At the National Games Development Conference last January, he delivered a workshop on how to extract the best from players as individuals, to help the collective.

The ‘me’, combining with the ‘we’.

In his brief interview for the official GAA channels afterwards, he kept his message vague, but spoke about needing to appreciate players as “complex individuals, beings. We have lots of things going on in our lives and change over time.”

Since that talk, the world has not so much changed, but been radically overhauled.

Perhaps there is nobody better in Gaelic Games qualified — as a Behavioural Scientist — to make sense of it.

Prior to now, he has never granted an interview to a media publication.

He notes: “My strong inclination is towards discretion — minimum profile with maximum positive effect.”

But he will speak now.

Dr Ciarán Kearney: ‘We need urgency without a constant sense of emergency’
Down manager Paddy Tally, who works closely with Kearney. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Everything has changed.

Last week, his friend, the renowned Professor Aidan Moran of UCD, died after a short illness.

Kearney collaborated with Moran and Dr John Kremer on the third edition of Pure Sport: Sports Psychology in Action, published last year.

He will not attend a wake. There will be no public funeral. This is the new reality for everyone. As days of this turn into weeks and months, the horror of Covid-19 will reveal itself in semi-private funerals, Church bells pealing with few attendees as another beloved relative is committed to the ground.

With his background, someone like Kearney can frame what the human experience may feel like now, what it will become, and how we can get through this.

“How we mourn them (our dead) in the time ahead may need to change,” he begins.

Even allowing for conservatism, the projections on death tolls are terrifying. That’s before you factor in the images and footage of the media of wide sections of British society acting out their own ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ philosophy as something to be taken seriously, rather than a blithe World War Two slogan appropriated for teacups and sofa cushions.

“I would be cautious about painting an intricate picture. The what-ifs could be very different as there are a lot of variables in this.”

He cites a theory often-quoted by Moran: “We have 64-66,000 thoughts a day. The average human being with a healthy mind will have that many thoughts a day. Some of them we will dwell on, others fleeting.

“But you don’t have to believe everything you think. And even the scenario-painting and the prospect of the time ahead, not thinking too far ahead is a healthy choice to make at the minute.

“Hope is a very important part of it. That people can see beyond what is about to happen. Some of what is about to happen we can’t control, but we need to be able to see beyond it as well as focus on day-to-day manageable, practical micro-goals.

“Seeing beyond this, I think we could recover not just as a community or as a society, but we could recover a sense of the values that are most important. And I would like to think that will be reflected in the way the Gaelic Athletic Association and other sports approach the time beyond.”

Part of Kearney’s roles, aside from being a project co-ordinator with the Gaelfast coaching scheme designed to reinvigorate Gaelic Games in Belfast, is that of a researcher. In his work, he was aware of the Coronavirus threat.

There have been warnings about this for a good period of time about what was ahead. And there will be a time when those who neglected the warnings may be asked to account for that. But now is probably not the time.

“We could fix the blame but we have little time to face the challenge and find a way forward and that for me is the focus. Can we zero in on what are the critical issues for people to learn and know and share that information in a way that is meaningful and practical?”

In the meantime, there is a lot of mental trauma in the post.

“I think the loss of control has unstabilsed society. That’s something that is a common theme.

“A loss of control underpins much anxiety and some mental illnesses. Even experiences of depression and a concept called ‘learned helplessness’; that can be linked to a sense of things being out of our control.

“There are steps we can take to increase our sense of control that people feel in their lives.

“That’s critical to ensure a sense of agency, the importance of choice, the small choices that we make each day. That we understand together can have a positive effect in our heads.”

Language is a starting point.

“All I can say is that where politics fails, I believe people will lead. I have an inherent faith in the ability of human beings to adapt and overcome and I think sometimes in the midst of crises, the language that the British Prime Minister used last week of ‘catastrophe’ — that can confuse and maybe unsettle us.”

Instead, Kearney points to the small things happening in society. Shop owners in west Belfast are now opening their doors early and only allowing in the elderly to do their shopping and get the new supplies before others are allowed entry.

In Ballymurphy, one of the most impoverished and affected areas by the conflict, people are putting up signs from their windows with the warming sentiment; ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine’, meaning; ‘People live in one another’s shelter.’

Of all of the changes that this country is about to experience, not all need to be negative. “Before, we had the economy, we had society. There were things in Irish society and on this island,” he states, citing The Brehon Laws as one such example.

“There are civilisations that existed long before now, and they understood the need for balance — and the need for community looking after one another was at the centre of that.

“How can we translate that to today? We start with our own families. We are facing into something that in my generation we have not experienced. We have experienced conflict, war, but not this.

“We draw lessons from before, but the greatest service we can provide now is to teach our children the way of living, a way of responding to the crisis as a challenge. A way of thinking or relating to one another that fortifies our own mental health, but also humanises the way we look at things.”

Picture: Gerd Curley
Picture: Gerd Curley

That can come from the most unlikely of scenarios. The other day, Kearney stopped off at a filling station on St Patrick’s Day and had a brief chat with the person on the cash register who said that the Chinese people “didn’t inform the world of Covid-19 because their economy depends so much on export.”

As much as he wasn’t prepared to get into an argument, he wasn’t going to allow a casual stigmatisation like that pass.

We see what happens at times like this, it provokes stereotypes and attitudes. I view that as a racist attitude, as a blame attitude.

“So I said: ‘Well actually the World Health Organisation were aware of this and tried to inform Governments around the world. And some didn’t listen.’ And she said, maybe I was right, and we left it like that.

“But for me working in the field I work in, ensuring selfishness and stigmatisation doesn’t occur, challenging attitudes and more importantly, helping people understand that how we think and feel about this is going to influence how we act in response to it. That, to me, is simple psychology in a practical way. Can we think about what we face into?

“I think in terms of social living and a way of life, our children are going to learn from us in the next while in the way we live, the way we model that behaviour and the attitudes we hold, and the way we express that. We are going to learn how we face a challenge and that is one of the most important things we can learn and reflect on at this time.”

It hasn’t been lost on Kearney that within the teams and individuals he works with, in a sporting sense, the sudden shunt out of a deeply regimented world of physical activity, group exercise, and a common goal has suddenly been wrenched away.

As indulgent as that can sound from a remove, it threatens the equilibrium of the huge number of participants in Gaelic football and hurling, camogie, handball, ladies’ football and the social and belonging element — the shared journey — the sports give to wider communities.

“A coach that was in contact with me has been experiencing a bit of anxiety. And a player as well. They were from two very different teams and environments that I am not practically involved with anymore.

“But I think it reflects the wider anxiety within society that is fuelled by uncertainty and legitimate concerns by inaction by Government and the level of preparedness.

“I think maintaining contact, staying connected is crucial. I also think some of the conversations I have had, I would like to think those skills, those techniques become all the more important now.”

In the past, Kearney has used the examples of the extreme isolation that Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean experienced in their journey to the South Pole and he believes a lot can be gained from telling that story.

“When people find themselves in confined spaces unable to do what they would otherwise want to do, there are things that they can do which still maintain mental health,” he explains.

“For example, self-talk. How we talk to ourselves about circumstances and attitudes, values and beliefs. How we relate to the challenges, which focuses on what we can control. There are many things that are out of our control but what we can control are the goals we have.

“The goals might become smaller, where you focus on today and what you are going to do.”

He adds: “There is a lot of talk about danger and threat at the minute, we need to push that back. We need urgency without a constant sense of emergency if I can put it that way.

“I would still frame it as a challenge, focus on what resources we have and what strengths the community has. That’s vitally important at this stage.”

Right now, we need our touchstones. For Kearney, Nelson Mandela provides that.

He’s been to South Africa five times, in an effort to understand the man’s struggle. Walking in his shoes to sense how he understood his own environment. He maintains his connections with those that helped to overcome apartheid and came out the other side of that struggle.

There are things we can take from that story.

“Mandela’s imprisonment over 27 years and all that was required, the adaptations he had to make, the ways in which he had to motivate himself. The vision of a time beyond, which he had to maintain and a sense of hope, the sense of connection,” says Kearney.

“And so as difficult as our circumstances seem, we have many things going for us in our society and I think that our ability to draw inspiration from other places, we should be boundless in that and generous in sharing that with one another in the time ahead.”

Be safe.

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