Sticking with Shillelagh through tough times pays off for its people

A resurgence of community spirit is being translated into economic and social development in the community, writes Fergus Finlay
Sticking with Shillelagh through tough times pays off for its people

C’mon Ross! C’mon Ross! You can do it!” That wasn’t actually me shouting at the sidelines. At least, I hope I didn’t shout it out loud – that’s not an appropriate way to be behaving at an under-8s rugby match. But let me tell you it’s hard to carry on like a dignified elder statesman when your 7-year old grandson wrestles the ball from a lad bigger than himself and then sets off on an arcing, jinking run that ends in a try for Tullow.

The fact that my grandson plays for the same club as Sean O’Brien, and already looks like a combination of BOD and Conor Murray (have I mentioned what a brilliant player he is?) is not supposed to be the point of this column. It was hard to count, but I’m guessing 70 or 80 boys and girls, up to about the age of 13 or 14, had travelled from Tullow to Gorey for a minis rugby blitz.

They were all accompanied by their parents (and quite a few grandparents), so there were a lot of doting rugby fans on the sidelines. Each team at each age level played a series of three short matches, maybe ten minutes a half, so perhaps eighteen or twenty matches were packed into an hour and half, spread over specially marked out pitches.

When the final whistle blew, and after Ross had scored a half-dozen tries (I may have forgotten to tell you how great he is at rugby) we all tucked into a massive spread of sandwiches and buns that the Gorey Rugby Club members had laid out on trestle tables outside the club house. There was lashings of tea for the adults and big jugs of orange for the kids, and you couldn’t have felt more welcome if you were Michael D.

It’s amazing how some things never change in Ireland, even though we think they do. I can remember events just like that from when I was a kid (although I wasn’t as good a rugby player as my grandson), with the same piles of sandwiches and lashings of tea. And the warm hospitality in Gorey is routinely reciprocated all over the country, weekend after weekend in rugby, soccer and GAA clubs.

Just that one event on Sunday morning involved preparation of the pitch, a dozen or more coaches and mentors, loads of people preparing and serving food, and I’d guess an awful lot of cleaning up afterwards. All of it was time and effort given freely and voluntarily, with a lot of smiling.

I’ve written here before about watching Irish towns and villages collapse under the weight of austerity. When you visit Irish towns that depend on the holiday season, and realise that not just the seasonal businesses are gone but a lot else besides, your heart sinks for the future of those towns. You expect hotels and restaurants to close during the winter months, but not the bank, the supermarket, the chemist shop, the local hairdresser. When you see them all gone, you become really afraid that they’re never going to come back.

But when all else fails in Ireland, there’s always the people. I was watching Tommy Tiernan on telly the other night – an old gig, where he talks about when Irish people had money. We went skiing, he said – imagine us, skiing. We frightened the lives out of all the posh Europeans, at the top of the Alps in their Prada and Dolce & Gabbana outfits, when we arrived, equipped from head to toe in Aldi’s finest skiing gear.

We have a great gift for taking offence at that sort of joke, but the hidden truth in it is that Irish people, once they decide to take something on, take it on. And when they decide to take something on together, you can begin to see a difference.

Roughly half-way between Tullow Rugby Club and Gorey Rugby Club is the village of Shillelagh, where my grandkids live. We went down there for Halloween, in part to watch Ross play rugby (I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned how good he is at that), and in part, if I’m being honest, because I wanted to go trick or treating with my grandkids.

After Wicked Witch Katie, Count Dracula Mikey, and Grim Reaper Ross had stuffed their bags with what looked like a year’s supply of sticky sweets, we went down to the village hall to watch a scary movie with dozens of other kids from the village. More volunteers, more jugs of orange, more smiles.

The only thing is, a year or so ago Shillelagh didn’t have a village hall. There was a derelict old court house for sure, crumbling and damp – almost an icon of the village itself, a village that had lost nearly everything . Shillelagh is one of those places that suffers from the disadvantage not actually being on the road to anywhere – and like many other towns and villages around Ireland in recent years, it was, seemingly, on the road to nowhere.

Except for its people. It was they who came together to somehow or other turn the ruined old courthouse into a bustling community centre, where classes and other events are taking place every day. It was the people of the local community who turned a piece of waste ground at one end of the village into an activity playground, and who are starting to plant trees and shrubs to create a riverside amenity at the other end. Soon, the fundraising will start to ensure that the town is properly lit for Christmas. There’ll be another great moment for all the local kids when Santa Claus arrives to turn them on.

Of course towns and villages like Shillelagh need more than neighbourhood spirit. They need jobs located within the community, and that won’t happen in the sustainable numbers needed unless infrastructure (like broadband and phone reception, for instance) can be put right, and unless they can become attractive places to live and work in. That’s where the people come in. With their own leadership, they have made a visible difference to the look and feel of the village in a short time. With a little support from outside, they could turn it into a thriving little hub.

As I said earlier, I’m conscious that I wrote in this space a couple of years ago about the death of Irish towns. Now I’m not so sure. I see what’s happening in Shillelagh also happening in other towns and villages I know. I see a resurgence of community spirit everywhere, and I see it beginning to be translated into economic and social development as well as stronger community roots.

Shillelagh has the GAA as well, of course, and no town nor village in Ireland can thrive without the involvement of that extraordinary organisation, which has been so instrumental in building and sustaining community as well as sporting spirit. The village does, of course, need its own rugby club at some point in the near future. It will by then, naturally, have a rising young star, capable of attracting national attention to his little, recovering, Wicklow village. (Or have I forgotten to mention my grandson?)

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