Gerry McGuinness felt he knew what lay ahead when he was voted in as president of the Community Games at last month’s AGM at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Sligo.
The kids may be the lifeblood of the Games but they don’t run without an army of 20,000 or so volunteers and maintaining those ranks is no easy task in an age of so many two-parent working families, increasing urbanisation, and all the other challenges endemic to modern life.
McGuinness has 24 years of involvement on his CV and he had plans. Strengthening their all-too-loose binds in the northern counties was an immediate one. Diversifying the funding model so it is less reliant on the support of Sport Ireland is a long-term project for all involved.
Little did anyone know what was coming next.
“I didn’t expect that within a week we would basically be shutting the whole thing down,” he says, “but they are crazy times.” That they are. Community Games’ events had already kicked-off in towns and villages around the country by the time the coronavirus began to infiltrate the same arteries. The provincial finals were due this month, the first of two national festivals in late May in Limerick.
All those plans and hopes and dreams have been put into hibernation now at a time when winter has taken its leave and the organisation was beginning to clear its throat and call out to the thousands of kids who compete in everything from soccer to skittles.
The last month has delivered a succession of blows to the sporting calendar. The Olympics and Euro 2020 have been pushed back a year, domestic sporting leagues have been frozen in time but none of those losses are more poignant than the sight of local fields and tracks lying unused.
The Saturday and Sunday morning hustle and bustle of kids throwing on jerseys and hunting for boots and spikes has been halted. Parents who may have moaned about being used as a chauffeur service for years are now rueing the daily stampede of feet through kitchens and sitting-rooms.
The Community Games are still doing what they can in creating daily challenges on social media to keep kids busy. Sponsors Aldi have joined in, offering €100 in shopping vouchers to each winner. Over 700 children took up the quiz challenge and 400 entered for the art contest.
That may be a very modern means of occupying youngsters but it’s perfectly in keeping with the ambitions of a body that has, since Joe Connolly dreamed it up in Walkinstown in 1967, striven to offer something for everyone between the ages of six and 16 and regardless of ability.
Chances are that if you didn’t compete at Community Games then you know plenty who did and, while the organisation likes to focus on its ‘everyday heroes’, the length and breadth of high-profile faces to have passed through its ranks prove just how intrinsic it is to Irish life.
Denis Irwin competed in relay and chess. Saoirse Ronan was a basketball devotee. Niall Quinn once explained that his proudest sporting moment was qualifying for the U12 All-Ireland Long Puck final as a nine-year-old and showing the country kids what a Dublin hurler could do.
Plenty more stars have waxed lyrical about their experiences. Some, like Olive Loughnane, have returned to present medals and encourage the next generation. Marcus O’Sullivan, another graduate, once turned up when a teenage Sonia O’Sullivan was competing and left a huge impression on the Cobh runner.
“It made me think that everything starts at the Community Games,” she said in a documentary to mark the organisation’s 25th anniversary.
Another contributor looked back and ventured that it “always seemed to be sunny at Mosney”.
Home to the Games for three decades, the Co Meath venue and the weekends spent billeted there became synonymous with the national festivals until the venue was taken over by the government at the start of the millennium and used to house asylum seekers.
It was a move that presented the Games with its biggest obstacle until Covid-19 announced itself but the organisation adapted and has in recent years set up camp in the University of Limerick where the national festivals were due to be held next month and in August.
“It was a shame to lose Mosney and something I don’t think we can ever replicate, including the fact that you could never seem to get a shower there, but UL have been brilliant. If they don’t have something we need they come up with something else that works just as good.
“The facilities are second to none there and they have huge experience in running big events. It’s as close as we will ever get to a Mosney, unless we were to win the Euro Millions and build a centre of our own someday,” says McGuinness.
The festivals, if they have to be mothballed for the year, would not just be a loss in a sporting sense.
They are key sources of income for the organisation as well and the timing and impact of this pandemic has come just when Bus Eireann had signed up as another sponsor and was about to turn the ignition on their own promotional campaign.
McGuinness and the other volunteers and staff have been ploughing ahead with contingency plans and dates but there is a recognition that they may prove to be mere whims of fancy given no-one knows when all this uncertainty ends and events can be repurposed.
“It’s unprecedented,” says the Mayo man. “I never thought I would live through something like this.”
In fairness, who did?
His own year in office may yet end before all the jigsaw pieces are put back together again but the Community Games has been buffeted by more than one recession in the past, not to mention the threat to its existence that came with the move from Mosney, and it has carried on regardless.
This too shall pass, horrid though it is, and it’s hard to see a time or a circumstance when this fluid but unchanging entity won’t be there, underappreciated and unnoticed though it tends to be and yet knitted into the very fabric of Irish life.