KIERAN SHANNON: Still that ray of sunshine leading by example two decades on

Ray Silke. Picture: Hany Marzouk

Twenty years ago Ray Silke had the unique distinction of leading both his club and county up the Hogan Stand steps to collect senior All-Ireland titles in Croke Park. Two decades on he is still leading by example — but in a very different capacity

Every day, they say, is a school day, and though Ray Silke is out for summer, you end up learning something from him that you hadn’t come across before.

Similar to how Robin Williams’ inimitable Mr Keating relayed to his pupils to seize the day, it’s by way of a Latin phrase, only this particular maxim isn’t so much directed at students as those who are entrusted to teach — serve — them.

Cura Personalis. Care for the entire person.

The term is a cornerstone of Jesuit education, one of whose schools, Coláiste Iognáid in Galway City, Silke has taught in for the past seven years.

Its ethos would be obviously Catholic but it’s more humanist than anything and he’d like to think the code of Cura Personalis encapsulated his teaching as well as his football captaincy and underage coaching long before he ever stepped foot in the corridors of ‘The Jes’.

“I think it’s a good outlook to have for any walk of life, not just education,” he elaborates in a café in Moycullen, the optimally located village where he and Sonya and their four kids now live.

“To try to add value and care for each person with their own gifts and challenges and needs. Because any teacher will tell you, you’re going to have massive variances in the educational attainment and social background of children.

"One size does not fit all. Twenty-five sizes are needed in a classroom. One might be for the ladeen who is having a lot of difficulties, then another for the girl who is probably going to get 600 points. But it all starts with empathy.”

That realisation probably started with his father. John Silke was a business studies teacher as well, in St Jarlath’s where Silke himself taught, starting there in his alma mater the same year the old man finished up.

Corporal punishment was an option and a regularly used one within education during the first third of John Silke’s professional career, but his son has encountered enough of his past pupils to vouch that it was a recourse to which he never resorted.

What way would that have been to form a mutual respect? How could an inquisitive child have raised a hand in his class if the teacher had first raised his?

“I think a lot of children don’t get enough positive reinforcement. A lot of them can lack confidence. They don’t get enough support.

"But it’s amazing what can happen if someone takes the time and interest in them to set them a target and say ‘You know what, you can achieve this.’ To look at what they can do rather than what they can’t.

“If you look closely at what Kevin Walsh has done over the last few years, he has improved some players more than anyone could have expected.

“A few years ago no one would have seen Cathal Sweeney as an inter-county wing back but he’s now having a damn good season because Kevin worked very hard on him. Eoghan Kerin from Annaghdown was unheard of until Kevin came in.

“Ciaran Duggan is 27. Kevin picked him from obscurity last year after he had a fantastic game with Annaghdown against Corofin in the county semi-final, winning kickout after kickout. There he was then, man of the match against Mayo in the championship this year.

“That came from Kevin looking for the positive rather than the negative in a lad. ‘OK so he’s older than most debutants. He’s a late developer. But look at what he can do now!’”

Silke has had a few like that in his economics classroom in the Jes. This time last year a lad called Alan got his Leaving Cert.

He had minimal interest in economics starting off, was only taking it because other subjects sounded even more off-putting. But over time he responded to Silke always having a welcome for him coming into the class, a how’s-it-going greeting in the corridor or foyer between and before classes, shooting the breeze about his favourite sport and teams.

By last year’s mocks, the lad was comfortable holding conversations about population and employment, Silke taking the bother to occasionally sit in beside him in class.

By the time the Leaving proper came around, Alan was still only sitting the ordinary paper but managed to get an A1 in it, enough to help him go to college.

Silke is one of the select few to have been at the epicentre of about the biggest victory and stage you can get in Irish sport, lifting Sam Maguire on behalf of a team on the steps of the Hogan Stand, but it’s the little unseen victories like Alan’s that has helped him sustain quarter of a century now of teaching for a living.

It’s been the same helping co-ordinate student entries into a national journalism competition that culminated in an awards night emceed by Matt Cooper, or helping them put together the school yearbook.

Cura Personalis. Go that extra mile, beyond the class room, to connect and empathise with the person.

It’s also the approach he takes with teams. Again, they’re off Broadway; his brother Brian is the Silke from the Corofin winning machine that’s involved as a selector with Walsh, his old comrade from ’98 and many other not-so-glorious campaigns, not him.

Ray instead confines himself to the quiet fields and not-so-quiet committee rooms, volunteering to not only help out with the Jes’s first-year team and his daughter’s U12 club side but also act as Moycullen’s juvenile club delegate to the ladies county board; there’s one now for the pen pic of what the All-Ireland-winning captain of 20 years ago is at these days: ‘Club delegate to the ladies juvenile county board’.

Sitting in on discussions and disputes about fixtures may not be fun but any Sunday morning with the girls can’t be about much else.

“You always have to have a bit of craic, especially at the start. I wouldn’t lash straight into it. Other coaches might be ’11 o’clock is 11 o’clock! Let’s go! Start the drills!’ But I’d always give the girls five or ten minutes at the start to have a bit of a chat among themselves, because they’re playing with their friends then.

"And I’d have a bit of a chat with some of them. ‘Did you go to anything in the arts festival? Yeah? What was it like?’”

He’s seen opposing underage coaches get too worked up about it all. Last year he saw one run 15 yards onto the field yelling at a kid before Silke asked the man was he trying to catch the puckout.

“About four years ago I was driving my own daughter, Fáinse, to a camogie match and she said, ‘Dad, I don’t want you to shout anything at me. Nothing good, nothing bad. Just be quiet.’ And I took that on board.

“I think what some coaches at underage fail to realise is that their intensity can be a discouragement to their child. I know when I was a kid, I used to despise people shouting, especially if it was negative. I didn’t respond to it well at all, it put me into my shell.

“No more than in teaching, when you’re coaching kids you have to look at the bigger, long-term picture. Will this kid still be playing this sport or involved with this club when they’re 25, 26? That’s the question you have to ask yourself, not are you going to win the county final?”

He grew up in the Corofin way where winning was hardly mentioned at underage, which partly explains why they’ve won so much at senior. All the time the emphasis was on skills and enjoyment first.

Twenty years on from Silke lifting the Andy Merrigan Cup for the first time and the club are reigning All-Ireland champions again because it’s become intergenerational.

Frank Morris coached the core of the ’98 team when they were schoolkids; now his son, David, a goalie with their successful noughties team, is part of the current braintrust as well as that of the Galway senior hurlers.

Eddie Steede’s son, Ronan, now plays midfield. Ian Burke is Ollie’s son. Daithí Burke is Gerry Burke’s son.

Current players — recent county players — like Kieran Fitzgerald with his 11 county medals and Gary Sice and Ciaran McGrath are already back in coaching underage, preaching the same message. Skills and fun. Skills and fun.

“I remember a few years ago when Brian [Silke] was managing Corofin he gave all the players a size-five football because every player should have a ball to practise the skills on their own.

"The one guy who didn’t even open the packet and just left it under the bed was Daithí Burke and when Brian called up to him he found sliotars and hurleys all over the back garden where they had a hurling wall. You don’t just get three All Stars going on four in a row just on sheer talent.

“It’s like what Paudie Butler said one night when he came down to Moycullen for a hurling coaching session. ‘Joe Canning, TJ Reid, Tony Kelly, they go to the hurling wall two or three times a week.

"But the junior hurler, he’s too good, he doesn’t need to.’ I thought it was a brilliant way of putting it.” Which is why he thought it would be a brilliant idea last year to give every member of the Moycullen U12 ladies football team their own O’Neill’s. Play with that friend and you’re more likely to be still playing and even winning when you’re around that magical mid-20s mark.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won — Walt Whitman.

When John O’Mahony wrote his autobiography a couple of years ago, he recognised that the key to Ray Silke being such a good captain was more than he was a good talker but that he was a good communicator.

There was a significant difference between the two things:A talker, after all, could ramble, and on irrelevant matters. Two qualities made Silke an effective communicator, in O’Mahony’s eyes: His positivity and his powers of articulation.

It also helped that he was one of the more senior, more mature members of the panel.

He was just marginally north of that 25-26 age mark that he aspires for his Moycullen ladies to still be playing at, having endured and withstood the challenging college years when he was down in Limerick and would have to write out ‘Galway Please’ on the back of a Corn Flakes box and thumb a lift to training.

By the time he was 27, he was ready to both lead and to win, empowered from doing both with Corofin on St Patrick’s Day.

He remembers one of the Corofin management team, Paul McGettigan, at their first team meeting of 1997 declaring that they were going to win the club All-Ireland 14 months later.

At the outset of Galway’s 1998 season, no one was making similar promises of winning the ultimate — with Mayo, the team that beat them a year the previous Sunday, in the first round, they could hardly look any further, but once that mountain was negotiated, everything was possible.

In Pat Comer’s famous documentary, Silke is filmed at a team meeting warning that the following game against Leitrim was “a dangerous, dangerous game” that demanded total focus and victory.

“Galway have won only one Connacht championship since 1987. That’s a disgrace. And we’re the boys that are going to change it.”

By the third Sunday of September he was telling something the same. Galway hadn’t won an All-Ireland since 1966 but as Comer’s film captured for immortality, Silke declared that he had “no doubt” in his mind that Galway were going to win and end that 32-year famine. He radiated positivity and belief. Commander’s Intent, the experts call it. ‘We will do this…’

But perhaps his greatest gift was recognising and summoning an esprit de corps. In the same documentary, he highlighted the role of the players who didn’t make the starting 15, or those of the training panel who didn’t make the matchday 24. Back in those days, no one was, to use another term of Jim Gavin’s, “proud to represent the group”. If you didn’t make the 15, you barely counted.

GLORY DAY: Galway’s Michael Donnellan, Ray Silke, and manager John O’Mahony with the Sam Maguire Cup after their All-Ireland victory in 1998. Pic: David Maher/Sportsfile.
GLORY DAY: Galway’s Michael Donnellan, Ray Silke, and manager John O’Mahony with the Sam Maguire Cup after their All-Ireland victory in 1998. Pic: David Maher/Sportsfile.


If you didn’t make the 24, you certainly didn’t count. Galway, under O’Mahony’s and Silke’s leadership, were among the first to alter that mindset within Gaelic Games.

In 1999 when Cork reached the All-Ireland final, the injury-hampered duo of Steven O’Brien and Damian O’Neill, the team’s captain at the start of the campaign, had nothing to do with the group.

A year later whenever you saw Galway in a circle you invariably saw Jarlath Fallon there too, with his crutches.

“I would always have tried to be inclusive,” says Silke. “We went on a team holiday once to South Africa and we insisted that Karl Donnellan came with us because he had got hurt earlier in the year playing with Galway. You had to show that respect for everyone in the group. Maybe with a phonecall. Or picking them up.

“As captain I would always try to sit with different groups. Don’t have a clique. If you’re trying to engender a positive vibe across the group, well then you have to try to connect with all the group.

"If you’re going for a meal, sit in with the subs, like. It’s the same social skills and core values whether you’re teaching or in a relationship or a team.”

Sit in and chat with them, a bit like Alan in economics class.

And let other leaders lead. Silke had a good relationship with Michael Donnellan and an even better one with Pádraic Joyce and John Divilly, but was aware the two of them had an even closer one with Donnellan. So he’d chat with Joyce and Divilly. “Maybe mention this to Michael. It’ll be even more effective coming from you.”

All these years on and he’s still mindful how colleagues are, those he shared the dressing room with back in those glory years and those with whom he now shares a staff room.

The introduction of an alternate, lower-paid salary scale for teachers who entered the system post-2011 makes him uneasy. Feels it flies in the face of Cura Personalis.

He’s fine, being in the system now for 25 years and his income supplemented by extensive media work since signing off from inter-county with another All-Ireland in 2001, but what about his younger teammates?

“If you’re making five grand less than you would have if you had entered the system before 2011, well, over 30-35 years that adds up to a phenomenal amount of money, especially if you’re having to pay the cost of living in Dublin.

"Would I recommend teaching for my children? At the moment, with a high degree of hesitation.

“You want good teachers going into school in good form and be able to maintain a reasonable standard of living. But the current situation for some young teachers is they can barely afford the rent.

"The capacity of two teachers to even get a deposit together for a house is very difficult. As a society are we going to have even more have-nots? Our teachers, our guards, our nurses would in the past have been middle class but some of those people will be on a different strata in the future. I know a lot of young teachers who have to work part-time jobs now at the weekend in pubs and the like.

“In no way am I saying more established teachers should earn more pay. My point and worry is that the 22-, 23-year-old comes out full of talent and the joys and passion of teaching and then reality hits. ‘This is hard to make ends meet. I might have to go for something else.’”

He has plenty more opinions, from how a seven-year contract might be the optimum for school principals, to this current Galway team and their style of play and chances against Dublin today.

“I don’t think Galway can go out 15 on 15 because we’ll get burned at the back by the better teams in the big house. We saw that against Tipperary in 2016 and Kerry last year. If Kevin had the best 15 footballers in Ireland we’d love to go out and play the flair game and take Dublin on but what team does that now? I’d say none.

"It was adapt or die. If we just went out and played Dublin 15 on 15 for the full 70 minutes, I think it would be pretty ugly, with the running power of the likes of McCarthy, McCaffrey and Macauley.”

He’ll go up to Croke Park today, writing a bit for the Galway Advertiser, just as he did for this paper regularly for 15 years.

And whatever way today he goes, he’ll be back up for the final as the GPA are putting on a bash to mark the 20th anniversary of the men of ’98.

He still sees the lads quite a bit. Michael Donnellan still flashes that killer smile any time they meet on the Salthill promenade close to where Donnellan now works and Silke may sometimes take a timeout to process a demanding day in the classroom.

Himself and Gary Fahy would talk at least monthly on the phone. Winning, he finds, can create and cement a friendship. And yet his best friend, Cathal McGinley, who he calls weekly, wasn’t there in ’98. He was there when they won in Connacht in ’95, not long after the ‘Galway Please’ cardboard days, and a sub in ’97.

Like the bench of ’98, Silke didn’t forget him.


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