Conor Smith had been a juvenile member of Birr for four years before being informed in 2012 that he was ineligible as he was living in the Crinkill club’s catchment area in the Birr parish and, as his father had not represented Birr at senior level, could not play for them.
Smith’s late grandfather is Tom Ryan, an honorary president of the Birr club, but Crinkill queried the legitimacy of him playing for Birr in an U14 game between the neighbouring sides in August 2012.
An investigation was launched by Offaly’s Competitions Control Committee which, in September of that year, proposed sanctions against him and Birr’s chairman and secretary.
Smith has missed 33 days of school with stress as a result of his situation, which culminated in him bringing his case in front of the Disputes Resolution Authority (DRA) last September.
However, it wasn’t heard as it was deemed to be in effect a parish rule case, which the DRA had already passed judgment on in 2009. However, the independent legal body had later agreed there were grounds for Birr to come before the tribunal again.
Smith scored the winning goal for Birr in the 2011 Offaly Feile final against Coolderry. He is now a promising handballer, winning two Leinster titles and reaching the quarter-finals of the world pairs.
However, his mother Trish is uncertain whether he will ever play hurling again. The ordeal had a deep impact on him and his doctor initially believed he was being bullied at school. After the first county hearing, he vomited through anxiety.
“As far as I’m concerned, the GAA have bullied my child and stopping him from doing something he loved. He hurled for Birr for four years and nobody said a thing.
“I feel our child has been penalised. We didn’t break any rules. I wouldn’t subject any child to what Conor has gone through. He was 14 at the time of the first hearing and 15 by the end.
“I’ve another young lad coming on and I swear he won’t go through it, but he’s been red and green since he was a child and watching DVDs of games with his grandfather. He’ll be devastated when he’s stopped hurling, but I will not let him go to any hearing.
“I remember after one hearing Conor pleaded with me not to send him to school the next day. The only way I can describe what happened is like a death. It was their grandfather’s wish to see them playing for Birr.”
Birr have long maintained the parish rule should be implemented and anyone born within the parish of Birr should be entitled to play for any of its three clubs — Birr, Crinkill or Carrig-Riverstown (Crinkill and Carrig-Riverstown form CRC Gaels at underage level).
The parish rule is enforced via the Offaly bye-laws for all grades except where there are no underage teams in a parish and a player can line out for an independent team which does not bear the name of an adult club within the county.
However, the Offaly County Board maintained Smith was an illegal Birr player as per a boundary agreement, which Birr claim is superseded by the parish rule.
An Offaly hearings committee document presented to the Leinster Hearings Committee read: “It would be easy to treat this as simply a case of a young [player] wishing to play hurling and let sentiment cloud your judgement. But as there is an agreement in place we must honour and enforce the terms of that agreement”.
Trish Smith was particularly incensed that Colm’s name was mentioned on signposts for the tribunal around the hotel where the DRA meeting was held last year. “I was highly disgusted by it. ‘Conor Smith versus the DRA’ everywhere. A juvenile’s name.”
On the advice of his parents, Smith also wrote to the DRA asking them to refrain from emailing him directly as he was a juvenile.
At one of the hearings, Smith himself asked why he wasn’t allowed to choose which club he wanted to play for in his parish.
“That’s what he can’t understand,” said his mother. “He hasn’t done anything wrong.”