College keeping the Force fighting fit

Not every third-level campus in the country is an unhealthy nest of laziness and vice. Michael Moynihan visited the Garda College in Templemore, where sport and fitness are taken very seriously indeed.

YOU probably have a preconception about the gardaí and sport, a picture in your mind which involves the GAA. That’s not far from the truth — this year, like most other seasons, both hurling and football All-Ireland finals featured several boys in blue — but it’s not the whole truth. For instance, you probably didn’t think the Garda College were looking into dodgeball, did you?

Unlike other third level institutions, sport is built into the daily curriculum in Templemore, says Sergeant Pat O’Connell: “Two hours every Wednesday are dedicated to sport, it’s seen as important in the development of student gardaí.

“There’s an effort to incorporate minority sports as much as possible.

The two Garda credit unions — St Raphael’s in Dublin and St Paul’s in Cork — are very supportive financially of sport within the organisation. Without that support many sports would suffer.”

Chief Superintendent and director of training and development Kieran McGann offers the reasoning behind that support.

“The principal issue from a garda perspective is that a student’s time here is different to other colleges — he or she is training to become a garda, and there are a lot of different skills required. Society is changing, we have people from different backgrounds and it’s a dynamic time, we have to upskill students to police in the community.

“Physical training is an important part of student life, and that’s bound up with an emphasis on the traditional sports — Gaelic football, hurling, rugby and soccer. In this year’s All-Ireland hurling final we had Jerry O’Connor of Cork and Eddie Brennan of Kilkenny, while in the football we had David Clarke of Mayo and Tom O’Sullivan of Kerry. However, there are many students participating in other sports.”

True enough. Sports coordinator Darren Owens says if it’s possible at all, the college will cater for the sport.

“We put on a trip to Killaloe for those who aren’t into sports, to an adventure-activity centre for team-building. We’re also looking into a dodgeball competition to get people into sports. We take part in all the third-level competitions.

The basketballers, for instance, are in the premier division this year.”

The sporting activities on offer can get more esoteric than that: student garda Kevin Farrell has a background in rock climbing, so he’s showing other students the ropes, pun intended; another student, Kate McIlvanney, draws on her surfing and lifesaving experience to share her skills. Student Mark Duffy was involved in boxing and kick-boxing before arriving in Templemore, and he and others have taken over the boxing club.

As Darren Owens points out, what has really taken off in recent times is women’s sports, such as ladies’ rugby.

“It’s up and coming sport in the college,” says student Lorna O’Connor.

“We get a lot of support; this is our fourth season in a competitive league, and we’re improving all the time.”

Sports standards are high in Templemore. Strolling around the campus you see All-Ireland hurling medallists such as Joachim Kelly and Ken Hogan, both fitness instructors, and both of whom look fit enough to line out for Offaly and Tipperary all over again.

Then there’s Ken McDonald, another instructor. His background in the unforgiving world of rowing — he’s competed at World Championship level for Ireland — dovetails well with the garda history in the sport.

“There’s always been an emphasis on rowing in the college,” says McDonald. “We’re kickstarting the college rowing club — we’ve just applied to the Irish Amateur Rowing Union to get affiliated with them, and we hope to compete in the intervarsities next year.

“There’s massive interest in rowing shown by every phase of students that comes through the college. All-Garda crews have competed at two Olympics, and Garda Caroline Ryan rowed at the World Championships at Eton during the summer.”

Not all the competitions depend on external opposition. Chief Supt McGann outlines the competitions that are confined to students.

“We run several boxing tournaments — the last raised 4,000 for charity — which also featured women’s boxing.

“In addition, we have a one-and-a-half mile run around the Square here, an inter-class competition that’s very keenly contested. Garda Ken McDonald came first in the last competition, but I have to say that Ken Hogan came in with a highly respectable finish, despite his seniority. He left a lot of competitors in his wake!”

It’s not all about producing finely honed athletes for the force. McGann acknowledges there are advantages in sending out gardaí who can offer their communities something extra.

“Before Sean Kelly left office as GAA president, he and Pat Daly worked with us to set up a coaching course for 110 students. Those students gave up their own time, two hours a week every Wednesday for 10 weeks, to do the course. They picked up coaching skills but they also have occupational first aid and communications skills, so they bring all those skills to the community they’re working in. The GAA facilitated us with coaching literature, DVDs and jerseys, and we’re doing that with each course.

“It helps us to get involved and integrated with the community and the local GAA team gets the benefit of a trained coach.”

It’s not all football and hurling either. McGann points to the regular visits from John Lacey from Munster rugby — “We’ve had the Heineken Cup up here and Paul O’Connell is going to come in and give us a chat soon” — while the college is also looking to get soccer coaching off the ground.

Those who graduate aren’t forgotten either, as McGann points out.

“Last month we held a function to honour the 10 best sports people in the Garda and also to induct a new member of the Hall of Fame to join past winners like Gaelic footballers John Egan and John McCarthy.”

Serious about their standards. Serious about their sport.


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