Seán Herlihy promotes merits of sport for all at school for deaf children

Seán Herlihy is eager to encourage more young deaf people to play sport. He's practised what he preaches.

When Seán Herlihy went to St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Dublin, there was no GAA team, so he turned to soccer and eventually became Ireland Deaf Men’s football director, writes Michael Moynihan.

Seán Herlihy’s story will be a familiar one to many GAA members. Player at college in Dublin heads home to line out for the home club, in this case Cill na Martra in West Cork.

A seven or eight-hour journey by train and car might discourage a lesser spirit. Herlihy, who’s deaf, is used to overcoming obstacles.

“My mother always really encouraged me to get involved in Gaelic games,” he says. “I was going to a deaf school in Douglas at the time, and in the evening I’d go and train and play with a hearing team.”

One complication: Cill na Martra is in the Gaeltacht.

“Everything that was said went completely over my head, because my first language is Irish Sign Language, not English. And at training, everything was said in Irish.

“People might think Irish Sign Language is the same as spoken Irish but they’re completely different language — ISL has its own structure and grammar.

“In fairness, some of the coaches would type stuff out for me, but most of the time they’d just say ‘you’re number seven, wing-back, Colm is centre-back, and Noel is number five’.”

The company was good — that Noel’s surname was O’Leary, who gave a decade-plus of service to Cork — but Herlihy was heavily reliant on visual cues.

“Gestures, signals — it was very visual. The coach would find it difficult to communicate, so the instructions were pretty basic. ‘Go over there’, ‘watch him’, ‘mark tightly’, that kind of thing. Training, too — it was all conveyed visually, what we’d be doing.

“Sometimes the coach would let the referee know ahead of the game that there’d be a deaf person on the field. Or the opposition might say it during the game if I’d fouled someone — ‘oh, he’s deaf, he’s deaf’. Now, I’m not saying I got away with a bit more because of that...

“The reaction was very positive, really. There was never slagging or anything, or if there was I didn’t see it. The opposition would shake hands after the match, there was no big deal about it, certainly.”

Herlihy features in Deafening, a documentary on RTÉ tonight showing deaf people participating fully in society. Sport is part of that.

“Sport is good to help you meet people. For a deaf person to be included on a team, that’s very good for building confidence,” he says.

“I’d like to encourage young deaf people to get involved in sport, even if they’re a little afraid of potential problems with communication. I’d love to see more of them getting involved.”

He’s practised what he preaches. When Herlihy went to St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Dublin there was no GAA team, so he turned to soccer and eventually became Ireland Deaf Men’s football director: “In my experience, funding for deaf sports is very low compared to funding for the Paralympics, for instance, it would be great to see an increase in that funding.

“The Irish Sports Council helps with funding for the Deaflympics, but other countries give their Deaflympic teams a lot of funding — an equal amount to their regular Olympic athletes.”

Raising awareness is a key element in tonight’s documentary — particularly awareness of the “amazing role models” in the Irish deaf community.

“It follows four different people going about their lives,” he says. “It shows there’s huge variety and diversity among the deaf community.

“Sometimes, in the past there’s been a bit of ‘deaf people achieving’ or ‘poor deaf people in their silent world’, which doesn’t really represent the deaf people I know — some amazing people, amazing role models, and the positivity involved there.

“There’s progress to be made — we’d love to see Irish Sign Language recognised as an official language, a lot of people use it and if it were recognised officially that would be a huge help to deaf people.

“If I’m travelling on a train, for instance, I’ll miss an announcement over the speakers if there’s a delay or if I have to change trains.

“In the documentary, I mention the time I was supposed to fly to Liverpool but the flight got diverted. The first I knew of that was when I got off the plane and saw the sign for Leeds Bradford Airport on the outside of the airport building.

“If ISL were recognised, you’d be able to access information that would ensure that wouldn’t happen.”

He might be exiled in Dublin — Herlihy teaches at the Holy Family School for the Deaf’ in Cabra — but he’s always mindful of his roots.

“When the Cork footballers come to town I always go along to support them,” he says.

“I’d always try to get to those games. If it were just Dublin involved, I wouldn’t be that bothered.”

  • Deafening is on RTÉ One at 10.15pm this evening

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