"The one thing I took from it was I had been hurling with lads for 30 years and I thought I knew them but I didn’t f***ing know them at all. You’d get talking with lads when you’re walking with them. You’d be at home thinking about things and you find out other lads would be thinking the same things."
It was 1916 that started it all off. The Mullagh GAA club were looking for an army officer to lead the centenary commemorative parade and Eric Glennon came up with fellow local Paul Melly.
So Glennon was entrusted in requesting Melly, a former under-age Ireland soccer international, if he would perform the duty, which he did. But Glennon wasn’t done with the asking.
A frustrated retired club hurler, he had been on the lookout for somebody to lead a boot-camp in the parish.
“I finished up hurling a few years ago. I was playing hurling all my life, went up the ranks to senior and came back down them to junior C and I was starting to get injured a good bit. The wife said to me, ‘Jesus, Eric, it’s time to settle down now and stay out of A&E. I’m fed up of going in there with you!’
“I went away from the game then and when you’re playing hurling your social life is organised for you. You’re going down to train two or three nights a week, you’re playing matches and going for pints afterwards. It’s all sound but when the hurling stops everything stops.
“Your social life, your exercise, the whole lot. You start getting heavy, having a glass of wine at home one night becomes three nights. I had no motivation to go to the gym because I can’t do stuff on my own so I got the idea to do a boot-camp but I needed somebody to do it.”
Having been knocked back a couple of times beforehand, Melly was close to a last resort but he agreed to the request on the spot. He too had been looking for a collective activity in the parish. On March 16 last, they had their first session and the numbers swelled from there.
“Initially, it was just going to be a club thing for the lads who had given up hurling, two or three evenings of circuits and things like that. The whole thing went on, the word spread and we got in a couple of lads we didn’t even knew lived in the parish. We had Joris Ruygers, a Dutch fella, and we had another fella from Dublin called Diarmuid O’Riain, a physio.”
Melly then suggested to Glennon they should have something to aim for in the summer. Glennon proposed the idea of doing a 178km fundraising walk from Croke Park to the club followed by a cycle to Cuan Mhuire in Athenry, the addiction rehabilitation centre where his first cousin, Galway hurler Davy, had been treated.
“Davy had just come out of Cuan Mhuire and it had hit people around here very hard seeing Davy. It brought people who had been there into the light. People started coming out and saying they were in there too.”
Initially, there was reluctance at the scale of the event but soon enough people started putting up their hands like 56-year-old Paddy Finnerty, brother of Galway great Pete. “When people saw him do it, they wished they could have been there from the start,” smiles Glennon.
Besides meeting up twice a week for the boot-camp, they would gather in nearby St Thomas’ on Saturdays. “We’d get up at seven or eight o’clock Saturday mornings and put 15 kilos on our backs and walk up the mountain there for 20k, 30k. The weight was flying off us!”
The walk and cycle raised €64,000 in total, half of which went to Cuan Mhuire. “The other €32,000 went to our local community who have purchased a field beside the GAA grounds that we’ll put a walkway around so that people can exercise there. We might also be putting a playground in there as well. The idea is that when parents are dropping off their kids to classes like the tin whistle or karate that they can exercise in the time they’re waiting to pick them up.”
Mullagh’s neighbours Killimor are planning a similar fundraiser for the club and Pieta House in April. Glennon can safely say the experience will enrich them.
“The more we got into it, the more I saw different sides of people. We saw the vulnerable sides of people who would always have come across as tough and able. We’re all still in contact and we’re all looking out for each other. If somebody doesn’t show up for something we would ring them and make sure they’re okay. It’s brought a new realisation.
“There’s an expression there it’s okay to talk or that it’s okay not to be okay and that’s right. When you’re playing hurling you like to come across as the macho man but there are parts to people too. We’re exercising, have the craic and having pints at the weekend and it’s created a great community spirit.”
Glennon believes nobody is better placed than the GAA to address rural isolation and the mental health issues that go with it. “While the GAA are great when you’re playing, once you go there’s nothing. The people cutting grass, there is no appreciation from the GAA for them. And once you finish your hurling, it’s off you go, goodbye, good luck. They don’t want to know you anymore unless you’re willing to come in and help run a club. (Regarding mental health) There is no other organisation in this country that is in every townland in this country and if the GAA really want to spend money and see it work they would put exercise and social programmes in place for men and women.
“There are only 280 houses in our parish. I’m hearing about club agms around Galway and there aren’t even 30 people going to them. It’s like the pub and the church, people aren’t going to GAA clubs anymore and they’re becoming isolated. You can’t beat doing a bit of exercising for your mental health.”
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