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The St Colmcilles GAA club in Meath continue to deliver Healthy Club initiatives.
The St Colmcilles GAA club in Meath continue to deliver Healthy Club initiatives.

A healthy club is a happy club


By Colin Regan, GAA Community & Health manager

Living in student squalor in 1994 in the upstairs of a Georgian building on Richmond Street, Dublin 2, we band of seven brothers decided something was required to fire up our maternal side.

We certainly weren’t mothering ourselves. At times our two-bedroom hovel resembled the decrepit flat called home by Withnail and I in Bruce Robinson’s eponymous cult movie classic. While we never resorted to smothering ourselves with deep heat to fend off the cold, we did at times run the risk of creating new life in the kitchen sink as aging food particles and strange organisms intermingled. The thoughts.

Goldfish were decided upon to give our lives meaning and purpose. The pet shop next door, long since gone, was reminiscent of the establishment in which mogwai was bought; he of Gremlins notoriety. Two fine specimens were selected after very little deliberation. The words of the old shop owner as we departed his store have stayed with me ever since. ‘A hungry fish is a happy fish, and a happy fish is a healthy fish,’ he sagely offered.

Neptune died within days. Not from over-feeding I can assure you. But Lucile lived happily (hungrily anyway) for many years.

The phrase returned to me last Thursday night as I laughed loudly as James Patrice stole the show at the St. Sylvester’s GAA Healthy Club launch. I’m often asked to describe in a sentence what the Healthy Club project is all about. I usually try to draw on my previous life as a journalist to come up with a fancy definition that ticks all the boxes about sport, and health, and life, and community, and wellbeing. Then it came to me. A healthy club is a happy club and a happy club is a healthy club. The hungry bit is superfluous. Nobody likes a hangry club.

The night had already featured fascinating contributions from Carmel Logan (partner in KPMG, wife and mother of two youngsters, and coach in the club’s nursery section) and Nicole Owens, All Ireland winner with Dublin senior ladies and mental health advocate. They touched on everything from work life balance and the pressures of performance on and off the field to inner happiness as opposed to perceived external success and all its trappings.

The audience was riveted. Where, I wondered, was James going to take things. I hadn’t heard of James before (he would say the same of me, no doubt) I don’t do Snapchat (he was being promoted as a Snapchat star on the night’s promotional material). I’ve since been informed that James is an ‘influencer’. He certainly had a positive influence on me.

From the bat, he just spoke from the heart and stole everyone else’s. He admitted sport wasn’t his thing, and that the extent of his engagement with the club in his youth was attending bingo in the hall with his mother. Despite this, he noted, the club offered great support for the local boy during his appearance on Operation Transformation which resulted in significant and sustained weight loss.

St Oliver Plunketts/Eoghan Ruadh 'Mind Matters' mental health talk was a huge success.
St Oliver Plunketts/Eoghan Ruadh 'Mind Matters' mental health talk was a huge success.

The place was in stitches as he walked us through his life and times, telling tales of highs and lows, familiar to any GAA club and member, but in a very non-traditional GAA way, if you know what I mean. I’ve heard many inspirational speeches in a GAA clubs and changing rooms but this was the first time I’d ever heard Dolly Parton evoked. ‘You can’t have a rainbow without a bit of rain,’ James observed as he channelled his inner Dolly, recalling how some ill-health finally provided sufficient time for reflection to set him on a career path that he loves. Ahem to that.

He was a breath of fresh air and his message to follow one’s passions rung true to the diverse audience. His fashion tips also went down a storm. Top tip for time management: always prepare your outfit the night before. My wife whole-heartedly concurred when I was later filling her in on the night. ‘Now that sounds like the sort of GAA event I would attend,’ she noted.

And that was the point. St. Sylvester’s Healthy Club project – and the Healthy Club project in general – seeks to engage anyone and everyone. It aspires to broaden the traditional boundaries of a GAA club and open it to the community. Being born in your club or county jersey is not a pre-requisite.

Wanting to contribute and be part of a community that looks out for one another, is. The Healthy Club project also seeks to reimagine health in a sports club setting. Health is a participatory sport that should be fun and rewarding. It is not a competition.

It offers ordinary people with great things to offer their community the opportunity to do just that. Barbara Conlon is the Healthy Club project leader in St. Sylvester’s. She had no prior involvement in the club until a work colleague, Jackie Blanchfield, who leads up the Thomas Davis Healthy Club, told her about the project. Armed with a friend, Sarahann Potts, Barbara proposed to the St. Sylvester’s club executive that they sign up for Phase 3 back in January.

St Sylvesters held a Healthy Clubs evening on October 3.
St Sylvesters held a Healthy Clubs evening on October 3.

As is often that case in GAA clubs, they were trying to persuade a committee of men or a certain age that the club try something a little bit different; something beyond just playing Gaelic football and hurling. To their credit, the executive saw the potential and their enthusiasm and backed their proposal.

The rest, as they say, is history. With a dynamic Healthy Club project team driving their work, St. Sylvester’s has many exciting plans for the winter including a four-week stress control programme open to the community.

This quiet revolution isn’t happening just in Malahide. 150 clubs, supported by their County Health & Wellbeing Committees, are participating in the Healthy Club project, multiples in each of the 32 counties. Yesterday was World Mental Health Day. Good mental health doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It occurs when people are supported and empowered in striving towards balance across all elements of their wellbeing – be it emotional, physical, social, or spiritual. Perfect balance doesn’t exist, not on this sphere anyway.

Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and close your eyes. Feel your body make countless micro adjustments just to remain in one place. That reflects what is required to achieve balance in everyday life too. It’s a constant juggle. But with solid foundations and support we can get there. And when, on occasions, we inevitably fall over, a helping hand and a shoulder to lean on can help us get back on our feet.

Here’s a flavour of what some other Healthy Clubs have been doing to support this on World Mental Health Week 2018.

On the same night that Dolly Parton was being channelled in Malahide, a few hundred people were crammed into the club house of St. Oliver Plunkett’s Eoghan Ruadh club as their Healthy Club team presented their second annual ‘Mind Matters’ event featuring contributions on mental wellbeing from Kenneth Egan, Hannah Tyrrell and Prof Jim Lucey.

The Clarinbridge Healthy Club launch in Galway, supported by all elements of the community, was a colourful affair filled with healthy treats for the eight teams that travelled from all over Ireland to participate in an U12 hurling blitz to mark the occasion
The Clarinbridge Healthy Club launch in Galway, supported by all elements of the community, was a colourful affair filled with healthy treats for the eight teams that travelled from all over Ireland to participate in an U12 hurling blitz to mark the occasion

Last weekend, Mullingar Shamrocks Healthy Club launched with an astounding array of community groups backing their initiative. The local town band got things in the swing as 150 youngster participated in a fun training session on field. In the clubhouse, local pharmacists and audiologist offered health checks. Westmeath LSP, and all other local sports clubs including cycling, Tri Club, golf, boxing, Park Runs and Athletics Club, swimming, tennis, badminton, were all on hand to showcase what else people in the community can do to stay active.

Mental Health Ireland, It’s Good to Talk, Aware, and the HSE’s #Little Things Campaign promoted emotional wellbeing, the local Drugs and Alcohol Task Force and HSE Smoking Cessation teams were also on hand, as were too many other entities to name individually. Sarah McCormack. Healthy Ireland National Programme Lead, officially launched Mullingar Shamrock’s Healthy Club journey, but they are evidently already well down that road. Congratulations to Joan Crawford and her Healthy Club project team on a great event.

The Clarinbridge Healthy Club launch in Galway, supported by all elements of the community, was a colourful affair filled with healthy treats for the eight teams that travelled from all over Ireland to participate in an U12 hurling blitz to mark the occasion. The sun shone also on their Mayo neighbours, Breaffy, as they launched their Healthy Club with a community walk and healthy breakfast.

Down in Killeedy Healthy Club they are helping locals shake off the All Ireland hangover with a boot-camp. Clonakilty Healthy Club has assisted Clonakilty in becoming Ireland’s first autism friendly town by providing an autism-friendly sports camp during the summer, providing training in partnership with CARA for club coaches and volunteers, and making small changes to the club’s cultural and physical environment to make it more autism-friendly. Go Team Sinead!

Newtownshandrum GAA are launching their smoke-free club tomorrow (Saturday), joining the 27 Healthy Clubs that became smoke-free venues in 2017. Limerick senior hurling strength and conditioning coach Joe O’Connor will be on hand to deliver a nutrition talk. A further 57 clubs are currently working towards becoming smoke-free venues as part of their Healthy Club journey.

Wellness Week organised by Navan O’Mahoney’s Healthy Club is going down a storm as are the Pilates and circuit classes in Gaeil Triúcha, Monaghan (€30 for six weeks – where else would you get such value??). Meanwhile it’s a Digital Detox in Buncrana Healthy Club that is bringing the community together. (They even provided a calendar of alternative activities for the month of October for those who are ditching the screen!)

Killeedy GAA club started up a Bootcamp open to males and females.
Killeedy GAA club started up a Bootcamp open to males and females.

GAA County Health & Wellbeing Committees are also in on the act – the Laois committee and Laois Local Sports Partnership had a brilliant event on World Mental Health Day, promoting the HSE’s #littlethings campaign (see www.yourmentalhealth.ie for more details) and gambling awareness. Donegal Health & Wellbeing Committee is hosting a ‘Youth Matters’ Forum in Ballybofey on Saturday with hundreds of young people workshopping topics including mental health, nutrition and diet, balancing the demands of sport and study, and alcohol and drug awareness.

I know, it’s exhausting just reading it all and this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you are interested in finding out more why not register for the Healthy Club Conference which will take place in Croke Park on Saturday, October 20th. Over 400 people have already done so and we have a small number of tickets still available (see link below). Who knows, perhaps you’ll be inspired to get your club involved, become a Healthy Club and join the revolution.

Inspired by James, I’ll finish on another Dolly quote: “If you don't like the road you're walking, start paving another one.”

The GAA Healthy Club project commenced in 2013 with just 16 clubs participating, four from each province. It is run in partnership with Healthy Ireland, the HSE, and the National Office for Suicide Prevention, and is proudly supported by Irish Life. Phase 3 currently engages 150 clubs and will run until November 2019. Phase 4 will open to new interested clubs in January 2020 but training is currently available to any clubs interested in getting involved. Contact your local Health & Wellbeing Committee for details at chair.hwc.COUNTY.@gaa.ie (e.g. in Leitrim it would be chair.hwc.leitrim@gaa.ie ) or visit www.gaa.ie/community for more information on the Healthy Club project.

Click here to find out more about the Healthy Club Conference in Croke Park and to secure your free tickets: https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/gaa-national-healthy-club-conference-2018-tickets-49597227643

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