Ailis Malone's story underlines the power of inclusivity
By John Harrington
These times of forced seclusion have only served to further underline the power of inclusion.
The GAA has always been at the heart of communities in Ireland but in recent years has endeavoured to be an even more inclusive organisation.
When a small bit of extra effort is made it can mean the world of difference to those who benefit from it, just ask the parents of Ailis Malone.
Ailis has Down Syndrome but has never been treated any differently than anyone else by her team-mates and coaches at St. Rynagh’s Camogie club in Offaly.
Given the same opportunities as everyone else, she has thrived.
“She loves camogie and has been well-supported by her club, St. Rynagh's,” says Ailis’ mother Petria.
“It's been a win-win for her. She's 12 now and has been playing for St. Rynagh's since she was four. She just loves to be with the team.
“One has to really measure it in terms of social inclusion. She's doing what all her peers are doing and all of them are from her school. She's just another girl on the team, she doesn't see herself any differently.
“Thankfully the coaching she has benefited from has been very good from day one in terms of keeping her included. The vital element is that she's doing what her peers are doing. She's building friendships, they know her, she knows them.”
Ailis and her St Rynagh’s team-mates recently got to experience what it is like to perform on the biggest stage of all when they played an exhibition match in Croke Park at half-time of the recent All-Ireland Club Finals.
“I think initially it was a bit overwhelming for her in terms of trying to understand why people around her were so excited about the whole day,” says Malone.
“Certainly, over the course of the day, she was delighted with the whole event and the opportunity to play on the big field.
“I was afraid she was going to become a little shy, but, no, she just jumped out there and was very courageous.”
On the back of her Croke Park debut, Offaly senior hurling team manager, Michael Fennelly, got in touch and invited Ailis to come to an Offaly training session to meet him and the players.
“I got a phone-call from Michael Fennelly the Offaly coach and I asked him why he even thought of doing something like this, and he just said he was really taken with the fact that she played in Croke Park and he thought it was important to bring her in and introduce her to the team as a means of really pushing inclusion and diversity,” says Malone.
“She was thrilled. She has a little photo-album from the day with the Offaly hurlers that she's been sharing with people as they come.
“She thought she was a superstar because everyone was so gracious. She said afterwards everyone was really nice to her and it was fun to 'meet the boys', as she put it.
“She got some good time pucking the ball around with them and really enjoyed herself.”
Many GAA clubs around the country are working hard to become more inclusive and encourage the participation of children with additional needs.
There’s still a lot more than can be done in that space, though, and Malone hopes an even greater ethos of inclusivity will enable more children like her daughter Ailis to experience the benefits of being able to play gaelic games with their peers.
“I work for inclusion Ireland and I hear the other end from parents of children who are not included in, not just GAA, but in other areas and activities,” says Malone.
“I think it's important to offer the invitation. Oftentimes the doors are closed and the barriers are put before parents frequently in terms of trying to get their children involved and when that happens they eventually get tired of always asking.
“I know it can be challenging to find coaches who are well enough trained yet, at the same time, even if it's one or two kids who get the opportunity to get to be involved within the context of a camp for all kids, then that's very valuable.
“There's learnings to be had on both sides and I think that can only happen when we include everyone.”