GAA journey continues for Merlin College
By Cian O’Connell
There has been significant change on the east side of Galway city.
Critical sporting work has been carried out in the Doughiska area by a number of codes and organisations with Merlin College, a second level school established in 2013, occupying a central role in fostering an interest in Gaelic Games.
Now fielding teams at various levels, Merlin College’s improvement in the GAA world is an interesting tale.
Vital links and partnerships are being forged with clubs in the area so James McHugh, who joined the teaching staff in 2014, is delighted with how Merlin College is having an impact in teenagers’ lives.
“In the area itself there is a lot of diversity,” McHugh explains. “We have students from a lot of different nationalities, you wouldn't be able to name them all. We have a lot of students who wouldn't have had much of an experience with the GAA culture.
“So when I first came into the school when we first started fielding teams it really was a thing you had students, who had huge interest in participating. We were training teams, just getting the basic skills.
“What happened was that within a very short space of time we had huge numbers with a huge interest. Then it became clear enough to us that really what we were looking at was that we had some students with St James and in the other codes Liam Mellows and Castlegar for hurling and camogie.”
Relationships were being forged, the emerging players were gaining in confidence too. “We were just getting to know ourselves in the community, we were liaising with the clubs,” McHugh adds.
“The school itself was in its infancy. What happened then was that we started liaising, I can remember reaching out, but it didn't take much effort with St James for the football. The coaching officers were brilliant, St James got onboard straightaway.
“We were trying to say to the students that they could start playing the game by extending it into the club scene. We had some players that were with the clubs and then we had some students who were tentative or unsure about how to go about getting involved, but they did. St James' lads came to some of the matches and we started building the links.”
Plenty has happened throughout the past decade, but the willingness of the staff to assist those who showed a flair for Gaelic Games mattered deeply.
“There was another teacher here John David Kearney, who has now moved to a principal job to a school in Tuam,” McHugh says. “We were trying to build those links with St James and they happened. We had a situation where the players just wanted to play for the school. We became competitive very quickly at the level we were at.
“I can remember students wanted to talk to the principal to go through what they were bringing to the team. We had captains badges and the students were all eager to take on the leadership of it. They started playing with St James - some of the students from that time, 2013, are still playing now. I know one or two of them are playing with St James at adult level. That is the way it was.
“We explained how you could get involved, some of the players are really talented. It is the mixed background that shows the untapped potential. Some of the students love stakeboarding so the balance that sport gives them - you can see the balance it gives them on a pitch. These different skillsets naturally lend themselves into being very good at Gaelic Football. Basketball is very, very strong in the school.
“In athletics we have an U17 team that are All-Ireland relay champions. Some of those students are involved in the sport. That is how it started off - huge interest, it just needed a little bit of help to start joining it up.”
Every journey commences with a first step, but McHugh can recall the challenges that had to be embraced at the outset.
“Initially at the start we were trying to get a few challenge matches just to get a team together,” he reflects. “It is hard to picture, but when you are in a school with just one year group everything takes time because you are building from that year group.
“You might have 50 or 60 students. Right now we have 700, so we have 120 students in first year. So we would have grown from maybe 70 up to that. So at the start it was more like challenge matches and training. It was all skill stuff. So what we did to try to build it up was we tried to align at different times - part of PE courses.
“We'd have focused in on skills around Gaelic Games, that would correspond then with competitions or when we were playing matches. It grew into competition.
“The reality is results wise we are still developing in that sort of capacity, but I think from where we started and how the progression has happened it is only a matter of time when the school is fully established that we break into more of the competitions and play more of the games. It took us a few years to have the numbers, that was the deciding factor.”
Now, though, Merlin College field teams in Connacht Colleges action which is a source of considerable pride, but McHugh is adamant that further progress will be made.
“We have teams at juvenile and junior,” McHugh responds. “A senior football team is something we were working towards, but unfortunately Covid when it came had a huge impact on that group of students. We haven't really developed fully to the senior stage yet. That was more to do with the pandemic, we are fielding teams at juvenile and junior.
“The numbers are very good and high. We have other teachers involved, I would have been there at the very start, I came from a high profile football school. So when I came to Merlin it seemed very obvious that we had players here that definitely should be playing more club. The camogie and ladies scene has really grown. They started with eight players a few years ago, a situation where we couldn't really field a team.
“Now they have 20 or 25 players every day, they have great numbers at training sessions. It is nice when you look into the secretary's office when all you see is footballs, gloves, hurls, and gear ready to go for that evening.”
Galway GAA coaching and games manager Dennis Carr has provided assistance as some of the students have acquired a real passion for the games.
“Gaelic Football, hurling, camogie - they love it for a reason,” McHugh says. “It is great. Even here in the community, I might contact some of the parents to explain a little bit about how the club scene develops, to build that bit of knowledge.
“A lot of the students wouldn't know, one or two in the past contacted clubs directly, maybe messaging them on Facebook. The clubs have been brilliant.
“We try to encourage them to get involved in as many of the different things that are going on. With St James now we would have signs up inside and outside the school.
“So when parents are coming in they can see where and how to sign up which has been great too. You can help point them in the direction and the clubs are delighted to have more players coming on board.
“We have given up a huge amount of space to notice boards, it has actually become a bit of an obsession really in that we want to display as much of the teams, the camaraderie and the spirit that goes with it. When you get a group of students together, when they train and play together, it is one of the great things about school.
“We have two pitches at the back of the school, those pitches are in use pretty much everyday once the school is in full swing which is great. We are blessed with the facilities we have, it is really good, that definitely has helped being a new school.”
Ultimately sport has helped Merlin College to become a meaningful part of the community. “Everyone wants to create an environment where the kids are active in school and active in sport,” McHugh says.
“There would be a big emphasis in wellbeing, trying to build that into what we are doing. When you look at wellbeing and what they are trying to focus in on - resilience, looking after yourself and that you are looking after all aspects of your health. Sport goes hand in hand with that.
“It has been a journey for the kids, but it has been amazing for them too. The experience they have got from just being encouraged and having opportunities in the school. The school is built around the care of the kids to try to give them as many opportunities to excel in things.
“We have players who have represented the county at underage level, lads playing club football. Looking at what is happening across in the primary school Merlin Woods are very active in GAA circles. It will continue to build, it will become more and more established.”
The Merlin College GAA journey continues.