Justin Parks' story shows the power of sporting inclusivity
By John Harrington
How does the Protestant son of an RUC officer from Derry become Chairman of Iberia GAA and the driving force behind the Costa Gaels GAA club in Marbella?
It’s a fairly long and winding story, but Justin Parks is a very good storyteller. Right from the off, he sets the tone for a conversation heavily punctuated with laugher.
"Tell me a bit about yourself Justin, you're a Derry man?"
"No, I'm a Londonderry man! That's always a great way to introduce myself as Chairperson of Iberia GAA!"
Humour has always been a strong currency for those in Northern Ireland who don’t want to trade in the religious and political divides there.
Maybe that’s because if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.
Poking fun at the foibles of both Protestants and Catholics in the north comes easily to Parks for two reasons – he has a good sense of humour, and he judges people by their character rather than their creed.
Extremism is often an inherited state of mind, and Parks was fortunate to grow up in a household where the scales were well balanced.
“We weren't church-goers, we weren't in any way big religious people, but we came from a family with different connections whether it was the Orange Order or points of view, that was always there,” he says.
“Both my mum and dad would have been right level-headed in a place where that was sort of frowned upon, where you were expected to be one or the other.
“You can see that now still in the current politics, you're either for or against Brexit, there's no in between. Nobody is able to say 'I kind of like Europe for this and this but I'm concerned about that and that.
“My Da didn't give a shit who you were. I'd say he arrested as many fellas in the UDA as the IRA. That was a dirty time to be a police officer, a crazy time, because you were hated by everyone, basically.
“So he left me pretty level-headed and I've a younger brother who is exactly the same. He wouldn't give a flying shit either where you're from or what your background is.
“If you're a decent fella and you're out for a bit of craic and not out to stir up a bit of badness, then you're alright with us. It's that simple. So thanks to Mum and Dad for that."
It says a something about the sort of person that his father Edmund was that he fostered this sort of attitude in his children even though his own life was actively under threat from the IRA for much of his career as a Detective Sergeant in the RUC.
When Justin was just two years of age, his family were forced to move to Portstewart in Antrim when their home in Derry was targeted by the IRA.
And when he was 11, they were on the move again when another threat on the Parks family home came uncomfortably close to tragedy.
“Basically, four lads in a car were coming from Derry over the Limavady mountain with a bomb in the boot they were going to put outside the house, targeting my Dad,” says Parks.
“Apparently, they assumed that the corner bedroom in our bungalow was the bedroom that my parents had, but that was actually my room.
“Somebody grassed them up, so hats off to whoever that was, but Special Branch got them on the mountain and caught them with the bomb.
“Under interrogation, whatever that looked like, they fessed up and said what they were going to to.
“That set alarm bells ringing so we had to move house within 24 hours. There were a load of boxes piled into a truck in the dead of night, curtains drawn, windows closed, and we were gone.”
The next few weeks and months were tough. An unhappy Christmas was spent with an uncle in Magherafelt before they found temporary housing in Ballymena.
Over a year passed before they were able to move back closer to their former home in Portstewart when they got a place down the road in Coleraine.
Justin went to secondary school in Coleraine Academical Institution which he describes himself as a bastion of Britishness, and it was only when he went to Limavady College after his ‘A’ levels to take a foundation course in Arts that he stepped outside the bubble of segregation.
“Suddenly I was in a class with 40 people and they were all from Donegal, West Ireland, and Omagh. All of them were really Catholic, but that wasn't an issue at all, we were doing Art.
“My best mate was Frankie Boyce from Creeslough, Donegal. The reason we were mates was we liked the same music. Nirvana and the whole grunge scene was happening at the time.
“Me and Frank liked music but we also liked a pint, so that was us, we were set, and we ended up having an insane year.
“A brilliant year of studying and working our asses off with high-pressure projects and also pushing the boat out and partying like crazy.”
Happiness was a very fragile thing in Northern Ireland in those days, though, and the often grim reality of life there came crashing down a few weeks after he and his classmates broke up for the summer.
“The Omagh bomb happened on August 15 and I got the Sunday papers in because I was working in a petrol station,” says Parks.
“Suddenly it clicked with me, there might be ones I know caught up in it. And it turned out there were. There were a few of them. A couple of them lost legs, including Pauline Greene.
“Pauline was a really lovely, great girl. We'd get tipsy and have a dance and a giggle and a laugh.
“A few lads went a wee bit psycho after it, they couldn't deal with life and had depression. I guess you would call it PTSD now.”
Life in the six counties must have felt like it existed in two alternate universes simultaneously back then.
A few weeks after the Omagh bombing, Parks started his studies in the University of Ulster in Belfast and quickly formed friendships that proved the walls erected by a segregated society are a state of mind as much as anything else.
“There were four of us who were always knocking around together,” says Parks.
“I was living with a fella, John Lunney, a big Orange man from Fermanagh who walked around the place like he was Prince Philip, hands behind the backs with his farmer’s coat on. He was one of those fellas who spoke first and thought later, but we loved him.
“Then you had Fionntán Ó Mealláin from Andersonstown who is probably the most educated, crazy, mad, Fenian f**ker you've ever met in your life.
“Gerard Milliken from the Falls wasn’t as mad into it as Fionntán, but he was definitely still a Republican, just more centred. And then there was me, a Proddie, but more centred as well.
“We had a ball for three years, absolutely slagging the living bejesus out of each other.”
When he looks back on those halcyon college days now, it’s almost with a sense of wonder that they survived them unscathed.
There was the night they ended up in the Red Devil Bar on the Falls Road and left a few minutes before a grenade came crashing through the window.
Or the time he and Fionntán accidentally ended up in what Justin describes as “a Proddie UDA bar” one night, and Fionntán was quickly rechristened Philip to ensure they didn’t fall afoul of the clientele there.
As much fun as they had in College, by the time Justin graduated he felt like he had his fill of Belfast and Northern Ireland in general.
So, when another friend, Bruce Irwin, floated the ideal of moving to Marbella in Spain where a friend with a bar would put them up for a few nights he jumped at the opportunity.
They quickly ran out of money after three months of hard partying, but even when Bruce decided to move back to Belfast, Justin stayed put in Marbella.
“I was too stubborn and knew that if I went back I'd be doing the usual,” he says. “So I stuck it out and met a girl, Nathalie, and I'm still with her. She's the mum of my 11-year-old son, Jake, and she settled me down a fair bit.
“I was 22/23 at this stage and got a job in a web design company and was working all day and trying not to party. I was growing up, but I was still a bit bored, there was something missing.”
He found that missing piece when he bumped into Jed O’Connor from Churchill in Kerry who had moved to Marbella and before too long founded the first GAA club in Spain, Costa Gaels.
Like all nascent GAA clubs, recruitment of players was the top priority, and O’Connor put the squeeze on Parks to come along and give it a go.
“I was saying I wouldn't have a notion, I wouldn't have a clue what to do,” says Parks.
“So I went up to watch them play a game and was thinking, well, yeah, I'm relatively sporty, I can play a bit of soccer and rugby, I could give this a lash for the craic. So I did.”
Parks quickly found he had a flair for Gaelic Football, though some would argue the word flair should never be used to describe a full-back who tackles first and asks questions later.
He’d grown up playing rugby and soccer and never felt like he was really suited to either, but Gaelic Football fitted like a snug glove.
“I was never a rugby man,” says Parks. “I was never big enough and because I wasn't big enough I wasn't fast enough to get away from these big lumps of fellas who matured a bit quicker or hit the gym or took rugby very seriously.
“I was getting the absolute shit kicked out of me on a rugby pitch and it was cold and it was miserable and I wasn't really passionate about it.
“Then I played soccer but I was quite a rough soccer player. I'd get mucked in on a soccer pitch. I wouldn't be trying to intentionally hurt fellas because I don't think that's right, but I wouldn't be scared to put myself in the way of something and take a slap.
“So whenever I copped on about the GAA and the fact it has that medium contact going on, there was enough of it to make it interesting so you could barrel through a tackle or take a shoulder or something was happening, the physicality was enough.
“You get a few bruises and knocks but generally you didn't get anything broke. You could still get up and have a pint and walk it off and go to work the next day.
“The community side of it was huge for me, but also the sport itself was dynamic enough and had that element of skill and using all of your body unlike soccer, so all that made it really enjoyable.
“I'm now a bit mad for it. So much so that I tell the fellas to stop talking about Manchester versus Liverpool and that stupid foreign game, which always goes down a treat coming from me!”
When the economic crash came in the late noughties it hit Costa Gaels hard because many of their players were forced to leave Marbella.
At one stage it looked like the whole thing might fall apart, and maybe it would have it Parks hadn’t decided to drive the thing on himself.
“One day at training there was just two of us,” he recalls. “Me and an Iraqi by the name of Akilles Haider. A Protestant and an Iraqi running around the pitch, which was the height of the GAA in Marbella at one stage.
“Akilles then broke his leg while we were running but he still finished the lap and drove home.
“He had got into the GAA when he was working in a bar here and watched Tipperary play Kilkenny in the All-Ireland Final. From then he was just hooked.
“The week after that All-Ireland Final the referee from the Final happened to be in Marbella and was in this bar ordering breakfast and Akilles took the order and recognised him as the referee from the match the previous week which fairly stunned the referee, as you can imagine.
“Akilles is a big figure in our club and has been for years. He's one of the heart and soul members.”
The club has come a long way since then, thanks in no small part to the tireless work of Parks.
If you’re Irish and have recently settled in Marbella, you can be pretty sure that he’ll come knocking on your door sooner rather than later to get you involved with Costa Gaels, and he's making good inroads too with the local Spanish population.
The club is now a vibrant community with over 100 members, including a thriving youth set-up that sees up to 40 children being coached every Sunday on the pitch Costa Gaels rent from the local rugby club.
“A few years back most of the fellas in the club who had families were leaving the missus at home minding the kids while they went off to play football on a Sunday morning,” says Parks.
“Of course we'd have a beer or two with lunch after because we're training at 10am. A burger, wee beer, and you're talking shite and suddenly it's three o'clock when you’re coming home.
“We were all trying to think up excuses how we could come training and not get divorced by the GAA widows and as we were chatting we realised 10 or 11 of us had kids who were all within a close enough age-band to be mates.
“So we decided we're not going to leave the kids at home anymore we're going to bring them with us every Sunday morning.
"So we had everyone do the foundation coaching course and because we had the rugby club to ourselves all morning the guy comes in opens the cafe and quick ham and cheese toastie and away we go.
“And as soon as you finish with the kids, straight into senior training. And because we’re doing a lot of good work with the kids now you have people are tripping over themselves to help because they know it's not just paying for a drinking session for a bunch of footballers!
“We make a big noise about the club and it has grown and grown. I am fanatical, I will not leave you alone. We just keep banging the drum, as a good Protestant likes to say!”
Not only is Parks the beating heart of Costa Gaels, he also played a huge role in the establishment of the Andalucian League by giving Éire Óg Sevilla and Gibraltar Gaels great assistance when they were first founded.
He’s doing the same now for the latest club to be founded in the region, Celta Málaga, and is adamant that this approach of clubs in Spain helping to establish other clubs rather than worrying first about themselves is what will secure the future of Gaelic Games in the country.
As Chairman of Iberia GAA his mission is to increase the number of GAA clubs in Spain to 60. That will allow them to become recognised as an official sporting federation which would give them access to invaluable Government funding.
He’s also somehow found the time to establish a company called Escape to Play which offers GAA clubs in Ireland the opportunity to come to Marbella, Seville or Malaga for a weekend to train, play matches, and take part in team-bonding exercises.
The son of an RUC Detective Sergeant from Derry who never played a game of Gaelic Football until he moved to Spain is now a GAA man to his marrow.
“Even the stress and the messing and arguments that go with running a GAA club, I actually enjoy every minute of it, to be honest with you,” says Parks.
“Because if it was easy, it probably wouldn't be as much fun.
“The beautiful part about it is because we're still at this stage here in Marbella and across Europe where it's so embryonic, we get to make it what it should be.
“I intend to leave a club that's wide enough open for whoever is coming behind me to take it in whatever direction they want. But that there's enough structure there to make things as easy as possible.
“So, yeah, I love it. I'm still not sure I'll be voting for a united Ireland, but!”