On our way into the Ulster final, we were chatting excitedly about the game. Then, as the crowd turned in towards the stadium, we were greeted by young men and women holding placards promoting the Mark McGovern fund. We soon sobered. (See Appeal details below).
Mark, the 22-year old son of Danny and Josie, left work just over six weeks ago to spend the summer in California. The ‘Sunshine State’ has Arnie, vineyards and gaelic football. Mark – a promising footballer - made his debut for Fermanagh in this year’s McKenna Cup. So when he contacted the Ulster club in San Francisco, they welcomed him with open arms.
On the 25th of June, he stepped out in broad sunshine to play his first game. Within 15 minutes, he was having seizures on the ground, before passing into unconsciousness. He has been in a coma since. One of those ubiquitous off-the-ball incidents. Witnesses told the San Francisco PD they turned to see an opposing player standing over the stricken boy, saying “You won’t get up from that.” Five weeks on, his family maintains their heartbreaking vigil in the ICU at San Francisco General.
The incident typifies the gratuitous violence that dogs the game at club level. On Wednesday past, my club St. Brigid’s played a Division One match against Moneyglass. In the home fixture earlier in the year, there was an accidental clash of heads between our midfielder and theirs as they both went for the same ball. Their man eventually went off concussed. Ours played on. Ten minutes into the return game on Wednesday, he was poleaxed by a knee into his face after the ball had gone. As he got off the ground, face covered in blood, his attacker said “Remember me?” He was lucky. At midnight, the doctor at the Royal Victoria stitched his face and sent him home. It is the third serious off-the-ball assault that has been perpetrated on a St. Brigid’s senior player this season.
The GAA is used by some as a violent playground. They can do this because of the foul conspiracy of silence that surrounds on field assaults. I have been briefed to defend four different footballers in the last 18 months, all charged with serious assaults during games. None went to trial after complaints were withdrawn and witnesses didn’t appear.
After a player was injured in an atrocious incident in a club game between Augher and Moortown two years ago, one contributor to the Hogan Stand website calling himself ‘Barnicles’ wrote....“At least the Moortown men won’t go to the police like some other members of the GAA fraternity in Tyrone.”
I was at a charity night for Marie Curie nurses four weeks ago and met Joe McMahon, whose cheek was swollen as tight as a drum. A month earlier he had his jaw broken in a treacherous attack from behind during a club game. “What can you do?” he said to me, shrugging his shoulders.
Less than a month ago, Christy Cooney said that the problem of gratuitous violence had “improved enormously”. Tell that to the referee and County Board chairman who were knocked unconscious after the Tyrone ladies’final last month. The president said this sort of incident “shouldn’t occur but some people lose the run of themselves and these things happen”. It is not a defence I have ever contemplated running in front of a jury.
Less than a fortnight ago, during the Offaly Division One football league final between Ballycumber and Edenderry, Sean Doyle, a 17 year-old Edenderry player was allegedly struck in the face by a Ballycumber selector, damaging some teeth and leaving him with a bloody face. The Gardai are investigating. I can almost hear the ranks closing....
In a rare example of justice being done, Judge Catherine Murphy presided over a case in Dublin recently involving an off-the-ball attack on a 22 year-old Kilmacud Crokes player. The medical evidence before the court documented that his gums were separated from the bone in his mouth, he lost one tooth and fractured two others. The assailant (who was convicted of the offence) allegedly kissed his fist in triumph after the assault. The judge in her sentencing remarks was highly critical of “the amount of aggression that is accepted as normal by GAA clubs.”
After Mark McGovern was assaulted, one of his team-mates was told by an opponent “You won’t get an eye-witness”. Almost five weeks on, not a single eye-witness has come forward. On Tuesday this week, the San Francisco Police Department made a televised appeal for witnesses. They have been confronted by a wall of silence.
Judge Murphy is right. It is time for all of us in the GAA to examine our attitudes to gratuitous violence. The conspiracies of silence. The back-slapping in the club bar afterwards. The culture is rotten and unsupportable and survives only because no serious, comprehensive effort has been made to deal with it. If we don’t act, it is only a matter of time before another terrified family is gathered round a hospital bed, listening to the bleep of a ventilator.
How you can help support Mark and family
Mark McGovern is uninsured. His family have limited means. The hospital bills from San Francisco General are already enormous. A fundraising effort is being co-ordinated by Mark’s club, Belcoo O’Rahillys GFC. Five trustees have been appointed to oversee the fund. The following link is to be found on the Belcoo O Rahilly’s Website (www.freeteams.net/belcoo ) for anybody wishing to donate online: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/markmcgovernsupportfund , or you can donate directly to the following account:
Bank Of Ireland, Lisnaskea:
Account No: 85880288:
Sort Code: 90-50-53.
Even a small amount would make a big difference to the family’s morale. It is important that they know they are not alone.
The club is also running a series of other fundraising events, including a Four-ball Golf Tournament at Blacklion Golf Club, Blacklion, Co Cavan, on the week of August 21st to the 28th, costing €100 per team. The main prizes are four all-Ireland football tickets and four all-Ireland hurling tickets. Groups can enter by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org