It is just gone five past 11 on Saturday morning. I’m standing in the assembly hall of St Brigid’s College, Derry, watching as James attempts to persuade a dozen or so four and five-year-olds to come close enough to hear his instructions. A couple of teenage volunteers are trying to kettle the children, although highly-trained border collies would struggle.
This is one of the indoor Winter training sessions for the under-5s of Na Magha Hurling and Camogie Club. Just up the corridor, in the sports hall, Malachy and Ciarán are putting the under-sevens through their paces. Gearalt flits between the two rooms.
James has his work cut out, but he perseveres, unflaggingly patient and full of good humour. The young hurlers and camogs in front of him are paying scant attention, constantly interrupting with random comments and observations, as he attempts to explain the drill he has in mind. At least these children are there, helmeted and hurled, more or less in front of him. My little girl is six feet off the ground, climbing the bars at the side of the hall, her recent ‘Player of the Week’ award a distant memory. Nobody minds. She’ll join in when she’s ready. And join in she does, intrigued by the warm-up exercise James has now managed to propose.
The children, hurls in ready(ish) position, have to run between different coloured cones spread out across the floor. He makes the running route clear – orange, yellow, orange again, white, blue, and then back to the centre. My girl is off like the clappers at the shout of ‘Go’ and is way ahead of the others. Unfortunately, however, despite giving the appearance of listening intently, she sets off first for the yellow cone, and is temporarily bamboozled by the stampede of children coming at her as she turns to head to the orange. It doesn’t matter. She’s laughing as she runs, and she’s holding her hurl correctly. She’s still laughing as she cheats her way to victory in the next game, ignoring the honk James gives for everyone to stop, giggling as he makes it clear he’s got her eye on her.
And then, while the next exercise gets underway, she’s off to bounce on the giant gym cushions that she’s spotted on the stage. She rejoins the group for the last 10 minutes, earnestly reciting the mantra of ‘Ready, Lock, Strike’ before hitting the ball in a direction which defies the laws of camogie, not to mention physics. She doesn’t stop smiling.
I saw my first and only game of hurling maybe six years ago; Dublin versus Cork at Croke Park. I couldn’t believe the skill, speed, and daring, and knew that, should we ever have children, I’d want them to play this game above all others. Not just for the excitement, not just for the thrill of the sport, but also because this felt like stepping into the culture and passion of the country.
I got my first close encounter with the culture and passion when we joined Na Magha a couple of summers ago, when training was outdoors, on a wind blown hillside pitch in Ballyarnet. Only it wasn’t quite the culture and passion I thought I’d see. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t expecting stirring speeches and rousing anthems, but nor was I expecting such a warm, friendly, instant welcome. It didn’t matter that I had an English accent, or that my daughter was decked out in full Everton kit, rather than the green, black, and white of Na Magha. Yes, there a focus on the sport, from men and women who clearly and deeply love it, but, really, it didn’t matter whether she was any good or not. The only thing that truly counted was that we were there, and we wanted to have a go. That was enough.
My daughter’s nerves and trepidation were instantly understood, and the coaches – men and women who give up hours and hours every week for the sport and the club – took her under their wing and have looked out for her ever since. We were in. We were family. When she was nervous, I suggested to James that maybe I could be an assistant coach, and he said ‘Yes’, not minding when I played a mean forward defensive to an advancing sliotar, or shouted ‘Howzat’ when I caught one. He didn’t mind because he knew me being there meant my daughter would be more comfortable and relaxed, announcing she was the assistant-assistant coach when we next turned up.
Like any parents, my wife and I try our hardest for our daughter. We only want the very best for her. But it’s not always easy to know what the very best actually means. Good schools? Qualifications? Money?
And it’s easy to be seduced by the fashionable lie that you can achieve anything, so long as you try hard enough and want it badly enough. Achievement mania pervades too many areas of life. Too many children are hampered by a debilitating perfectionism, inducing anxiety and unhappiness.
What she needs – what we all need – are the qualities to withstand. Confidence. Resilience. Resolve. Respect. Understanding. And to know she is part of something, a member of a community which will support her when she needs it and to which, just as importantly, she will offer her support when needed. She won’t face the trauma of sorting here, waiting nervously to find if she’s a success or failure. She’ll win sometimes, of course, as well as – probably more often – lose, and she’s learning that neither really matter much when it all boils down. What matters is the laughter you can get running to the wrong colour cone while James shakes his head, smiling and bemused, just happy she and the others are there.
Now, camogie isn’t a cure-all; hurling isn’t a magical suit of armour that deflects all life’s slings and arrows. And being in a family isn’t all sweetness and light: sometimes it’s a relief not to be involved. But, nevertheless, fun and community can go a long way. And that’s what Na Magha offered us. And continues to offer us.
Maybe she could get it in other places, other clubs, other sports, but she’s found it already, so she doesn’t need to look further. As we leave, my daughter skips merrily past two older girls arriving for their training session.
“Outside today, girls,” shouts James. “Sun’s shining!”
And everyone’s smiling.