Steelstown’s Guardian Angel - A tribute to Charlene Griffiths

Brian Og's players Dearbhla Wilson, Erin McLaughlin, Carla McCallion, Michaela Wilson and seated, Ruagin Doherty.  (1101JB50)
Brian Og's players Dearbhla Wilson, Erin McLaughlin, Carla McCallion, Michaela Wilson and seated, Ruagin Doherty. (1101JB50)

LEGACY is not measured in days, weeks, months or even years. Legacy is not about how much you gain in life but how much you give away. That is what we leave behind.

Monday marks the first anniversary of former Steelstown Ladies captain Charlene Griffiths who passed away last January following a brave battle against illness, aged 27. “Journal” Sports Reporter, Michael Wilson, this week talked to Brian Og’s Ladies manager, James McGurk, Culture Officer, Máire McKeever and Charlene’s former team mate Ruagin Doherty about a remarkable lady whose influence remains strong within the city club and whose loss inspired her teammates to embark on the most successful season in the team’s history.

LEGACY is not measured in days, weeks, months or even years. Legacy is not about how much you gain in life but how much you give away. That is what we leave behind.

So when Steelstown Brian Ogs Ladies manager James McGurk took stock of last season - the most successful season in his team’s history - and began preparations for the incoming one, his initial focus was not what the club had won. Instead, it was what they had lost and the contribution of a young woman whose influence reached, and continues to reach, every corner of the Ballyarnett club.

Charlene Griffiths was only 27 years of age when she lost her brave battle against a brain tumour on January 14th last year. She had been diagnosed in May 2011 with doctors warning she had no more than three months to live. Charlene fought for eight. She was that sort of person.

“I am only dealing with the Ladies three years but my earliest memories of Charlene was seeing this very good looking, blonde hair girl running around the club, never standing still for long,” explains James, “She was always getting things done and there wasn’t a club member who wouldn’t have spoken to Charlene, said hello and vice versa. She had a word for everyone and took time for anyone. She was in the thick of everything, always trying to move the club forward. Charlene knew from her gaelic background that this club was a sleeping giant. It was only missing hard work and Charlene provided so much of that. She knew with the right effort and enough work the Ladies would be successful and that’s how things have worked out.

“She was involved in every aspect of the club, at every level. Her enthusiasm, dedication and willingness to get things done has been missed around the club and it probably means we all have to pitch in that little bit more.

“But it is no coincidence that we were successful last season. Whenever you talk to people, or look at social media and see the circle of friends Charlene had, you know the sort of person she was. The effect Charlene Griffiths had on everyone within the club continues to this day. She is still very highly thought of by everyone, at every level, and her memory is very much cherished.”

Those sentiments are echoed by whoever you speak to about a girl who packed more into 27 years than most manage in more than double that. Charlene was a former Brian Og’s Cultural Officer and underage coach but her packed programme was not confined to the GAA. A skilled trampoline and cheer leading coach at Galaxy GTC, Springtown, Charlene was a much loved teacher at Gaelscoil Ui Dhochartaigh, Strabane when her illness struck having previously taught at Gaelscoil an Chaistil, Ballycastle and Bunscoil Cholmcille, Steelstown. Her interests were varied but the consensus of description from anyone who felt her influence is constant and the Steelstown Ladies manager admits his team found her loss very tough to deal with.

“Certainly the early part of last season, yes, the loss of Charlene was very much to the fore and mentioned by the girls in the changing room before many games that we had an ‘extra player’, someone driving us on. That drove the girls on to the success we enjoyed later in the season. Now, while we always speak of Charlene as the inspiration she will always be, we can look back fondly at a much cherished and much missed colleague and a stalwart of the club.”

The daughter of Eugene and Majella, Cornshell Fields, the Steelstown Ladies team remains very close to the Griffiths family and team mate Ruagin Doherty believes her former captain’s presence is still felt among the players.

“Charlene was an amazing girl,” added Ruagin, “I remember during her illness we decided to surprise her on her birthday but Charlene’s first reaction at seeing us was to check how often we’d been at training and warn us to keep working hard. That gave us the incentive to move forward but that’s exactly how Charlene was. She didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her, her first concern was for others.

“She was our captain and you knew when Charlene spoke you had to listen. On the pitch she would be the first to encourage or reprimand you if you needed it. Every player had the highest respect for her.

“When we heard Charlene had passed away it was very hard on everyone, individually and as a team but we tried to turn that huge negative into a positive because we knew what Charlene would have wanted us to do. We wanted to do her proud and I hope we managed to.

“I’ve always believed Charlene’s spirit is alive within this team. We all got on so well and Charlene was our leader, the person you went to if you needed something, the one we looked up to. Within the changing room she could have a laugh but when it came time to prepare, she made sure we were concentrating and had our ‘game heads’ on as she put it.

“Despite being small she was very competitive on the pitch as well. Many opposition players tried to rough her up but she wasn’t having any of it and more than held her own. The way she played mirrored the sort of person she was, she never gave anything less than 100%.”

Ruagin admits news of Charlene’s condition hit the team hard last season but their desire to continue in a manner their inspirational captain would have approved carried them through.

“It was devastating when we heard she was ill and we did let it effect us. The day she was having her first operation we got word she had come through okay just before taking to the pitch. Without anyone speaking, we all went out and won that game convincingly. We all wanted to do our best for her. Her father Eugene said to us after her funeral that the one thing the illness could not take was her personality and he was right.”

Charlene’s undoubted influence helped carry the Under-16s to the ‘A’ Shield, the minor team to the ‘A’ Championship and the senior team to the Junior ‘B’ Championship and the club’s Culture officer Máire McKeever, who lost her own son Brian Og to cancer in 2008, said the season’s success was a fitting tribute to an amazing girl.

“I remember the first time I met Charlene. I had heard of her around the club but I wasn’t involved with the Ladies at the time. I started an Irish class and not being a teacher I was finding it difficult but everyone kept telling me there was a girl called Charlene Griffiths who would help. I hadn’t managed to contact her but one night we were in the changing rooms where the class was held and this beautiful, bright girl strolled into the room and announced, ‘I’m Charlene Griffiths and I’ll help you out in anyway I can.’ For me that first meeting still sums her up perfectly.

“That encounter was typical of what happened when Charlene entered any room, she lit the place up. Of course, then she had to run and do something else because she was always splitting her time between so many things, not just inside this club. Charlene was tireless. Whatever we ran, whether it was a sporting or social event she organised everything. Once she started to speak, everyone listened.

“She had this infectious personality which made you really want to do the things she was involved in. Her enthusiasm was endless and rubbed off on you. She even made training look fun and was such a good looking girl she helped the other girls see you could play Gaelic football and still be glamorous.

“There was no ‘poor me’ from Charlene about her illness. I went through the same thing with my own son, Brian, and sometimes you were loathed to visit the house because you didn’t want to intrude but the moment you arrived at the house you were brought in as one of the family. The first time I visited there she was, with her make-up perfect, her hair sitting lovely and looking as glamorous as ever. I remember saying to her, ‘You are remarkable, Charlene!’ I thought I was visiting someone who would be in bed but she was having none of it and that was her right throughout her illness.”

Despite her premature death, Máire said Charlene’s influence would continue to be felt throughout a club which was proud to have been able to call the fluent Irish speaker a member.

“Whenever we went training after she passed we never had to say, ‘we’re going to do this for Charlene’ because you knew it was in everybody’s heart. At the start, it took a while for the players to come back but it says everything about Charlene that within a couple of weeks we had more players than we had ever had. We had 25 players, more than we’re ever going to be able to play, and everybody wanted to play for her. Charlene would have loved that.

“Last year was the sort of season she would have loved. When I think of the times we went out and got trounced in the early years, but after what happened the girls just took off. You knew Charlene was in everybody’s mind and they did her proud but she was the ideal role model.

“Everyone called her ‘Mother Steelstown’ and it was so apt. She organised everyone, including me. I suppose it was the teacher in her but she was such a good influence. She put everything into what she did and expected others to do the same. She was so bright and bubbly you could not help but want to be in her company. She was always there and never asked for anything, only how she could help and the influence she had at the club continues to this day.”