These are unprecedented and challenging times as a virus sweeps across the globe that quite frankly, scares the shite out of us all.
And unfortunately, this is just the beginning.
Many of us will contract Covid-19. Most of us will come through it unscathed but we all have elderly family members and we all know somebody left vulnerable by this disease.
That’s the scary part.
It’s in these unprecedented and challenging times that we must pull together, act as one and attempt to slow the spread.
In sport, coming together as one is never straight forward, however. Rivalries run deep. They are tribal, visceral and quite often divisive. In GAA, rivalries normally take shape in the form of village versus village, town versus town or village versus town.
However, Lurgan is an entity unknown to most in that the town itself boasts five GAA clubs, St. Peter’s, Clann Eireann, Clan na Gael and St. Paul’s, coupled with hurling club Sean Tracey’s.
In fact, the area encompasses eight when you factor in Craigavon club Eire Og [a close neighbour of St. Paul’s] as well as village teams the Wolfe Tones of Derrymacash and Sarsfields of Derrytrasna.
When taken into consideration the stigma attached to the county Armagh town as an area deep-rooted in sectarian division, the fact that the GAA community covers merely half the population makes this all the more incredible.
Beneath the rivalry, however, lies great friendships and a camaraderie that has come to the fore amidst the biggest global crisis since World War II.
The generous members of our club doing their bit to help the vulnerable in the community in conjunction with the Lurgan Area Community Aid group. All donations very welcome pic.twitter.com/wWwApowM7G
— Clan na Gael CLG (@clannagael1922) March 18, 2020
As hoards of people, both north and south, invaded shopping malls last week in a panic to stockpile food and household items, Carol McCafferty of Clann Eireann saw something much more harrowing than a bathroom without toilet roll. We all saw it in fact, that image doing the rounds of an elderly woman standing in the supermarket staring at nothing but empty shelves.
Most of us saw this and felt a wave of sadness mixed with anger. ‘Sure what can I do about it?’ we tell ourselves knowing full well the depths we’ll go to stretches as far as a thinly veiled and strongly-worded Facebook post.
Not Carol. She saw an opportunity to help, to be proactive and to use Lurgan’s unique GAA community to combat this crisis. By Saturday, the Lurgan Area Community Aid group was set up to help those in need.
“We called a meeting on Monday between the four football clubs in the town asking for two members to attend, in the end, we had members come from neighbouring clubs Sarsfields, the Wolfe Tones as well as one person from Keady who drove down just to see how we were tackling the issue so they could implement something similar in south Armagh.
“We decided that we’d start putting together care packages for anyone in the town deemed to be in a vulnerable position. Bread, milk, toilet paper, tinned food, tea bags, soap, anything really that we could put together in order to help.”
“Each club has become a drop-off centre for people to donate whatever they can which we then distribute to those who need it most. So we’ve decided to open the clubs for one hour, three evenings a week, as well as Saturday mornings so whoever wants to donate anything, can drop it off outside.”
My club has always been there to support me through difficult times. Nice to muck in and help prepare (and deliver) vital packs for the vulnerable people of Lurgan.
Also great to see all local clubs pull together in the form of Lurgan Community Aid. #communitysupport pic.twitter.com/cKnAdtQE9b
— Ciarán McMahon (@cmcmahonhousing) March 18, 2020
Anne-Marie Henderson from Clan na Gael has been central to the movement.
The daughter of Ulster GAA icon, Jimmy Smyth, she’s been moved by the community’s generosity in a time of crisis.
“It started with Carol, then St.Paul’s, St. Peter’s and us and since then it has completely snowballed. We held a meeting on Monday night and all of sudden, a number of different clubs and local businesses got involved. They came from all over the town. So many people, schools have even come on board now saying they want to help.
“On the first night, our doors opened at seven o’clock and I took a video at 40 minutes passed seven and you would not believe the amount of stuff we had gathered in such a short space of time. You know, everybody is worried sick about their own families and their own loved ones and yet they are willing to come out and hand stuff over for people they may not even know.
“It has really helped through what are very dark and uncertain times for everybody in Lurgan and indeed all over. It’s one of those things where there are huge rivalries between all the clubs in Lurgan when it comes to the football field but really it goes to show how when times get hard we forget that there is a football even there so to speak, we just pull together.”
The rivalry that exists in the town is as real as it gets. While there are many examples of cross-pollination over the years, once white lines are crossed, the only thing that matters is the badge on one’s chest.
However, according to Darragh McGeown of St. Peter’s, if they can’t set their differences aside now, when will they ever?
“People like to talk bad about Lurgan but unless you’re actually from here and actually have a gauge of the sense of the community, it really is unreal. Everybody talks about the rivalries in the town with the GAA clubs all being a stone’s throw from each other but if you’re not going to set shit aside for things like this then when will you?
“It’s a community effort, we’re all like I said, Lurgan being the town that it is, we all want to help out but what we wanted to do was make sure that it was orchestrated so that we weren’t pulling in different directions and end up with some people being missed out.
“We’re appealing to the fit and healthy and young people in the community, the likes of the Gaelic teams whose sport is on lockdown at the minute anyway.
“The vulnerable are who we’re targeting, those going through chemotherapy, those who are getting it tight for money, those with a lot of children in the family and then obviously, the elderly. There’s no exact demographic that we’re looking to help in the community, if you say you’re getting it tight then we are going to help you!”
What the last week has shown is that in a time of crisis rivalries don’t exist. Tommy ‘Spug’ Stevenson, St. Paul’s club man and current Armagh senior ladies manager, has enjoyed working alongside the other clubs in the town.
A highly-respected coach throughout Ireland, Stevenson has found himself at a loose-end given the blanket ban imposed on all GAA-related activity. If that free-time is spent doing deliveries, then he’s more than happy to do so.
“What this current crisis has done is it has shown that when the shit hits the fan and reality comes crashing down to earth that we can put our differences to one side. Like, even you look at the rivalries in Gaelic football alone between St. Paul’s and Clan na Gael, Clann Eireann and St. Peter’s and vice-versa, it’s great that we can push all that to one side when times get bad.
Lurgan clubs may be divided by their clubs colours but they are united when it comes to helping our community. Great work folks 👏
— Ciaran Toman (@Ciarant1990) March 18, 2020
“To be honest, it has been brilliant working with the different clubs and the other thing is, it gives people focus. Like, I do a lot of work with different teams but obviously that has all stopped at the minute so if I can put something back into the community and get out there every night and do deliveries then that’s what I’m going to do. If it means going to Clan na Gael or Clann Eireann then that’s what I’ll do.”
Of course, what started as a GAA initiative has since snowballed into a cross-community project. Local businesses, multiple schools, the ABC Council, mental health ambassadors and girl guide groups have all come on board, the whole town has rowed in behind one another.
Lurgan’s troubled history has been well documented at this stage, however, through the Peace VI project, community relations are improving by the day.
Raymond Acheson of Lurgan Rugby Club has been a key figure throughout all of this and now, in the midst of a health crisis, he and his fellow members are well prepared to put their shoulder to the wheel.
“We’ve come to it may be a few days later but the management and the players here are all keen to do their bit. We’ll be coming on board and putting our full weight in behind.
“We all know vulnerable people and it’s a matter now of being there for them. We’ve a lot of strong players there, if they have no rugby to play then they may as well fulfil some civic duties.
“I think everybody thinks this is very serious and if you look at the Chancellor’s budget and the amount of money he’s allocated to it and then a few days later businesses are closing and everybody realises we have a tsunami coming our way. I think it’s unprecedented times but we just need to pull together now and get through this together.
“There’s a bigger picture here.”
From Diarmaid Marsden to Jacob Stockdale to Neil Lennon to Pat McGibbon and the Barr twins, Bethany and Serena, Lurgan is a town rich in sporting history.
According to Stevenson, it does not matter the sport or what side of the town it falls on, strip it all back and it’s just one community.
“We have a great sporting community here whether it’s rugby, Gaelic, soccer or hockey and that’s part of the reason we’ve come together in the last year through the GAA and the rugby with the Peace VI Project with different events on in Pollock Park and things like that and more of that stuff should be done.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re from Taghnevan or Mourneview, it’s about breaking that stigma because when it’s all stripped back we are part of one community and it is about working together to help those who need help.”
Carol McCafferty started all of this so we may as well let her finish. The Clann Eireann woman is blown away by the response to the Lurgan Area Community Aid group.
As she so eloquently puts it herself, while there is years of history to unfold there, Covid-19 doesn’t know borders, it doesn’t do politics, it affects each and every one of us.
“We’re seeing it now that social media can sometimes be a toxic place but this initiative quickly spread and it has shown the good side to social media.
“What started as a way for the local GAA clubs to play their part has now become a cross-community initiative. Lurgan Rugby and Hockey club have come on board now, as well as the swimming club. It’s important because this virus knows no borders, it doesn’t know politics, it affects us all, all sides of the community.
“We will get through this together, strengthened by each other.”
You can donate to the Lurgan Area Community Aid group here.