"As a community, we won't accept any other way now" - GAA and rugby team up to tackle Covid-19 3 weeks ago

"As a community, we won't accept any other way now" - GAA and rugby team up to tackle Covid-19

"We had Stefan Campbell, the captain of Armagh dropping off boxes for us in the local housing estate, which... it wouldn’t be his demographic."

Following months of stay-at-home advice and restrictions on movement - some enforceable by law, others strong advised - life in Ireland is picking up pace. In Armagh, like counties all over the island, men, women and children will be back training on pitches again and focusing on the return of competitive action.

The Covid-19 pandemic is by no means a past tense issue. While the curve of cases and deaths related to the virus is levelling off, communities North and South of the border are getting used to a new way of getting about their day while maintaining social distancing and following health and safety guidelines.

Back in March and April, Covid-19 cases and deaths were steadily climbing and so much of society was shutting down. It was an uncertain time for all and downright scary for others. It was also a time when communities pulled together and we saw the best of each other.

Up in Armagh, four GAA clubs and rugby, cricket and athletic clubs came together to set up what they called 'Lurgan Community Aid'. Old divisions, between Catholic and Protestant communities, were a thing of the past as men and women teamed up to provide food, supplies and pick up medicine for the elderly and vulnerable.

The likes of Jacob Stockdale (Ulster & Ireland) and Armagh captain Stefan Campbell pitched in - either through raising the profile of the outreach service or making deliveries - as hundreds of house-holds were covered over a 12-week period.

Stefan Campbell of Armagh in action against Cavan at Kingspan Breffni in 2019. (Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile)

"It was unbelievable," says Ciaran McCavigan, who works as a youth co-ordinator with St Peter's GAA.

"Lurgan is probably your typical Northern Irish town, in that one side is traditionally Catholic/Nationalist and the other side is Protestant/Unionist, and that’s just the way Lurgan is, unfortunately."

Those old divisions have been eroding, though, for the past few years and the sports clubs in the town are leading the way towards a more cohesive future. Coming together during the pandemic was just the latest step on the road.

"People are thinking about getting back to normal but step back to March and it was totally different," says David Wellwood, youth conveyor at Lurgan Rugby & Cricket Club.

"There was a lot of concern and uncertainty…. People were panic-buying and folks didn’t know if the shops would stay open.

"Everybody was sitting and watching the news. Everybody was glued to the news – ‘What’s happening?’ And I said, 'We really need to do something’. And I contacted our chairman at the rugby section, Raymond Acheson, who is a bit of a force of nature. I gave him a ring and he says, ‘You know what, I’ve been talking to a bunch of guys in the Gaelic clubs and they’re talking about pulling together a more cohesive group. I want us to get involved’."

And so began the outreach effort. Flyers were sent out across the community asking if house-holds needed any deliveries made, food dropped in or shopping done. There was a push across social media too while anyone from the clubs that knew of elderly or vulnerable people in the area would drop a note through the letter box with the message - if you need us, we're here.

On Tuesdays, the focus was getting out for drop-offs to the elderly. All the local clubs came together to volunteer delivery drivers for that and they would set off from Clann na hEireann GAA Club each Wednesday. A couple of grant applications were accepted, including National Lottery funding and Foodshare donated a lot of food for individuals and families that needed it.

"It wasn’t just food," McCavigan recalls. "There were a lot of elderly people just afraid to go outside and afraid to get to the shops. So it was things like pharmacy prescriptions... and maybe picking up wee odd jobs about the place. Going to the shop for a wee drop of milk, a wee loaf of bread. All them wee simple things, and I know we got a lot of positive feedback from those in need about how much of a difference those things made, and how much they loved the care packages and boxes."

Credit: St Paul's GAA, Lurgan (via Facebook)

The club members often did drop-offs on certain nights. The Lurgan Rugby & Cricket volunteers usually took Thursdays. If there was a house that needing visiting in a traditionally Catholic neighbourhood on that evening, they would add it to their list. Wellwood comments:

"One of the GAA clubs might have said, ‘We’ve an address, which is close to our club but it’s going to be next week before we get to them’. No problem, we’ll get to them. And we had Stefan Campbell, the captain of Armagh dropping off boxes for us in the local housing estate, which would not be his normal territory. It wouldn’t be his demographic, but there he was dropping them off."

"Sometimes when you are in the thick of something," McCavigan adds, "you don’t have time to sit back and think of what you’re actually doing. You’re just trying to solve the next problem. The next thing crops up and you’re like, ‘How do I solve it?’ But what did strike me was, within the group there was so much support."

With restrictions easing, many of the elderly and vulnerable of the community are able to get back out to the shops and pharmacies. With sports clubs being told they can start returning to non-contact training in the coming days, life is getting back closer to what it looked like in February, and before.

Pretty soon, the likes of St Peter's, St Paul's, Clann na Gael and Clann na hEireann will be renewing their rivalries on the GAA pitch. Lurgan Rugby club are striving to one day make it into the senior club ranks in the All Ireland League so that journey can pick up where it left off.

The past few months, and the mix of emotions that barraged us on a daily basis, will not be soon forgotten. Nor will that sense of community spirit that came to the fore.

"It really shows how we’re moving on," says McCavigan. "Lurgan is moving on. Especially in a town where, I’m sure you’ve seen it documented on the news, there’s been a lot of problems and issues over the years. It’s good to see that there’s a lot of people willing to put that behind them and move on.

"This is how we do it now in Lurgan it's just natural that we work together."

For Wellwood, it is another sign of a town, and a society, healing after years of living in the heart of a sectarian storm.

"It’s quite emotional, when you think about it," he begins.

"The environment that Ciaran and I would have grown up in, and the provinces and the towns around the province, in the 80s and the early 90s, those were really difficult and challenging places to be. As a young person growing up in that environment, you don’t realise how abnormal it is. You don’t realise that it’s just not how it’s done.

"And then whenever you might be working in the UK or on holidays down South, you realise, ‘Flip me, not everywhere is like this’. There’s just a normality now, in the town.

"We think, and I’m sure Ciaran would agree, if kids want to kick a ball, or lift a hurling stick or play rugby, they shouldn’t have any compunction about doing it. Just come along and try it. And it doesn’t matter what part of the town that pitch is, they’ll get a warm welcome.

"That’s the new normal and that’s the way it has to be. We won’t accept, as a community, any other way now."