GAA Football

Adjusting and recalibrating is second nature to Antrim's Anto Finnegan

Anto Finnegan, pictured at the 2015 Irish News Club and Volunteer Awards, gives his take on the lockdown
SINCE lockdown began we’ve had to recalibrate many aspects of our lives – but Anto Finnegan has been recalibrating and reconfiguring his life for the best part of eight years.
 
The former Antrim footballer has been suffering from Motor Neurone Disease [MND] since August 2012.
 
He rarely talks about the diminishing impact the life-limiting condition has had on his life because he’s always promoting the next big fundraiser for DeterMND, a charity he co-founded.
 
We’re all in a different head space since the Covid19 pandemic forced everyone indoors over six weeks ago.
 
Last month, Terence McNaughton kept his worldview simple.
 
“Our parents’ generation were being shot at during the Troubles – whereas we’re sent to the sofa to watch Netflix." McNaughton said.
 
“What’s required of people is very, very little – self-isolate, wash your hands, social distance, don’t be going to the shop every five minutes. Is that too much to ask to protect each other?”
 
When you break the recalibration process down, it’s not that big a deal.
 
And, in fairness, it probably comes easier to someone like Finnegan. For he’s had to constantly recalibrate and adjust.
 
Losing his grip to hold a cup of tea was a huge deal.
 
Walking.
 
Lifting his arms.
 
The little things we take for granted, the merciless, indiscriminate disease took away.
 
“The toughest part is the physical loss,” Finnegan says, “in terms of going from someone who prided themselves on their physical fitness. Every day I would have done something to keep my fitness up. If I was in work, I’d run at lunchtime or run early in the morning.
 
“I wouldn’t say I was on the extreme end [of keeping fit] but someone who enjoyed physical activity; to go to the other end of that scale where you can’t physically do any activity, it takes a fair amount of adjustment.”
 
The 46-year-old adds: “I’m not going to lie – it’s an extremely difficult challenge. It’s not like one day everything changes. It’s a series of things that happen and how my condition progresses. The condition affects people in different ways.
 
“For me, going from losing my grip, holding a cup of tea to not being able to hold a cup, not being able to lift my arm, to not being able to lift both arms, to not being able to walk distances to not being able to walk at all.
 
“The process is a series of losses and each time that happens there’s almost a recalibration for you to go through in terms of: ‘How do I cope with this?’ And: ‘What am I going to do if I can’t do A, B, C and D? How am I going to manage to this?’”
 
The St Paul’s clubman used to love driving. Come the summer holidays, Anto would be at the wheel with Alison up front and their two kids in the back.
 
But he didn’t realise how much he loved driving until he had to stop.
 
It was May time, 2015, he thinks.
 
“I just didn’t feel it was safe for me to be driving any longer. It’s losing the ability to not being able to do something any more, and then you have to continually reset.
 
“I just have to face it down when those things happen and there’s no getting away from it. It’s part of my life now. Hiding in the corner pretending that it’s not happening doesn’t help me with that process. So I have to face it down and accept it.”
 
So lockdowns come easier to Finnegan. 
 
He’s deemed ‘high risk’ if he was to contract Covid19. As a consequence, none of his family has been “across the door” since government directives were issued and they rely on their families for groceries and other things they need.
 
“The lockdown hasn’t been a major challenge for me personally because I’ve been in a wheelchair for the last five years now; I work five days a week, a normal working day, 9-5, so I’d be well used to that side of it.
 
“I do all my work over the phone or by email. What I struggle with a bit is not getting out in the evenings and the weekends, to go and watch sport or go out for a bite to eat with the family or bring the kids to training at St Paul’s or watching the Antrim matches, all those types of things.”
 
Never one to wallow in self-pity, Finnegan feels for the younger generation more than his own.
 
His son is studying at university, his daughter at secondary school. But everything has stopped for them. No more chilling with your mates, no more part-time jobs, no more school or university. No more anything. Just their phones, face-timing and endless scrolling.
 
“If I was and 18 or 20-year-old, I would find it extremely difficult. So I think we have to give a lot of credit to the youth of today.
 
“Sometimes you think they are a bit ‘snowflakey’. You hear your father say: ‘When I was a lad we had to do this, we had to do that…’
 
“But our young people are so savvy with technology, they are articulate and smart and they are well educated. Most of them know where they’re going in life. When I was 16, 17, 18 I didn’t know where my life was going, and that was okay.
 
“Young people now are a bit more on top of that and we have to commend them. What we’re asking of them at this time is effectively to put their lives on hold in order to protect the most vulnerable in society. That’s what we’re asking them to do.
 
“And do you know what, for the most part they’re doing exactly that.”
 
In these uncertain days, Finnegan has found great solace in the GAA especially the swiftness with which they acted to the pandemic.
 
Some of the lockdown restrictions can be expected to be eased over the coming weeks in order to kick-start the economy but sport, Finnegan feels, is some way down the list of priorities and he doesn’t see any meaningful football or hurling taking place in 2020.
 
Even though the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in the Republic is tentatively considering allowing inter-county teams to train – which would be heavily reliant on testing players and staff – playing games still appears a long way off.
 
“What impressed me was the GAA made a decision very quickly to suspend all their activities and then closing all their facilities. On the back of that, they offered their facilities to the various agencies in order to fight Covid19 – Croke Park, the Gaelic Grounds, Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
 
“Sometimes we don’t realise how intertwined the GAA is when you look at the number of doctors, nurses, porter staff, teachers and so many of them are connected to the GAA and in some way the GAA is part of their lives. It just shows the influence the GAA has across the country.
 
“I think I mentioned on social media early on about how proud I was to be a GAA member because I knew the role the Association would play and the members that would be helping to fight Covid19.”
 
Now in the seventh week of lockdown and with ambitious promises from government of it ending soon, this surreal period has given everyone time to think of what’s important and what's not, what’s of value and what isn’t – and indeed, who should be valued.
 
“What have I learned?” Finnegan asks rhetorically.
 
“Those people in society we treat like second class citizens in terms of remuneration and how we pay them, the contracts that they’re on, the zero-contracts and the work that they’re doing, the uncivil hours they work, and classing them as 'unskilled' workers.
 
“It is quite evident that they are quite the opposite, that they are absolutely necessary to a functioning society and the fact that we pay them less than what we pay others in the employment hierarchy.
 
“One thing that I hope will come out of all this is that we no longer see restaurant workers, takeaway drivers, care workers, nurses, delivery drivers, people in the service industry – as ‘unskilled’ or not worthy of a decent contract, a decent wage, decent holidays and that they be rewarded for the fantastic work that they do. That would be the lesson I’d take out of the last six weeks.”

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