Hurling and camogie

East Belfast will weather the storm, says TG4 presenter and 'East' hurler Irial Ó Ceallaigh

Waterford native and East Belfast hurler Irial Ó Ceallaigh spoke to Neil Loughran about finding his feet in the city and not giving in to those who want to disrupt the forward-thinking club...

Irial Ó Ceallaigh played for East Belfast against St Peter's, Warrenpoint on Thursday night - just hours after it emerged that suspicious objects had been discovered on two cars linked to the club. Picture by Hugh Russell

STORM clouds may have been gathering in the east during recent days, but as Irial Ó Ceallaigh headed out west he was focused only on brighter skies and the promise of better days to come.

A familiar face on television screens as one of TG4’s team of weather presenters, as well as being a Sean-nós singer and GAA commentator, on Thursday night Ó Ceallaigh wore the number 11 jersey as the new East Belfast club made history once again by taking part in its first game of hurling.

After battling bravely throughout, weary limbs told as the East Belfast challenge faded towards the end of their Betsy Gray Shield clash with St Peter’s, Warrenpoint at Our Lady and St Patrick’s College, Knock.

Given all that had gone on in the 24 hours before, it was no surprise that tiredness should take a toll.

“I’m wrecked now,” said Ó Ceallaigh as he set out for the TG4 studios in Galway yesterday morning, “it’s been a long couple of days.”

That is something of an understatement.

On Wednesday the PSNI received a telephone warning that devices had been left at Henry Jones playing fields in east Belfast, where the club’s footballers had been training.

While they were coming to terms with that news, it later emerged that suspicious objects had been discovered on two cars linked to the club, just hours before throw-in against St Peter’s.

The game, though, was never in doubt – “absolutely not. It was obvious that was the chief goal of whoever was involved; our goal is to continue playing” – and neither, he insists, is the future of the club.

“Look, it wasn’t unexpected,” added Ó Ceallaigh, who is also interim vice-secretary and hurling development officer with East Belfast as well as playing both codes.

“If anything, we thought it might happen earlier. The groundkeepers at Henry Jones have been nothing but good to us, there’s never been any issue at training.

“It was moreso a shock because of the timing, with it having been a training session. It’s obviously something that’s been done to instill fear in our members, especially the Protestant members of the club who were probably more affected than anyone else and had a bit more fear than anyone else.

“The club members have all rallied around anyone who has been affected, and are helping each other through this. What we need now is that the PSNI give us as much information as we can possibly get - that’s very important.

“The PSNI have said they’ll sit down with us and I hope they will very soon to go through the detail of what exactly happened, what form of threat was this, what threat are players under and what security might we be able to get just to put a lot of lads who are fearful at ease.”

It isn’t the kind of situation Ó Ceallaigh might have expected to find himself in after relocating to Belfast earlier in the summer.

A native of An Rinn in the Waterford Gaeltacht, Ó Ceallaigh has also lived in Galway, Dublin and Cork. Belfast, though, always held a special appeal.

“My mother is a Belfast woman, so I would always have been up in Belfast growing up. I always wanted to live in Belfast.

“And then, like a lot of people when Covid hit, you rethink your life. I was working four or five different jobs, running around like a lunatic, working 60, 70, 80 hours a week. Eventually I just thought to myself ‘why?’ Up here you can rent for 30 or 40 per cent of what you can rent for in the 26 counties, and it’s a higher standard of living.

“There’s an Irish language revival going on up here that isn’t really going on in the south, as well as a real positivity and growth of Irish culture.”

Irial Ó Ceallaigh played for East Belfast against St Peter's, Warrenpoint on Thursday night - just hours after it emerged that suspicious objects had been discovered on two cars linked to the club. Picture by Hugh Russell

When County Down native Dave McGreevy sent out a tweet at the end of May gauging interest in forming a new club in East Belfast, Ó Ceallaigh was one of the first to get in touch. The 32-year-old has been involved with six different GAA clubs as a consequence of an at times nomadic existence, and had stacks to offer when it came to getting East Belfast off the ground.

“I’d never met Dave before this in my life but I can’t talk highly enough of him and Richard Maguire, both of whom have really driven the club on. Working with them is a privilege.

“I’d have known Linda [Ervine, club president] and a few others on the board from before. The Irish-speaking world is a small one and last year I brought fourth years up from our local school at home up to see the Irish language revival in west and east Belfast, and we would’ve called into Linda at the time.

“She has probably been a steadying force for us over the last couple of days, especially for the younger people who wouldn’t have seen the Troubles.

“They wouldn’t have the resilience that older people would have but having Linda there has been great.”

The events of Wednesday and Thursday were unfortunate and unhelpful, but they haven’t done anything to alter Ó Ceallaigh’s view of the community and the people he has found since moving north.

And they certainly won’t deter him putting his shoulder to the wheel in the weeks, months and hopefully years ahead.

“My understanding of east Belfast, probably like 90 per cent of people in the south, would have conjured up something negative. Then when you’re there, you maybe see it in the murals, but you don’t see it in people.

“It maybe suits certain political and economic interests that sectarianism and that divide stays, but you do not see it on the ground or in the vast majority of the population.

“We were probably overly cautious in our thinking at the start, worrying that the majority of the community would be against it, but that hasn’t been so. What’s going to happen in the future? I don’t know. You’d hope this has been a once off.

“But I see us continuing as we have been. I haven’t heard of any player who has decided to leave yet. Most of the team went for a pint after the match last night, and it’s great to see guys from both traditions being so supportive of each other.

“It’s important that we continue what we’ve been doing.”

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Hurling and camogie