Just when you think you’re out... they pull you back in

GAA is at the heart of rural Irish community life, prompting Fabien to recall his first fraught experience of Gaelic games

Fabien McQuillan

Fabien McQuillan

Fabien McQuillan writes a weekly diary about getting to grips with his new life in rural Tyrone

Casement Park in west Belfast. Picture by Picture Mal McCann
The GAA is at the centre of community life in Ireland. Picture: Mal McCann

We have a GAA club in the village and everyone seems to be involved. Young, old and in-between, the pitch is a hive of activity in the summer, with balls pinging through the air and a car park resembling downtown Manhattan.

So far, I have been left alone as I wander around watching the swallows after dropping off the kids; but Fionnuala has warned me to be on my guard. One day someone will ask me to help move a set of nets or such like, and I’ll be in. Never to escape.

I was briefly ‘in’ once before, when I was in P7 back in Belfast. My dad mentioned one evening at the dinner table – crispy pancakes and home-made chips – that an old friend, Big Sean, needed players for his team.

Mum was saying it would do Fabien good and Dad was saying I would make new friends (I was quiet and anti-social when I was 11) and thus it was decided I would join a GAA club. Or, at least, give it a go.

I was dropped off at their training pitch the next Saturday morning and the first thing I noticed was they didn’t have a training pitch. It was an abandoned playing field with a big mesh fence at the top and empty cider bottles littered about. Picking these up and binning them was actually our first drill, but before that I met my new team.

I had been kitted out by Mum in white shorts and a white t-shirt and if ever there was a fish out of water it was me. The other lads were wearing soccer tops and looked at me like I was a new toy to be played with.

“Look at Persil boy!” one of them said and they all circled round, their hard, chiselled faces eyeing me up and down. “What are you dressed as? An altar boy?”

The fact no-one laughed was ominous but it turned out to be advantageous to look like a geek, because they quit teasing me shortly after. Clearly, I was no threat.

Not that I could read them at all. They looked older than me but thinner, and they were flicking their eyes and heads about all the time, like prisoners on the yard. Like Mr Big was always watching them.

They also moved like a shoal of fish: if one walked away, they all wafted in behind effortlessly; again, the heads flicking quietly around.

Big Sean appeared after a while and told everyone I was a new fella called Fabien and this time they did laugh. “Fabien!” “Babyien!” “Faby baby!” This went on for a minute or so until Big Sean asked them had they “stapped” and they did, their short attention spans moving on to something else.

They reminded me of animal packs I had seen on nature documentaries. Instinctive and quick, I knew they could rip me apart in a few frenzied seconds; but as the morning went on, I became more at ease and they were proving to be playful and even funny. And the fact that I was decent at football earned me some stripes.

They reminded me of animal packs I had seen on nature documentaries. Instinctive and quick, I knew they could rip me apart in a few frenzied seconds

Big Sean had started a simple drill when some car full of men pulled up and he had to go check something or other and we were left on our own. That’s when the wheels came off.

Someone booted a ball over the wire fence and when the gang swarmed up to look, they saw two RUC Land Rovers at the other side. Without a word, they all looked around for stones and started throwing them at the police.

I have never to this day forgotten how effortlessly they moved as they hurled the stones; fast and hard and steadfast. My new teammates were Olympian in their accuracy and soon the police sped off, unable to bear the noise inside the Paddy-wagon.

I never went back, but I’ll never forget my walk on the wild side that day.

And I often ask myself, like anyone who grew up in the Troubles, did I ever really escape?