Brendan Crossan: St Paul's Primary School in west Belfast a beacon of hope
WITH so many schoolchildren having to self-isolate over the past number of weeks because of COVID outbreaks, schools have been using Public Health Agency [PHA] messaging to help guide parents and guardians on the do’s and don’t’s.
Can I go to the shop?
Can I go for a walk or exercise?
Can I meet up with friends?
There’s a clear, unambiguous ‘X’ at the end of each of these questions. But the one thing you can do during isolation, the PHA says, is play in your garden.
But what if you don't have a garden to play in?
It really depends where you come from.
Mark Kelly plays a bit of ball for Erin's Own, Cargin and is a schoolteacher at St Paul's Primary School in the Beechmount area of west Belfast.
He got in touch as Martin Hurls, a company owned by Emmett Martin of the Tir na nOg club in Randalstown, bought the school a new kit and was hoping for some publicity to acknowledge the kind gesture.
County players Michael McCann and Joe Maskey took up Mark’s invite to help launch the new kit last Friday.
My grandparents and cousins came from Beechmount Pass.
Even as a kid you sensed the living was hard in this socially and economically deprived area of Belfast.
It remains the same today. Neighbours are packed as tightly as sardines and the narrow streets are like tiny capillaries that lead to the school at the end of Mica Drive, the heartbeat of a community.
It was nice to visit the school last Friday morning and look around at the changing landscape.
Beechmount Pass is no more - and just behind the school is the glowing beacon of Davitt Park.
The small playground in the school was a hive activity with the kids wearing their brand new kit.
One of the great things about this school is the different walks of life that bring dashes of dramatic colour and light. Twenty-nine percent of the school’s population are of nationalities other than Irish.
Mr Kelly rhymes off some of the nationalities at St Paul’s: Botswana, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, India, Iran, Latvia, Mongolia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Slovakia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria…
In this photograph alone on this page there is a melting pot of at least 10 different nationalities.
Sean McNamee is approaching six years as school principal of St Paul's. Like many school heads, the ravaging impact of the pandemic has shifted his focus.
“The first period of lockdown really reinforced the fact that the children from this area are space-deprived,” said Mr McNamee.
“They don’t have front gardens or rear gardens; the street is their playground and they couldn’t even be out on the street. They did not have space to play.
“The school playground is where they play; they don’t have anywhere else. So when the school was closed, all that social interaction and play was gone."
The principal admits he now has a deeper appreciation of play and sport and decided to take Mr Kelly out of the classroom altogether to make him full-time sports and games coach for the entire school.
“Play is really important for problem-solving, for learning to work together and with the language barrier for many of the children here one of the things that transcends that is sport and games," Mr McNamee said.
“The children need to feel they can achieve; to learn they need to feel safe, comfortable and happy. But if they haven’t the confidence to interact with others, they’ll never take on leadership roles, and they’ll never develop their full potential.”
While many Gaels are trying to press ahead with the ever faltering re-build of Casement Park, there is arguably a greater onus on the GAA at county, provincial and national level to invest in schools like St Paul’s that actually need a leg up.
‘Gaelfast’ coaches have returned to the school and the close proximity of Davitts GAC indicates there is a clear pathway from St Paul’s Primary School to their local GAA club.
Mr Kelly has also been in contact with Cumann na mBunscol chairman Sean McManus about the prospect of St Paul's growing a few GAA teams and competing at primary school level.
It was also heartening to note that new GAA President Larry McCarthy appears to have made participation among children one of the touchstone policies of his tenure – and backed that up by making St Malachy’s Primary School in Armagh City his first official visit to the six counties.
“I would love all the kids walking around Beechmount or walking to school with a hurl in their hand in the same way you’d see in other areas,” Mr Kelly said.
“If the kids are sitting in a classroom and there’s no sport, there are language barriers for a lot of them, whereas if they’re coming to school and they know it’s their GAA day, they’re going to come in and enjoy something.
“They are the building blocks for me,” the Cargin man said. “Maybe I shouldn’t be saying it but I think sport at that age for a child’s confidence and development is just as important as the academic side.
“The language of sport brings them together, particularly the GAA because it’s so inclusive. When they’re playing small-sided games, they’re being applauded and being given positive feedback. That’s great for their self-confidence.”
And, who knows, if the revolution continues at St Paul’s on Mica Drive in Beechmount, Antrim teams of the not-too-distant future will be able to embrace and celebrate the kid from Mongolia or Syria or Botswana who struck points for the Saffrons and dreamed the dream at a resplendent Casement Park.