Tough times for the few tradesmen on GAA panels
“I've always been amused by the contention that brain work is harder than manual labour. I've never known a man to leave a desk for a muck-stick if he could avoid it.”
LAST Tuesday evening, Darren O’Hagan threw the trowel and spirit level into the van and headed for home. He’d held on as long as he could.
The Down defender is a bricklayer by trade. He had a house to finish in Saintfield, and for the last week of work himself and another brickie him were the only two men on the site, meaning they could just about carry on.
Being righteous about whether they should have continued working is easy. As he turned the van for home, he was driving into the reality that he’s unlikely to feel the weight of another penny in his pocket for quite a while.
The government subsidy scheme for the five million self-employed workers in the UK is not only delayed until June, but capped for those earning more than £50,000.
There is still no security given to businesses who are forced to close, and who may meet penalties for having to do so.
Indeed, some sites that had begun to shut down have had to reopen. Not meeting agreed deadlines means facing stiff fines that could put them out of business, leaving many employers in just as difficult a position as their employees.
Lives always come before livelihoods, but the reality for the construction industry is that it’s trying to balance saving both.
O’Hagan started out on his own at 22. Effectively a private limited company, his ‘income’ exceeds that £50,000 threshold, but it’s not nearly all his.
He prices the job, receives the payment and then pays the men working to him out of it. His wage is only a fraction of his income, but they’re classed as one.
After a huge slump during the recession that saw almost half of construction workers from between 2007 and 2012 lose their job, the construction trade was booming in Ireland again.
A report in January by consultancy group Mitchell McDermott even warned of “unsustainable” levels of inflation that were back at Celtic Tiger peaks.
O’Hagan and wife Paula, the Down ladies’ football star and a PE teacher in Ballynahinch, are currently in the process of building their own home.
The plasterers finished up at the outside of it this week too, and work is now halted. They’d hoped to be moving in by the autumn of this year, but that seems unlikely now.
“What do you live on? It’s different if someone told you this will last six weeks or two months, but nobody knows. I don’t know how long I’ll be out of money, it could be from now until Christmas.
“I did make a few pound the last couple of good years but I poured it all into the house to try and leave ourselves as little a mortgage as possible.
“I’m lucky I’ve Paula and we still have an income, but the majority of people live off their wages, week-to-week or month-to-month.”
O’Hagan and fellow bricklayer Pat Havern are the only two tradesmen on the Down squad.
Time was you could have kicked a bush at a GAA club and a tradesman would have fallen out. The association has always been run by teachers but the construction industry has propped it up.
But the current numbers are reflective of how things have changed.
There are currently 26 tradesmen operating in inter-county football in Ulster. Derry, with five, are the heaviest stocked, while Donegal currently have none on their panel.
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Ulster football's tradesmen
Antrim: Oisin Kerr (carpenter)
Armagh: Ryan Kennedy (joiner), Eddie English, Paul Hughes, Eoghan McDonnell (electricians)
Cavan: Oisin Pierson (electrician), James Smith, Cormac O’Reilly
Derry: Ciaran McFaul, Patrick Kearney (joiners), Thomas Mallon (stonemason), Padraig Cassidy (grounds worker), Enda Lynn (welder)
Down: Darren O’Hagan, Pat Havern (bricklayers), Connaire Harrison, Conor Poland (plasterers), Conor Clarke
Fermanagh: Aidan Breen, Eoin McManus (electricians)
Monaghan: Paraic Keenan (plumber), Drew Wylie (electrician/carpenter)
Tyrone: Darren McCurry, Hugh Pat McGeary (plumbers), Michael O’Neill (plasterer), Declan McClure (electrician)
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BOTH of Fermanagh’s tradesmen, Aidan Breen and Eoin McManus, are electricians. They had two more last year, but Ciaran McBrien and Eamon McHugh both left the panel over the winter.
Breen and his brother walked off site last Monday. They’d been up at a development of 200 new houses in Armagh, where there were between 50 and 100 people around the place each day.
Their father is in his 70s and has an underlying health condition that makes him vulnerable.
“We just couldn’t risk it, it wasn’t worth it,” says Aidan.
“It was a couple of weeks’ wages or risk bringing the virus back into the home house where it could be deadly.
“It was an easier decision for me than some people, definitely. I’m self-employed but I work for someone. Hopefully I’ll get the self-employed scheme in June.
“Living at home, I’m not too bad. I’ve no mortgage or children, anyone with that is in a lot worse state than me.”
There were tea huts available on the job but Breen ate his lunch alone in the van the last few weeks. The night they left the job, Boris Johnson made the speech in which he hinted at total lockdown, but continued to steer away from giving construction companies the green light to shut.
Staying on site for so long comes largely out of loyalty to their employers.
“In fairness, there was no pressure on us. The man I worked for said if we don’t feel safe, he’d understand.
“Part of me felt bad because I didn’t want to be letting him down, he was very good.
“There’s talk of employers forcing people to go out but I wasn’t in that position, 100 per cent not, he was more than understanding about the whole thing.
“It’s a very hard place for employers. The government have to come out and say they’ll be covered. They’ve serious overheads if they stop.”
Breen and O’Hagan are similar in that they do bits of farming around home. As he answers the phone, the Tempo man is lugging scaffolding bars into a shed to construct a makeshift gym out of some equipment borrowed from Lissan just before the shutdown.
In Clonduff, the O’Hagans own a herd of 30 suckler cows and calves. That, along with getting stuck into shaping the garden at the new house, will fill the days.
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THE other side of spending the day on the tools is the toll it takes on the body.
Darren O’Hagan found bricklaying a huge advantage physically in his earlier career. When James McCartan tried to persuade him to move into a schools coaching gig, it was in one ear and out the other.
“I liked the bricklaying, I liked what I was at. I’ve been happy enough since I started out on my own. Though don’t get me wrong, there’s days you go home soaked to the skin and you’ve county training that night, you think ‘why am I doing this?’
“Especially the way winter was this year, you’re home soaked to the skin every day.”
But as he prepares to turn 30 towards the tail end of the year, he admits that it is leaving its imprint on him. His hips are “a mess, they’re really not good”. The county physios keep telling him to take it easy, but brickies aren’t built that way. He has to be at something, and when it comes to football, there can’t be any half measures.
“I can feel my body a whole lot sorer coming home from a day’s work and going training, I do. There’s no point lying.
“If you’re training the way you should be training, you should always be going into matches sore. If you’re feeling 100 per cent, you’re not training at the level you should be training at. That’s the way I look at it.”
The few tradesmen surviving in top-level GAA do so in spite of the widening incompatibility of it.
Some men are just drawn to the muck-stick.