First Encounters


‘I LOVE MEETING people who don’t know me through sport, because then they’re meeting Tony, not the hurler.

It didn’t bother me that Karl didn’t know who I was when he met me. I had come back to Ireland from Canada in 2008. Here, I found an environment where there was a pervasive negativity, a fear mentality. It came through every time you turned on the radio. I thought, what is this doing to our young people? I put a post-it on my wall that said a mentor, a friend, would come along to work on a project – I didn’t know what – to fight this. And Karl was the person who turned up.

“I’d been asked to give a talk at a sports injury clinic. After talks like that, there’s always some eager person who comes up to you, so I had my doubts when Karl approached me and asked – intensely – to meet. He asked if I’d seen the documentary about the Irish GAA-turned-Aussie Rules footballer Jim Stynes and his work with young people in Australia through his organisation Reach. I had.

“Inspired by Stynes, Karl and I set up Soar, schemed and dreamed for months, wondering were we two deluded men – and then we went to Melbourne, to see how Reach worked. One thing we love is its peer-to-peer activities: it has former Reach participants, working with young people.

“I played hurling for the senior Clare team from 2000 to 2009, and from 2004 to 2008, I studied at university in Halifax, Nova Scotia, commuting home every four/five weeks to play in matches. After my father died in December 2005 from cancer, I moved home for a year and played hurling full-time. Then I went back to university and in 2007, cycled 7,000km across Canada in Dad’s memory to raise money for charities. That cycle taught me that you can create your own destiny, that we are capable of so much, if not held back by fear and self-doubt.

“In December 2011, we went on Tom Dunne’s radio show to talk about our idea – and were inundated with emails and calls. Then two big things happened: I met Keith Molony from Stelfox Recruitment, who became a founding partner. The second was applying for a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland award – and making it to the final eight. As well as that, we funded an award and brought four Irish 15-year-olds to a youth leadership camp in Nova Scotia in August.

“Karl and I have changed and grown with the process of setting up Soar; I’ve learnt a lot from Karl, who’s a bit older, more experienced. We’re honest with each other. There’s no dancing around each other.

“My closest friends have usually been off the sports field. I feel very thankful I met Karl. I had considered leaving Ireland – Halifax is my second home. But with Soar, I decided I couldn’t abandon my country now.”

‘MY WIFE HADheard that Tony Griffin would be speaking at a sports injury clinic and suggested I go. After hearing the end of a radio interview with him, she felt he might be receptive to helping me with something I was trying to do. I’d felt a call when I saw the documentary about Jim Stynes to create something similar to his youth foundation here. I’ve always been interested in young people and was concerned about the effect of the downturn on them. Tony had also seen the documentary and been inspired but hadn’t figured out what to do.

“I’d never heard of Tony, didn’t know about his hurling career, autobiography or charity cycles. After meeting him, we had a good long conversation: I thought he communicated in a very positive way.

“My sport was basketball: I’m from Inchicore and Tallaght, not a well-to-do background, and from a young age I saw basketball as a way of getting to the States. As a teenager, I went on a scholarship to play in New Jersey and stayed with the family of an incredible man called Pete Davey: he left Sligo with nothing, and showed me how in one generation you can create your own destiny. He was a successful businessman, was involved with Co-Operation North, and on weekends, he’d work in soup kitchens. I came back to Ireland in the early 1990s and started a shop.

“After seeing the Jim Stynes film, I’d researched Reach. Jim set it up with a friend over 20 years ago with the aim of encouraging all young people, no matter what their circumstances, to believe they can achieve. It’s quite unique in the approach it takes to empowering young people.

“Tony and I flew to Australia, stayed three weeks and developed a strong bond with everybody we met in Reach. Its aim is to help young people to thrive, to believe in themselves, to reach their true potential. In January/February this year, we began to roll out Soar programmes in a number of schools here.

“We’ve found that young people will embrace the opportunity for true expression about how they feel about their place in the world if given the opportunity. We’re not there to give answers but to create a safe space where kids can ask questions. Schools have already asked us to do training modules for teachers and we’re developing out-of-curriculum activities. Although we both have sports backgrounds, the programme isn’t based on sport – we know we’d lose a percentage of kids right away.

“I’ve developed a very, very deep friendship with Tony: I really feel that he has the same passion for young people that I do and wants to see societal change as I would. I’ve grown to really know and love him as a brother.”


31, is a former All-Star Clare hurler and co-founder of Soar, a not-for-profit organisation delivering workshops in and outside schools that focus on developing self-esteem in young people. Soar is one of the eight finalists in the 2012 Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Awards, the results of which will be announced in October. Tony lives in Killaloe with his wife


Karl Swan, 45, is a Dublin businessman who owned fashion shops Tribe and Quiksilver and is also a leader in a Foróige youth club in Castleknock. After watching Every Heart Beats True: The Jim Stynes Story in 2010, he contacted Stynes’s Australian youth foundation, Reach, with the aim of setting up a similar organisation in Ireland. He lives with his wife, Michelle, and two sons in Castleknock, Dublin 15

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