The table quiz final at the Community Games is barely two rounds old and already the fat lady has started to clear her throat within earshot of the team I’ve randomly decided to adopt as my own.
I will the four boys on as they whisper furiously about who wrote the line "I wandered lonely as a cloud". I curse silently when the captain confidently writes Patrick Kavanagh on the sheet. I wince when I hear them agree that Long John Silver must have been in Pirates of the Caribbean and I grow despondent, both about their prospects and the state of our education system, when they draw a complete blank as to the identity of the river which flows through the lives of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Still full of smiles, they hand up their sheet. The chap overseeing the quiz – a school principal if ever I’ve seen one – calls out the results of the first round in a clipped voice. He explains that answering “Man” to the question about Robinson Crusoe’s friend is insufficient and the “Friday” was needed too.
"My" team whoop. They got Friday right this Saturday morning. The round one scores go up and they are five points adrift already. It gets worse. In round three, one devoted to Ireland, a room full of 10 and 11 year olds are asked which city did Van Morrison come from. "What's a Van Morrison?" one brown-eyed boy on my team asks his pals. No-one knows.
"Ardal O'Hanlon played what character in Father Ted? And I'm going to need a surname," the quizmaster says sternly. My team don't even get Dougal, although, in their defence, they were not born for a full 10 years after the programme first aired, even today it is only ever shown long after the proper bed time for a 10 year old.
As the round ends, a child at a far-away table asks if he can go to the toilet. The request makes the quizmaster tetchy. “Are you sure you want to go? If you go you will be holding everyone up. Are you really sure? I should never have mentioned anything about the toilets. We could be here all day,” he says.
Like many of the adults in the room, I start having not entirely pleasant flashbacks to my school days.
Carmel Murphy from Leitrim is standing in the wings watching her children quizzing. She sighs heavily while listening to the toilet debate. "We were going to Blanchardstown for some shopping after this," she says. "But I don't think we'll make it unless they pick up the pace."
Around her, other parents are furiously writing questions down in case they need to argue the toss later in the day.
“Why would I write the questions down,” Murphy says. “Sure they’ll all be on the website eventully.” Despite Blancharstown’s disappearance from her plans she is delighted to be at the Community Games. She is unsure how her child’s team is performing in the quiz but says it is not about the winning for her. “It’s just the occasion, really. All the crowds are lovely and it is lovely too for the kids to be putting on the county colours. Especially because we are from Leitrim and we find it very hard to compete against the biggest counties.”
The Community Games – or the Aldi Community Games now that the retailer has signed a three-year sponsorship deal with the organisation – is a uniquely Irish affair and one that has been running for 50 years this summer. The national finals have been split into two, with the first event taking place in Dublin's Abbotstown in June and the climax happening in the same venue at the end of August.
It has seen the likes of Paul O'Connell, Panti Bliss, Denis Irwin, Saoirse Ronan and Sonia O'Sullivan all compete, sometimes in events you'd not expect. O'Connell, for example, was a swimmer, while Denis Irwin represented Cork in the chess. Panti, or Rory O'Neill as he was then more commonly known, competed in all manner of events at a local level – largely because his mammy was one of the organisers – but he made his mark on the national stage in the art competition. Ronan was a wonder on the basketball court and Sonia was great at the running. Obviously.
At the June event, Jane Walsh, from Laois, was volunteering. "I competed in the Community Games in the 800 metres," she tells me. "Then I got involved with my kids. Then they grew up and got bored with it but I'm still here."
As a volunteer she works between six and seven hours a day in the week running up to the big event, co-ordinating other volunteers, looking after parents and shepherding people like me from place to place.
“It really is just to make sure everything gets done right,” she says. Then, whispering conspiratorially, she identifies her biggest challenge: parents. “You have to watch out for the biased sidelines, there’s really too many of them. It can be a bit ‘I can’t see anyone else out there except for my little darling’ and I have a massive problem with that. Unfortunately, you do get a lot of adults who want to re-live their own sporting career through their children at something like this. Once you take the adults out of it, it’s great craic though”
There is no such misbehaviour in the debating final which is – incidentally – being moderated by a senior journalist with a rival newspaper, a man whose reputation as a cynical and battle-hardened political hack would be seriously damaged if people could see the youthful enthsiasm and upbeat positivity he brings to his Community Games role.
Monaghan and Longford are going toe to toe in the quarter-finals, arguing whether or not the school summer holidays should be reduced.
The debate is hilarious. One Monaghan child argues in favour of shortening the school holidays on the basis that the kids of today “are already lazy enough”. Holidays are, she says, “a waste of a child’s time and they are boring”. How she keeps a straight face, I’ll never know.
In response, a young son of Longford suggests that if teachers had shorter holidays they wouldn’t be able to use their summer breaks to expand their education by going on courses. Because, obviously that is what all teachers do in June, July and August. He goes on to say that teachers have to work for 40 years or more and are bound to forget things along the way, hence the need for summer-time refresher courses. Tell that to the teacher unions, I think.
He even references Malcolm Gladwell and research from Johns Hopkins University. And he's not even10, the big swot. It is enough to see his team through to the next round.
Over in the table-tennis arena, the competitive edge is plain to see. Children on the sidelines get bored and wander off. A group gather around a display-model Audi parked in the centre of the hall. One breaks off from his group. “Mammy, mammy, I know what car I want to drive,” he shrieks. “Hush now Sean,” she says. “You need to give Patrick some positive energy. Positive energy Sean!”
The dad, meanwhile, kneels close the table, high-end digital camera at the ready, screaming, um, positive energy, to Patrick. “Calm it down! Calm it down! Come on now, one more point. Come on! Focus!”
Hugh Durrigan, a parent from Longford, wanders by, mildly interested in all the shouting. "Ah it gives kids a great day out," he says. "There is a competitive element but it is in a supportive atmosphere. It is not all about winning, it really is about taking part. I did the Community Games when I was a kid. I was a sprinter and I played soccer and Gaelic. And chess. I didn't win, at least I didn't win the national finals but I made as far as Mosney, " he says. "That was enough for me."
Out on the playing fields, a GAA team from Burrishoole, Co Mayo, are representing their county in the under-12 soccer. They are two up and coasting and the adults on the sideline are delighted with themselves.
“I packed T-shirts and shorts,” said John McDonald, a Community Games novice up from the west to cheer on his daughter, looking up at the leaden skies overhead. “We were told to wear sun cream and everything,” he said. “It’s a great pity sun cream doesn’t keep out the cold.”
As he spoke, Burrishoole score again and with two minutes to go, their place in final seems assured. “Ah no,” he said. “We take nothing for granted until the final whistle blows. We’re from Mayo.”
- The Aldi Community Games August Festival takes place at the Sport Ireland National Sports Campus, Abbotstown, Dublin, from August 18th-20th, 2017. See aldicommunitygames.ie
COMMUNITY SPIRIT: THE HISTORY OF THE GAMES
In 1967, a Dublin political activist by the name of Joe Connolly started looking for ways to instil a sense of community into the hordes of young people he saw wandering around his home place of Walkinstown.
Connolly did not just want the young people in his neighbourhood to take pride in the place their parents had only recently started calling home, he also wanted to encourage them to develop healthy pastimes and he recognised that the GAA could only do so much.
Walkinstown was one of more than a dozen post-war suburbs which had sprung up on the outskirts of Dublin and, as with all the others, Connolly recognised that the newly-built homes were full of children who seemed to have little to occupy their bodies or minds outside of school hours.
Connolly had a third aim. A life-long supporter of the Labour Party and a former chairman of Dublin County Council and member of Dublin City Council, he also wanted to draw attention to the absence of recreational facilities for many of the young people in Dublin's new communities and to highlight to Government the benefit of funding playing fields and sports halls.
And so the Coummunity Games were born.
A year later, under his watchful eye, 3,000 children from 24 areas across the city competed against each other with the aim of representing their communities in the finals, which took place at the John F Kennedy stadium in Santry.
It was clear his idea had legs and just five years after the first Community Games, half a million children from all over the island of Ireland competed at a local level, each one vying to make it to the finals at what was then the Butlin’s holiday camp in Mosney, Co Meath.
All told, almost 2,500 children made it to the finals in 1973. They all stayed in Mosney and they all competed in what was styled as Ireland’s Own mini-Olympics. Most likely, they went to their first disco too, although they probably weren’t called discos back then.
Roy Keane, Eamon Coghlan, Michael Carruth and Niall Quinn all competed in the Community Games but it is not just sporting heroes who took part. In 1992, for example, Colin Farrell won a gold medal in the Under-17s relay in the Dublin games racing in the Castleknock colours.
The Games are celebrating their Golden Jubilee this year and – sponsored by Aldi – they seem as popular as ever. After 35 years at Mosney, the Games relocated to the Athlone Institute of Technology in 2009 before moving to Dublin two years ago. The national finals are now split in two, with the first events taking place in May in the Sport Ireland National Sports Campus in Abbotstown and the second final taking place over two days towards the end of August.
In the individual events one competitor from each of the 32 counties qualifies for the national finals while in many of the team events, one team from each of the four provinces qualifies. There are in excess of 20 athletic events and field games while indoor pursuits include art, chess, draughts, choral singing and debating.
To qualify for the national festival, individual participants must first compete at an area, then at county and sometimes at provincial level. Some 7,000 children compete in the National Festivals every year.