Ireland’s school playing fields are empty. Their gyms are silent and shuttered. Since the first schools closure was announced almost a year ago, there has been no sport in schools.
There has been nothing apart from a strained effort to continue to educate in the alien environment of social distancing and, since January, remote learning. It has been challenging for teachers and a dismal substitute for students.
When schools resumed in September, it was in the mode of stealth manoeuvre against coronavirus. Students were masked until Christmas and it was half a miracle that Irish schools managed to operate safely until then. But since schools broke for Christmas, Ireland’s post-primary students have been stuck at home, studying remotely, isolated from friends and with a floating return date and the mere idea of playing sport fanciful.
The lockdown has meant an intense framework of localised existence, with everyone remaining within walking distance of their household, a limitation not experienced by Irish society since the early 1900s. Within the realm of sport, that has meant tens of thousands of energetic, committed and talented teenagers for whom school sport, at all levels, was a source of enjoyment and structure and ambition, suddenly vanished. There has been nothing for almost a year in their young lives.
"Sport is one of the main reasons that some students enjoy coming to school and for that to be suddenly gone was major," says Catherine Power, who teaches maths and PE in the Presentation Convent in Kilkenny.
"The team bond of being in the final year and playing with their classmates, whom they may never play with again, is something unique," says Dom Corrigan, who teaches PE in St Michael's, Enniskillen and coached the senior boys Gaelic football team to the 2019 Hogan Cup. The competition, running since 1946, was not completed in 2020 and while it has yet to be officially cancelled this year, the calendar year means it is unlikely to take place.
"Indoor sports have been hardest hit," says Pat Critchley, the renowned Laois coach who last year achieved national honours in both basketball and Gaelic football. "At least outdoor sports were able to do a bit in the summer but indoor has been gone for almost a full year."
Paddy O'Reilly teaches PE in Trinity Comprehensive in Ballymun. "My first love would be soccer and then Gaelic but the thing that has been playing on my mind is the possibilities to introduce other sports that are more Covid compliant."
Andy Skehan is the figurehead behind the emergence of St Michael's College on Ailesbury Road as one of the great success stories of contemporary Irish rugby.
“How deep is this rabbit hole?” he wonders. “You can keep digging and from my perspective, it looks pretty deep.”
Like most coaches, Skehan is fastidious in his organisation and advance planning but he fully admits that they are all in the dark as to the lasting impact of a full calendar year with zero sport in schools. The link between St Michael’s and rugby players who have become household names at provincial and international level is impressive. All classes in the school have now missed 12 months of coaching and competition. The U18 and U19 interprovincial competitions were cancelled last August and may not happen this year.
“So those guys have missed out not just a huge amount of development but also the experience – particularly those who don’t have the chance of playing at that level again,” Skehan says.
“If we are honest, that is the majority of players. And I guarantee you players that would have been professional had it not been for this Covid crisis are not now going to be professional. I even have specifics in mind. Sixteen to 20 is the making or breaking for a rugby player at the performance end. So it is really difficult for them.”
But Skehan is more concerned about the tier below that elite performance level, which is where the sporting realities of most students are grounded. More than 400 of the 680 boys attending St Michael’s play rugby at some level. Training sessions provided structure to their weeks and gave them an escape from the academic side of school.
At its most basic level, the game offers students an outlet to burn excess energy. First year is when most students try out new sports. That hasn’t happened this school year so prospective players have lost out on a vital year of fundamentals and skills training.
“How do you catch up on a whole year of experience? I honestly don’t know the answer to that. We will make efforts. But there is no method for this. The kids who came in last September would have played 15 or 16 games. They have yet to play one game. And all the camaraderie and social togetherness you get from playing a game with your schoolmates is gone. And I would be more concerned about that than the sporting development aspect.”
Critchley guided Scoil Chríost Rí to All-Ireland "A" basketball titles in both the U-19 girls league and cup competitions in 2020. Half of that squad returned to school this year but will leave without playing a further game together.
“And we won those All-Irelands in January and February just before it all closed down so we were fortunate just to get them completed. But yeah, to miss out on that and things like graduation classes and the rites of passage through to the adult world is a big thing for them.”
The extended absence of training and competition has given Critchley a chance to think about where it fits in the day-to-day existence of schools. He was schooled during more austere and unyielding climates of education. “The rapport between teachers and students has been transformed since then,” he points out. “Young people like coming to school now.”
Speak to anyone involved in school sports and they talk about the social aspect that comes with building a team. Presentation Kilkenny offers a wide cross section of sports, including camogie, basketball, orienteering and soccer, in which it has won junior and senior All-Ireland titles in recent years. Among their students is Ellen Molloy, the 16-year-old whose exceptional performances led to a squad selection by Republic of Ireland manager Vera Pauw.
“We had been doing really well in soccer so it is very disappointing for that team. And those special players like Ellen don’t come around very often,” says Power. “But in general, I think a lot of girls and all players learn so much from sport. Just respect is a major thing and building relationships and for mental health reasons. Ellen is so down to earth that in PE you’d never know she is an international and the girls can learn from her because of her attitude. So that side of it is important as well. There is so much to be learned from sport and school teams can be different to club teams.”
Corrigan has spent his professional life in education and has been the central figure in St Michael’s football team successes. He regrets that the current team won’t get to defend their national title but has never been as impressed by the attitude of young people as over the past 12 months.
"Young people are suffering so much through Covid and are accepting it so well. Their resilience and understanding of other people's needs . . . they're not thinking of themselves. Schools don't simply produce academic results. And I don't think that maybe the true value of sport in school is fully appreciated. And it's the same with drama or music or any activity. But I do feel that Dr Holohan [chief medical officer Tony Holohan], a man I have great respect for, would be aware of those values and that we have to adhere to and place our trust in the regulations."
Still, the enforced pause has given educators and coaches a chance to stand back and think about the carousel of Irish sport. Critchley has visited enough Irish gyms to be considered an authority. They are invariably cold, echoing, lightless places.
“Our infrastructure for a country that has a lot of bad weather is not great,” he points out. “That should be looked at. Even airflows in halls and maybe we could retrofit some facilities.”
The profile of physical education has been elevated to the extent that has become an optional Leaving Cert subject. But in practical terms, it remains a weekly, rather than daily, class on the national curriculum: an escape from the routine rather than part of it.
In 2013, the Economic and Social Research Institute published an in-depth report on patterns of participation rate in sport in Ireland.
The chapter focusing on secondary schools established that “participation declines as students go through the years, especially among females such that by the end of the second-level years a large gender gap has emerged”. It also found a dip in participation levels in the key exam years of third and sixth year. Again, the drop-out rate was higher among females. In the seven years since its publication, there has been a heightened awareness of the importance of keeping female students involved in sport. But it’s a process of constant recruitment.
“First year is when you can get them involved because they generally want to do everything,” says Power. “The worry is that playing sports is a habit and if some students lose that routine and fitness, they may find it harder to go back. Before Christmas we tried to do outdoor sessions in small groups. And Leaving Certs began to look forward to this. It was their last year playing with the school and it was also an outlet to have a laugh with their friends.”
O’Reilly has been involved with fitness initiatives in Ballymun since he began teaching there in 1989. The school was the first to offer the GCSE-type of PE as a subject and became a pilot school when PE was formally introduced to the curriculum. Sport and school activities play a hugely significant aspect in the local community and O’Reilly still feels there is an opportunity to reimagine the Irish schools exercise strategy.
"I would feel there was a lack of imagination nationally in how PE and sport was developed. And with Covid, I thought there could have been a programme of, for instance, athletics or badminton or table tennis or socially distant volleyball. Table tennis tables are only a few hundred euro. Instead of closing PE halls and turning them into classrooms, give kids extra PE classes. Come up with some outdoor version of the Niall Moyna bleep test.
“I think we could have used this time to begin to tackle issues with obesity. And I am not blaming the Government. But it would be wonderful if we could think about that now. Could we expand our programme in the short and medium term? Get our young people outdoors and move away from team sport to these other activities.”
If any good is to come of this national pause, it will be an increased appreciation of the vital role of school sport in Irish life. It has always been vaguely defined and generally dependent on the volunteer ethos of teachers and coaches.
Sports clubs do their best to recruit new members but they can only coach and look out for those players who join up, pay membership and turn up for training at weekends. But schools provide an opportunity for their students to try out different sports, free of charge, and to find their level.
“The clubs are gone for the time being. So the responsibility falls to the school to keep in touch with the students,” Corrigan says.
There are stirrings: a Belfast court challenge, an open letter signed by Northern Irish sporting luminaries sent to Stormont. In his weekly Sunday Independent column, Colm O'Rourke, the principal of St Patrick's in Navan, likened life for Ireland's young people as "an open prison for most of the last 11 months", arguing that once schools reopen "they need to have sport and drama and music and all the other distractions" in order to restore fun and exuberance. There is a growing sense the physical and mental wellbeing of school sports needs to be prioritised along with the essential priority of examination procedures.
In schools all over Ireland, individual teachers continue to do their best. But how long before school teams can train again? How long before a child who started first year in September 2020 will actually get to take part in a school sports session?
In an interview with Gavin Cummiskey on these pages last weekend, Nphet virologist Dr Cillian de Gascun acknowledged that Irish teenagers have had a rough time during this pandemic and stressed that while the primary objective was to get schools reopened, activities should then be looked at. He made the reasonable point that any return to activities should be equitable, pointing out that while private schools like St Michael's or Blackrock College probably had the resources for their players to be tested on a bi-weekly basis to return to playing, smaller schools couldn't afford that.
Skehan says that testing hasn’t been discussed in the school where he works. But throughout this period, he has wondered if testing shouldn’t become part of a national State strategy in order to allow all Irish school children to safely participate in sport again – sooner rather than later.
“I am actually taking antigen tests myself once a week which I get privately. It costs me €14 a test. It just gives me confidence that if I’m out for a walk I’m not dragging the virus with me. Now, if we were going to apply this to all school-age children involved in sport, surely that cost could surely be halved.
“While there might be an outlay, it would be one of the best outlays we could possibly do in terms of current physical and mental wellness but also into the future and minimise the health issues that could arise from this one, two, five or 10 years on. The benefits, not only to the exchequer, but to the nation would be invaluable.”
Case study: Brandon Kenna, sixth-year student in Trinity Comprehensive Ballymun
My name is Brandon Kenna and I’m a sixth-year student in Trinity Comprehensive School. To this day I have missed nearly five months of my two-year Leaving Cert course. I am heavily involved in the school’s sports and play for Bohemian’s U-18s team.
I think I can speak for the rest of my year group when I say this definitely isn’t the way we thought our last two years would go. It’s made us anxious, stressed and curious as to what will happen to our future as there has been no real clarity on the Government’s plan for the Leaving Cert. I don’t think I’m the only one that has found the work online extremely hard to keep up with and motivate myself to work within the same four walls. There’s no peaceful environment you can go to just sit and do your work yourself.
In terms of the social aspect at school, last year’s sixth years missed their debs and graduation and my year group looks sure to miss it as well which is quite disappointing. One of the most enjoyable aspects of school, for me, is sport. The school teams haven’t been able to compete for almost two years now. We haven’t been able to enjoy the competitiveness with our classmates in a long time and won’t get to again.
I hope to see a bit more clarity and communication about the whole situation from the Government. Obviously some of these things have been out of anyone’s control and it’s for the safety of others. But it’s just a pity that it has been all over the place.