Rugby in the Liberties: New roots in unlikely surroundings
‘Meeting lads with a lot more aspiration opened my eyes,’ says scholarship student
Paul Long (left) and Austin O’Neill, who play for a Liberty Saints side increasingly making its presence felt in the inner city. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Behind a heavy steel gate on Basin Lane in Dublin’s Liberties something unusual is happening. Twice a week, curious passers-by poke their heads in, lured by the screams and whistles as teenagers tackle each other under the floodlights. Yes, rugby in this part of the city is anomalous.
“It’s not normal and I think that is what attracts people to it,” says Austin O’Neill (16), who plays flanker for a Liberty Saints side increasingly making its presence felt in the inner city.
The Saints train on a small patch of grass about the size of two tennis courts at the back of St James’s national school. If you run too quickly you might hit a wall or end up in the adjacent playground.
The Basin Lane flats are right behind the school and many of the players are from there and other built-up areas around School Street, James’s Street and Oliver Bond Street. As club president Tom Magee says, you can easily spot the training pitch on Google maps: “It’s the only piece of grass in the area.”
Liberty Saints was formed by Graham Jones in 2008 in an attempt to use rugby to keep local kids, some from troubled backgrounds, engaged in positive group activity. If it began as something of a ragtag group kicking a ball around, it found discipline under Magee.
In 2013, he introduced a mission statement, outlining a club code under the maxim: “Truth, honour, courage”.
The club has since developed a more organised club structure. It has also benefited from the placement of a handful of inner-city children on scholarships to private fee-charging rugby schools in Dublin.
Growth in popularity locally has meant the recent addition of an under-13s side. Magee recalls their first day’s training at the school when four boys sat on the roof watching a session with bemusement. The next evening, two of them had come down to the pitch, boots in hand.
“Whatever about the unstable things that go on in their lives, this is stable,” says Magee, who comes across as a guiding figure as much as a rugby coach. These guys are fighting to make the opportunities their own, sometimes against a backdrop of having responsibilities. Some of these guys are the dad of the house at home and have more on their plates.”
Many have had difficult conditions and experiences to overcome; the club not only supports them but convinces others they are on a solid track.
Magee recalls one Sunday before a game when two players didn’t show up. They got a call telling them they were in Garda custody after being arrested the night before for antisocial behaviour (they were never charged).
Coach Andrew Doyle went to the Garda station and pleaded for their release. He found sympathetic ears and the gardaí even showed up to watch the game, “to make sure Andrew was telling the truth, I suppose”. One of the guards was so impressed he became involved in training.
The story is a paradigm for what the club is doing – steering kids away from potential trouble and instilling a sense of confidence in others watching on. That includes some of Dublin’s best-known rugby schools which provide scholarship programmes. (The schools linked to the club asked not to be identified.)
Of his placement at one such college, Paul Long (17) from Ballyfermot said: “That was huge. That was a big change. I have to say it was the best thing that could have happened to me. Meeting lads with a lot more aspiration and things like that opened my eyes to a lot more.
“It’s so different. Lads around my area would be caught up in the area. Out there they are just aspiring to be someone and they’re thinking of the points on the Leaving and thinking about where they are going to go. To be surrounded by that and get the feel of people taking and grasping the chances that they’re given.”
Austin O’Neill remembers the first time he threw a rugby ball. He also cannot forget the first, terrifying tackle in his first match and he recalls the first time he wished he could get off the field. Now he is a confident player enjoying his new life, in a different school to Paul but alongside another friend from the Saints. The club is improving all the time.
“I think what makes it better around here is we all come from nearly the same background, either flats or something like that or an area like this,” he says. “No matter who comes up we don’t judge anyone or anything. I think that’s a big, big part of who we are. Anyone can pick up a ball and have a game of rugby.”
For O’Neill, entering a new school was daunting but he found sport to be the common denominator. Soon his two rugby worlds will collide when his school plays the Saints. His loyalties however are as focused as they were the day he first showed up to the tiny training pitch in the Liberties.
“I just hope that when we are all finished school that we will all still be coming up here and putting in everything,” he says. “It will stay the same. Honestly, that is the only thing I actually want after school to stay the same.”