Belfast Telegraph

Ulster star Craig Gilroy on his trip to Sierra Leone and coming face-to-face with devastation wrought by the deadly Ebola virus

By Jonathan Bradley

When the final whistle blows on a long rugby season, most star players will be on the first plane to anywhere, making the most of a rare chance to rest both weary limbs and minds away from the game.

For Ulster and Ireland's Craig Gilroy, however, his summer travels could not have been further removed from faraway idyllic beaches or the bright lights of the world's biggest cities.

Having just returned from the national side's tour to South Africa, the 25-year-old embarked on a week-long trip to the west-African country of Sierra Leone in July with the charity Concern Worldwide, where he was confronted with the stark realities of the Ebola crisis.

Gilroy has been involved with a number of charities at home - he is an ambassador for the Assisi Dog Sanctuary in Northern Ireland and is known to be hugely generous with his time for other causes - but he admits his first opportunity to help on a different continent was an eye-opener that he will never forget.

"I've always wanted to do something like it," he said. "I went to Romania for two weeks back when I was in school, building houses and visiting orphanages over there, but that was nothing compared to being out in Sierra Leone. I enjoyed Romania and wanted to experience it on another level. That was certainly what I got."

The trip had been several years in the making, in the end coming thanks to a chance meeting with Darren Vaughan, senior communications officer with the Belfast office of Concern Worldwide.

"It was something I had been thinking about for a long time," he said. "I met someone from Concern a couple of years ago and they had spoken to me about doing a trip.

"I was really interested, but it was just hard to get a time that suited with my pre-season and Ireland tours and things.

"I met Darren at a PR shoot about a year ago that we were both doing and he had mentioned that he'd heard I'd been interested in making a trip from a colleague of his. Again, it took a while to set up, but then thankfully we got a date between me going to South Africa with Ireland and coming back for pre-season at Ulster that would suit everyone.

"From there I didn't know where I'd be going, but three weeks before heading out I found out it would be Sierra Leone. I didn't need much time to prepare, really, just making sure of everything with the doctors. I got all my injections - yellow fever, hepatitis, typhoid - malaria tablets, and we were ready to go.

"I got back on the Sunday and started pre-season on Monday, so I was still taking the malaria tablets that first week of training, which was kind of strange."

In those initial three weeks Gilroy began to read up on the history of the country he would soon visit and was struck by how both civil war and Ebola had combined to such devastating effect and caused havoc with what was once a far more stable economy. "The thing with Sierra Leone is, they've been through a civil war and then they had the Ebola outbreak. It's not like this country was always like this.

"It's just been set back by crises that are so tough on their economy. Everything is still so fresh, but hopefully now, fingers crossed, they can build from here."

Life expectancy in the country is just 49 years old, and during the peak of the Ebola crisis Concern was burying 450 bodies a week, tragically many of them children.

In March of 2015 the country enforced a curfew on parts of its population to contain the spread of the virus, 80% of which is thought to have occurred due to secret and unsafe burial management - a problem Concern has worked tirelessly to combat.

Upon arrival Gilroy noted the rustic trucks and buses used to ferry around the citizens but it was his first visit to the villages of Freetown that brought home just how different the next seven days of his life would be.

"I'm used to airports at this stage and obviously this one was a bit different," he remembered. "Not the fanciest, I suppose, but it was grand. It wasn't something striking or anything. When we left, though, that's when you see what's going on. The communities I went to were an eye-opener I'll never forget.

"Some of the places were struggling for food, living in what were just mud huts. You look around and there's no taps, no running water, there's not even window panes.

"It's all very, very basic and, to be honest, it was quite a hard thing for me to see. It's sad because people are asking for food and we were there to help as much as we could, but we didn't have enough for all these villages.

"That's where Concern are so good. The work they do, it's not just bringing food parcels, it's making sure these people will have the know-how to construct their own farms and be able to create their own food source so they can take it on themselves. There are thousands of charities these days, but it was just really eye-opening to see where that money is going." It was at Freetown's Waterloo cemetery where Gilroy found himself almost overcome by what he saw.

"It was just the number of graves. From 80 years old to stillbirths, it was just so hard to see and I was amazed by the dignity they showed to burying their countrymen. They were just so neat. That wasn't just Concern, it was the guys working there too.

"Both the charity and the burial teams, they worked so hard to contain the virus, but also to give people dignified burial. There was a stigma attached to it (Ebola) and a lot of people wouldn't want to know, but the work they do, it's amazing.

"Speaking to the guys there, they're my age, some of them younger but they're happy to have jobs, any jobs. They're digging graves, and I was left to think whether a lot of my friends would want that. These guys are just grateful for a source of income."

That spirit on display from the locals, so many of whom have either overcome Ebola or lost a loved one to the virus, shone through throughout the entire trip.

Used to the pristine training pitches of professional sport, Gilroy recalled taking rugby sessions where the beach had to be cleared of rubbish and syringes before the coaching could begin.

"The rugby guys were so enthusiastic about it," he marvelled. "These guys are athletes but they just don't have the pitches or the coaching. One team were playing on a beach every week that's filled with glass and all sorts. One team had cones and a ball, that was it, all they had.

"The cones were off the ground because the grass was so long but it doesn't stop them. Thinking about home where we have kids with all these boots and gear, these guys just want coaching. It's sad to see and you wish you could do more. I just hope they keep playing.

"Everywhere I went, though, nearly everyone I spoke to had been affected by Ebola in some way. I loved visiting the villages, playing with the kids.

"A lot hadn't seen a white man before. They'd be teasing me a bit and we'd all find it funny. We'd laugh and then when I chased them they'd be horrified for a second, but they're so welcoming. It was fantastic and I've taken loads from it."

During one of his last nights on the trip Gilroy spent the night in a hotel with a door that wouldn't lock and with only sporadic running water. Returning back to Belfast, he admits the contrast caused him to pause.

"At the time I was taking it all in," he said. "It was only when I came home that it all sunk in. I came back to this luxury life, this fantastic job, a roof over my head with everything that I need and just left that country where things couldn't be more different. I can only hope that things progress and get better for them."

And when asked for his overall reflection?

He said: "The people, the villages, and how welcoming they were. It's something I'd recommend to everyone."

For more than 45 years, Concern Worldwide has been dedicated to reducing suffering and fighting hunger and poverty. Working in countries at greater risk from disasters, in an emergency, Concern acts quickly to save lives then works with communities to rebuild lives and livelihoods to ensure people are better prepared for future crises. For more information visit

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