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Comment: GAA players giving voice to great cause provide a challenge to us all

By Declan Bogue

There is a popular view out there that Gaelic footballers and hurlers are all complicit in one big, soulless, corporate-friendly racket that is the inter-county game.

Armed with nothing more than anecdotal evidence, we have the message pedalled that players are suffering from depression over their relentless pursuit of excellence, cruel training regimes and all their social time swallowed up.

The result of all this is a playing population oblivious to the world around them, tweeting only to praise their corporate sponsors and preoccupied by selfies and endorsements.

However, this time last year the Westmeath hurlers donated the price of a mid-season post-match meal to the homeless. It was a small story with little pick-up, but it planted the seed of an idea which flourishes beautifully this weekend.

The organic nature of the 'Gaelic Voices For Change' movement wasn't expecting anything like the take-up for a night spent sleeping rough on the streets, and there is reluctance to indulge in any carnival atmosphere or self-promotion, but it is one of the finest examples of humanity coming together for the right reasons.

The premise is remarkably simple. A group of players came together and floated the idea of spending a night on the streets out of solidarity with the homeless.

Initially planned with just Dublin in mind, it has mushroomed to the point where - as of latest figures - over 400 people have signed up at 12 different venues; Dublin, New York, Galway, Cork, Limerick, Belfast, Sligo, Boston, Naas, Wexford, Carlow and Portlaoise.

This kind of gesture is addictive to those doing the giving.

By putting athletes who are household names out on the streets, it shows us that their humility to experience a night like that means we could all be doing a little more ourselves, in our own way.

Already they have raised £70,000 at the last count. It's probably a good bit more by the time you come to read this with donations pouring in. You can make a donation yourself by following the link here.

Homelessness is one of those issues that society simply does not have to tolerate. And it is not simply consigned to city centres.

A recent report showed how many rough sleepers are using the Ormeau Road, an area that has been steadily gentrified over the last two decades.

People are dying in increasing regularity on our streets from the effects and associated problems of having no shelter.

Journalist Fintan O'Toole made a suggestion recently when he said homelessness should be declared a national emergency, just in the same way as foot and mouth disease.

And all the while, we hear worrying statements from senior civil servants that seek to 'normalise' the problem.

Just last month, the chair of the Housing Agency in Dublin, Conor Skehan, stated: "Homelessness is a dreadful thing when it happens to someone, but it is a normal thing, it happens."

He sought to bring the argument onto an intellectual level, believing that words such as 'crisis' should not be used in the context of the issue.

But when people have to stuff their bedding and cardboard into a phone box for safe keeping during the day, how do you manage to park your emotions?

Nor should it be an intellectual issue, one that is contained in political chambers, smothered in waffle and well-meaning but ultimately empty rhetoric. Why shouldn't it be brought to the fore, just as the Appollo House protest was? Politicians get jumpy over these things.

There is also a new wave, or type of homelessness - that of working people who are priced out of the market due to inflated rent prices.

We are only one decade on from the global economic collapse, but few if any lessons have been learned.

Talking to one inter-county footballer from Ulster recently, he told me how some of his contemporaries - young professionals not long spat out the other end of a ludicrously over-priced education - are actually renting out garages of private residences in Dublin, such is the lop-sided rent system there.

So anyway. This Saturday there will be many stars of Gaelic football and hurling, past and present, taking to the streets and doing a little bit to shine a spotlight on this ugly problem.

Among them will be Christy McNaughton of Ruairi Og Cushendall and Antrim, Chrissy McKaigue of Slaughtneil and Derry, double All-Ireland winner Ross Carr and a host of others.

The sisterhood have not been found wanting. They seldom are. Gemma Begley of Tyrone ladies' football and the Women's Gaelic Player's Association will be there. So too will the former Antrim camogie great Jane Adams.

Sharon Reel of Armagh said this week: "I'm not looking forward to it, not the way temperatures are at the minute."

But do it they will.

There will be some level of 'entertainment' at the event as they begin at Corn Market, but it will be limited to low-key acoustic music, more a tool to grab the attention of Christmas shoppers as they go about their business.

Who, for example, in Belfast for the evening and spotting a figure such as a Chrissy McKaigue, would not want to speak to him, at least if to shoot the breeze about Slaughtneil and maybe learn a thing or two about homelessness in their own part of the world. All donations I'm sure will be gratefully received.

However, they will not be remaining there by the time the Christmas party season gets in full swing and the plague of the Christmas jumper brigade arrive.

They have already been working with the Simon Community in order to be taken around the various underpasses, the deep shop fronts and the recesses that homeless people take refuge. They will be reaching out, if only for a night, to seek to understand the underlying issues that cause homelessness.

Mercifully, the long-range forecast is not mild exactly, but not freezing either. Those that embark on the project will know a hell of a lot more about things than when the night started.

Not least about themselves.

Belfast Telegraph

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