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Gaelic Voices being heard as support for homeless gathers pace


By Declan Bogue

Growing up with a father like Owen Reel, Armagh ladies footballer Sharon Reel was never going to turn a blind eye to those less fortunate than herself.

In 2004, Owen, the former Armagh ladies chairman, caught the news bulletins covering the Indian Ocean Tsunami, which cost the lives of 250,000 people and caused $20 billion worth of damage.

"Straight away, he thought 'what could we do here' and within a week he had organised a 24-hour sit-out and fast," explains Sharon.

He sat out on the main Dublin to Belfast road before the motorway was built, alongside a friend from Louth, Fr Keenan. In one night they raised £67,000. In a small Sri Lankan village, two fishing boats bear the names of Fr Keenan and Owen Reel.

So when the 'Gaelic Voices For Change' group was formed, spearheaded by their family friend from Wexford, the former county hurler Diarmuid 'Gizzy' Lyng, Sharon had no hesitation in signing up for tonight's sleep-out in solidarity with the homeless.

It just feels like a natural thing to do.

"I am probably a bit soft when it comes to things, but I think we could always do a wee bit," says the personal trainer.

"I have already succeeded in some way. I have raised my own awareness over the last two weeks. Nobody deserves to be on the streets no matter what.

"There is a girl that is going from hostel to hostel with two children and she is only 19 or 20. She is going night to night looking a bed for those two children - that is no start in life for anybody in this day and age."

The first thing she did was pop the idea into the Armagh ladies team What's App group.

Straight away, Caroline O'Hanlon and Marian McGuinness agreed to come on board.

Sharon's sister Sinead, another former Armagh ladies player, also signed up.

It seems people on the ground have a will to tackle this issue.

For Antrim hurler Christy McNaughton it was a tangible way to solve something that has pricked his conscience.

"There was an email sent out from the GPA and it caught my eye," says the Cushendall man.

"I worked in Belfast in a bar in the Cathedral Quarter and you are walking home at two in the morning and the amount of people lying on the streets of Belfast! Then you see the stats, it's crazy.

"I am living here in Cushendall and totally oblivious to it all.

"You would see plenty walking at five or six in the evening but then when you finished your shift you see them still there, sitting."

The altruism shown over the last fortnight by inter-county footballers, hurlers, ladies footballers and camogs has been heartening.

Already, a six-figure sum has been passed - in euros anyway - but with more donations sure to come over the weekend with the actual evening in progress.

Over 400 will do the actual sleep-out in 13 different locations, including New York.

Dublin defender Jonny Cooper has donated the boots he wore this season for a raffle. Renault dealers are helping out. A number of musicians, not least Glen Hansard, will be present at the Dublin sleep-out.

Let's not take this lightly. This is a serious declaration of intent from GAA players to do something incredible.

To avoid any misguided accusations of politicising the event in Belfast, they have invited members of all political parties to join in or simply come along for the photo opportunity.

"What Gaelic Voices for Change is doing is massive in terms of awareness," explains McNaughton.

"They could do with the money, but it is also good to show how many people are homeless. It is a massive problem."

Gemma Begley (left), who is centrally involved as a Women's Gaelic Players Association worker and Tyrone ladies player, sees it in simple terms.

"I suppose it is just a natural thing. If you are thinking of using your voice on social issues, the females have just as much a voice as the men so it is good to get that balance," she begins.

"It just took off. It was nearly launched before the media got wind of it and it has blown up since.

"They weren't going to do a fundraiser at the start, it was all about awareness, but they saw an opportunity to contribute to the homeless charities alongside it," she adds.

"It shows that players care, that they are fairly intelligent and aware of the world going on around them."

The challenge is to harness this spirit.

It cannot be a once-off event and then be forgotten about.

"You don't want to go along on Saturday night, make a big deal about Saturday night and then as soon as it is over, forget about it. That's not the aim," explains McNaughton.

"There is talk about things happening in the New Year and you can see the support through county teams, it's not just the GAA, we want to get everybody else involved and there are plenty of people donating things."

The Welcome Organisation and the Simon Community are coming along to bring players to the sites where homeless people congregate, after the initial meet-up at Cornmarket.

It will be a harsh evening full of learning.

"We live in a bubble up here in the country," points out Sharon Reel.

"You can fall into a lazy way of thinking that people are there because of drugs or whatever. That is the easy way of thinking and could turn a blind eye, but it's something we don't do in our house very easily.

"We all get carried away over Christmas but at the minute I am moving into a new house and in a way you are excited about moving into a new house, it is lovely and warm and all, but you can't help but feel, 'Jesus, not everybody has this'."

Please give generously.

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