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Oisin McConville: How my eye-opening trip to Gaza left a lasting impression

 

Lasting impression: Oisín McConville gives a Gaelic football skills training session to young Palestinian refugees in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem
Lasting impression: Oisín McConville gives a Gaelic football skills training session to young Palestinian refugees in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem
Oisín McConville with Maha Al-Sheikh Khalil (13), who was paralysed in 2014
New experience: Hala Sanak (14), who plays for Gaza’s first schoolgirls’ football club with Oisin McConville on Gaza beach
Oisin McConville on Gaza beach and (right) with farmers Muhammad Sabah (58), and Salim Sabah (67) in the West Bank
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

By now, the work of Oisín McConville - All-Ireland winner with Armagh in 2002 and multiple All-Ireland successes at club level - in the areas of mental health is well-recognised in Ulster.

As well as working as a counsellor, McConville regularly delivers talks to clubs where he examines the dangers of addiction, and the ability to build resilience among young people.

Part of working in that realm, however, is to maintain your own self-care and push your own boundaries. Therefore, McConville was happy to embark on a five-day trip to Gaza and the West Bank to support Trócaire's Christmas Appeal last week.

And what he saw, left an indelible impression.

"Some of the memories I will take away from there, you are not going to erase them today or tomorrow," he begins to explain.

"You get an appreciation for everything, you sort of have no real interest for material things.

"You are not interested in the new house, the new car, it is more about how you are spending quality time with your family, you are seeing things more clear.

"There's a lot to be said for it. I know how airy-fairy that sounds, when somebody comes back from a trip like that, but that's real. That's really how it has affected me and I have a damn sight more appreciation for everything. I have a realisation that we have things pretty damn good."

While the poverty and hardship inflicted upon the Palestinian people is evident, McConville actually witnessed a tense situation that threatened violence for a time.

"I was out with a group of farmers one day, just outside Bethlehem, and they just got their land back from a project that Trócaire funds," he says.

"They just got their land back and they were going up to show me their land and the Israeli army landed in a big tank and were ready to give these boys a bit of abuse. We had a lawyer with us as well.

"But about 90 per cent of the Israeli army are between 18 and 22. They have conscription. So I got to see it first hand, they were ready to give it to them and they were telling them in no uncertain terms that was their land."

Growing up in Crossmaglen in the 1980s, McConville could sense the comparisons.

"The shootings, the bombings, the killings, that was commonplace in Cross when I was growing up.

"I am very glad that my kids are not growing up in the same place. But also, there is a realisation that from when I was young, the Troubles didn't bother me, or at least I felt that they didn't bother me because it was the norm. I didn't know any different," he says.

"These kids are growing up and they don't know any different. But to me, that doesn't make it alright. Kids are so happy, running around, playing in the middle of the road and cars are coming and they jump out of the way. They don't know any different.

"That was one of the things that I really enjoyed about it, but also one of the things that you can get carried away with, that rankles with me because they may be happy, but to live like that is just not ok."

As a mental health advocate, he can sense the overall effect on the people.

"In the society I grew up in, I suppose it manifested itself in alcohol and drugs and gambling, and all those things," the 44-year-old says.

"There, it is usually affected by domestic violence, gender-based violence.

"So I had a real interest in that, I had a real interest in how this has to come out or into play, somewhere along the line. It has to affect certain aspects of life and that was it - the violence, the anger. Because that anger is not apparent, but it is definitely there."

In the world of Gaelic Games, there is anecdotal evidence of a growing appreciation that everyone needs to do more for those in the margins of society, at home and abroad.

McConville has been appointed the new manager of Monaghan club Inniskeen and also Dundalk Institute of Technology. In those roles, he is uniquely placed - with the benefit of his training and experiences - to observe the behaviours of young people and is slightly alarmed at how entire industries have built up around tags such as 'wellness' and 'resilience.'

"There's absolutely no doubt about it. People pay huge money to go here, there and everywhere, searching for ways on how to build your resilience," he says, as a former team mate of Enda McNulty who delivers seminars on the same.

"Building it up is a must, for you to get to the next stage of your life.

"For other people, resilience can be the coffee machine not working. Or you didn't get your favourite tart or cake in the bakery this morning.

"So I think we need to look at what the true need for resilience is. Is it not getting what you want?"

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