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Schools' GAA is in limbo like rest but all we can do is wait: Smyth



Big lift: St Michael’s, Enniskillen, captain Brandon Horan with the MacRory Cup after last year’s final

Big lift: St Michael’s, Enniskillen, captain Brandon Horan with the MacRory Cup after last year’s final

Jimmy Smyth

Jimmy Smyth

Big lift: St Michael’s, Enniskillen, captain Brandon Horan with the MacRory Cup after last year’s final

The chairman of Ulster Schools' GAA, Jimmy Smyth, has admitted that he is as in the dark as everyone else when it comes to how the remainder of competitions will be completed.

Tomorrow would have heralded the Ulster finals in their traditional St Patrick's Day format but due to the measures taken to contain the coronavirus disease, they have been postponed indefinitely.

The MacRory Cup final was set to be a showdown between two big beasts of the competition, St Colman's of Newry and St Patrick's, Maghera.

A more novel encounter was in store for the curtain-raiser, the MacLarnon Cup decider between Knock, Our Lady and St Patrick's College and St Pius X of Magherafelt.

While March 29 has been set in an official GAA statement as the date for activities to resume, there is traction gathering that schools in Monaghan may not be open again for the rest of the academic year, while the UK government may be reviewing its own policy towards delay and containment of the disease.

"Everything has just closed down. You have got to follow directives. You've got to take it from the authorities," said Smyth, the captain of Armagh when they made it to the 1977 All-Ireland final.

The Ulster Schools' Gaelic football finals are big, traditional events in the calendar and thousands would have been in attendance in Armagh's Athletic Grounds.

But after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that outside events with more than 500 people present would present a risk, GAA chiefs took their cue and ceased all activity.

Tracing the origin of cancelling major events, Smyth said: "I think what sparked Leo Varadkar was a directive from the European health experts.

"I believe a lot of the European countries have followed suit, which would make you think that a whole lot of them were going to do that anyway.

"The problem with it now is that the country that has left the European Union is sitting on its tod in the middle of it. We are even worse in that way, stuck between Boris and the border down the sea.

"We live on an island where three quarters of it has taken one way to deal with it and we have to wait and see what Westminster say to do."

He continued: "The GAA have weighed in and the rugby too. What actually kicked off this alarm was Dublin and Cork cancelling their respective St Patrick's Day parades.

"They were the ones that actually showed a bit of public leadership and after that, everything started to click into place.

"I think the message that is getting out there is that they are now looking at the small print of the amount of fatalities and the people it is going to affect.

"But I tell you one thing, health professionals have got a directive that they may be asked to come back and work in the hospitals."

Now retired from teaching after spending his career in the classroom of the former St Paul's - now St Ronan's - school in Lurgan, Smyth admits that the situation facing school staff, teachers and children is unprecedented.

The accord agreed across the board at Stormont on Thursday was shattered on Friday when Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill called for a public shutdown of schools, prompting criticism from political rivals.

At this point, there is no further clarity and while a total shutdown of schools may occur in the future, there is something jarring with several hundred pupils all together in a school while sporting fixtures remain in limbo.

"Desperate times need desperate measures. I'd say universities are talking about distance learning and video conferencing. It's definitely an evolving situation, there's no doubt about that," said Smyth.

There is a precedent of sorts when it comes to the MacRory Cup.

Back in 2001, St Michael's, Enniskillen and Omagh CBS had made their way to the final, but with the outbreak of foot and mouth, the game was never played. The trophy was deemed to have been 'shared' between the schools.

That may turn out to be the case with the MacRory and MacLarnon Cups, although there is much uncertainty.

"Nobody knows," admitted Smyth.

"Somebody said to me earlier that if Italy had have moved earlier, it wouldn't be in the situation it is in now. So a whole load of countries are taking their lead from what Italy should have done.

"It's targeting a certain demographic too, especially those of us of a certain age and with underlying health issues.

"Then you look at Cheltenham going on with 200,000 people visiting the Festival over a few days."

Indeed. We are through the looking glass.

Belfast Telegraph