Conor Whelan reminds people of human element to inter-county scene

When the players involved in the All-Ireland SHC final are retiring to their beds next Saturday night, Niall Donohue is sure to pop into Conor Whelan’s mind.

It regularly does.

Conor Whelan

People, by now, will be aware of the piece Whelan did with The Sports Chronicle in which the corner-forward outlined the hurt he experienced at the loss of his older cousin, Niall.

Donohue, sadly, committed suicide five years ago, but Whelan is adamant, that by sharing his own experiences of the heartbreaking feelings that brought and how he reacted to losing somebody so close to him, it can hopefully help others suffering in silence.

“It just shows there are hidden sides to people, behind that smile, despite that loud laugh,” Whelan suggested. “When we take off the helmet there is another world, another life happening away from training and matches.

“We all have struggles. Losing Niall remains a devastating blow to the family, but we hope that talking about him can help others. Or maybe just one person.

“I hope that one person who is suffering reads about Niall’s suicide and knows they can talk about what they are feeling.

His death was immensely sad, it’s still very raw, really hard to take, but I like to think Niall is looking down knowing he has helped to impact others for the better.

Understandably, Niall’s loss has had a profound effect on Whelan and his Galway teammates.

Fittingly, David Burke, in an act as classy as his performances on-field tend to be, referenced Donohue in his speech as the Tribesmen’s captain looked out from the Hogan Stand last September with the Liam MacCarthy Cup in his grasp.

Whelan began on The Sports Chronicle with the following sentiments: “James ‘Tex’ Callaghan has been the Galway kit man for as long as I can remember. He is nearly part of the furniture at this stage. He even has his own van with ‘Tex’ wrote on the side of it and all.

“Not long after my cousin Niall Donohue passed away in October 2013, Tex quietly got hold of a maroon flag showing Niall celebrating Galway’s ground-breaking Leinster title in 2012.

“Don’t think he told anyone, just buried the flag in our kit bag, having decided to leave it there under all the gear until the All-Ireland was won.

“Tex found me on the pitch last September. I knew nothing about the flag, but from the way he came over I knew it was something to do with Niall.

That was a special moment because it meant we could honour his memory on the victory lap of Croke Park. It meant other family members, Galway people and the entire country could see Niall on that victorious All-Ireland final day we’d all been waiting for and striving towards for so long.

Whelan and James ‘Tex’ Callaghan remind us of how fortunate we are to have such wonderful role models to the forefront of our Association.

While there are some individuals out there deplorably and outrageously sending managers and players hate-mail, it is important to remember that those involved with inter-county teams are human beings that have their crosses to bear without also having to deal with sifting through letters of bile from some characters.

We will not discuss that negative element any further, though, and instead focus on the fact the children and teenagers of this country are extremely lucky to have people like Whelan displaying such positive human traits.

People will depart Croke Park on Sunday either elated or devastated depending on the result of the match, provided another draw does not transpire.

Yet, with the likes of Whelan speaking of issues far beyond the relevance of hurling, it might keep life in perspective for those on both sides of that coin.

Jim Gavin has often referenced how he and his management team want to facilitate the development of the characters of his Dublin players.

Following their All-Ireland semi-final victory over Galway last Saturday, the imperious Ciarán Kilkenny said, in relation to their admirable relentlessness: “We're just so fortunate that we have such a good culture that other lads are pushing each other on”.

And that culture, in part at least, stems from Gavin’s preference to help develop his players as people as much as Dublin footballers.

Whelan and co are further examples of the excellent human beings succeeding at the height of their respective code.

The Kinvara attacker went on: “The night before the final David (Burke) went up to Rakerin cemetery to leave two sliotars at his best friend’s grave, before going out and giving an exhibition in Croke Park, and rightfully being named man of the match.

“And then, with the speech, he put the subject of mental health into the consciousness of every person looking in from all over the world. Anyone tuning in to watch a major national sporting event heard what David had to say.

David Burke

"On the day Galway hurling ended 29 years of hurt, the captain put the memory of Niall Donohoe right there among us all, and made sure his death was not for nothing.

“I say it again: We all have a responsibility to raise awareness around mental health, fight to eradicate the stigma that is attached to suicide and to address the silence that can follow far too often.

“David’s speech on the highest platform of them all shattered the silence.”

While there are many things we can fix in the GAA, one thing for sure is that, and most pertinently at this, the future of the Association is in safe hands if the voices of the current generation are heard regarding what is truly important in life.

People who knock players and managers so viciously for their performances would do well, in this All-Ireland SHC final week, to remember that.

By Peter McNamara
Sports Correspondent

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