Cillian Moran wasn’t very interested in sport. Then some years ago he went to a match between Dundalk and Drogheda soccer clubs. Ever since then, he has been a fan of his local Dundalk team. He has gone to summer sports camps and made friends with many players on the team. Inclusion in sport is important.
Like in so many families, sporting activities, reading and indeed all hobbies are things that have been incorporated into my children’s lives—often without realising the full rewards they bring. For my four eldest children, from when they started school (and sometimes before that, if they showed an interest), weekends in our home became absorbed into one long taxi ride, ferrying children to and from music lessons, sports and various other social outings.
When we learned (when he was three) that our youngest son Cillian had a moderate intellectual learning disability and he showed no interest in participation of any kind, let alone sport, I never dreamed of the possibilities that we have enjoyed with him in the last four years. For several years, our biggest goal as a family was to try and get a night’s sleep as our insomniac Cillian roamed the corridors paying no heed to whether it was day or night. Although included in every family activity and outing, he never showed the least amount of interest in becoming involved or participating, preferring instead to take a disinterested sideline approach.
Four years ago I decided to take him to a soccer match in our home town of Dundalk, a local derby match between Dundalk and Drogheda, and a cup match in honour of Cillian’s grandfather. It was as if a light went on! Cillian insisted on taking to the pitch at half time. This was a major feat in itself, as we have always found it hard to get him to walk any distance, due to his very poor muscle tone. I was immediately struck by the warmth and encouragement of the young team-members who helped him score his first goal.
From that moment he was smitten. Week after week since then we travel to Oriel Park to support the Lillywhites. Although Cillian does not read in the traditional sense, it amazes me how he manages to identify every League of Ireland team, their home ground, manager and players without difficulty—something I would find too difficult!
Over the years I had unsuccessfully tried to enrol Cillian in various mainstream summer camps and had almost given up hope, until Dundalk FC agreed to allow Cillian to attend its youth summer camp. Cillian spent a week lining up alongside his peers and it was a real eye-opener for me and the rest of the family. His inclusion in the summer camp meant that Cillian was able to engage and make friends with children his own age with a shared passion—soccer. Cillian’s siblings and I were delighted to attend the certificate presentation ceremony at the end of the summer camp and we were moved to see how proud Cillian was of his achievement, how confident he had become and how he had brought a little bit of fun and excitement into the lives of the other children. It was as positive an experience for Cillian, and for our family, as it was for the coaches and other children on the course.
Since then he never misses the opportunity to attend the camp and it is now part of his routine during the holidays from school. His admiration of Dundalk FC, especially goalkeeper Peter Cherrie, knows no bounds. He knows when they are playing and whether it’s to Oriel Park or Terryland Park, the black and white jersey is out in force. Cillian is now one of the team. He regularly lines up with them as mascot, is known by everyone associated with the club and, indeed, I am continually struck by the genuine support and friendship shown to him by everyone in the club. Every week I watch in amazement at the relationships he has developed over the years with players and supporters alike, ranging in age from nine to ninety.
Inclusion in sport is so important. Soccer has made such a difference to the quality of life that Cillian enjoys and it has opened up a whole new world, not just for him but for our whole family.
Last year Cillian was delighted and very fortunate when FAI President John Delaney kindly invited him to be one of the flag bearers at an international match. To Cillian it was just another normal day, but to our family it was one of the most poignant of our lives. Cillian stood proudly for the National Anthem in the Aviva Stadium, chatted to the players and waved to the capacity crowd as if he was already an international player.
The lesson we have learned? Cillian expects to be included. His life is full of positivity. Whereas we might hesitate, or wonder if we will be included or accepted, thanks to Dundalk FC, Cillian has the confidence to take inclusion for granted. I am so grateful to all the people whom Cillian has met throughout his fourteen years, that they give him that confidence to take it all in his stride and to Dundalk FC for making it happen.