THE GAA is about more than the games and the games will return says Caroline O’Hanlon reassuringly but the Newry-based doctor cautions that over the coming weeks and months “your health and the health of the people around you” is the priority.

Throughout her sporting life, Ladies’ football with Armagh and Carrickcruppen and netball have been a twin focus but now the three-time LGFA Allstar has had to leave her boots to one side and throw herself into the frontline of the battle to slow the spread of Coronavirus. 

Northern Ireland international O’Hanlon played her most recent netball match (perhaps the last of this season) last weekend for reigning Super League champions Manchester Thunder who beat Surrey Storm 60-42. Fixtures were suspended after that game and since it the Ireland International Rules star has concentrated on maintaining ongoing health provisions at her busy GP practice while preparing for what Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described as “the storm”. 

Caroline O'Hanlon. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
Caroline O'Hanlon. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

“All this puts sport into perspective and I think everybody is aware of the bigger picture and where our priorities are,” she said. 

“It highlights what’s important for you – your health and the health of the people around you.

“Sport is an outlet but it’s not the be-all and end-all. I hope sport will be back later in the year and in the mean-time it’s important that when we’re not having group sessions people continue to do exercise because everyone knows the value that has, not just on our physical well-being but on our mental health.

“It is important that we try to keep that up as much as we can. We’re lucky in this country that there are a lot of open spaces and we can utilise them.

“Sport has gone through difficult times before but it will bounce back. The GAA has that flexibility to change its format so there will be some sort of competition at some stage.” 

O’Hanlon praised the leadership shown by the GAA at national and community level. With games, activities and training all in lockdown, Croke Park is being utilised as a testing centre while clubs are doing all they can to make life a little easier in their localities. 

“We’ve been in a bit of a limbo getting conflicting advice from the UK and Ireland but the GAA have been great,” said O’Hanlon. 

“They have been very strong in terms of their messaging and their outreach through the WGPA and the GPA. Everybody is singing off the same hymn sheet and saying: ‘Look, this is not about you and your team, it’s about doing all we can for each other’. I’d like to think that the message is coming across and from a personal perspective that has been the case – my club’s message has been very clear that we’re not to organise group sessions and that we’re here to support everyone in the community.

“That’s the unique position the GAA is in – it’s bigger than the games, it’s more about the community. Those messages that have been going out about providing support to neighbours in terms of delivering their shopping or checking in on them… We’re in a unique position and I feel that gives you a little bit of a safety net, it’s a bit more reassuring. I feel a bit for people who maybe don’t have that. 

Caroline O'Hanlon playing for Armagh. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
Caroline O'Hanlon playing for Armagh. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

“The messaging from the GAA has been very clear and I’d like to think that people are getting it. Anybody reads reports from Italy or China, or if you’re following the World Health Organisation, the advice is really clear and we all have a responsibility to do our bit and we need everybody to follow the guidance.”

Ordinarily, O’Hanlon would be gearing up for the conclusion of Armagh’s Division Two campaign – the Orchard women have outstanding fixtures against Cavan and Monaghan – and the remainder of the Super League season with Thunder, who top the table with four wins from four games. 

“Nobody really knows what the path is,” she says.

“As Leo Varadkar said, we have to learn from the countries that are going through it – learn what we should do and what we shouldn’t do. 

“We still have to wait and see what happens to some extent and we’re trying to make sure we have provisions for people who have long-standing illnesses, they’re not going to stop because this new thing has come on the horizon. We still have to provide for the people with chronic illnesses and other illnesses.

“We’re trying to maintain a service that is as proficient as possible and as safe as possible and hopeful the community understands what we’re trying to do and people do what they can to help us.”

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