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'When you smell it and live it and see kids dying, it's very hard not to do something about it'

Former Galway dual star Alan Kerins shares the brilliant story of his remarkable work in Africa.

THERE’S QUESTIONS ABOUT football and hurling, championship structures and Galway in both codes, but the most interesting answers come when sport isn’t the topic of conversation.

Alan Kerins Former Galway dual star and humanitarian Alan Kerins. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Former Tribe dual star Alan Kerins is up for interview at the launch of the 2019 Electric Ireland GAA Minor Star Awards Panel. As common procedure at these events, he sits down to field questions about all things GAA. But it’s when he starts talking about something that’s not directly related to Gaelic games, he best opens up.

Kerins is a man on a mission, having raised millions for children in Africa over the past 14 years , driven on by the motivation to help others.

Of course, the long-term benefit and skills he’s enjoyed and learned through his involvement with GAA and representing his club and county have in a way, inspired his incredible charity work, but the seed being planted goes right back to his childhood. To his family home and his nearest and dearest.

He’s always asked the same question: why Africa as opposed to anywhere else?

And that’s when he’s forced to go back through the years; to rewind and question his consciousness.

“When I trace it back, I was seven or eight and Live Aid was on,” he begins. “I remember  [Bob] Geldof on the television, but there was news on the screen and horrific images of Sudan and starving kids.

“I used to hide behind the couch when it would come on because I was afraid of them. I didn’t know, I couldn’t rationalise what was happening but that was a scary image for me to see other children like that. It really rattled me.”

The famous concert planted a seed, and that began to grow and grow later that year when his father donated a hefty sum to Live Aid, contributing every penny of a prize he won towads their work.

“That kind of emotional upsetness, combined with my Dad winning the Captain’s Prize in his local golf club, Gort,” Kerins continues, mapping out where it all began.

“It was the middle of a recession, we didn’t have much money there was a big sweepstakes. He backed himself to win the Captains Prize and he won it. I’m not sure if it was £1800 or £800, but it was a lot of money at the time and he gave it all over to Live Aid.

“Little did he know that that simple act was raising millions for the same cause 30 years later. The ripple effect of your positive actions… never underestimate the power of your positive — or often negative actions — on young kids.”

In hindsight, that was a trigger moment in a young Kerins’ inner-being which resulted in him taking positive action in his later years.

Alan Kerins celebrates at the final whistle After winning the All-Ireland club final with Clarinbridge in 2011. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Life went on, though. There was hurling and football to be played, Connacht and All-Ireland titles to be won and life to be lived. 20 years after being that scared child behind the couch, hiding from the scary images on the television screen, it became a reality.

“Tracing it back, it must have really resonated with me and the opportunity came when I was 27,” he explains. 

Okay I want to get out of here for a couple of months, I want to do something different.

“I was working as a physiotherapist in Galway and a few things had happened in 2004; a relationship break-up, that hammering to Kilkenny and we lost the county football final, so a lot had happened and I said, ‘I’m going to get away from here for a bit of a break.’”

It all first came up again when Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South African peace icon, and ‘Bob] Geldof, organiser of Live Aid and charity campaigner, came to Galway. He was fascinated by the duo.

“Tutu had one message,” Kerins enthuses, “and he asked the audience in the public lecture, ‘Have you ever helped someone that you didn’t have to help?

“Everyone says, ‘Yeah’. And how did that make you feel? and everyone shouted up. And when you walked away from that person, how did you feel? and everyone said they felt a glow inside or felt confident, ten-foot tall or great. And he said, ‘Exactly’.

“Helping others is proven physiologically and psychologically, emotionally to be excellent for you, it’s proven by science with the hormones that are released. He asked another question. ’If it’s so good for us, why don’t we do a lot more of it?’

That really hit home with Kerins. In the period of time leading up to that event, himself and his physiotherapy team had been working with a pretty special client, and just before he went to listen to his heroes, something amazing had happened.

“Just prior to the talk the team had helped this 38-year-old Down Syndrome girl to walk,” he smiles. “She’d had an operation and hadn’t walked in month. We got her walking on this particular day and her smile and her joy lifted me out of my self-pity.

“I walked away feeling great about her walking and that just triggered something in me where I said, ‘There’s more to this.’”

From there, he started looking into Africa with different organisations. The plan was to go from September to Christmas so he’d be back for the inter-county pre-season, but there were no vacancies.

Ciaran Kenny and Alan Kerins In action against Wexford in 2007. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Thinking that was that and it would be parked for a while more, another development soon arose from nowhere. That November, Kerins and a few friends were heading to London and the person dropping them to the airport was actually a priest from Dublin.

They got chatting.

“He said, ‘Are you going to Africa?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not, it’s fallen through.’ He said, ‘Sure you can go to Zambia with our guys.’ I kind of said yeah but didn’t know what way it was going to go, I kind of wanted to go with young people.”

The priest soon came back to him with an email from an Irish nun, Sister Cathy Crawford, who was running a home for disabled children in Mongu, Zambia. They were actually stuck for a physio and all. The perfect match.

“She said she’d take me for a short period but she couldn’t take me until January in 2005, so I said, ‘Feck it, I’ll sacrifice the league and I’ll go for three months’ and the rest is history.”

He goes on to speak about how he never intended to raise further money when he came home, but we’ll get to that after finding out more about his first trip. After just seeing images on television and what not else, what was it like the first time he went out? How real was it?

“Nothing can prepare you,” he responds immediately. “I can tell people in the room what it’s like but unless you experience it, you can never understand what it’s like.

“I was scared shitless going out the first time. I was on my own as well. I was going into a really remote area and working with kids with severe disabilities, which could have been prevented with proper deliveries and vaccinations.

“Then you had people coming up and tapping their belly, ‘Hungry, hungry’. You’re not prepared for that. There were queues to Cathy’s door for food; people were starving, they had ragged clothes. That was quite a shock.

“Where we are now, it’s not scary, it’s really powerful. People are struggling but they’d blow you away with their inspiration, their resilience, their creativity, their community spirit. We can learn an awful lot from them in terms of their resilience.

“Sometimes you’d drive through a community and see kids running free as a bird and you’d say, ‘Who are we to impose our idea of life on them?’ They’re happy out the way they are. Yes, you can give them education. Just give them the basics and they’ll be happy rather than trying to force a way of living on them which is hugely stressful.”

What about coming back?

He struggled. Mentally, it’s tough. It’s a strange, strange feeling.

He remembers going into Blanchardstown shopping centre one of the days after coming home to buy a pair of jeans. €50 or so, maybe more.

Alan Kerins celebrates beating Tipperary Celebrating an All-Ireland quarter-final win in 2005. Source: INPHO

“I felt so guilty,” he recalls. “I knew that could feed 10 families. I had no radio for three months. When the radio came on in the morning after the first night home, it was an awful shock.

“You have to say to yourself that it’s all relative. You can do your bit but you have to live too. You have to look after yourself if you’re going to be able to look after them.

“I’m nearly desensitised now I’ve been there so often. I have to be very careful when I bring people there because they can be very affected by it. That was the first time. It’s normal now in my eyes.”

He adds: “Often people go over and never do anything when they come back. It’s very hard to switch it off because when you see it, smell it and live it for 24 hours a day for three months.

When you watch it on television, you can turn it off and put on the Champions League or the Cork match. You’ll see the scenes but forget about it. When you smell it and live and see kids dying of AIDs or HIV, it’s very hard not to do something about it when you have a platform, an ability to help.

“You have to become desensitised sometimes for your own emotional well-being though. You have to compartmentalise, because it could really affect you if you didn’t. It’s no good for you.”

Back to not intending to set up a charity or raise colossal amounts of money upon his return the first time. Kerins was just blown away by the work Sr Cathy was doing, he primarily wanted to share her story and maybe raise a few bob for her in the process.

“She had 75 kids in her care at any given time and she was trying to build houses, sink wells, 800 people were starving in her area, she was trying to feed those. One woman, she was dragging the community by her hands herself and I said, ‘Jesus, she’s an unbelievable woman, her story needs to be told and she needs to be helped’.

“So I just said, ‘What would you like’ and she said, ‘I want five grand for a borehole for clean drinking water because there’s no water in the area and if I can get one well, I’ll get more because there’s no money but I need to teach them how to grow their own food, how to get water, how to get the seeds.”

So from there, he committed to the cause.

And as you’d have it, little things started falling into place.

By chance, photographer Damien Eagers was out visiting his uncle across the road. Eagers was working for Sportsfile at the time and the pair knew each other from the All-Star trip to Boston the year before so naturally, they got chatting and he offered to take a few pictures.

They were brilliant, and into a brochure they went with the intention to raise €5,000 well on the road.

Alan Kerins At the launch Of The 2019 Electric Ireland GAA Minor Star Awards Panel. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

That year, Galway reached the All-Ireland final and more luck struck when it came to media duties in the run up.

“It’s amazing how it clicks into gear,” Kerins beams. “Darren Frehill was working with TV3 and he came down to do an interview before the All-Ireland final and said he’d give it a little plug.

“He saw the pictures and said, ‘Fuck, there’s a documentary in that’. Then he got TV3 to commission a full, hour-long documentary the following Christmas.

“Five grand became 50 grand became 500 grand became five million became 20 million, whatever it is today. That’s how it started, by small coincidences — it was very organic.”

So now with the Alan Kerins Projects and work with Gorta-Self Help Africa in full flow, Kerins is asked if he’s figured out the answer to Bishop Tutu’s question all those years back.

If helping people is so good for us and makes us feel great, why don’t we do a lot more of it?

“It’s a strange one,” he ponders. “The modern day world is all about, me, me, me; materialism and how much I can get.

“Instagram and social media drive that in terms of clothes and image, cars and houses. That’s just the society we live in. Maybe it’s the marketing, it’s what we’re led to believe leads to a happier life.

“I’m launching another thing soon, it’s a Global Citizen Movement, giving people a platform to do exactly what I’m trying to say here: make a difference. People actually deep down want to. Sometimes they haven’t got the avenue or the platform; somebody to just say, ‘Come on, you can do this.’”

The Irish are unbelievably generous, he says, one of the biggest contributors in the world per capita. So it really is in us.

“People have to connect to a passion first of all,” he continues. “It’s hard to raise money, it’s hard to make a difference because it takes effort and it takes time.

“We’re very time poor because of Western modern life. If people are given a platform, given an opportunity and can connect with a passion, a cause that’s deep down [close to them], maybe it’s Temple Street — I was lucky enough to benefit with their wonderful work with my little boy — or maybe it’s cancer because of a parent.

“You need to have something that you’re really passionate about. If you’re passionate about it then you’ll really deliver, you’ll make that effort, sacrifice to contribute in whatever way you can.

Ellen Keane and Rob Harnett Speaking at an event last year. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It’s about encouraging people to do whatever they can. When they get a taste for it, they’ll do more. If they believe in the cause and the work they’re doing, they’ll do more, they’ll make a difference.

“It’s a two-way thing: it’s up to the individual to get off their bum and do something and it’s up to organisations, governments to give them an opportunity to do it as well.”

He’s someone you could sit and listen to for hours on end, hanging on to his every word, following his every story. At one stage, he mentioned talking about Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela with former South African rugby star Francois Pienaar in New York recently.

And just before the interview finishes up, he’s asked how that all came about. Kerins was invited to his golf tournament in the Big Apple, so they ended up played fourball.

The pair met through different networks, through a friend’s family member. They were first connected at a golf tournament in London, and have stayed in touch ever since.

“We’re looking to do something down in South Africa with him,” Kerins adds. “He does great work with MAD [Make A Difference] Leadership Foundation.

“They bring really talented and high potential young kids from poor backgrounds right through the education system to become doctors. His goal is to create 1,000 leaders in South Africa who would make a difference within the communities.

“He’s a very impressive individual. He’s a legend of the game and legend of film; a very impressive character and really nice guy.”

But more importantly, how did he react to meeting Alan Kerins, a man who holds All-Ireland club medals in both codes, Connacht titles in each and an All-Ireland SFC on the inter-county scene?

He laughs.

“He was very complimentary of the work we do in Africa,” Kerins concludes. “He knows of the sport [GAA] and I managed to play well in the golf, which is even better!

“He’s a good fella, very socially aware, very socially conscientious from what I’m aware of.”

Sounds like someone we know…

Donegal’s most decorated Footballer, Karl Lacey, former Galway dual-star, Alan Kerins, former Waterford Hurling Manager, Derek McGrath and former Dublin footballer, Tomás Quinn join forces as the 2019 Panel for the Electric Ireland GAA Minor Star Awards.

This year Electric Ireland’s #GAAThisIsMajor campaign, now in its sixth year, will highlight the positive impact that the Minor Championship has on players long after their days on the field as a Minor have ended.

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Emma Duffy

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