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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 27 June, 2019
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'To see a 12-year-old boy go through chemotherapy and have a tumour removed... it was the least we could do'

Shelbourne winger and primary school teacher Conan Byrne raised €5,660 for one of his students with a sponsored head shave.

Mr Byrne is a school teacher and footballer for Shelbourne.
Mr Byrne is a school teacher and footballer for Shelbourne.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE SCENES WERE nothing short of chaotic at Rush National School last Friday afternoon.

An audience of almost 1,000 excited primary school students, the local barber standing on a make-shift stage with razor in hand, and WWE wrestling entrance theme tunes blasting out loudly from a set of speakers.

As bonkers as it can get.

Conan Byrne walked down and took his seat on stage, flanked by four of his fellow primary school teachers as each man prepared to have his head (and one beard) shaved, all in the name of a worthy cause.

Mr Byrne, to his students, had helped raise more than €5,600 on a GoFundMe page dedicated to one of his 6th class pupils, a young boy who is currently undergoing treatment for bone cancer.

The 33-year-old Shelbourne winger had initially hoped to raise just €500 for the 12-year-old’s medical costs, but was soon blown away as the public — and in particular the League of Ireland community — rallied to raise nearly 12 times the original target.

The child, whose name has been anonymised at the request of his parents, has already undergone eight long sessions of chemotherapy, but was able to celebrate his Confirmation at the start of April with his class-mates. All going according to plan, he will be there to graduate side-by-side with them all again at the end of this month.

“There is a boy in my class at Rush National School who has Ewing’s sarcoma,” Byrne explains to The42, speaking about the fundraising effort which saw all his hair shaved off a week ago.

Conan Byrne had his head shaved last Friday in front of his entire school in Rush.

“When it’s a boy of just 12 years of age and you get hit with that news, you want to do something, anything, that can help. He went through a very difficult time, was out of school for a long period and could only come in once or twice just to see his pals.

“The boy lost his hair and he was particularly upset about losing it. So we felt it would be a nice way to show him support if his teacher, and a couple of other teachers at the school, shaved off their hair. If we could raise money for the family and get him a deserving holiday away too, it’s the least we could do.”

The forward is one of the most decorated players in the League of Ireland, winning the SSE Airtricity League, FAI Cup, EA Sports Cup, Leinster Senior Cup and President’s Cup during a successful career with UCD, Sporting Fingal, St Pat’s and Shelbourne.

But he says revealing the news of the young child’s illness to his class-mates was one of the most difficult days in his career in teaching, trying to explain to a group of his 6th class peers what had happened.

“Delivering that news, the principal and myself, delivering that news to the classroom was a day that I’ll never forget, that I never want to go through again,” he explains.

“It was a very emotional time. To see a 12-year-old boy going through his chemotherapy, the operations to get the tumour removed, we just felt as a school that we needed to do something.

The Pat's team celebrate with the trophy Byrne (front row) after winning the 2014 FAI Cup at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“We wanted to tell them in the easiest possible way for them to understand. But at the same time, they’re 12, they understand. With social media the way it is, the boy is in regular contact with his class-mates — so a handful of them knew already.”

Following the six initial chemotherapy sessions, the boy’s tumour was successfully removed. He has since gone through two more treatment sessions since his operation and has a few more chemo appointments to go. All of this has accumulated a significant medical expense to the family.

To tackle the cost, the Board of Management at Rush National School agreed to host a fundraiser for the boy and his family, with Byrne using his profile as a footballer to set up a GoFundMe page, promising to shave his head if €1,000 was reached.

Come Friday 31 May, donations had piled in across the country raising close to €6,000 in less than three weeks. The Shels winger was true to his word and, alongside a number of his fellow teachers, undertook a head shave in front of the entire school. 

It really was a wonderful occasion,” he says. “The whole school came into the yard, it’s a big school, there’s 770 students. Teachers, parents, even past pupils of the secondary school in Rush had come in to watch, too.

“We had the local barber in to do the hair, we had music, we all came out to WWE wrestling entrance songs… I don’t know where that came from,” he laughs. “The boy and his family were there. He came up and he got to shave the first few bits of my hair, so that was a lovely moment.”

D75Ohz0WkAAo5Zd The Shelbourne winger prepares to have his hair shaved off.

Having the young boy and his family there for the occasion made it extra special, the primary school teacher says. No hair was left untrimmed as pupils watched on in giddy excitement before a cheque was given to the family.

After the deed was done, Mr Byrne led his students back to class, before sharing a moment of quiet reflection with the boy’s mother, who was immeasurably grateful for what the entire school had done to try and shoulder the financial burden in some small way.

“After it was all over I brought my class back to the classroom and the boy came with us. Then it was lunchtime five minutes later, so I just waited while his mam was saying her thank yous to a couple of people.

She came around the corner then, and she was just very thankful for everything that the school did. We embraced and we didn’t really say anything to each other, it was one of those moments where we hugged and both of us kind of understood.

“I’m a father myself and you wouldn’t even want to imagine what she’s going through, and yet she’s a pillar of strength for her son, for her family — for the community as a whole, to be totally honest.”

Byrne says he has been inspired by the whole experience, noting what can be done when a community rallies together for something more important than themselves, to help one of their own in a time of need. A small act which will, if nothing else, help a young family during their time of hardship.

Shaun Williams celebrates scoring his sides first goal Ireland international Shaun Williams, a former team-mate of Byrne's, paid the boy a visit in school last week. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

A Liverpool fanatic, Byrne says that some of the funds will go towards a trip-of-a-lifetime to see Jürgen Klopp’s Champions League winners at Anfield next season — with a portion also going towards Crumlin’s Children Hospital where the boy is being treated.

A sizeable contribution by an anonymous donor has significantly helped their hopes of travelling to Liverpool to take in a game next season, with Byrne in awe of the boy and his family’s strength to battle through everything that has happened.

“He’s incredible, he really is. There’s no airs or graces about him, he loves football, he absolutely loves football. He just loves Liverpool, so we wanted to try and create a surprise for him to go over and see a game at Anfield next season.

It was meant to be a surprise, but this fundraising effort has just got wheels. Everybody’s talking about it in the community in Rush, and I think he’s heard about the trip by now!

“He’s a lovely, lovely kid. Very intelligent, has a great, great support network. I can’t even begin to describe the support network he has in terms of his family and friends. His family are just troopers. He’s got wonderful friends that look out for him and care for him.

“Even at such a young age of only 12, I’m so proud of the class that he’s in. They’ve just been so good to him on the days when he was able to come in to class. For young people to have that maturity surrounding this has filled me with a sense of pride as a teacher.”

Having had the tumour removed earlier this year, the boy was able to attend his Confirmation at the beginning of April. A very special day for the entire primary school class who, Byrne says, we shouldn’t forget have been side-by-side with one another since junior infants.

“It was a special day. Not just for him, it was a brilliant occasion for his class-mates too, because they’ve been with him all the way for the last eight years. For him not to be there… they would have noticed.

“He hadn’t been in school for a while so the fact that he was able to sit through the whole ceremony with his family was just wonderful for everyone.

Now we’re hoping that he’s going to be able to come back in for a couple of days before the end of the school year. His graduation is coming up at the end of the month. He went in for chemo last Wednesday, but because it’s not as severe as before it’s kind of getting a bit easier for him now, with the tumour successfully removed.

“Now they are just sapping the areas that need to go. He has a couple of more chemo sessions to do, but hopefully he’ll come in for a couple of days and then make it back for his graduation, which will be a wonderful evening.”

A teacher by day and a footballer by night, the 33-year-old Dubliner is keen to express his gratitude to every single person who made a donation big or small towards the GoFundMe page and the sponsored head shave.

DsH4tJhX4AAPvJf Byrne (left) joined Shelbourne from St Patrick's Athletic at the start of this season. Source: @ShelsFC Twitter

In particular he notes the incredible contribution of the wider League of Ireland community. Bitter rivalries and hard battles have been fought on the pitch during his career in the game, but off it he says the LOI always knows when to come together and support one of its own in times of need.

As was the case with the tragic deaths of players Mark Farren and Ryan McBride, Byrne says there is a special, unique bond which brings the small and tight-knit community together when hard times arise.

We say it all the time, don’t we? We call it the Greatest League in the World,” he says. “It’s a very small league but we are together in it. We’re one big family. With the terrible events of Ryan McBride and Mark Farren, Liam Miller and Gary O’Neill, it’s just incredible the support and the love that’s out there.

“It makes you proud to be a footballer within the league when you’ve support like this. On a Friday night you have the rivalries between each other, and that’s what you want, but away from the pitch it’s great to have that kind of unity.

“The good always outweighs the bad and these last couple of weeks have made me very proud. I’ve always been very proud to play in the League of Ireland, but very proud of the support we give each other in a time of need.”

Conan Byrne The forward has won the SSE Airtricity League, FAI Cup, EA Sports Cup, Leinster Senior Cup and President's Cup. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The winger scored the winner in a crucial top-of-the-table clash against Longford Town from the penalty spot a few hours after his head was shaved.

It’s suggested the new hairstyle suits him, akin to chemistry teacher Walter White in Breaking Bad or maybe even Bruce Willis, but Byrne says the bald look still takes some getting used to.

I think Amanda [his wife] is looking for me to grow it a little bit more and the kids are the same,” he jokes.

“Some people are saying it suits you and others are saying it doesn’t. Me myself? I’m going to let it grow back, I think. I glance in the mirror and I nearly double-take, thinking: ‘Jesus, who’s this?’

“But it was great to score the other night against Longford and dedicate it to the boy. Some of the lads at Shels are saying I look like David Silva when he shaved his head,” Byrne laughs. “So I think I’ll stick with that more so than Walter White.”

You can help donate to the GoFundMePage by clicking here.

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About the author:

Aaron Gallagher

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