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'Some people are feeling isolated or alone, so this is more important than ever'

Su Carty, who works with the IRFU and World Rugby, is part of Ohana ZERO Suicide.

Su Carty has major experience in rugby as a player, referee, and administrator.
Su Carty has major experience in rugby as a player, referee, and administrator.
Image: Isaac Peral Photography

IT WAS DURING the first lockdown last year that Su Carty had a moment of epiphany.

Working one of her 12-hour shifts as a psychiatric nurse at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin, covered head to toe in PPE gear but enjoying being back in her old job – “it wasn’t all halo stuff, to be honest” – she was struck by the words of one of her patients.

A member of the World Rugby Council and IRFU committee who has been in sports administration since 2009, Carty put her hand up to return to her former job when the government made their ‘Be on Call for Ireland’ appeal for healthcare workers as the first wave of Covid-19 swept across the country.

An elderly lady’s emotional turmoil had a particular impact on Carty during that time and was, in part, responsible for the launch last month of Ohana ZERO Suicide, which offers a free 20-minute suicide awareness training programme for people in Ireland.

“This lady had decided that her family would be better off without her because she had become a burden,” explains Carty on a Zoom call from her family home in Roscommon.

Carty helped the woman to understand that her family were definitely not thinking that way, but the conversation lingered in her thoughts and prompted Carty to consider how those of us who have no training go about talking to people who are feeling suicidal.

She linked with a group of Irish people who, like her, had seen a need for more awareness and the end result is Ohana ZERO Suicide, an online training module that comes with the reminder to ‘Show you Care, Ask the Question, Make the Call.’

“We saw a gap in terms of the support around having conversations with people who might be suicidal or might be feeling really crap and you don’t know what they’re thinking or feeling unless you ask them,” says Carty.

Sometimes we underestimate the value in a conversation. Most of us have no idea what difference we can make and we want people to have the confidence that if someone does say something that’s uncomfortable or difficult, you know how to get them help.

“We’re not turning people into professionals and experts in 20 minutes here, it’s nothing like that, it’s just that you will have the confidence to be able to have a conversation and get that person the right support.”

The training programme was designed by suicide prevention experts for the UK’s Zero Suicide Alliance, with Carty and the crew in Ohana – a Hawaiian term which means ’family’ – helping to adapt it for Ireland. 

The pandemic was a major motivation, given that in-person training of this nature is not currently taking place, but also because of the mental health stresses everyone is facing.

“The things we normally do to support our mental health aren’t available to lots of people now,” says Carty.

launch-of-ohana-zero-suicides-twenty2zero-campaign Carty [centre] with Angeline Collins Driver and Bernard Jackman at the launch of Ohana ZERO Suicide last month. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“For me, it’s rugby or refereeing a match. Things like coming together with a group, going to the gym, etc. There are lots of things that have been replaced online but there is still lots of that void that people are struggling in.

“Some people are feeling isolated or alone, so this is more important now than ever.

“My experience with this has prompted me to pick up the phone and check in with more people. We’re not getting to meet in person but just calling up and saying ‘How are you?’ can make a difference.”

The response to Ohana ZERO Suicide has been “incredible,” with rugby and GAA clubs around the country spreading the word and taking the training.  

These are tough times and Carty herself is missing the social touchpoints of more normal times, even if the fresh air of the Roscommon countryside has been a welcome change. 

The recently upgraded internet in the Castlerea area has also been very welcome as Carty continues her work with the IRFU and World Rugby.

Her CV in the sport is wide-ranging. She first played with Guinness Rugby Club before a move to De La Salle Palmerston, where George Hook was the women’s team coach.

“He comes into the changing room for our first training session and says, ‘Women shouldn’t play rugby… but if you’re going to play it, you should play it right.’

“That’s how it started but he was so respectful and he was fantastic. I hadn’t a clue about the game before that but he brought us back to basics and understanding the game.”

Carty moved to St Mary’s and captained the club before work brought her to Limerick and UL Bohs. Her rise in administration started with Leinster Women’s Rugby in 2004 and she became president of the Irish Women’s Rugby Football Union in 2006, back when it was a separate body to the IRFU.

Carty was central to the integration of women’s rugby into the IRFU and then moved on to World Rugby as their Women’s Development Manager, her work around the world over seven years helping to increase female participation in the sport from 4% to 25%.


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She left World Rugby in 2015 to start her own business but was rising up the ranks in Irish Rugby too, leading to her current position on the union’s main committee, as well as several sub-committees.

Carty also became an excellent referee along the way, working as a match official in Test rugby for several years and winning the Alain Rolland Award for Referee Performance in 2017.

su-carty Carty has a wide-ranging CV in rugby. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In 2018, Carty was appointed to the World Rugby Council, where her job alongside Philip Orr and John O’Driscoll is to ensure Irish rugby is “heard, seen, and represented.”

Carty’s role on that council – which sits twice a year and essentially manages World Rugby – encapsulates all aspects of the sport, but she highlights her “background of making a difference for women and girls in the game” so is always mindful of that.

Covid-19 has been a frustrating barrier to progress in women’s rugby over the last year but Carty is optimistic about the future. A scheduling headache lies ahead with hopes that the 2021 World Cup can still go ahead in New Zealand later this year and a Six Nations and World Cup qualifying competitions to be squeezed in too.

Behind the scenes, Carty is seeing genuine commitment to grow the game, with World Rugby having given approval and budget towards launching genuine global windows of competition every year that could include more than 20 nations.

“That is massive progress in itself,” says Carty, who has been chipping away on this project for years. “That speaks to me about the corner having been well turned.

It’s not like ‘we’ll sort out the men, then we’ll look at the women’ – that’s not how it’s going.”

In Ireland, Carty has been a key driver in the growth of the women’s game, co-chairing a review that produced the Women In Rugby Action Plan in 2018, underlining the IRFU’s aim to build female participation in all aspects of Irish rugby through to 2023.

Again, Covid has caused frustration with certain plans. Ireland Women were due to go to the US on their first summer tour this year, while a new communications and marketing initiative has been finalised but is now on hold due to the pandemic.

Again, Carty remains enthusiastic about the progress that can be made whenever the world starts moving normally again.

“We want to speak to young girls out there. We want to tell them that they have a chance to play the game. Come give it a crack, see how you get on, enjoy yourself.”

As well as getting more female players, coaches, and referees into the game, the Women In Rugby plan targeted a big increase at committee levels, aiming to go from just 2% up to 20%.

“What you make possible in sport, you make possible across all areas of life,” says Carty.

“If you progress women in leadership in sport, they discover what they’re capable of and what they can make possible in their communities. They get to express themselves fully.

beibhinn-parsons-celebrates-scoring-a-try Ireland Women were due to tour the US this summer. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“All of the evidence and research is there – the most effective boards in business are diverse and inclusive. There’s not just one way of thinking, it broadens everything.”

With female participation in the IRFU’s leadership programmes above 50%, Carty highlights Ann Heneghan becoming the first female president of Connacht Rugby, Debbie Carty’s rise in Leinster Rugby, and Helen O’Reilly’s progress with Leinster Referees as positive signs.

Alongside her rugby commitments, Carty still runs her own business as a performance consultant and coach, focusing on team dynamics and leadership. Pre-Covid, it involved visiting companies in person but the work has changed in the last year. Now, it’s all on Zoom but she has added a whole new branch of one-on-one coaching, including with some inter-country Gaelic footballers. 

Carty also mentors several other female leaders – including Hockey Ireland’s Lisa Jacob – and enjoys being able to share some of what she has learned along the way.

“I’m always happy having conversations, helping people out, and underlining that everything is possible.”

Need help? Support is available:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s).

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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