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A dedicated group of top Irish athletes this weekend are helping rebuild the shattered Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy.

Irish sports heroes are helping rebuild shattered Rockaways

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A dedicated group of top Irish athletes this weekend are helping rebuild the shattered Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy.

A dedicated group of top Irish athletes this weekend are helping rebuild the shattered Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy. Their involvement is being followed by NBC Nightly News, The New York Times and many other media outlets.

They have flown out from Ireland to lend a hand and their skills to show that, while America and Ireland are an ocean apart, in the geography of the heart they remain very close as President Kennedy once said.

After an exhausting shift on the first day, GPA chairman and Cork hurling legend Donal Og Cusack was asked why the players came back after an earlier visit in November. He explained the moment he realised they had to.

"Last November we were being shown around Breezy Point by Tim Devlin when an elderly gentleman approached the group of players and asked could we help him to clear out his kitchen. We were delighted to help but when we entered the house we were met with a harrowing scene," explained Cusack.

"The gentleman's wife was sitting in tears on a chair in the kitchen; it was her first visit back to the home since the storm. The house was destroyed. As some of the players tried to console her, I noticed an old black and white photograph of a couple on the sodden ground. I picked it up and showed it to her - it was a picture of their engagement in 1948. Walking back to the bus to leave Breezy Point we made up our minds we were coming back."

Sometimes we are all guilty of taking our sports heroes for granted, even in something as grounded as the Gaelic Athletic Association, Ireland’s largest sporting organization made eup entirely of amateur players,

In the 1983 All-Ireland football final between Dublin and Galway, Dublin's Kieran Duff was one of four players sent off in a tempestuous affair; his infraction was to swing a boot at an opponent.

In the aftermath, a 12 month ban, later reduced, and relentless vilification made life very difficult for Kieran, a gifted forward and committed athlete.

This weekend, Kieran is among a 20-strong work party brought together by the Gaelic Players Association which has travelled from Ireland to help with the reconstruction effort in Breezy Point.

Duff is first up at 6am, first to make a start at the work, leading by example, good humoured, friendly, helpful and positive. When former Dublin manager Pat Gilroy was rounding up volunteers for the GPA trip, Kieran didn't hesitate to offer his skills.
 
One aspect about the visit of the GPA work party to Breezy Point is that it gives us the opportunity to reflect on how wonderful our GAA athletes can be off the field as well as on it.

Four-time All-Star hurler Ollie Canning from Galway, another key member of the GPA team in New York this weekend, admitted during a relentless 12-hour shift relaying a floor in the Breezy Point Youth Hall that he had grown up hearing stories about Duff  and the 'Dirty Dozen' (Dublin finished with 12 players but became known as the '12 Apostles' in the capital). After spending his first shift with Kieran, who he had never met before, he could not have spoken higher about the man.

Duff is one of seven former high profile county footballers and hurlers, part of the 20-man party, who are working at various locations in Breezy Point. The reaction to their contribution has been outstanding.

Local and national media have descended on Breezy and while that is not unique given the hardship endured by this community in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the story of the visiting group of players - on Super Bowl weekend - has certainly grasped the imagination.

For us in the Gaelic Players Association, it doesn't seem unusual. Players are role models in their communities, continually helping with charitable causes. We know how charitable the Irish nation is - we help when help is needed. This is a perfect fit.

What is wonderfully novel about the GPA Breezy work visit, however, is that the players have taken a lead; quickly followed by Aer Lingus - whose support has been critical to the trip - and the Irish government which, through visiting representative Minister Brian Hayes, is to make a significant announcement Sunday regarding support for the reconstruction of Breezy's sports facilities.

The GPA visit to Breezy Point is a practical statement of support based on genuine concern and a recognition of a shared heritage. Brian McGuigan, Lar Corbett (without his lotto bounty), Ollie Canning, Kieran Duff, Shay Keogh, Pat Gilroy and Donal Og Cusack have all performed in front of 60,000 spectators. But they are part of their communities at home and this weekend, in Breezy Point they are part of the wider Irish Diaspora too.

For many in New York it seems novel. For GAA players, however, giving back is not unique. This is what they do. Cusack himself has lead three charity rebuilding projects in Zambia and has not drawn breath since he donned the overalls in Breezy Point on Friday morning.
 

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