Waterboy to PRO: A Story of Autism

19th June 2013. That date is fixed in my head. That is the date when my father took me to the Fr Barrett Park to my first training session as a waterboy for Loughgiel’s Senior Hurlers. At this stage, I only knew a handful of hurlers, most of whom were my cousins. At that point of my life, I was something of a stranger in Loughgiel; I had no interest in hurling. Could you imagine that? It was just over a year after Loughgiel won an All-Ireland, and yet there was someone who found himself as an outcast due to the fact that he didn’t have an interest in hurling. I still remember that night in the Millenium Centre after the All-Ireland. It was loud. There were too many people. The signs of my Autistic Spectrum Disorder were evident at that age.

I remember my first match in Belfast in early July. I was soaked to the skin. I can remember how happy I was seeing my family lined up smiling at the new waterboy. As a teenager, I was considered an oddity and if I am honest, I still am an oddity. Most boys at my age would have been hurling and dreamt of one day playing for the Seniors, but not me. I was quite content running with water, and it continued for the following eight years more or less. To this day, I still would bring my history books to matches. No matter the distance, be it in Ballycastle or Belfast, I would always be accompanied by a history book. History books are to me what fellow Autistic people refer to as “comfort objects.” A book or a sketch pad was my way to escape. I love history. I could still probably sit my A2 exam on Soviet Foreign Policy 1917-1991.

My lack of interest with the GAA manifested through my discomfort which was caused by the noise of the crowds. The constant roars like thunder banging in my ears terrified me. I remember occasions in my early days of having to cover my ears when the referee blew his whistle which was often met with a natural response from supporters and players alike. It took the direction of my parents to get me on the hurling field. Even if I wasn’t playing, I was still involved in the club.

(Photo Credits: John McIlwaine, Saffron Gael.)

I received quite a wakeup call on the 6th March 2020. I was in Ballymoney that day and a psychologist told me that I have Autistic Spectrum Disorder. I was 21 at this point. At the time I wanted to keep it quiet. I tried to be normal. I wanted to fit in. As expected, the only ones who knew were my close family members as well as the Senior Management. I was lucky to have them especially. When I was painting in the pre-season period during the regular gym sessions, the management were constantly supporting me and reminding me that my place was with them. It was a difficult time. I had no idea what Autism was. I accepted that there was something different about me, but I never understood what it was. I knew that I was sensitive to bright lights and loud noises, that I would panic if I didn’t have my book or earphones when travelling and I knew that my intense obsessions were not normal. Prior to my referral by my GP, it never crossed my mind that I was Autistic. I knew that I was strange, and I had trouble accepting it.

In the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic, my role as a waterboy was made obsolete. That however did not deter me from being on the hurling field. It was at this point where I took up one of my favourite hobbies: photography. My interest in the club’s history, my experience in sports photography and my academic career as a student of Journalism for my BA and MA would eventually result in me being asked to be the PRO for our club. Initially, I was reluctant. I considered it ironic that someone with poor people skills would be asked to deal with public relations in our club. I was anxious too. I understood that now I had an opportunity to give my club greater access to our club’s history and had a part in building a community that was disappearing due to the Pandemic when there was no hurling or camogie.

Instead of reading history, I was making it. As we edged closer to World Autism Awareness Week, I became more accepting of my disorder. I realised Loughgiel Shamrocks GAC had the chance to shine as a model of a Neurodiverse GAA club, one that would be accepting of Autism.  When I recorded my video, I grew quite anxious. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do, and I was terrified of how the club and wider community would react. I was scared to talk about my life with Autism. The response was a shock to me. I was overwhelmed by the support given to me by members of our club. It made me proud to be a Shamrock. As the days have passed, I have received quite a wholesome response from my club who have been active in sharing my story and engaging in my desire to educate fellow Shamrocks on what it is like to be Autistic. This week was met with numerous emotions, between fear and love, discomfort and happiness. Overall, I continue to be proud of my club and the support it has given me throughout my difficulties. I am happy to say this: I am a proud Autistic Shamrock.