Alan Foley, Principal of St. Patrick’s Boys National School (BNS) in Skibbereen, is passionate that there is a sport for everyone. His humble pursuit in achieving this, as a teacher’s coach, administrator and player in the community, is infectious.
Although brought up in the city, Alan’s roots are firmly in West Cork. His mother, Breda (née O’Shea) hails from Skibbereen and his father, Chris Foley, from Newcestown. With Chris working in this Verome Shipyard, building ships, Alan spent his first five years in Gurranbraher before moving to Ballincollig. It is here that his earliest sporting memories from there emerge.
“We loved growing up there in the 80s. There were lots of new estates and it was rapidly becoming one of the biggest suburbs in Ireland. There must have been around 30 of us about the same age living within a stones throw of each other, so we were often out playing soccer, rounders, bulldog, tip-the-can or whatever on the street. It was heaven really, when I look back on it. We had the freedom to wander around the place, although not too far. We climbed anything we could and made lots of things, like out of sticks. We just had so much fun.”
“When it came to organised sport, Gaelic games was what we played mostly growing up. There was a parish league, where each estate would play against each other, which was great. A man called Pat Halpin used to look after us. He was a real gentleman and put a load of time into getting us playing for a team.”
In national school (Scoil Eoin) we played hurling and (Gaelic) football in Sciath na Scol competitions. There were around 90 pupils in my year and around six were chosen to represent the school at Cork City Sports athletics competitions each year. I never quite made it there.”
Alan also played for Ballincollig GAA all the way up from the Under-10 to the Under-16 age grade. “There was a team on the year, every year. But with the jump straight from Under-16 to minor (Under-18) there was fierce competition for places, and so I stopped playing for the club at that time.”
But it wasn’t just Gaelic games that Alan participated in. He played various sports for his post-primary school, Coláiste Choilm too. “When I was around 13 or 14, my parents bought me and my brothers pitch and putt clubs for Christmas and I took to it instantly. We became a bit obsessed with it; it was like a drug.” What helped was that Lakewood Pitch and Putt Club was located nearby – a facility founded in 1973 for the employees of Johnny Woods Sand and Gravel and is still in existence today.
“Every morning during the summer, we would hop on our bikes at about 10, play three or four rounds and cycle home for dinner. And then go back in the evening to play another couple of rounds. Lakewood is and was a great club. A load of us juveniles started there around the same time, thanks to local couple, Jim and Rene O’Shea. We became quite competitive as the years went on, playing in a number of county competitions and then, in my later teens in provincial and national competitions.”
A modest man, Alan was eventually persuaded to share some of his pitch and putt successes. “I represented Cork at juvenile level and adult level. A team of five of us, including three from Lakewood, won the All-Ireland in Carlow in my last year at juvenile level when I was 16. Me and my brother Tom, the Deputy Principal in Skibbereen Community School, played off scratch (a 0 handicap) at juvenile and straight through to senior.”
Having just turned 17 when he sat his leaving Cert., Alan spent three years at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, completing a B.Ed. in Primary Teaching. It was during this period that he had most success at the senior pitch and putt level. Also, it was during this time that he started playing hurling again with the college teams. One of the people who convinced Alan to come out of retirement was fellow student and housemate at the time, Pat Ahern – the current Principal of Gaelscoil Mhichíl Uí Choileáin, Clonakilty.
“Eamonn Cregan, the Limerick hurling legend, was training us and we had some inter county players like Brian Cuthbert from Cork and Fergal Hegarty from Clare. I played in goals and Pat (Ahern) played wingback. Current Principal of Carriboy National School in Durrus, Mike Cronin, was cornerback. We won the Division 3 league and championship and lost in the semi-final of the Ryan Cup in ‘95.”
Alan’s return to his mother’s homeplace was, as he put it, “a pure fluke”. After a brief stint as a primary teacher on Coachford, in 1996 Alan’s relations spotted a teaching post advertised in Skibbereen BNS and encouraged him to go for it. “I had a motorbike at the time. So, I came down the road for the interview. As I was taking off my leggings off back home, I got a phone call from the chairperson offering me the job. I was only 20 at the time and have been here since.”
“I lived with my Aunt, Kay Murphy, when I moved down, and apart from a few relations, I didn’t really know anybody. So, that’s when I decided to join O’Donovan Rossa GAA club. I played Under-21 football and hurling in 1997. I continued practicing my pitch and putt and travelling to the city at weekends for a couple of years, but I was really enjoying hurling with the club, so that became my main sport since then. We trained twice a week and went to the pub after. It was great way of fitting into the community, particularly with people around my own age. I had never played outfield ‘til I played for O’Donovan Rossa. I started coaching underage teams there around that time too.”
Alan has been teaching in St. Patrick’s BNS for the past 24 years and become Principal in more recent years. “In 2015 the junior and senior schools amalgamated. At present there are 213 pupils registered in the school. We have eight mainstream classes from junior infants to sixth class. In 2001, we opened our first class for children with autism. We now have three ASD classes – an Early Intervention Class, a Junior ASD Class and a Senior ASD class. The children attending these classes come from the West Cork area.”
“Sport plays an important role in our schools, including for pupils with autism. We play a wide variety games, through PE and other individual and teams sports. Having access to Skibbereen Sports Centre nearly is a great advantage. The Parents’ Association also fundraise, and we bring all classes, except the infant classes, to Dunmanway swimming pool by bus for six weeks every year.”
“For a rural town, Skibbereen has so many sports for young people – watersports, swimming, rugby, Gaelic games, soccer, kickboxing, basketball, road bowling, badminton, athletics, gymnastics, rowing and more. There are strong links between local clubs and the school, such as coaching being provided by the local GAA, rugby and rowing clubs. I really believe that that there is a sport for every child, even for those that aren’t as interested in or skillful at the mainstream sports. However, it is worrying the number of children – there are a few in every class – that don’t play any sport and aren’t physically active. Computer games and instant TV pose a particular challenge in this regard.”
And it’s not just in school that Alan promotes sport and physical activity. Alan has been volunteering as a coach in O’Donovan Rossa for a long number of years. This includes running a nursery to introduce children to hurling. “I have never coached beyond Under-12. I see myself as a big fishing net, as most people know me through the school. We get children subsidised hurleys and helmets and teach them the fundamental skills, especially the grip. We try to keep it fun and non-competitive. We pull from three neighbouring clubs and have camogie going as well now.” With two boys of his own, Alan has also dabbled in some coaching and administration in Skibbereen Rugby club and the local golf club in recent years.
And on top of this busy coaching schedule, Alan still finds time for playing. “I’m gone back into goals with the O’Donovan Rossa Junior B team. I love taking the frees and penalties. For our first league match last year, I was only the fourth oldest on the team in my mid-forties. Age is not our friend but is great craic. It’s a bit like the soccer a gang of us play on Friday nights.”
Alan also went back playing more golf last year, now as a full member of the local club. Given his pitch and putt prowess, his handicap was sure to be impressive. He eventually disclosed that he is playing off 5. “I love playing the odd game, even though I struggle with my putting.”
Alan has a particularly strong lifelong participation in sport; after a busy week in school dealing with children and parents, he still continues to give so much of himself to the community.
“Well, firstly I like to challenge myself,” he shares. “The thing I love about golf is that it’s me against me. I’m not trying to compete with anyone else. It’s good to clear my head and socially too. Although, I’m just as happy to go and play on my own. I get a buzz out of a good shot.”
“The fun with the group in hurling down the pitch is great and I love a tight, competitive game. And maybe taking an important free – I just love it.”
“When it comes to coaching hurling, I want to make sure that every child has a positive introduction and feel it’s important that every child had the right size hurley and has the basic skills. I can be coaching for two and a half hours on an evening and sometimes don’t have the energy for it. But when I’m doing it, I love it.”
“I also feel obliged to play sport and give back to the community. Loyalty is important to me. I hate leaving people down and so I’ll turn up even when I don’t feel like it. As well as children having fun and being active, I want to ensure that children and respecting the game and each other. I feel very strongly about children getting the right start in life and a positive experience in sport can help this.
“I think it all goes back to my childhood in the sense of fairness shown to us by my parents. I hold empathy as the highest value of them all, trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes. If you’ve empathy, then you’ll have loyalty and honesty. Sport, as well as the education, can help instill these values and set children up for the challenges they will face in the future.”