The speaker is James Stephens clubman, Liam Mullen, in the aftermath of his eleventh trip to the African Township where 120 new houses were handed over, courtesy of the Mellon Trust.
Why did you go Michael, we had to ask?
“It is something that I wanted to do for a few years,” Michael replied. “I would read about this Niall Mellon effort on the papers, especially on the Kilkenny People every year, and I suppose the Kilkenny angle as portrayed, niggled at my interest buds.
“I had said that if ever I could do something so laudable as that, I would have a crack at it. I thought that it would be a nice thing to do. But my life schedule with work and hurling, where I could be playing up to December with club championships just wouldn’t allow my travelling.
Nice thing to do
“But then a few months ago, Liam Mullen - I know Liam very well - made the initial approach and I gave him a commitment. ‘Twas all new to me, as I had never been to South Africa, and not wishing for a second to be a do-gooder or anything remotely close to that, I just thought that it would be a nice thing to do for people who were far worse off that me or any of my family or friends could ever be”.
But Michael, it was about building houses. What would you know about that?
With a look that questioned my sanity for asking the question, he politely, but forcefully retorted: “Quite a lot really. I worked with my dad and his brother Dermot in the plumbing trade. I worked with another uncle as an electrician, and I also worked with a brother-in-law as a block layer. All of those jobs were part of my school holidays, and during my Third Level holidays.”
Did Mr Mullen have a good one here?
His celeb attraction was losing its lustre in view of the man’s construction nous. Michael Fennelly was exactly what the doctor ordered on his front line.
It was a trip that nearly didn’t happen.
“I broke my hand during the club championship and I thought that my chance of going was gone,” Michael explained. “I rang Liam, and after some frantic ’phone calls, he was delighted to tell me that it was green for go. I was thrilled. Even with one hand I felt that I could be of some use.”
“Some use,” said Liam Mullen. “Don’t make me laugh. He was as good a worker as has ever come on any of the sites that I have ever been attached to over my 11 trips. Again he will kill me for saying this, but he was an inspiration to all as he mixed concrete, laid blocks, roofed houses and set a blistering pace, bad hand or no.”
Did he know what he was letting himself in for? Had he any idea about the levels of poverty that would go eyeball to eyeball with him?
Did the history of the South African townships, and their inherent danger cause him any scepticism about going there?
Nothing prepares you
“I had heard plenty about the place from people that had gone there,” Michael explained when he took up the story. “Henry’s (Shefflin) sister, Aileen was down there, and we heard the stories. I was given a DVD about the place, and that certainly helped to assuage whatever fears I might have had.
“But nothing could prepare you for the reality of what these townships are about. When I looked out over the area where we were, and saw this continuous vista of rusting tin and galvanise, broken up here and there by sheets of cardboard, I just couldn’t believe that people, human beings were living there. I asked how many people lived in the area, and I was told about ten thousand.
“When I thought of it, I was looking at a place where a good Kilkenny county final crowd was living side by side. There didn’t seem to be any break, no separation and no divide. Just a massive number of people living in dreadful squalor, side by side.
“I thought, my God, how lucky we were in Kilkenny. Something like 33 families shared the one toilet. Fresh water was considered a luxury. I was shell-shocked really,” added the Ulster Bank Finance Adviser.
Would that make you think about how well off we really are in this country?
“Surely! Here we would be worrying about a match, or a final, and these people worrying about where they might get enough food to feed their children tomorrow,” Michael said. “In truth, we don’t know how well off we are.”
Did he get to meet any of the native population, and what were his opinions on their reception?
“They were the friendliest people you could meet,” Michael felt. “We went in as a group to the heart of the township, where we met them in their own homes. They were unbelievable really. They lived in shacks where you would be forced to bend your head to get into their houses.
“Most of them had only one room, where the entire family lived, eat, slept and washed themselves. The houses were spotless, and the children were so happy, full of fun and welcoming, exceptionally mannerly and so clean. The kids would bring a tear from a stone as they made do with the little they had without complaining.”
The Hurler of the Year more than enjoyed what the trip offered.
Craic was mighty
“It was terrific really, with the various counties represented all over the site,” Michel said. “There were lads from Tipp, Cork, Galway, Wexford, Limerick and elsewhere. The craic was mighty, and everyone got on very well. “Everyone was so nice, and we made hundreds of friends. Hurling has taken me all over the world, and even in 2011 I travelled to San Francisco, New York, Florida and Cancun, but without doubt the trip to the township was by a distance the best trip that I have ever been on for a lot of reasons.
“I got great value from it. There was such a wide variety of things to do, and above everything else, when I saw the first house being handed over to a terrific family, and to watch the joy, and happiness in their faces, I can tell you there are not too many more emotional moments that one can enjoy to match that one. I actually painted a miniature Kilkenny flag on the front wall of the house,” he smiled.
Would he think of doing it again?
“I WILL do it again,” he insisted. “I would say to anyone out there who is contemplating it, do it!”
Big endorsement Liam Mullen!
“Of course it is,” said Liam. “But I would have to say that Mick was a marvellous ambassador for the GAA, his family, his Kilkenny and his club. He mixed so perfectly with everybody. Many would have known of who he was, and probably would have seen him on the TV, but all were totally gob-smacked by his easy ways, his friendship and his industry on and off site, his sense of humour and his generosity