Charlene Griffiths: A legacy to follow

January 14, 2013 at 4:37 pm

January 14.  A month and day that, when put together, will never sit too well.  Never.

A year ago today, Charlene Griffiths was called from this earth.  In her trail, she left a loving family, a stream of tear-filled friends, a broken club.  But, in just 27 short years, she also left behind a legacy.

12 months pass and a chorus of willing followers flood throughout the province serving the joyous memory of an inspiring woman.  The Irish language is spread, culture is richer, and more and more footballers come to live in honour of a name printed in the hearts of all Gaels.  12 months pass and Charlene is as influential as ever.

Steelstown chairman, Michael Heffernan, has had to deal with some big blows in his tenure at Ballyarnet.  The hole left by Brian Óg McKeever’s passing will always be there and that unprecedented void only widened when Charlene Griffiths lost her battle at the start of 2012.

And yet, through all the pain and injustice of their deaths, the GAA community in the city has only grown stronger living in the memory and example of two eternal role models.

Heffernan’s first encounter with Charlene was no different to anyone else’s.  As he stood in the car park waiting to hand out tickets for the Ulster final to a girl in her first year at university, a Clio came speeding in, wheels spinning, dust fuming and the rest is history.  A buzzing, lively firecracker, the energy exuberated by Charlene’s first encounter with Michael was what would define her life at the club as a Culture Officer, a coach, a captain.

“She was a great character to have around the club,” Heffernan said, “She got involved in everything that was going on.  If she was in Derry, you could always bank on her being there and not just being there, but she always had something to contribute, something to offer.

“The main thing is that all the young girls looked up to her.  They saw her as a natural leader, someone they respected, and someone they aspired to.”

Of course, away from every facet of the club that Charlene threw herself into, her bread and butter was on the field.  Not blessed with the most natural talent, the Irish primary school teacher started her playing career fighting for her place on a club team.  She moved on from that and flirted with the county set up.

“She leaves a great example for other players,” the chairman explained, “No thrills and skills, she was dogged – like a bull terrier.  She knew what she wanted and she had no fear.  For being short of a classy player, she had other qualities which complimented her game and got her to the same levels.

“I suppose the ironic thing is that she had a lot of qualities that Brian Óg had too.  They had qualities where they were both able to make up for what they didn’t have to get to the levels that they were capable of getting to.  They were both natural leaders, they were both really determined.  They would set an objective and they would get there.”

Two players, two role models who would’ve left a telling legacy behind them anyway, were stripped of fulfilling the rest of their lives but Michael Heffernan already sees the effect the pair have left.

“Charlene would’ve left a legacy in a whole lot of other different ways, not just in Gaelic football,” he explained, “She would’ve left a legacy with the children she taught.  She was highly respected by her students and the teachers she worked with and that was never better reflected than it was at the Gaelscoil Blitz we held at the club a couple of months ago.

“I think there was 70 per cent of the Irish speaking schools in Northern Ireland that turned up.  Everybody knew her.  They all knew her from some sort of event she would’ve turned up at.  But at least we have the legacy.

“I can see a lot of people at the club who are becoming more and more like Charlene and Brian Óg.  They’ve obviously decided themselves that they would aspire to be like them and you can see some characters coming through now that are getting very close to it and that’s the best way to serve their memory.

In tragedy though, the Steelstown club has grown stronger.  Preparing for a new season, the Páirc Bríd outfit is now unrecognisable to the start-up Heffernan first walked into.

“When I got in club first, it was different to anything I would’ve been used to,” the Kilkenny native stated, “It was urban through and through and the GAA family wouldn’t have been grounded like I was used to.

“That has changed.  The change was happening and I think when Brian Óg died, that’s when we really rallied around each other.  We are very much a family, we’re a close knit club.  You could travel long and hard through any city in Ireland to find an urban club that is as knitted and as jointed as Steelstown is.

“I suppose, in serving the memory of both Charlene and Brian Óg, the club has moved on on the pitch.  Particularly the girls this year, they won three championships.  Charlene was involved for a long number of years when we didn’t compete at all.  We competed in the games but we didn’t compete in the outcomes of the games but she was one of the ones that hung in there.

“She hung in there and she was there at the beginning of the turnaround.  I think after she passed, the girls decided that they were going to rally together.  They wanted to do what Charlene wanted, which was to have a successful ladies team that could compete with anyone in the county.

“And with the men moving to Division One senior, it is the same response.  Charlene wouldn’t have been blinkered.  She saw the club as a whole entity and she wanted everyone to get involved and get playing the game and competing at the highest levels.”

There is an anniversary mass for Charlene being held tonight at Ballymagroarty at 7.15pm.

One year on, the loss is the same, the pain is the same.  One year on though, the legacy is only growing.