Quite a few players competing at Dalymount Park may have done so with butterflies in their stomachs.
Next Saturday week, June 25, the players stepping on to the storied turf at the Phibsborough venue will do so with butterflies in their hearts – and angels on their backs.
Féileacáin, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Association of Ireland, was founded in 2009 – it takes its name from the Irish for butterfly, seen as physical symbols of the human soul.
Féileacáin was formed by a group of bereaved parents to offer support to anyone affected by the death of a baby around the time of birth, and the organisation is now the national charity supporting families affected by perinatal loss. Féileacáin is a volunteer-led organisation and receives no funding from central government, relying instead on the support of the community and the families who avail of its services. To that end, fundraising for Féileacáin is an important activity and the game at Dalymount Park is geared towards that.
An off-shoot of Féileacáin has been the support group Féileacáin Fathers and they will play their counterparts, Sands (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Support) Northern Ireland.
Among those togging out for the Féileacáin Fathers is former Cork hurler Barry Johnson, who won county and Munster IHC medals with his native club Bride Rovers as well as representing them in the 2008 county senior final.
Skills coach to the successful Cork minor hurling side last year, Barry now lines out with Ballyhooly junior hurlers and footballers after moving there five years ago. The 37-year-old will be playing the charity match in memory of his and his wife Elaine’s daughter Saoirse Mai, who was born sleeping in 2017.
Arranging the game has been challenging due to the global situation, but Barry is glad that the event is finally within reach.
“The game was originally due to take place in May 2020,” he says, “but obviously it had to be postponed due to Covid.
“Tony Owens has done fierce work organising it all and we’re looking forward to finally making it happen. There are 41 players in our squad with 14 different counties represented, there are three from Cork including myself and one fella travels from Achill Island.
“We roughly meet once a month on the astro pitches in Malahide and there’s a mix of ages and abilities.”
While the sense of loss may be acute, outlets for processing such grief may not always be readily available, which is why the soccer can be so helpful, beyond the actual playing of the games.
“It’s about just meeting up and having a chat – or sitting and listening if that’s what fellas want,” Barry says.
“It’s probably the male Irish attitude to say, ‘My wife lost a child,’ and men can be slow to put themselves forward and say that they’re suffering.
“My avenue for that was always sport, so time spent training or in the gym was helpful but not everybody has that.
“That fact that everyone here is in the same boat really helps guys, there’s a great understanding.”
The game kicks off at 3pm on June 25, with a family fun day beforehand. Then, when the serious business starts, Barry and the other dads involved will play in specially made jerseys that feature the name of their son or daughter on the back.
“The motto is that you’re playing for your angel,” he says, “and my son Tadhg, who is three since February, gets to walk out with Daddy and honour his sister too.
“Féileacáin do so much work for bereaved parents and fundraising is so important to the organisation, so it’s nice to be able to raise as much as we can for them.”
Apart from Barry, other Cork natives involved in the game are Christopher O’Sullivan (Ballyphehane), who is playing for his daughter Robyn, Jonathan O’Halloran (Charleville), playing for his son Cathal, and Liam Quain (Charleville), playing for his son Michael Francis.
Entry to the game in Dalymount on Saturday week is free, though those attending can make donations to Féileacáin. There is also a dedicated iDonate page, where people can contribute - see here for details.