An outbreak at a GAA club in Limerick led to a dozen players testing positive for Covid-19 and the virus being spread to close contacts.
Just two weeks ago, the small rural parish of Ballylanders in south-east Limerick hoped it would have a rare cause for celebration. The local footballers were due to play in the county senior football final that afternoon against Adare. It was not known then that Ballylanders was at the beginning of a significant Covid-19 outbreak.
The game was a one-sided affair, with Adare romping home in a 15-point win. It was said afterwards that some of the Ballylanders players had not performed as well as expected. Some suggested the players were off-colour; others felt nerves were a factor.
After the game, a gathering was organised for the players and their partners. It was attended by about 50 people, the club said. Those who attended say it was well managed. Raucous scenes at other parishes were not a feature here, Ballylanders GAA chairman Joe Ryan told the Sunday Independent.
“There were only six people allowed at each table and all the tables were two metres apart. Even then, people had to sit with their close contacts and their partners. Everything that could be done to be sensible was done,” he insisted.
Throughout the pandemic, GAA communities have been a key part of Ireland’s battle with Covid-19, with volunteers helping vulnerable members of their communities get through tough times. However, since the return to on-field action, the GAA has added another strand to Ireland’s Covid-19 story.
Less than a fortnight ago, the day after Ballylanders lost to Adare, the association suspended club action when Nphet recommended the country move to Level 5 restrictions.
This also came after images and videos were shared of crowds up and down the country coming together to celebrate club successes. Clubs in Cavan, Galway and Cork have been taken to task over their celebratory scenes. The Cavan cases in particular have been blamed for a spike in cases locally. Ballylanders’ own tale echoes this.
By the time the GAA announced the suspension of club activity, a couple of the Ballylanders players were displaying Covid-19 symptoms. Four days later, the club confirmed two of its players had tested positive.
Ryan admitted 15 of his club’s players or their close contacts had tested positive for the virus since they lost the final. But local GAA sources admitted they expect this positive number to be around 20.
Ryan says the club’s cases are unfortunate. “The one thing that we might have done different is the use of the masks might have been more constant. Some of the players travelled together for the match and put on masks when they got out of the car. Maybe in the car setting it might have helped to wear the mask.
“We might have been a little more vigilant, but we are coming from an area with no recognised case before that. However, the virus was probably in the community before the match and it only really came to light afterwards.
“It is regretful. We are a small club, we are proud of what we do and we punch above our weight football-wise. It is regretful it happened. We adhered to the guidelines and maybe we should have gone a bit further with them,” he added.
Ballylanders’ story is not a unique one, and while clubs are reluctant to admit publicly if they have confirmed cases, other GAA groups across the mid-west have seen small outbreaks among members.
“In general, socialising after matches is up and that is contributing to cases here,” a local public health doctor said.
The mid-west is one of the worst hit by the virus in recent weeks, for a variety of reasons. There are more than 20 schools in the region where parents have been informed of positive Covid-19 cases in the past two weeks.
Cases in the Rathkeale- Adare electoral area have been on the rise since September. Some of these have been linked to holy communions in the county last month. A GP in the area has moved to warn patients not to deny they have Covid-19 symptoms when being triaged on the telephone and then arrive to the surgery with those same symptoms.
A mobile testing unit was set up over a weekend last month in Rathkeale to help identify cases. Now, with 106 active cases in the area and one of the highest infection rates in the country, there are calls for it to be re-established.
Local Fianna Fáil councillor Kevin Sheahan is among those in the area who think the Government should be more proactive. “For the Government to have rejected the advice two weeks ago to go to Level 5 is nothing more than an act of treachery,” he said.
Doctors in the mid-west are generally supportive of extra resources being allocated to testing and tracing, given the increased demand.
Across the Shannon in Clare, increasing case numbers are being blamed on the return to school, social gatherings and people travelling in and out of Limerick for work. People working in the hospitality sector have tested positive recently, too.
Lahinch GP Dr Michael Kelleher said his practice has recently seen its first positive cases since April and calls have doubled since the start of September.
“There is an increasing workload and finite capacity. We have a busy practice taking lots of calls in the course of a day. My workload, Covid-19 related, has doubled,” he said.
“From May through to late September we were quiet. I think schools going back, and some anecdotal stories about an element of Covid fatigue in terms of the restrictions might be a factor.”
Meanwhile, locals fear the looming shadow of the virus. West Clare has an infection rate of 409 per 100,000, despite a sprawling rural population, just under the 423 per 100,000 seen in Ennis.
“People are starting to feel it is closer than ever here,” Kilkee councillor Cillian Murphy said. “During lockdown and during the summer the community here didn’t feel as threatened by the virus as they do now. It is a worry.