Oakleaf Lions: A caring club for all

Tammy Cartin sends three of her children to the Oakleaf Lions, a GAA for All club based in Derry. She tells Michael McMullan their story of progress.

IT’S Thursday afternoon. Tammy Cartin’s phone rings. She answers. As a mother of five, that time between school and dinner time vanished in a blink.

Last Thursday had an extra layer of urgency. It was also Derry’s u-15 football final day. Tammy and Kieran’s middle child, Eoin, is buzzing away in the background.

You can hear the atmosphere a GAA household radiates. It comes down the phone. There is dinner to be had and gear to be packed. Nerves. Excitement. You know the story.

For Banagher u-15s, it’s their All-Ireland final as the club underage enjoys a renaissance, with the helping hand of the club’s excellent indoor training centre and the selfless time of coaches.

Fast-forward four hours and Banagher get off to an excellent start with Eoin Cartin’s goal central to how they took control of the game. Sleacht Néill battle back, but it’s not enough and Banagher leave Owenbeg with the silver.

Eoin’s older sister Cara has just moved out of the u-16 grade. When she parks an injury, she’ll be joining the Banagher senior camogie team next season.

Sport is in the blood. Tammy, nee Doherty, played camogie for her native Foreglen. Kieran donned the maroon of Banagher back in the day.

Their oldest son Michael, 21, and the youngest boys, eight-year-old twins Ruaíri and Rían, were born with additional needs.

They’ve all been involved with Banagher, with Michael and Ruaíri in particular, just hooked on sport.

When another door opened for Michael, Ruaíri and Rían three years ago, a new set of sporting opportunities were rolled out in front of them.


Dungiven man Brian McGuigan, also a vital cog in the local Kevin Lynch’s hurling club, was involved in the Special Olympics circle and had set up the Titanic Tigers in Belfast where he now lives.

His fingerprints are also over the development of the recently formed East Belfast GAA club.

With the help of friend Liam Hinphey, McGuigan started up a Special Olympics club in Dungiven and, so, the Oakleaf Lions were born.

It began with a range of sports and activities to engage all who wanted an avenue into sport.

A development saw a GAA side of the club emerge. McGuigan is the secretary. Former Derry GAA dual star Kieran McKeever is the chairman with Colum McNicholl in as treasurer.

To parents like Kieran and Tammy Cartin, the club has been an absolute Godsend. It has put the ‘all’ into the ‘GAA for All’ mantra. Just ask Tammy Cartin about what it offers.

“Michael was sport mad,” Tammy said of their oldest son.

Every day the remote control is out. There is always sport to watch. The size and the shape of the ball or the colour of the jersey are irrelevant.

“Michael would be looking up on the TV to see what is on that that day, football, hurling, soccer or rugby. Even if it’s a team you have never heard of, he is sport mad.”

In his younger days, Michael was part of a team in South Derry but the volume of travel didn’t always suit.

When Eoin and Cara’s team started up in Banagher, it was difficult to keep all the plates spinning and zooming up and down the Glenshane Pass.

“We stopped going but Michael still followed everything and I took him to every match that was going.”

When twins Ruaíri and Rían came along eight years ago, they were fastening their seatbelts on the sporting rollercoaster too.

“Ruaíri is just like Michael, he is sport mad,” Tammy adds.

With Rían’s autism, he is not as involved but has loved the Oakleaf Lions and all it brings.

“Ruaíri knows everybody and is into football and hurling. Him and Michael are just the same.”

Michael and Ruaíri were born with severe global developmental delay.

“Ruaíri also has cerebral palsy, takes spasms and he is waiting on being diagnosed with ADHD, so he has a lot going on with him,” Tammy said.


Like Michael before them, the twins attend Rossmar School in Limavady.

There are plans to have Emmett Stewart, St Canice’s, Dungiven GPO, coach the children in the future.

“Ruaíri was in there during the summer and he just loved it…they never had that before,” Tammy added.

And it all goes back to the Oakleaf Lions.

“I couldn’t believe it when Brian said they were setting it up, I just thought it was the best thing ever,” Tammy said.

It offered an avenue aside from school. And there is a freedom. For the three Cartin boys, it’s perfect.

“When they are with the Oakleaf Lions, every child is the same and they can be themselves,” Tammy explains.

“Nobody sees any difference in them and because I had the three of them, when you are down with the Oakleaf Lions, there is always somebody to take one of them on and give you the help.”

Michael, being the oldest, understands he shouldn’t be doing the same activities as his younger brothers.

Often, he’d be chatting with the coaches and organisers. They’d be mixing stories of games during the week, chatting about who won and who lost. He’s in his element.

“It was the best that ever happened, the Oakleaf Lions coming to north Derry,” Tammy said.

They’ve been part of it since it began. The flexibility of it offers the perfect environment and signs of development are there.

In the early days, Tammy chats about her sons bolting around, full of energy. Now, they have a full handle on how their coaching sessions work. There is structure, but it’s not hard and fast.

“My boys are doing fundamentals and games,” Tammy continues. “My boys would’ve taken off around the field without really understanding what is going on.

“Ruaíri knows when the rope comes out with the hurling balls on it, he knows what he has to do.

“It’s the same when the tackle bags come out.

“He is so comfortable because they are doing the same thing and are all on the same wavelength.

“Instead of rushing on ahead, he knows when it is his turn to wait in line… these are the little things most people take for granted.

“Brian, if they do something wrong, he just jokes about everything. There is no shouting about what needs to be done. It is so laid back and the freedom is there.”

Part of a session could be lobbing a bean bag to work on motor skills. The coaches would tell the children that distance is not important. No pressure. Just give it a go.

Tammy can still hear the giggles of Ruaíri as he tries with all his might to beat everyone else.

“It’s the whole social side of it too,” she adds.

They are mixing. Some of the children attend school in Rossmar. There are a range of ages and being involved in the Special Olympics was another help to start friendships.


Another aspect Tammy stresses is what the Oakleaf Lions’ community does, without meaning to, for all the families involved.

Eoin and Cara come along and help too. They meet the other brothers and sisters of their brothers’ friends.

“The siblings mixing is another important part, something you don’t really realise,” she stresses.

“Cara runs about with a wee boy and now the two of them are as thick as thieves. He has a wee brother at it and an older sister, with special needs, and Cara is the same.

“They can talk about it and it helps. It helps with every aspect family life.”

Michael was involved in Derry GAA for All group. Now, with his younger brothers on the scene, the Oakleaf Lions is their sporting focus.

It’s close to home and Tammy can see the progress. Drills, games, activities and fun. The key components.

Sliotars on a rope, ready to be struck. A net asking for a ball to be kicked into it.

A tackle bag ready to be rolled out of. The children are working on their movement skills without even realising it.

“For my family…we are a GAA family. We love our football and hurling so to be able to get the three boys involved, as well as Cara and Eoin, it has just been brilliant,” Tammy sums up.

Like any club, it doesn’t function without coaches and volunteers. Just last week, three of the Oakleaf Lions club were recognised for their caring and guidance.

Aine Flynn and cousins Cara Murray and Aisling Kennedy were recognised by Ulster GAA as Volunteers of the month for August.

Three young girls, giving up their time for the benefit of others. It’s a sliver of what the Oakleaf Lions can offer. A club like no other.

From trips to Croke Park to having Derry players Conor Glass and Ryan Scullion to training.

With Derry’s success over the past two years, it has filtered down to the schools and underage teams of the county.

“With the success and all that is going on, everybody wants their weans involved,” Tammy said of the excitement across the county.

“Nobody realises how limited your life can be, so when you get the like of the Oakleaf Lions, it makes a big difference.

“They (coaches in the club) are all brilliant and you couldn’t say anything wrong about any of them.

“Nothing is a problem, the weans have been involved in everything that is going and to have our weans involved in that, it’s a miracle.”

One week on, Eoin Cartin is a county champion but it’s only part of the Cartin’s GAA story.

The Oakleaf Lions club has changed Everything. They prove that GAA really is for all.

If you know of anyone would like to get involved in the
Oakleaf Lions, get in touch –
T: 07912 105673

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