herald

Thursday 30 October 2014

Trevor Hogan: My last-minute jitters as I board ship to Gaza

During my time playing rugby, the emphasis was always on the importance of mental preparation. This week, as I get ready to depart for Gaza, on board the Irish ship, the MV Saoirse, I have been able to draw on some of those lessons.

Sports psychologist and former Armagh footballer Enda McNulty worked with the Leinster team as we approached big games. He encouraged the squad to focus on our strengths as players, and the positive aspects of our abilities.

The point was not to dwell on negative thoughts that would disrupt confidence or preparation. I found Enda's direct and simple approach hugely beneficial. In a similar manner, this optimistic outlook has helped me this week.

Our ship is part of a flotilla of up to 12 vessels, aiming to bring humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, and to end the illegal siege that has 'locked in' over 1.5 million Palestinians.

So while it may be natural to worry about possible Israeli resistance, similar to that on last year's flotilla (when nine unarmed, innocent civilians were shot dead by Israeli commandos), I have taken strength from focusing on our positive goals.

Our aims are peaceful and humanitarian -- the cargo on the ships consists of badly needed medical supplies, reconstruction materials and basic necessities that are denied to the people.

The purpose, though, is not just to bring aid -- our goal is to end the siege and allow the people of Gaza to have their own functioning economy with the freedom to trade and travel, farm and fish their own territories.

The welcome opening of the Rafah crossing doesn't unfortunately address any of these issues, as it only allows for certain people with permits to cross and no goods are allowed.

The Israeli blockade is still firmly in place, as they control the remaining seven land crossings and Gaza shoreline.

As it is, 80pc of the people of Gaza are dependent on international aid for survival -- and the UN in a report last week marking the fifth anniversary of the siege said that conditions were now worse than at any point during the blockade. Our goal is to help in some way to change this.



emotions

My girlfriend and family are, understandably, a little apprehensive. It would be easier for them if I was enjoying my first free summer in 10 years at home, without the usual fixation on rugby and pre-season training. Yet, they also understand how strongly I've always felt about the Palestinian situation.

At a mini family get together last night at my sister's house, there were unspoken emotions. This is probably common to a lot of Irish families who don't want to worry each other by talking too much about feelings or anxieties.

As I said goodbye, the underlying feelings were obvious. There isn't always a need to express feelings in words. A hug from my mother and a frantic splashing of holy water as I left was enough. I know she will be spending a lot of time lighting candles and saying prayers, but, then again, she did that for all my rugby matches too.

My family's support has been mirrored by the backing I've got from people all over Ireland and abroad. My team-mates in Leinster have been hugely supportive -- as have friends in Munster and all over Irish rugby.

I have loaded over 130kg of balls, boots, runners, jerseys, which were kindly donated by the Leinster squad, on board the MV Saoirse. The hope is they reach Gaza, introducing a new game to the people.

My home club of Nenagh Ormond hosted a fundraiser where local politicians, including junior Minister for Transport Alan Kelly, came together to offer their support.

The week was topped off when I took a call from a number I didn't recognise. The voice, though, was unmistakeable, that of Shane MacGowan, a fellow Tipp man.

"Best of luck out there, and keep the head down', was the message of advice, followed by that trademark laugh.

All of this support means a lot. It reminds me of the positives of what this flotilla is about, trying to bring some justice to the people of Palestine.

As I leave tomorrow for Gaza, this is what gives me strength.

hnews@herald.ie

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