“You dream. You plan. You reach. There will be obstacles. There will be doubters. There will be mistakes. But with hard work, with belief, with confidence and trust in yourself and those around you, there are no limits”
The brave and inspiring words of the record-breaking Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps opening our column this week after seven days when the true value and importance of sport in our lives was underlined with a very special and emotional event for the small community of Ballyleague and Lanesborough and the surrounding areas.
It happened on Saturday afternoon. There were no Olympians present (that I am aware of) at the official opening of the new 3G soccer pitch and playing grounds at Lanesborough Community College out by the Shannonside town, but there certainly were hundreds of young boys and girls there on the playing fields with the ambition for greatness and the will to win. I suppose that’s what Phelps was really talking about when he spoke those memorable words after the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The American superstar won a staggering 28 Olympic medals in his career, to make him the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time. 23 of those Olympic medals were gold ones. When he won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games, Phelps broke fellow American swimmer Mark Spitz’s famous 1972 record of seven first-place finishes at any single Olympic Games. He was just awesome – yet, like so many other great sporting heroes of his generation, it had not been a bed of roses all along the way to glory. His parents divorced in 1994 when Phelps was just nine years old. He went through a very tough time at home and the American swimmer later revealed that the divorce had a heavy and severely negative impact on him and his siblings. Yet, he continued his swimming training throughout the whole trauma and finally mastered his sport – to become a man who was, undoubtedly, the greatest of all time in the swimming pool.
The atmosphere at Ballyboro FC on Saturday afternoon was probably a million miles away from that of an Olympic stadium in Beijing or London, yet I doubt if anyone who was there in the sunshine would accept that it was not just as important an arena to be in on the day. Saturday saw the amateur youth soccer club finally open its fantastic new facilities at the athletic track behind the community college on the Ballymahon road.
This is a development project that has been four years in the making. A meeting of parents away back in the late summer of 2018 kick-started a plan to upgrade the local soccer facilities and produce an all-weather pitch for the long winter season. A hugely dedicated group of 14 local volunteers took on the task. EU LEADER funding of over €175,000 was drawn down and the local school principal worked diligently with the committee to try and help raise the remaining €60,000 that was needed to pay for the new facility.
Bernice Martin was no ordinary school principal. Her first day at Lanesboro Community College entailed setting a blistering pace at the annual school walk. It was evident from the outset that this lady was a force of nature – that’s according to Hazel Hannon, who today holds the principal’s role at the school.
Hazel says Bernice was a proud principal who endeavoured at every step to ensure that the student’s experience of excellence in education was to the fore. This included the co-curricular and extracurricular domains including the classroom, sporting field, music, science and the arts, to name but a few. She also worked tirelessly with Ballyboro Football Club and LWETB (Longford Westmeath Educational Training Board) to bring the dream of an all-weather astroturf pitch to fruition.
Led from front
Bernice led from the front throughout the campaign to raise the funds and get the new soccer pitches put into place, helping the Ballyboro club to achieve an effective operational licence for a 15-year period with LWETB – and then going on to roll up her own sleeves in fundraising and starring in the big ‘Oskar’ Night film production as Kitty Kiernan in the Michael Collins film. I know from first-hand experience that Bernice never let the club down at any point and the brilliant new facilities that are in place today are a direct result of her support.
Regrettably, the young principal was not with us on Saturday last to celebrate that achievement. Her husband Eric and her young family lost Bernice from this life through illness and the Ballyboro club and school community was heartbroken in February 2021 to hear of her passing.
“Words cannot adequately describe the scale of the personal contribution made by this fantastic lady to achieving this dream for our club, her school and the community” the Ballyboro FC chairman John Tynan says. “Bernice, we will never forget what you did for us all here in Lanesborough. We will remember your contribution today at our official opening with the unveiling of a special memorial bench with your name. We will remember Bernice again every time we come to the pitch and use this bench, and her legacy here will never be forgotten. Rest in peace, Bernice”.
The greatest blow of all from her tragic passing was obviously felt by Bernice’s family and it was poignant and heartwarming to see her husband Eric, her children Ella, Ava and Conor, her parents Hugh and Bridget, sisters Gloria and Edel and brother Hughie with their families all there on Saturday to unveil that special memorial seat in her honour. Eric’s family was also by his side to mark the occasion. Lanesborough Community College has also marked her contribution to the school and the community with the most lasting legacy – called the Bláthu award, presented annually during the school annual awards ceremony. This award acknowledges an individual student’s journey and flourishing. Before her death, Bernice had asked that the school might continue to keep her vision alive – and that’s why they had a memorial sculpture crafted from bog oak by the school’s woodwork department and presented to the award winner every year to acknowledge another student inspired by Bernice’s vision of all students blossoming into fine young adults.
It is well known that Bernice assisted many students to find their way when times might have been tough, giving new direction and a sense of hope despite her brief tenure as principal. Her colleagues at the school say Bernice often spoke on the concept of students blossoming, like the way a flower will thrive if the conditions are right. She dedicated her time and energy in trying to bring out the best in every student. It has been remarked that in good times and bad, you could always count on Bernice to be supportive, helping students to achieve their full potential.
Saturday’s ceremony at the official opening was hugely poignant and emotional for all the members of the Martin and Treacy families, and for the entire community too. But it was also important to mark Bernice’s extraordinary contribution to the soccer club, the school and its pupils.
At the graveside where she is interred at Scramogue cemetery, the ultimate tribute remains in stone:
“Always remember, you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think”
Rest in peace, Bernice.