BBC Sport NI Unsung Hero: McGuigan wins 2021 award for GAA and Special Olympics volunteering

Special Olympics and GAA volunteering earns McGuigan Unsung Hero award

A Dungiven man's selfless work with a recently started East Belfast GAA club in addition to his volunteering with Special Olympics clubs has landed him BBC Sport NI's 2021 Unsung Hero award.

Brian McGuigan is described by fellow East Belfast GAA club-man Conor McCurdy as "an inspiration to us all".

"He is constantly giving of his time without ever looking for appreciation from anyone," says Conor.

As is his wont, Brian looked almost uncomfortable after the announcement.

But no-one can question the county Derryman's credentials for the local volunteering honour which will see him going forward to the national award at next month's BBC Sport Personality of the Year.

Brian already had plenty on his sporting plate with his Special Olympics commitments at the Belfast-based Titanic Tigers club he helped establish 16 years ago when he spied a tweet last year asking for people interested in getting involved with a new GAA club in East Belfast.

Brian McGuigan received the BBC Sport NI Unsung Hero award from Nicola McCarthy
Brian McGuigan was "born into the GAA but says "falling into the Special Olympics makes me the luckiest person in the world"

'East Belfast club has been unreal'

After the birth of the club, Brian became hurling manager along with an old college friend before his commitment soon led him to being appointed the club's coaching officer with the responsibility to oversee the children's teams suddenly sprouting up.

"Now in the last few weeks we have just started social games which are for anybody who wants to come along and try it. That's been the whole ethos of East Belfast all the way through. Very inclusive the whole time," adds the Dungiven man.

"East Belfast has been unreal. It's just connected. A brand new community which has popped up out of the blue for a lot of people.

"It's attracting people who've never had a chance to play GAA, maybe who fell out of it when they were younger to come back into it. We have 120 men's footballers, about 100 ladies footballers, 80 camogs and 80 hurlers.

"And now with the social games over the last few weeks, we've had serious numbers and also the kids who have been going since April. We have 120 kids from five to nine which is just brilliant."

'Dungiven my first, foremost and everything'

Brian attributes his drive to help his new GAA community in East Belfast with the grounding he got in his home GAA club.

"Dungiven is my first, foremost and everything. The years that were put into me.

"A really close friend of mine is a fella called Davy McCloskey and his ethos was 'you mightn't be the best hurler when you were a kid but you could be the best draw ticket seller'.

"You could be the man cutting the pitch, doing the Facebook page. That was the big thing - keeping you involved."

A teacher of Brian's at St Patrick's College Maghera, James O'Kane, who sadly died in 2013, was another formative influence on the Dungiven man's volunteering mentality.

"The impact he had on so many people," Brian nods his head.

"I'm just trying to emulate the kind of work that he put in. That's what the GAA is all about."

Watch: East Belfast GAA make history on camogie field

'I get to spend two hours with my heroes'

But while Brian was by his own admission "born into the GAA", the Special Olympics is "something I just fell into".

"I am the luckiest person in the world. It was by pure chance. I was working as a swimming teacher over in Queen's about 15 years ago and the guy beside me said that he was running a Special Olympics event in a few days and could I give him a hand.

"It blew me away. I've been hooked ever since.

"I've got to get up in the morning to do my job. But I get to do the Special Olympics. I get to spend two hours with my heroes and their families. Those athletes are my heroes. I'm the lucky one."

His myriad of Special Olympics roles with both the Titanic Tigers and the Oak Leaf Lions based in his native Dungiven includes coaching the Ulster swimming squad and a normal weekend in Brian's life can see him head over and back from Belfast to Dungiven on several occasions as he, without complaint, fits in all his various bits of sporting volunteering.

"We started the Special Olympics club in Dungiven during lockdown and really got going just in April.

"We're drawing people from Derry, Coleraine, Limavady, Maghera, Magherafelt and as far away as Ardboe, Ballycastle and Ballymoney and again we have volunteers coming from all over the place which has blown us away as well.

"The parents are just the most remarkable people."

'He would never say no to anyone'

In spite of it all, Brian was still amazed when BBC Sport Northern Ireland's Nicola McCarthy turned up to present him with the Unsung Hero award.

"I'm definitely not deserving. There are so many people who do much more than me."

But his fellow East Belfast club-man McCurdy begs to differ.

"When I joined East Belfast last year he was the manager of the hurling team and he asked if anybody wanted to get involved with coaching so I gave him a hand with the youth coaching," adds Conor, who nominated Brian for the BBC Sport NI award.

"As I got to know him more throughout the year, I found out that he took a couple of Special Olympics clubs. He took the ladies camogie teams some nights, the ladies football team some nights. He would never say no to anyone.

"He organised a summer camp for 150 kids during the summer and took a week's holiday to do that....the man just is an inspiration to us all."

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