Carlow Sports Partnership was delighted to hear that Stephen Dargan had won the Federation of Irish Sport Volunteer in Sport Award 2023 for Carlow Area. Stephen is an integral part of the wonderful inclusive rugby initiative at Carlow Rugby Club. Considering his recent win, CSP Communications Officer, Gerard Bonner sat down with Stephen to talk about the Carlow Bees Rugby. Stephen’s passion was evident throughout the conversation and we wanted to share his answers with you all before the overall winner is announced in a few weeks. CSP have a long standing relationship with the Carlow Bees with CSP Sports Inclusion Disability Officer, Teresa O’Meara involved with Niall O’Malley and Carlow Rugby Club at the outset of the team, with a four week taster session growing into the wonderful programme it is is today.

Read on to find out how Stephen got involved, the joy that the Bees bring to their players and some insight from Stephen on inclusive sport as a whole.

Can you tell me about the Carlow Bees?

“The Carlow Bees are probably the most wonderful team that we’ve had up in Carlow Rugby Club because it actually came out from a drive a number of years ago. I don’t know exactly of the history will be the whole idea of inclusive rugby, but what I’ve learned from being involved is that Ireland has more inclusive rugby teams for children with physical and mental challenges than any other country in the world. So, we’re at the forefront of this. I’m involved with a group that is steering the rules for this, for the rest of the world in World Rugby. They are going to come over and have a look at this and use the rules that we’ve put forward. So, it was actually Aurlene Brown and Muireann O’Toole Brennan who were the genesis of it. They brought the idea to the club, asking if it was possible that we could do it. As a club, we decided that this is what we want to be able to do, and from that, it began to slowly develop and become what it’s become today.”

“We have over 20 to 30 participants sometimes, which is great. So specifically, we made it non-contact because we know that there are limitations on what the kids could do, and we don’t want to bring the physical element into it, as that could lead to all sorts of other issues in other parts of training that we can’t commit to. So yeah, it’s based around the whole idea of what tag is. You grab a tag, and as you grab a tag, that’s like a tackle; play stops, ballers pass backward. You’ve got six of them before the game progresses to a try. You need to get a try in that period of time. But to be honest, it’s all about just the feeling of being part of a team and taking part. So, it’s not about who has got the most of scores, even though the kids would be highly interested in it. Well, we keep it to a level where we’ve got to understand that there are players that might have a little bit more capability and those that will never progress capability-wise, and we’ve got to cater for absolutely everybody in the team.”

“It’s all about being a part of something bigger.”

“And the tournaments, I suppose, are the cream of the cake. If you can imagine, the kids light up when we hear about them because with inclusive rugby, there’s such a high number of teams across specifically the Southeast and up into Dublin, and across Ireland as a whole. So, when we hold these tournaments and see the same faces, the same coaches again, the kids just look forward to going up to play against five other teams or whatever the setup is. It’s just filled with positivity; everybody’s in great form. There’s nothing quite like it.”

What inspired you to get involved in inclusive rugby?

“Well, I suppose I was only thinking about it today when I was congratulated by somebody else, who happens to be an auctioneer down in town. He’s got one of the businesses. He and I used to play football with the lads for nearly 20 years now on Friday nights. Football’s been a tradition, you know. Anyway, he said to me, “Steve, why don’t you get involved up at the rugby club?” Because I used to play rugby years ago. So, I thought, why not? I’m a bit old now to be at the rugby club, but I actually started up in the rugby club playing retired rugby, you know, over 35s. Rugby was the term anyway, so I got involved there, began playing with them. And then when I was up in the club, I don’t know why I got involved, but I got involved with Mini Rugby on Saturday mornings. Even though my daughter wasn’t playing rugby or anything like that, I had no sons involved in the club. I got involved in coordinating first the under-sevens, then stayed with them to the under-eights, the under-nines, the under-tens, under-elevens, under-twelves, to the point where I was coordinating all of the minis to be up in the rugby club. And I just really enjoyed it. I just loved the fun of the Saturday morning. It was probably my level of coaching as well, so beyond twelves, I wasn’t going to be able to give anything much to it. I loved having the kids around, the joy that we got, and that feeling of something bigger.”

“I loved having the kids around, the joy that we got, and that feeling of something bigger.”

“When I got involved with the club, I got involved through the Mini’s Rugby, and then through the Mini’s Rugby, other things began to get involved. We created a Tag Rugby tournament in Carlow Rugby, and this Tag Rugby committee that had done it for the very first year had contacted me and said, “Do you want to get involved for the second year?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” Because I play tag rugby, so I played up in Dublin, played up with the teams that used to play Black Rock, and I came down and I said I’d be delighted. And that was the first year that we decided that we would take control of the whole Tag Rugby tournament, sponsorship, everything. So, what we did with that Tag Rugby tournament was it was the first of its kind in the country. We had 32 teams, all sponsored by local businesses. So, the local businesses would have their name on the jersey, they would sponsor the team, they would be involved throughout the course of the summer coming down and seeing their team play. We’d have a league table in the Nationalist and all that kind of stuff. We had over 400 players on a Thursday night that would come up, and it was just me and a group of brilliant volunteers that organized this. All the money went back to the club, and people still talk about those five or six years that we had where Thursday nights were just jam-packed full of people coming up to play tag rugby, have a beer, watch the rugby during the summertime. It was that, and that just kept the excitement going in the club as well as me doing the minis. And then I sort of stopped playing then with the, yeah, I got injured for the last time, the last broken collarbone, so that stopped that, but I am very happy. Derrick, who then became the President of the club, said, “Stevie, you’d be perfect. You want to come and join the Bees or whatever, you know” And I said, “I don’t know if I had time, Derrick. I’m involved in other things.” And then it just happened to be that I went up for one training session, and I thought, “There’s something about this.” Yeah. And I just, well, yeah. And since then, it’s been about six years now, I think.”

Could you share a memorable moment with the Carlow Bees?

“I think it’s all about the moments. We got invited up to the halftime game, Leinster versus Gloucester, last Christmas, not 2023 but Christmas 2022, around about that time, up at the RDS. For the kids to play at that halftime experience, and then Sean O’Brien came down to say hello. We saw Brian O’Driscoll. The lads even shouted to Johnny while he was doing his warm-up on the pitch. Just those moments, like it was freezing cold that day, but it was just heaven because then we got a bus up and it was all the excitement of being on the bus, you know, and the excitement going back on the bus as well. But the heads falling asleep on the way back because it was just too much excitement for the day. But those moments are just lovely, yeah.”

What advice would you give to sports clubs or communities that are trying to get involved with inclusive sports?

“Reflecting on my own childhood, I realise how different things are now when it comes to inclusivity, especially in sports. There were no reference points back then for children with disabilities, whether physical or mental. It was almost as if their existence was not acknowledged or talked about. Compare that to what we see today on platforms like BBC TV or Channel Four, where there’s a focus on inclusivity, such as the CBeebies inclusive content. What’s being portrayed now is completely different from how it was when I was growing up.”

“Back then, there were all sorts of unconscious biases and stigmas surrounding disabilities, which often led to exclusion or marginalisation. It’s remarkable how much has changed. Today, there’s a shift in mindset where we’re actively seeking inclusivity and diversity in all aspects of life, including sports.”

“When we started the inclusive rugby program at our club, we didn’t see barriers; we saw possibilities. Sure, there were concerns about facilities, insurance, and other logistical issues, but we chose to focus on what we could do rather than what we couldn’t. And the results have been remarkable.”

“Not only has it been incredibly rewarding for the players with disabilities who now have a platform to participate in sports, but it has also enriched the entire club community. Parents, siblings, coaches, and volunteers have all been touched by the inclusivity and positivity of the program. It’s brought us together in ways we never imagined.”

“I truly believe that all sports should be striving to be more inclusive. It’s not just about providing opportunities for those with disabilities; it’s about fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance for everyone, regardless of their abilities. And when we embrace inclusivity, we all benefit, both on and off the field.”

Looking ahead, what are you aspirations for the future of inclusive sports in Carlow and how do you envision your role?

“First of all, Carlow boasts a far richer sporting heritage than many other counties, and sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit for all the great stuff that goes on in Carlow. We have two fantastic rugby clubs in the county, with one of them being among the oldest rugby clubs in the world, founded in 1873, even before the GAA started. There’s a rich history there, and it’s something to be proud of. Additionally, we have numerous other sporting clubs in the county that contribute to our vibrant sports scene. We should definitely give ourselves a pat on the back for how we punch above our weight for such a small space.

“I believe inclusivity should be embraced by all clubs and sporting codes. Often, inclusivity is talked about merely as an advertisement, with little action behind it. What I admire about Carlow Rugby Club is that they’ve gone beyond just talking about inclusivity; they’ve demonstrated it through actions like the inclusive rugby program. This is a prime example of putting words into action.”

“As for my involvement, I believe I’ve reached my level of coaching ability, and I’m content with that. I find joy and fulfilment in seeing the fun and happiness the kids experience through rugby. It’s not about giving back for me; it’s about what I gain from the experience of being around the kids, which is far greater than what they may receive from me. I have a playful and childlike nature, and I enjoy participating in activities like playing Bulldog during training sessions. That sense of playfulness and childlike joy is something I truly cherish.”

“So, if Leinster were looking for a new coach, I’m busy.”

“I’d like to think that other clubs reading to this, especially with me receiving the Volunteer of the Year award for my involvement in inclusivity, have seen the spotlight it has put on how inclusivity can be achieved. If they ever want to reach out to Carlow Rugby Club to learn more about what we did and how they can implement similar initiatives, we’re more than happy to share our experiences. It all starts with that first step, like the proverbial thousand-mile journey people talk about, but it’s true. Now, we have inclusive rugby teams across Ireland, and we’re leading the way globally in this aspect. It just goes to show what can be achieved, and it’s fantastic that Carlow is at the forefront of it.”