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Opinion: Forget the 'Celtic Phoenix' nonsense – Ireland's Special Olympians should be our inspiration

Special Olympians have risen above the sort of hardship most of us can barely imagine; their spirit should inspire Ireland’s national recovery.

Donal O'Keeffe

WITH OUR ECONOMY suddenly powering ahead again, Finance Minister Michael Noonan has expressed confidence that he can deliver the upcoming Budget without further spending cuts or tax increases. The Financial Times says we’re only mighty and, with a beady eye on the next election, politicians are already eyeing up the sun, moon and any number of other celestial bodies with a view to a promise.

There hasn’t been a come-back like this since Lazarus showed up outside the Bethany Funeral Home demanding a word with the accounts department. One headline writer even dubbed this phenomenon ‘The Celtic Phoenix’.

It’s a lovely phrase, redolent of the sort of arrogance and hubris Ireland will need if it is ever to return to being a nation entirely without self-awareness but it’s worth pointing out that it was actually Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s blowhard father who came up with ‘The Celtic Phoenix’. What Paul Howard coined as a joke is now co-opted by the irony-free as economic commentary. But that’s OK – having just regained, at great cost, the run of ourselves, I for one can’t wait to be shut of the wretched thing again.

Where’s that elephant? 

What I, personally, would prefer to have would be the ultimate Celtic Tiger status symbol going forward. No, not a cocaine habit, a small village in Bulgaria or a career as a celebrity economist. I want a room elephant. Do you remember room elephants? You don’t hear about them so much these days, but towards the end of the boom you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing about the elephant in the room.

This is Ireland. We don’t usually learn from our mistakes and, knowing us, if things really are recovering, then we’ll be putting the gold-plated toilet bowls on the credit card and buying studio apartments for the au pairs again before the year is out.

Or (and I know it sounds like fantasy) maybe we could do something really un-Irish. Perhaps we could stop to think about the type of country we want to live in and the type of people we want to be.

There was one time, and as it happens it was actually at the very height of the Celtic Tiger, when Ireland showed the world a spirit of generosity and joy which was a wonder to behold. Every town and village was resplendent in flowers and banners, every person felt just a little bit taller and the whole country seemed united in pride and good will. That was 2003, when we hosted the World Special Olympics.

Everyone needs heroes and, following our foolish flirtation with the likes of Seán, Seán, Seán and Seánie, the High Priests of Mammon who left us in the poorhouse, Ireland needs heroes now more than ever before.

Making a positive difference

Just as well, then, that it turns out we have real heroes in abundance in Ireland. We’ve just welcomed 46 of them home from the 2014 Special Olympics European Summer Games, where Team Ireland secured a staggering 57 medals. Across seven sports we achieved gold, silver and bronze and 31 placement ribbons.

Special Olympics Ireland describes itself as “a sports organisation for people with an intellectual disability, [an organisation which] provides athletes with far more than the physical benefits of sport. Special Olympics changes lives. Through sport, athletes develop both physically and emotionally, they make new friends, realise their dreams, and know they can fit in.”

At the moment, Special Olympics Ireland has 9,223 registered athletes. They participate in 15 different sports in 385 clubs throughout Ireland. Think about the positive difference being a part of this organisation makes for the athletes; then consider the benefit to their families, their friends and their communities. Imagine the sheer positivity radiating out from each and every Special Olympian.

Making a difference

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I can think of no greater inspiration for our country

Next year will see between 80 and 90 Irish athletes heading to Los Angeles for the Special Olympics World Summer Games. This will be an undertaking which will require huge public support and financial backing.

It will be a serious challenge but one which will also offer us a golden opportunity to become, once again, the type of country we were for that brief moment in 2003 when all of Ireland glowed with pride at being part of something as special as the Special Olympics.

During the boom, it was often claimed that the fortunes of the Irish soccer team were tied to those of our economy. Maybe this time around we should think more about being a community than being an economy – and perhaps, instead, tying the fortunes of our Special Olympians to our own.

Our Special Olympians have had the deck stacked against them all their lives. They have, through sheer determination, through unstinting hard work and through no small amount of love, overcome unthinkable adversity. I can think of no greater inspiration for this country.

Let’s support real Irish heroes and, by doing so, get to feel a whole lot better about ourselves too.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

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