LA. The city of The Angels. It is hardly the first place you’d think of when pondering the origins of Bohemians’ recent community revival? But that is where it all began. In a no-go area of downtown Los Angeles, Bohemians’ Community Director, Thomas Hynes saw the impact of football and kindness towards vulnerable people in a community.
He was volunteering at night time for the Reseda Project. The Project brought medical equipment and drug and alcohol counselling to those most in need. “I had seen the devastation of it, that’s how I got involved in the drug counselling.” He got involved in some prison work too, having completed an alcohol and drug counselling course. Football was the common language that allowed him to get to know prisoners. The Project tried to help the prisoners’ families on the outside too. “I was only helping but that’s where all of the ideas came from.”
At times in the recent past Dalymount Park resembled a no-go area itself, even when success was achieved on the field of play. However, with the work of those currently at the helm, particularly dedicated community and marketing staff and volunteers, Bohemians have transformed Dalymount Park into a must-go environment.
Stephen Kenny and Kevin Hunt
Having spent 18 years stateside, Hynes returned to Ireland in 2001 and to Dalymount Park. As a Cabra native he naturally supported his local side. He was seconded from the Simon Community to take up a position at the Clancy Night Shelter at 69 Blessington Street, where heroin users could spend the night.
2002 saw the first steps in bringing his LA experience to Dublin and Bohemians. Hynes noticed that despite the presence of heroin in their systems, users of the shelter loved to talk about football. Having found out he was a regular at Dalymount, they pestered him into bringing them to a game. He explained, “I approached Stephen (Kenny) here – I wasn’t on the board or anything like that – I was just coming to the games. He said, ‘no problem, do you want to have a game here’?” The first homeless 5-a-side tournament was scheduled for Dalymount Park with Bohs captain, Kevin Hunt as referee. All that was required now were players. “I went around with a Dublin Corporation van. I knew where all of the lads hung out because they would come to the shelter regularly. I asked if they wanted to play a game in Dalymount.” It turned out to be a resounding success and it set the community club wheels in motion.
This man saved our lives
“Tom, do you want us to put them in a bag for you?” The voice at the end of the Marks and Spencer checkout called out. It was two brothers who he used to bring up to Dalymount from the shelter. They were working for Peter McVerry Trust. “Louise, my partner was with me and they were hugging her and saying, ‘This man saved our lives’”.
He had an inkling from his time in LA that amongst a crowd, people tended to blend in, especially when all eyes were on a football. “It was brilliant because they blended in with the crowd and they didn’t feel out of place. So there’s 2,000 here, who is going to notice five or six lads here watching the match?” Aided with a handful of tickets – through Stephen Kenny – he brought up to 10 homeless people from the shelter with him to home games. This, he says, illustrates football’s positive impact in making them part of the community. “Those two used to come to Dalymount. I was telling Stephen Kenny this and he was delighted.” While Stephen Kenny was quickly building a league winning side on the pitch, Thomas Hynes was slowly building a community connection off it.
I always had a plan
“I owned the Irish American Press in LA and I know how local papers work. I know the market they can hit”. A key move at board level in 2012 saw Hynes elected to the Public Relations portfolio. Local rather than national publicity was the key, with media outlets like, The Northside People, The Dublin Gazette and local radio stations were allies. Coupled with this, Hynes said, “They all thought I was mad to ring the Lord Mayors, but it opens other doors outside. I always had a plan, I’ve done it before with the shelters, I brought the Mayor down.”
The saddest thing
He knew Mountjoy Prison Governor, Fergus Woods from giving talks on alcohol and drug abuse – through his experience in the field – when he was asked to come and speak to the prisoners. “There’s a guy in there, he’s doing life and he told me, in the cells on a Friday night, some of them can see the lights and they can hear the crowd and they can tell you whether it was a good match or a bad match. It’s the saddest thing I ever heard in my life.” Richie Sadlier – a friend of Hynes’ – and Kenny Cunningham came in to coach. The Bohs players followed. Then the Lord Mayor too – helping to gain further credibility and traction with the local press. Then there was the Jimmy Conway Cup. The Conway name has been long associated with Bohemians. At least six of the family have lined out in the red and black; while Hynes’ sister is married to Jimmy Conway’s brother. The Bohemians players used to take on the prisoners for the cup each year. However, a team made up of ex-prisoners now takes on the prisoners in the annual game. A testament to Bohs’ work in Mountjoy and now long enough in operation, that they can bring, “lads who have turned their lives around”, according to Hynes, back through the prison gates.
Off the cuff
“Everything was off the cuff until Chris Brien decided to register the name, The Bohemian Foundation.” Not only does the Foundation visit the men’s prison and the Dochas Centre, but it organises walking football games, delivers school numeracy programmes and provides a social outlet for old folks – amongst others.
A criticism often leveled at League of Ireland clubs is their lack of representation in political circles. Step forward, the Coffin Dodgers Club – a group of old folks who get together once a week for a social event in Dalymount. Bohemians secretary, Stephen Lambert and Hynes organised for the prisoners to lay on Christmas dinner for the old folks. “Every Christmas we bring them down. All of the tables in the officer’s mess are dressed in red and black, it is turned into a Bohs place,” explained Hynes. It satisfied the criteria for the prisoners to achieve their Gaisce Awards, it had a massive social benefit to the old folks, but for Bohemians it brought them face-to-face with politicians. “Pascal Donoghue has been down, Mary Lou has been down, Joe Costello – we always have some of the local representatives – and the Lord Mayor.” Face time with politicians can’t be a bad thing, considering the immediate need for government sanctioned capital funds for the delayed Dalymount Park redevelopment project.
Winning the World Cup
Then the real football magic happens not on a Friday night, but a Wednesday afternoon and not in Dalymount Park, but The Bogies (Pope John-Paul II Park) in Cabra. The Bohemian Foundation volunteers, Chris Brien and Stephen Burke organise a game of walking football. The game itself provides a mild form of exercise, facilitating those with a physical disadvantage, without the normal tackling and running of a football match. Around 30 kids from St Michael’s House and St Vincent’s Special School on the Navan Road assemble. Hynes explains after a difficult beginning, kids have moved from the margins and are now playing on the pitch. “Some of the kids, you’d have to hold their hand and bring them out, but now they are kicking the ball. The others are clapping and cheering like they’ve won the World Cup. Their teachers, parents and carers can’t believe the progress they’ve made. It is unbelievable the progress they’ve made and none of us are trained in anything except kindness.”
Bohemians also see the benefit in hosting other walking football events, where retirees participate in Ballymun and soon to be in Finglas. Hynes explains that as well as providing a vital community outlet for the retired, the club’s effort in running these games has a multiplier effect on the club’s reach. “Those people have grandsons and they go back – ‘guess what the Bohs lads are doing’ – so they’re talking about their time with Bohs”.
More Than A Club
The Bohemian Foundation is the umbrella group for Bohemians’ charitable and community activities. In 2017, Bohemians won European funding along with Cork City for the More Than A Club initiative. It gave both clubs funding for two and half community employees through the FAI. It enabled Bohs to carry on the good work of The Foundation, supplementing the volunteers and taking their work to another level. While the project officially concluded in 2019, Bohemians are seeking to continue to employ someone in that important community role – working alongside volunteers.
Keen to involve him in our discussion, Hynes lassos, Paul Gannon into the conversation. Gannon worked with the More Than A Club initiative on a part-time basis and remained working with the FAI after its conclusion. However, it is hoped that Bohs can secure a role for him in-house. With schools starting back in September, Gannon could play a key community-facing role in linking Bohemians with local schools. “I remember when I first started – in St Laurence O’Toole’s in Sheriff Street – none of the kids really knew anything about Bohs or League of Ireland football – now it’s the opposite. The positive knock-on effects are also witnessed in the community, Gannon continued, “they are not sitting down on the streets – as they were before – they are up here watching a game of football. It just shows the positive effects.”
We were all crying
It is hard to imagine these community initiatives having the same impact if they weren’t driven by Thomas Hynes. He is the key figure. He has been around, he understands how institutions work, he cares about Bohemians, he cares about the community and he cares about people.
Take for example the story he tells of a young Bohs fan from Wexford. I watched as his eyes began to fill when telling the story of the young man who was badly suffering with Crohn’s disease. A quick supportive phone call before his major operation, was the reason for its success, according to the boy’s mother. Then you can picture the scene a few days later when striker Dave Scully, midfielder Keith Buckley and Hynes hopped into Scully’s car and paid a surprise visit to the recuperating fan. “We snuck in and there he was on the couch, white as a sheet. He actually got up and he was crying. We were all crying. It was brilliant. Then his little brother started shaking. He said to Buckley, ‘come upstairs with me’ and showed him a photograph of Bucko on the wall of his bedroom.” The boy – Sean – successfully recovered and gave a speech on Hynes’ behalf, when receiving an award from the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House.
As we walk around Dalymount on a rainy July morning, there is a word, a laugh and a joke with each staff member or volunteer we come across. In 2019 he was presented with the John Sherlock Services to Football award by the FAI. He is able to name-check the likes of Tommy Tiernan, Dave McSavage and Richie Sadlier as having lent a hand to The Bohemian Foundation down through the years. Cork City also offered him a job.
Club to sell
“Tom. Tom”, a voice bellowed from across the North Circular Road. It was one of the homeless players from the tournament in Dalymount 18 years ago. Hynes was walking from Mountjoy with former Bohemian, Scott Allardice, before the coronavirus had hit Ireland. Hynes takes up the story, “It was amazing, he said to tell Scott, ‘Remember, I won the penalty shootout? The English ‘keeper didn’t save it. It was the best day of my life, Tom’”. He was indeed the only player to score on Bohemians goalkeeper Ashley Bayes in the penalty shoot competition. The winning trophy still takes pride of place in his mother’s house. Dalymount is almost a constant in the recall of people’s interactions with The Bohemian Foundation.
It is nearly two decades since Thomas Hynes approached Stephen Kenny and staged the homeless 5-a-side tournament in Dalymount. Just as Bohemians’ Marketing and Commercial Director, Daniel Lambert leveraged the Dalymount name and brand to promote Bohemians – a gin being the latest – Hynes has done similarly.
Over the last few years Bohemians have begun to reap the benefits of their community involvement. Attendances have more than doubled, season tickets too. An unprecedented EGM was required last December to increase the number of members permitted to join the club, in-keeping with excess demand. Assets now exceed liabilities on the club’s balance sheet. “This is the best known club, the best community club. That’s down to the work that Daniel Lambert has done. Daniel is very kind in what he says, based on the work of the foundation over the years, he has a club to sell”, asserts Hynes.
There is something angelic about the values of human decency and kindness that have been the foundation of Bohemians’ community revival. Those values can’t be trained; they are learnt in the community. Just like the community nickname Thomas Hynes was given by those he helped in LA – who simply referred to him as Mr Irish. Whatever you like to call him, Tom, Thomas or Mr Irish, he certainly is one of a kind.
Cover photograph – Stephen Burke