Mark Butler’s relationship with sport started the day he was born.
As a twin and the youngest of six, he was thrust into a sport-mad household. The Dublin teen began with individual pursuits or family outings. A boy and his ball, with the same dreams and aspirations as countless children; to play games he quickly fell in love with.
“It would have started with him being dragged around in a buggy at mucky rugby pitches on a Sunday morning watching his siblings play,” his mother, Bridgette Keane, explains.
“He was born into a family where we all played sport. Before the kids even started school, they had a ball. When they started school, it became more structured. GAA with the school and club. Rugby. Cricket. It is something we share as a home. We all enjoy it. Certain people might have matches at the same time but generally we go and watch as a family. If you are playing, we’ll all be there to support you.
“It is the thing that gels us all. At the dinner table we talk about lots of things, but we always end up talking about sport. It is something we can all do together.“
Initially that proved more difficult for Mark. He was born with Down Syndrome and is non-verbal. It meant a degree of uncomfortableness at certain elements of engaging in team sport alongside his twin brother, Chris. As his mother clarifies, attempts were made but it proved challenging. “He never felt comfortable. In a sense, he realised he couldn’t participate to the same level. He is conscious of what he can and cannot do.”
But comfort was soon found within the local community. Clontarf rugby club created a pilot programme. Raheny GAA soon followed suit. What was once daunting became enchanting. Mark found a team and a sense of belonging.
“He always loved it but finally he was participating. You’ve never seen a child get so much joy out of that. He plays rugby and he just wants to score tries. When he scores, he is so happy. He loves being with other kids. It is just the whole thing now. He is thrilled going to matches as well. He was at the All-Ireland final recently. The whole sense of being part of a community, that gives him happiness.”
It is more than mere entertainment. Mark Butler plays rugby and Gaelic football on a team of different abilities. It hosts a mix of youngsters with additional needs such as Down Syndrome, autism and visual impairment. He also plays mainstream cricket and has captained his team on several occasions this year.
In doing so he engages in an enjoyable practise of wholesale betterment. Physically and mentally, sport has given him so much.
“The exercise is huge. Children with Down Syndrome have low muscle tone. These sports allow him work on his core and muscles. That really helps, it is so important. Even understanding left and right to pass the ball. For him, playing sport helps him learn those skills. It is his whole wellbeing. His speech, his awareness. Having to learn to take direction and about patience.
“It is more than physical; it is his entire mental wellbeing. It covers everything.”
Last year Mark Butler brought out the ball prior to the All-Ireland Gaelic football final in Croke Park. Raheny clubman and Dublin footballer Brian Fenton and Clontarf Bulls ambassador and Irish rugby player Joey Carbery are familiar friends and icons. He was a mascot for the West Indies during their cricket test and he got to demonstrate his Gaelic football ability when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Meghan and Harry, came to Dublin.
Yet for all sport has given him he has given even more back. There may be more important things in life, but sport often encompasses them.
“One of the biggest things is that kids understand that everyone is different. It is a great way for other children to learn about people’s strength and weakness and accept them.
“It is not that he is out there to change the world, but he loves his sport and they see that. He follows the Dublin footballers and Limerick in hurling. Everybody at games knows him, they look forward to seeing him. They look for his reaction during it and see the joy in his face.”
Key to it all is the sense of contentment. A system of integration and connection. Sport is Mark Butler’s passion and he gets to immerse himself in it. Whether it be running around a pitch in Saint Anne’s or watching on in Croke Park, the joy is apparent and the smile constant.
“The people he has come across thanks to sport be it the Dublin lads or whoever, he has been very lucky. He is mixing with everybody. Now he even plays the same sports as his twin. In a different way but they are together in what they do.”
Mark Butler loves sport and in many ways his story is a perfect representation of what it should be about. A wide range of individuals engaged in one collective goal; to do their best, and enjoy doing it.
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