Jim Stynes has a special place in hearts Down Under, writes Richard McElligott
Few modern Irish emigrants have had as profound an impact on their adopted country as Jim Stynes. Born in Rathfarnham in April 1966, Stynes was a gifted young Gaelic footballer who won a minor All-Ireland with Dublin in 1984.
Strong, powerful and standing over 6ft 5ins tall, at 18 Stynes answered an advertisement from the Melbourne Football Club offering scholarships for Gaelic players willing to come and try out for Australian Rules Football. It took Stynes time to adapt to the physicality and skills of Australian Rules but in 1987 he made his professional debut for the Melbourne senior team in the Australian Football League (AFL).
By now he was already beginning to display the outstanding athletic endurance that would make him an icon of the game. Over the next 11 seasons, Stynes started every single match for Melbourne. This run of 244 consecutive games still stands as a record in the history of the AFL. That Stynes achieved this remarkable feat while playing in the most physically demanding position on the field (as a ruckman) in such a physically aggressive sport ensured his legendary sporting status in Australia.
Although Melbourne never man-aged to claim an AFL title in those years, Stynes won every personal accolade in the game. In 1991, he was awarded the Brownlow Medal, the highest individual honour in the sport given to the player voted as best in the League. At the end of the 1998 season, Stynes, then aged 32, announced his retirement, declaring: “It’s not what life does to you, but what you do to life that counts.”
Outside of sport he became celebrated nationally for his youth work. In 1994, he founded REACH, a charity established to promote mental health and wellbeing among 10-18 year olds. Developing over 500 national community-based programmes, the foundation would help more than 500,000 young Australians.
Stynes was subsequently appointed to several Government advisory boards dealing with children and youth affairs. In 2007, Queen Elizabeth II presented Stynes with the Medal of the Order of Australia in recognition both for his outstanding contribution to Australian sport and his work with children.
Tragically, in 2009 Stynes was diagnosed with brain cancer. Over the next three years he bravely battled the illness before dying peacefully surrounded by his wife and two children on 20 March 2012.
Following his death, Jim Stynes was given a state funeral in Melbourne. Tens of thousands of Australians lined the streets to pay their last respects.
In a fitting tribute, the City’s Mayor declared that Stynes ‘came here from overseas with ambition and aspirations… he embraced the values and culture of our nation and in the process… won the hearts of every Australian.’
Dr Richard McElligott, lectures in Irish History in UCD and is the editor of ‘Sport and Ireland: A Social and Cultural History’ (2016) and the author of ‘Forging a Kingdom: The GAA in Kerry’ (2013)