‘Our aim is to help people realise that it’s ok to talk about how they feel’

BROTHERS CONOR AND Kieran Joyce are busy with their careers as professional rugby players but they dedicate much of their spare time to another passion.

Originally from the West Midlands in the UK, both came through the Exiles system and played underage rugby for Ireland, with their parents hailing from Connemara and Donegal.

25-year-old Conor came through the ranks with Ulster and now plays for English Championship side Jersey, while 21-year-old Kieran is in Connacht’s academy and made his senior debut this season.

Jacob Stockdale with some of the Noggin Sport team. Source: Noggin Sport

The Joyce brothers are also the brains behind Noggin Sport, a community interest company that sells clothing to raise money for mental health charities.

So while some of their team-mates head home from training for a game of Fortnite, Conor and Kieran are often straight onto their laptops to deal with the latest batch of orders for their popular beanie hats, or to respond to people who have reached out from the ever-growing Noggin community.

With the likes of Ireland flanker Sean O’Brien and several GAA stars lending their support to Noggin, that community is growing and the Joyce brothers are hoping their message can make a difference.

“Our aim is to help people and make people realise that it’s ok to talk about how they feel, that mental health and mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of,” says Kieran, who also spent time with Ulster’s sub-academy.

“Everyone has different experiences but at some point or another, everyone goes through tough times. People have self-doubt and go through tough experiences so as we’ve got more and more clubs involved, the outreach has been fantastic.”

Kieran suffered with mental health issues during his time in Queen’s University Belfast, leaving him with first-hand experience of dealing with mental illness and an understanding of how difficult it can be to know who to turn to for help.

Kieran has made his first two senior appearances for Connacht this season. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Encouraged by an entrepreneurship module in university to identify his passions, Kieran honed in on sport and mental health.

“I went home to Conor and we thought we could do something to combine the two,” he says. “Conor came up with the fantastic name of Noggin and the idea of combining sport and mental health and trying to help people. That’s where it was born.”

Noggin launched in 2017 and took off quickly.

“People connected with it,” says Conor, who made six senior appearances for Ulster before joining Jersey two seasons ago. “Everyone knows someone who has been affected by mental health issues in some capacity, so it’s been unbelievable the amount of support we’ve had for it.

“Around the time we were starting, we lost our uncle, who took his own life. That spurred us on to really go for it and try to make an impact, try to connect with people as much as we could so things like that don’t happen as much.

“We’re no experts in mental health but we’d try to advise people to go and see people who are trained in being able to help.

“We receive lots of messages from people opening up to us, which is great.”

Noggin’s online shop sells beanies, snapbacks, bobble hats and t-shirts, with an increasing number of sports clubs in Ireland and the UK ordering batches of customised hats in their own club colours.

All of Noggin’s profits go directly to charities relating to mental health.

“We use the money to try to impact local communities, whether it be a charity called Mind or the Finglas Suicide Network,” says Kieran. “We’re all about diverting that money to try and help the local community and we’re open to working with different charities in mental health in the UK or Ireland.

“We’re looking to expand on it and really try and get as much money as we can for charity.”

Noggin run social media competitions to raise funds and also link up with high-profile sportspeople like O’Brien, with whom they’re currently running a competition to give away 30 beanies and €1,000 for a mental health charity.

The Joyce brothers are keen to build Noggin into a true community in which people can speak openly about their mental health and feel part of something bigger.

Conor has recently returned from a torn bicep injury. Source: Noggin Sport

They also intend to run workshops and events in the future.

“We hope people in the community will realise that there’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to mental illness,” says Kieran. “It’s about creating a community where everyone is part of something.

“You don’t feel lonely or afraid, you feel part of the community where you’re working towards something positive for the future. That’s been really important to us from the off and it’s great to see that the more hats we’re selling and the more people are getting involved, those people are getting more comfortable talking.”

“There’s obviously been a stigma around talking about mental health,” adds Conor. “That’s what we’re trying to do, smash down those barriers.” 

If you need to talk, support is available:

Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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