This week a Rubicon was crossed in Irish life when a high profile GAA player came out and stated openly that he was involved in an activity that is considered by some to be outside the pale, by others, with more antiquated views, to be abhorrent. Everyone says now that it was common knowledge. The dogs in the street knew. But the atmosphere in the country stifled it, kept it a secret. Nobody broke the omerta. The authorities were afraid to acknowledge it. Participants didn’t want to invite opprobrium. Colleagues wouldn’t betray a mate. It took the bravery of one the sport’s leading lights, an authoritative and thoughtful man, an articulate speaker, a respected player, to blow the smoke away, to let the light in.
Life suddenly changed for many GAA players all over the country this week when, in his autobiography Kerry footballer Tadhg Kennelly admitted that his feelings for some men led him to charge headlong at them, planting his elbow into their neck just after the All Ireland Final throw-in and catch them “perfectly on the chin.” They could breathe just that little bit easier now that someone had stuck his head above the parapet and admitted: “Say it loud, I love a good punchup and I’m proud”
And it’s Kennelly’s frankness that has cut through the fog of subterfuge and half talk that has surrounded this subject for years.
“I was at home one evening and the phone rang. It was my publisher. He said ‘Tell me this, no more bullshit, do you want to sell a few more books?’ And that was it, I knew in my heart that I owed it to any lad around the country who was ever thrown on with ten minutes left in a County Championship third-round replay, just to throw an elbow into a young fella who was too quick for his own good. I owed it to all those lads who had no voice, who had no book to sell”
‘Brendan’ from Wicklow is one such lad without a voice. He fidgets nervously and sucks on a Marlboro. “I remember the first time, I must have been only 19. I didn’t know what happened. Something that was hidden in me came out. I didn’t care what anyone thought any more and before I knew it I’d flattened the fullback, put my foot through the door of a disabled toilet and locked the referee in the boot of a car. It was all covered up, hush hush, everyone said it was only gossip but I knew what I’d done and I wanted more”
Brendan and others tell of ‘the fear’. It’s the fear that grips all GAA men who live on the edge. The fear that an innocuous headbutt will be picked up on the TV cameras by the moral guardians on The Sunday Game. Panellists who, if truth be known, were no strangers to the scene in their own heyday and now pour outrage on younger men who are just doing what seems natural.
“I’m terrified of Joe Brolly” whispers ‘Joaquin’ (not his real name). “I was talking to the Ref, getting excited, I was all set to slap his notebook out of his hand and call him a tosser. I’d never felt so alive, but I looked up in the commentary box and saw Brolly looking down at me. The little glasses on him. I had my hand raised and in the end just patted the Referee on the shoulder. I had to deny who I was. I cried bitter tears that night.”
Joaquin has borne more pain than most. As a dual player he is treated with suspicion by both football and hurling communities. “Maybe now things will be easier”, he says softly.
To see the impact of this week’s events on the ground, I visited one of the infamous clubs where being ready with the fists is commended not condemned. “Ballykickam St Robert Emmet Wolfe Tones” (not its real name) is at the heart of thriving Junior D League scene.
As the players take to the pitch for an important match, the first thing you notice is the age range of these men. There are callow youths of 17 and next to them, older men. Grizzled old stagers in their forties and fifties. Like Mikey The Hand. Mikey has long since earned the moniker of ‘A good man to busht up the game”. He wears his too-tight jersey with the number 37 on the back and ‘Carmody Scrap Metal, the Scrap Legends’ across the front.
“He is like an uncle to us” says Justin, an earnest young man. “He taught me how to smoke a fag on the walk from the carpark to the dressing room”. And other, more important, lessons on how to survive in a man’s game. Like how to spot if the umpires ‘are worth a bollox’ – The slang term for whether they will offer an opinion on anything other than the bitter cold.
The game begins. A cheer goes up as immediately the half-forward lays out a midfielder with an elbow to the neck. It’s a flamboyant, choreagraphed move, an homage. And it’s appreciated by all. Elbows are exchanged, sisters are insulted. A man with a bib runs onto the pitch pursued by a Garda and a small dog. I get carried away myself and am soon egging on Mikey the Hand as he throws a traffic cone at the opposition’s bench.
The entertainment ends for now, as the referee gets back to his feet and restores order. But as the men walk away the word that’s written on their faces is plain for all to see.