I listened to a documentary on BBC World service recently which dealt with the silent epidemic of loneliness. The title may be somewhat misleading because loneliness is not just confined to the aged. It does not discriminate. Believe it or not inter county footballer/hurlers experience a type of loneliness which I have never heard mentioned or discussed in any forum at any time in the past or the present.
It is not ‘macho’ to be lonely within a squad scenario since it is a sign of weakness. It’s like depression; stigmatised and mostly swept under the carpet. In fact loneliness can lead to depression which fortunately now is being tackled by the Gaelic Players Association.
It is important at this stage to define ‘loneliness’ because it covers a wide range of descriptions and meanings. According to Dictionary.com loneliness is “affected with, characterized by, or causing a depressing feeling of being alone; lonesome.”
They give other definitions such as solitary, companionless, desolated, standing apart and isolated. Loneliness is a noun and lonely is an adjective which describes a noun. Grammar lesson over!
So most people will ask how it is that an intercounty player can be lonely. Sure isn’t he playing for his county and he is training collectively with a squad, adored and revered by supporters and press alike and everyone wants to be your friend.
Our Gaelic sport at intercounty level has evolved dramatically. Training regimes have become more frequent, more intense and more sophisticated. The demands on players are incredible. Elite athletes in any sport spend a lot of time training alone which does not necessarily make them lonely. It is the pressure in the modern game of winning; the commitment, sacrifices and setting oneself apart from normal society which can lead to a feeling of loneliness. One can be very lonely within a crowd.
Through my own playing career and then as a member of a back room team some 20 years later I experienced a massive shift in many aspects of team training and preparation. To be perfectly honest I rarely felt this sense of being alone or loneliness. Playing intercounty football two or three decades ago was a different way of life than it is for the modern player. I believe that this isolation is even more evident today. Some things never change though. Your fellow players become your family and at times I put my teammates before my family at home. I hope my wife doesn’t read this because Maura would say that I put Donegal before our family all of the time.
I have an amusing and even funny story about this. After I was put out to pasture from my intercounty career in 1993, I did a bit of socialising. I was in a state of trauma and desperately missing my team family. I needed ego massaging. A good friend of mine and I regularly went to his house after spending an evening frequenting the local hostelries. Over a particular period we had spent three consecutive Sunday evenings out on the high stool. The first two occasions we arrived back to his home for tea quite late. His wife wasn’t too impressed. She read the riot act. So the third evening we decided to return for tea before the usual or expected time. His wife met us at the back door. She ate us…again! The song doing the rounds that time was coincidentally ‘Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness’ by Nanci Griffith. After my friend’s wife had finished her tirade he calmly sang a line from this song “you come home late and you come home early”, “and you’re still giving out” (his words). Yes we were “out there running to just be on the run”. How times have changed.
As it was back when I played there were lonely guys within our squad but I believe it is more pronounced in the modern game. It took me approximately three years to adjust to what we perceive as normal living. I still miss the banter, the craic, the companionship, the camaraderie and the excitement. Still I realise that I am blessed to have experienced all of that. I empathise with those who feel chronic loneliness especially the elderly who live alone and those who are isolated from society for varying reasons. I know that my father was very lonely when my mother passed away. Those who have lost loved ones are particularly affected.
Donegal GAA, the Four Masters Club and especially the family of former Donegal player Donal Monaghan lost a treasured individual recently. Donal was a hero of mine when I was a boy. I went to the Ulster finals in 1972 and 1974 with my father and Donal gave star performances in both games. Later Donal was a selector and mentor with Tom Conaghan in 1982 when we won the All-Ireland title. I was overwhelmed to meet this man in the flesh. Primarily Donal Monaghan was a gentleman. He was witty, modest and very unassuming. To his wife Margaret and his sons Don, Barry and Marcus I offer my sincerest sympathies. May he Rest in Peace.