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Gweedore's Eamon McGee - still the restless spirit fighting the good fight

Brendan Crossan travelled to Letterkenny to meet former Donegal defender Eamon McGee where the Gweedore man talked football, fatherhood, science and politics...

Eamon McGee, who retired from Donegal in 2016, is still making waves with Gweedore as well as political circles

HE’S lying on a fold up hospital bed beside baby Luca who’s being treated for a chest infection, with a bunch of noisy nurses outside the room.

As the self-pity eats away at him, Eamon McGee wants to scream.

It wouldn’t change a single thing but it would make him feel better.

Did the chattering nurses not know Gweedore’s finest, lying on one of their poxy fold up beds, has an Ulster Club final to play in four days’ time?

With the prospect of no sleep, can they not sense his silent rage?

Great timing, Luca. Just great, son…

It’s a grey December morning in Letterkenny. We meet in the Swing Room coffee house on the fringes of the town centre.

With an Ulster Club winner’s medal safely tucked away, McGee can laugh about it now.

Holding a mug of coffee, he says: “This was me coming up to the biggest game of my life and I’m in a hospital bed and I can’t sleep because the nurses out there are making noise.

“It was a far cry from the preparation under Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher.”

Spool forward to Sunday morning, just a few hours before the Gweedore boys head to Omagh to face Monaghan champions Scotstown.

The veteran defender posts a photograph on his Twitter page of him playing Diddy’s Kong Quest on Playstation with nine-month-old twins Luca and Evie and two-and-a-half year old Daisy playing on the floor in front of the television screen.

Alongside the photograph, McGee’s caption reads: “Not the Ulster final morning prep I’m used to but it’s not so bad.”

McGee was used to living in the inter-county bubble before big games with Donegal, being holed up in a hotel room with his team-mate Neil Gallagher, listening intently to one of McGuinness’s goose-bumped sermons before taking a morning stroll.

That was then. This is now.

He lives in Letterkenny with Joanne and their three kids – a 40-minute drive from Gweedore’s utopian countryside.

“Fatherhood is crazy tough. You’re no longer the centre of the universe," McGee says.

"I always laugh, every county player is extremely selfish. It used to be complete lock-down before Donegal games, watching DVDs of Kieran Hughes or Sean Cavanagh and not budging an inch from the couch.

“In the build-up to Gweedore’s games it was all about the wee’ans. The one game I got nervous was before the Crossmaglen game [Ulster Club semi-final] and that was because my mum took the kids and I’d the morning just to relax and I didn’t enjoy it…”

After finally breaking Scotstown’s resistance after extra-time, the Gweedore players partied hard on Sunday night.

As the first frothy pints were being pulled the following morning, McGee was driving Miss Daisy to crèche, listening to a science podcast, before going to the office – a two-minute drive from his home - where he works as a data analyst for a US health insurance company.

“I got out of town on the Sunday night,” he says. “My body’s not fit for it. I’ve done my fair share. I was kept updated by the lads now.

“There was a wee bit of me saying: ‘I’d love to be back in there.’ But I’m at a different stage of my life now. I’ve got the wee’ans, it’s hard to get babysitters and all this sort of stuff…”

As his younger brother Neil and Kevin Cassidy were leaving their legendary mark on Twitter, Eamon was walking around Letterkenny with a big smile of his face.

“I just felt satisfied inside. I didn’t need to be away on the drink for a few days.”

In his younger days, McGee didn’t need a famous victory to go on a three-day bender.

In his 20s that’s just what he did.

He was sin-binned by successive Donegal managers more times than he’d care to remember.

He was Gweedore’s James Dean.

A rebel without a cause.

Kicking up a storm. Getting into scraps.

A right pain in the arse who found himself on first-name terms with some of the local Garda Síochána, and not for his ability as a footballer.

“Ah, listen, they are different days from when I was partying. These Gweedore boys, they are settled lads. I’d have gone drinking for three days and went missing for three days. A lot of hassle and all the bad form in my head. It was just different. That is just alien to these boys.”

Laughing, he says: “If I was telling them about the anxiety and the big dark hole I was in when I was drinking, they would say: ‘Shut up, we don’t know what you’re talking about!’”

He laughed hard after scrolling through Twitter to find Neil’s hilarious celebratory tweets (‘Anybody know where my car is?’) and Cassidy’s playful, stripped-to-his-vest challenge to All-Ireland semi-final opponents Corofin.

“When I watched it I couldn’t stop laughing. I thought it was priceless. It was one of the funniest moments of that week.”

While there was no malice in the players’ giddy posts, McGee accepts ‘Cass’ and his brother will probably get a touch from the Corofin boys on February 16.

“Somebody sent me a text message where it read: ‘I hope Gweedore get hammered now after watching that video.’

“I just thought there was no badness in it at all. Kevin and Neil are wild competitors. Their persona on and off the field are different. They were just having the craic. The majority of people would see it for what it is – good-natured banter.

“I’d imagine there are others who would want to put it up on the wall and talk about it on the team group chats and use it, saying: ‘Listen, these boys are disrespecting us.’

“I’d imagine ‘Cass’ and Neil will get a wee touch during the game about it. They’ve given out plenty themselves and they’re fit to take it.

“I’ve seen it in different situations: people use the silliest things to gain that motivation.”

If Gweedore’s historic Ulster title last month did anything, it probably healed any lingering wounds between himself and Cassidy.

When Twitter was in its infancy and the Gweedore pair a good few years younger, they regularly clashed over their different outlooks on life.

Cassidy’s Catholic faith has always been an important part of his life, while McGee was the “angry atheist” who couldn’t fathom anything beyond the physical.

They locked horns regularly on Twitter, on the training field and in the changing rooms.

Every spiteful post, every sharp-tongued retort chipped away at their friendship.

“‘Cass’ and me were two big personalities – if you want to call it that – or two big egos, that were bound to clash in the dressing room,” McGee explains.

“I looked up to Kevin and I hung on his every word. He was older than me but as time went on I started to become my own man and we started clashing a wee bit. We’d clash at training over different things, clash over different preparations and clash over having different outlooks in life. But we always came back together. I’d lift him up or he’d lift me up. But then there was the whole book fall-out and we kept drifting apart.”

In 2011, manager Jim McGuinness jettisoned the hugely talented Allstar defender Cassidy for the things he’d revealed about Donegal’s preparations in Declan Bogue’s book, entitled: ‘This is Our Year’.

Cassidy’s unjust sacking remains a terrible pockmark on Donegal’s remarkable ascent to Ulster and All-Ireland glory.

The defender's perceived sin caused more damage to a relationship already under stress.

“I thought he shouldn’t have done the book,” McGee says. “It got to the stage where we’d pass each other on the street and we’d just about raise the head to each other.

“In terms of the offence, we were trying to create something and we’d created a tight, tight unit where nothing got out.

“So that’s what the offence was. In terms of the punishment, did it deserve him being put off the squad? I don’t think so.

“I didn’t always think that, just with hindsight. The years have kind of mellowed me. At the time, we just went with the party line. The players wanted to put out a statement backing McGuinness, but Neil and me were silent. It was just an awkward situation for us. We knew we were close to winning an All-Ireland and we started to believe McGuinness…”

McGee adds: “But with the club this year that fall-out over the book has been mended. Obviously there is still regret and still hurt but we’ve got over it. We didn’t have any big heart-to-heart – we’re Irishmen and we don’t go in for that sort of stuff.

“At the time when we actually won the All-Ireland [in 2012], Kevin was maybe a bit upset. But he just made peace with it. That’s what Kevin does.

“From chatting and listening to him, he’s at the stage now where he’s moved on and he accepts that it is just life. He’s probably like us all – having kids changes you. There are a lot more important things in life and there’s no point losing sleep over it.”

Maybe it was the birth of Daisy or just the years tumbling forward that also made him look at religion from a different angle.

He still doesn’t spare the Catholic Church for some of its policies and practices - but he has learned to separate the institution from a person’s faith.

“A big eye-opener for me was when I was at a wake of an older person and the man’s wife was just waiting on the coffin to come out of the house.

“She had her rosary beads in her hand and she was praying. I realised they were the only things that could comfort her.

“I was thinking to myself: ‘Who am I to disrespect that? Who am I to make small of it?’

“I thought: ‘You need to have a bit more respect, a bit more cop on.’”

Leaning back in the quiet booth in the coffee house, McGee adds: “When you think back, Kevin and me were arguing on Twitter about different things. Silly stuff now… We were mad for a row. We argued over the policies of schools and religion.

“Kevin’s faith is very, very important to him… I would have been an angry atheist, that stereotype, but I think we’ve matured. I wouldn’t even call myself an atheist now… maybe agnostic.

“If Kevin believed in God, that was okay. It was totally disrespectful looking back on it.

“My wee ones will make their choice – I’ll bring them to church and if they want that, that’s okay. That’s the journey I’ve been on too.”

If you think the comforting embrace of domesticity, kids and giving the faithful a more sympathetic hearing has pacified Eamon McGee, you’d be wrong.

The wildness that characterised his 20s is more articulate now. He’s more of a restless spirit who still rages against injustice and is regularly dismayed by the state of Irish politics.

Through his thought-provoking social media posts and various press interviews McGee became a persuasive voice for amending the Irish constitution on same-sex marriage and pro-choice during the historic 2015 and 2018 referendum campaigns.

Between the ages of 10 and 14, he wrote endless essays on what society’s guiding principles should be.

“I’d a nice, idealistic version of the world,” he smiles.

“The essays weren’t even for school. I always fancied myself as a writer but I was terrible, my grammar was shite. I just had this wild imagination that I was going to create this society and what it should look like.

“I was always interested in politics. I didn’t know what socialism or communism was then. The only thing I knew about communism was that they were supposed to be the bad guys in terms of all the books we read.”

Initially, McGee felt he needed an All-Ireland medal to voice and validate his opinions on the burning issues of the day.

“Looking back on it, that was f**king bullshit. You shouldn’t need anything to express an opinion.”

He doesn’t rule out entering Irish politics in the future.

You ask which political party interests him, McGee shoots back: “Who would have me?”

“I think being an Independent would be the way. You’d need to raise a lot of money to become an Independent but politics definitely interests me.

“From the referendum campaigns I got a taste for it… It genuinely made me feel like I made a difference, in a good way. And I thought: ‘You know what, you should get involved in politics.’

“Then I just started looking around me and I just wouldn’t want to be that person where politics ended up changing me. You read about these young, idealistic people with the best of intentions and the system changes them rather than them changing the system.

“You look at the statements some politicians made at the start of their careers and you see what they’re saying now.

“You look at Jeremy Corbyn, as an example, and he was all for Irish unity, and now he’s willing to get in bed with the DUP. It’s such a let-down... I would just hate for someone to be looking on and thinking: ‘You’ve just totally sold your principles’.”

Science is another passion and he doesn’t understand why others aren’t as moved by the subject.

“If we threw everything into science...you wonder what we could do. We went to the moon in 1969 and we’ve trundled along ever since. We’re trying to go to Mars.

“If we just channelled everything into it how far we could progress instead of fighting with each other over flags and anthems, nonsense like that. Just think what we could achieve. It’s very idealistic, I know...”

Just 34-years-old, McGee’s is already a life lived.

Jim McGuinness made him realise there is no point in having potential if you don’t try and fulfil it.

Eamon McGee’s proudest moment was not winning the All-Ireland with Donegal or an Ulster title with Gweedore.

It was something more fundamental, more pure than clutching a winner’s medal.

It was the fact he never gave up.

When he felt he couldn’t run any more, he summoned the energy from somewhere to keep going.

“Of course I’m proud in terms of where we came from and what we did. Donegal were a laughing stock and to reach the pinnacle and gaining respect.

“At the time it was all about the medals and winning Ulster and then the All-Ireland. We talked about when you come off the field and knowing that you gave it your all – I thought that was nonsense.

“We just went again and again, and they were the proud moments. I remember looking at Karl Lacey in training one night and he was absolutely wrecked and we’d one more run to do.

“He just got up and did the next run. That’s contagious. I’m not big-headed but I was chatting to one of the younger lads [in the Donegal squad] and he was saying about how I dogged myself and kept running.

“For me, I’m happy. That’s what I’m proud of. For one of the younger lads to say that to me meant something.”

Eamon McGee announced his inter-county retirement in August 2016.

Life is manic and fulfilling as ever with Joanne, Daisy, Luca, Evie and a club season to remember...

He may have left the county stage over two years now - but the proud Gweedore man is still in our eye-line.

And that’s a good thing...

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