Hurling takes to the stage in this year's Belfast International Arts Festival
Cork writer and performer Timmy Creed's Spliced shines a light on hurling and on his own struggle to become an individual outside of the sporting institution that raised and in ways defined him. Ahead of the play's northern premiere, he spoke to Jenny Lee
GAELIC football and hurling are the lifeblood of thousands of communities in Ireland. The sports are laden with emotion and high drama, yet GAA and theatre are two worlds that rarely meet.
Spliced – named after the metal band that holds a hurley together – is a one-man drama performed and written by Cork former hurler Timmy Creed. It is based on his personal quest to forge a new identity and probes the question of how much of his individualism is rooted in growing up within the institution of the GAA.
Creed started playing the game at age five. His club, Bishopstown, in Cork's suburbs, became highly successful for their age group, winning a number of county hurling championships, thus turning the players into local celebrities.
While gaining him credibility among his peers and community – and getting him out of homework more than a few times – success came with huge pressure to remain committed.
It was his decision to travel to the United States at the age of 20 during his summer break from university, where he was studying engineering – in Cork, naturally; he couldn't be too far from his club – that made Creed realise that there was life beyond hurling.
"It was only seven weeks but we were made feel like we were turning our back on the team and letting down our own physical consistency, which we had built up over all those years," the now 32-year-old says.
"Being [in the US] and seeing this other culture after having been inside this capsule of the GAA for so many years was a wake-up call to the fact there are other ways to live," says Creed.
"Being in a team celebrates masculinity and physicality. Outside the game, though, running with the pack from a young age can come with a downside as sense of self is sacrificed. And when you do the same thing for years and suddenly stop, there is an obvious void in your life."
For Creed that void was filled after a chance on-street casting for the lead role in the Irish feature film My Brothers.
"I was coming to the end of my studies at university and my sister encouraged me to go for it. They wanted an ‘introspective, troubled-looking newcomer' to bring a rawness to the performance," and I flukely landed the role," he laughs.
"I was nearly in every scene in the movie – it was like being the best player on the team with all eyes on you. I got a lot from the experience," adds Creed who, after the role, went to work in a ski resort in Canada and contemplated a future in a field that was completely alien to him.
"My tribe was the GAA and sport; arts were for more nerdy people. I stopped playing recorder when I was 10 because I didn't want the guys on the team to know I was good at it. That was my choice; but it came from peer pressure and I just wasn't strong enough then to pursue the things I wanted to."
Creed returned home to get himself an agent, and studied drama for a year in Oxford. He admits that the transition from sportsman to actor was not an easy one.
"One of the big challenges for me was releasing myself from this idea of a rigid physical man who wasn't allowed to show emotion, and to find my critical voice through the arts."
After a number of television, film and stage roles, and inspiration from annual visits to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he gained the confidence to tell his own story.
He wrote Spliced in response to two questions he started asking himself in his mid-20s: "What has hurling given back to me?" and "Who am I outside of this?"
"The more I reflected on my history with the culture around the sport, the more I needed to start a conversation about the behaviours and attitude it nurtures in the young men of Ireland," explains Creed, who decided to return to his old hurling club after five years away as a means of helping to his write the play.
"I started writing the show out of a place of anger. I was p***ed off that I dedicated so much time moulding my identity around the GAA and had spent my teenage years behaving inappropriately just to fit in with this group.
"It took a lot for me to go back, but I was doing it for the show. I was really unfit, skinny, long hair and a beard – they were calling me a hippy on the first night, but they were glad to see me," says Creed.
But he was surprised by how much he ended up falling in love with the game again. He even ended up getting a place on senior team for the championship and found the experience helped both his playing and his writing.
"I was observing it from a new perspective and every night after training I was writing."
The result was a production incorporating music, video and live action. Mostly performed in handball alleys or squash courts, Spliced makes it's Northern Ireland premiere when it comes to Belfast's An Culturlann this month – a venue that presents Creed with some unique challenges.
"There are some windows and doors in Belfast I have to be mindful of and the shape isn't even rectangular," he reflects ruefully – the performance involves him actually hurling.
An intensely physically production, the show does come with a warning; one woman sitting in the front row of his show at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival found out fell foul of a sliotar.
"I like the idea that the audiences are slightly tentative and are relying on my skill level. In Edinburgh the ball ricocheted off the wall and hit the woman on the chest. Thankfully she just smiled and threw the ball back," he recalls.
Creed's aim in writing the play was to start a conversation, particularly among young sportsmen, on the themes of identity, masculinity and mental health.
"The reason men might drink too much, be abusive or take their own lives is all connected to this root of something deeper that has been passed on to us and we've moulded as younger men into this form," he says.
"I still feel the GAA has a long way to go because it's still rooted in this hierarchy, the strong man persona, and the thing that is championed more than anything else is to be a strong, focused physical man who is able to do their job on the field. We need to unpack some of this, give people opportunities to open up to each other and take accountability for their own behaviour."
He also believes Spliced resonates beyond the sporting field.
"It could be applied to a job or a relationship– anything that forces you and that you're afraid to break out of because of the unknown."
Although having started to write three new plays, Creed plans next year to tour Spliced further within Northern Ireland and among GAA clubs on the east coast of America.
And has he hung up the hurley for good?
"Yes, I feel I've made my peace with the game. It's such a huge commitment and I wouldn't want to play if I could only half commit."
:: Spliced will be performed at An Cultúrlann on October 29 and 30 at 8pm as part of The Belfast International Arts Festival (Belfastinternationalartsfestival.com) and will be followed by a post-show talk with Timmy Creed on October 29. Age guidance 14+.