GAA

“It was the best car crash he ever had. It’s a mad statement to say that.” Down and St John’s hurler Oisin MacManus

Life’s twists and turns and how the road has straightened out for Fearghal and Oisin MacManus

Brothers Oisin and Feargal McManus
Brothers Oisin and Feargal McManus Brothers Fearghal and Oisin McManus at St Johns GAC in west Belfast PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

“It was the best car crash he ever had. It’s a mad statement to say that.”

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ULSTER University hurling manager and St John’s clubman Dee McCallin was absolutely delighted for Fearghal MacManus after the game.

He’d thrown the 19-year-old in at full-forward against Fermanagh during the second half at Jordanstown and made the difference as the students bagged another win in the McGurk Cup.

“Fearghal ran himself into the ground,” McCallin remembers. “I think he scored a goal and a point and I was buzzing for him because he’d got a reward and a confidence-booster.

“He came out of that match with sore ribs and the next thing I heard he was going through chemotherapy.”

“He’d no symptoms,” Oisin MacManus, his elder brother, recalls.

“He went up for a ball with his marker and the two of them fell on top of each other and he got up feeling his ribs. I said to him: ‘It’s sore ribs – get on with the game.’ He hurled away and it didn’t stop him.”

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OISIN and Fearghal have always been joined at the hip. Leaving their home club of Liatroim Fontenoys for the big smoke over two years ago wasn’t a decision either of them took lightly.

Oisin had been coaching in the local schools, taking juvenile teams at the club, playing football and hurling and generally spreading himself too thinly.

Around that time, Oisin was working as Regional Hurling Development Officer for the Ulster Council and spent a lot of his days down in Monaghan.

He was also playing for the Down hurlers.

The brothers were studying in Belfast and decided for a complete change in direction.

Oisin was studying in Jordanstown and was friendly with St John’s hurler Simon Doherty.

“I coached with Simon at Jordanstown and he kept asking me about coming up to St John’s,” Oisin says.

“The standard of players they had was frightening. I said I would think about it.”

The MacManus family had strong links to Belfast and spent many summers there.

Their late grandfather Pat MacManus was, ironically, a life-long member of O’Donovan Rossa – fierce rivals of St John’s – and was president and secretary among other roles at the west Belfast club.

The Johnnies connection was simply through friendships forged at university and it just seemed a good fit for the two boys.

“Fearghal and me just decided to try something different. It was a new challenge. It was a fresh start for everyone, my family included.

“It was a very easy process. To play Division One in Antrim and in the championship is the highest level you can play.

“It’s one of the best competitions in Ireland when you see how well Cushendall did last season and Dunloy playing in an All-Ireland final [January 2023]. You get to play against all those hurlers.

“Why would you not take that chance when it’s there for you?”

Oisin and Fearghal’s father, Niall, joked that he didn’t care if his sons ever won a game playing with the Johnnies – a nod to his father’s proud GAA roots.

But, of course, he backed them.

“Fearghal came with me. He was only coming out of minor and was playing in the Down U20s. A class hurler and he said: ‘Okay, let’s do this.’

“My daddy’s sister died young from cancer and she was always saying: ‘Do things that you want to do.’

“That changed our mindset about a lot of things. Fearghal would tell you as well that going to St John’s was one of the best decisions we ever made.”

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APPROACHING Christmas in 2022, the two boys were in the family home in Loughinisland – just a couple of days after Fearghal had injured his ribs playing for Ulster University in the McGurk Cup.

It was a stormy night and Fearghal was going to see some friends.

“The roads aren’t great at the best of times,” says Oisin, “and daddy said: ‘Take my jeep – it’s a bit safer on the roads.’

“It was one of those big Amarok jeeps, a pick-up truck. So Fearghal jumped in, and he was coming back from his mate’s house, he wasn’t going hard. He came round a bend and a tree had fallen and he couldn’t get out of the road of it, couldn’t stop in time.

“He hit the tree. The jeep was wrote-off.

“Fearghal was grand, but he was complaining of a sore shoulder and his ribs thinking it was the seatbelt that hurt him.”

After overcoming the initial shock of the car accident, his mum took Fearghal to Downpatrick Hospital to get her teenage son checked out, even though he’d climbed out of the jeep relatively unscathed.

“The x-ray came back and the doctor said: ‘We see a shadow in your chest and we want to send you to the Royal for them to have a look at it.’”



The next couple of weeks were a blur for the family.

Hospital visits. Scans. X-rays. Waiting rooms. Biopsies. Sleepless nights.

The insufferable pain of not knowing if your son or your brother had cancer. Hoping against hope. And praying to every saint under the sun.

“The doctors found a spot in his chest cavity and a spot in his groin. They opted to biopsy the groin because it was easier to get at, but it turned out to be a bit of gristle and wasn’t what they wanted.”

Then they took a biopsy from Fearghal’s chest cavity beside the oesophagus, which was an ordeal in itself. At just 19, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

“Fearghal’s cancer was so early in terms of stages that it wasn’t on a stage, they caught it so early. It was the best car crash he ever had,” Oisin says matter-of-factly.

“It’s a mad statement to say that but he would never have known, and it would have got worse.”

Six months of chemotherapy. Twelve punishing rounds of it. The sense of dread going to the hospital every other Monday.

The Monday and the Tuesday were the worst, but he’d get a reasonable run of 10 days before he would be back for his next round of treatment.

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A MISERABLE Wednesday night in March up on the Hightown Road, St John’s travelled north of the city to face St Enda’s in an Antrim League game with barely enough players to fulfil the fixture.

Dee McCallin was feeling as low as any club manager could ever feel. Fighting head winds and trying to keep the senior hurlers afloat.

“Around that time, I felt under pressure as St John’s manager because we had 10 players away with the county between hurling and football,” McCallin says.

St Johns v Dunloy Snr Championship Hurling 02/09/2023.  St Johns Oisin McManus and Dunloy’s Eoin McFerran during the game.  Picture Mark Marlow
Oisin McManus Oisin MacManus (left) in action against Dunloy last season Picture Mark Marlow

“Morale wasn’t great in the camp. This was about a month or so into Fearghal’s treatment and he’d come up to the game just to give a hand.

“He was outside the changing room, and I was so down in the dumps, thinking about my team-talk, what I should and shouldn’t say.”

‘How are we fixed for tonight, Dee?’ Fearghal shouted over.

‘Ach, a load of cry-offs, Fearghal,’ Dee replied. ‘Sometimes you get the feeling the lads don’t want to play on a cold Wednesday night.’

‘F*** sake,’ Fearghal said, frustrated. ‘What I wouldn’t do to be out there playing a game of hurling tonight!’

The wheels immediately began turning in McCallin’s head.

‘Do you know what Fearghal, do you mind coming into the changing room and just saying that?’

‘No problem, Dee. I will if you want me to.’

McCallin adds: “I went into the changing room with Fearghal and said: ‘Here’s a man who is going through life-changing treatment and do you what his biggest regret is? That he’s not able to go out and f***ing play!’

“And then Fearghal spoke. Whenever he’d finished speaking the mindset in the room had changed.

“You can’t put your finger on team spirit or morale when you go into a changing room, but everybody gets that feeling. When things are going well, there’s an energy in the room. When things aren’t going well, heads are down and you can feel a drain on the energy.

“As a manger I used what Fearghal said, for some perspective too. Fearghal’s words were like gold-dust to me that night and to us as a team because it pushed us on a bit at that point in the season. And although we didn’t pull up any trees in the league or the championship, we certainly had good moments in the year.”

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IN August 2023, Oisin captured the moment when his younger brother rang the bell in hospital. Oisin didn’t know how to feel – “just surreal”, he says, that he was actually standing there watching Fearghal announce the successful end to his cancer treatment.

“It’s weird because you don’t expect anybody belonging to you to ring the bell… It was the fact that it was over and we could move on.”



Six weeks later Fearghal, Oisin and a crew of friends climbed Slieve Donard and raised £7,500 for the Teenage Cancer Trust and Young Lives vs Cancer charities.

Now 20, Fearghal is back playing hurling and handball and is living a full life.

“There’s a trajectory for Fearghal,” McCallin notes. “Oisin is a brilliant player. He started on our championship team and is playing with Down. He’s at his peak, whereas for the big man there is plenty for him to do and be in contention for a place in the St John’s senior team. As a person, he’s an absolute gem. I love him, I really do.

“He’s such a gentle giant, softly spoken, a bit sheepish nearly.

“I was always encouraging him and saw him as someone who had definitely the potential to become a senior hurler. But he never believed that himself. Hopefully he will.”

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REGARDED as one of the smartest and quickest hurlers in Ulster, a nagging hip injury caused Oisin all sorts of physical and mental trouble.

He didn’t start Down’s first NHL Division 2A match of this season down in Laois, but boss Ronan Sheehan dropped him into the action with about 20 minutes remaining.

“I was warming up the whole game and I just knew something wasn’t feeling right,” he says. “I wasn’t moving the way I would have liked. I came on anyway and I was making space to get on the ball. My game is all about speed and getting out to the ball first, but I was feeling so uncoordinated, awkward and sore.

“And then the boy from Laois just ran past me and got the ball - I had five yards on him! He went by me like I wasn’t there. It was the longest 20 minutes.”

Since last year, Oisin decided to pause his coaching development career to focus on a PhD in sports psychology. In 2021, he set up his own venture – OMAC Enhanced Performance Psychology – and is currently working with the Antrim Ladies Football squad as their sports psychologist.

But just because he knows a bit about the subject doesn’t make him bullet-proof when it comes to his own battles with injury.

Those 20 minutes against Laois and his opponent breezing past him had a scarring effect on the 27-year-old forward.

“There’s a weakness in one of my hip muscles and when you’re pushing off to go, you twist your leg to get that power – internal rotation, it’s called – the muscle wasn’t letting me do it.

“A couple of days after that Laois game I was really struggling, mentally, and thinking I was not able to play at that level anymore. I’m not the biggest or strongest in the world and that’s all I have [speed].

“Maybe I’m meant to be indestructible because I’m a sports psychologist. I sometimes think I can’t be a sports psychologist if I can’t mind myself. So, I was doubting myself and then I’m guilty of over-thinking it.

“I was catastrophizing and me being a sports psychologist! I can tell you I really struggle to practice what I preach sometimes. I’m in with the Antrim Ladies footballers and I offer support to them.

“I give the girls who are injured strategies, and they work through that stuff, they’re going well, and they can see the benefits of it.

“But I came home and couldn’t do it for myself. I was sitting in the depths of despair. I’m thinking: ‘I’m not able to play. I’m going to quit hurling.’ I was so close to pulling the plug with county and club this year.”

He took to the driving range and hit a few golf balls, felt no pain, and was convinced that this would be his only sporting pursuit in 2024.

National League, championship hurling for the Johnnies, the Joe McDonagh? None of it was going to happen.

But with the help of people like Ronan Sheehan and Des Jennings and physios, Shea [McAleer] and Conan [Brogan], he’s nearing a return to full fitness again.

“I know Oisin was disappointed with how he played against Laois,” Sheehan says. “He’s far too hard on himself. He sees everything of himself through the lens of a hurler as opposed to Oisin MacManus the person, who is far more formidable.

“The hurler is only a very small part of who Oisin is. Ultimately, this is a game. We’re all mad for it - don’t get me wrong - but when you hold up hurley against the lens of what Fearghal has had to go through, it’s relatively small beer.”

Oisin MacManus has had a lot of time to think over the past few months.

As he grips his hurl again and emerges into the light, he’s thankful for a lot of things that’s happened to him and glad that some things are firmly in his rear view.

But watching his brother Fearghal standing on top of Slieve Donard last summer is an image that will stay with him for the rest of his days.

Happy. Triumphant. Grateful. Together. Not quite invincible but feeling young again and ready to grab life with both hands.

He made it. The entire MacManus clan made it.

It’s true about the more companions you have on life’s journey, the better.

In St John’s, Oisin and Fearghal couldn’t have found a better companion.

“The people of St John’s have been unbelievable,” Oisin says.

“That’s the only word to describe them. They didn’t have to do the stuff that they did for us in terms of bringing us in and supporting us.

“During Fearghal’s treatment we were playing championship, he was in the changing room, he was part of the team.

“Dee McCallin was very good to him, he had him in all the time. He was always about training, hitting balls back out to people. The boys were always looking out for him.

“We feel indebted to St John’s for what they did for us.

“My hope this year is to try and win them a championship to pay them back. It’s not that I want to win a championship – I just want to give them something back for what they did.”

Oisin MacManus will play through the pain barrier against Kildare this weekend with so many key players missing
Oisin MacManus Oisin MacManus is hoping to get back playing for Down in the Joe McDoangh