Former Waterford hurling boss Derek McGrath leading Darkness Into Light campaign
MAURICE Shanahan's cry for help in 2015 was probably the main reason why Derek McGrath decided to become an ambassador for the ‘Darkness Into Light' suicide awareness campaign.
As his county manager and simply on a human level, McGrath thought he could help Shanahan snap out of his depression and stop him thinking suicidal thoughts.
Shanahan later went public about his battle with depression and was hailed for doing so.
As a schoolteacher, McGrath was used to problem solving.
“You think you'd have enough emotional intelligence to solve it yourself but I was unable to solve it,” McGrath says.
“You recognise then that you need expertise. That's where Pieta House comes in. So I've seen at first hand, both in teaching and in management, that expertise is needed in the area.
“But you should have a role as a manager or a teacher – a duty of care, if you like. That's why I don't like using the word ‘worthy', but I just think it is a real cause.”
At 4.15am tomorrow morning, thousands of people will participate in walks in every county of Ireland as part of the Darkness Into Light campaign, supported by Electric Ireland, in a bid to raise awareness of suicide in the country and the great work Pieta House does in helping those who are affected by depression and other mental health issues.
“You see mental health disorders in front of you every day of the week between the ages of 12 and 18. Listen, I think we've all known a bit of darkness,” said McGrath.
“I suppose the attraction of ‘Darkness Into Light' for me was hope – the whole idea of hope, there is always hope, the sincerity of hope and the surprising nature of hope. That's what it means more than anything.”
McGrath stepped down as Waterford senior hurling manager last July after five roller-coaster years in charge and was replaced by 49-year-old former county hurler Paraic Fanning.
In 2015, he guided his native county to their first National League title since 2007 and later that year the Decies were beaten by Tipperary in the Munster decider.
In all, Waterford reached five finals during his reign. The closest they came to the Liam MacCarthy was in 2017. After pulverising Cork in a memorable All-Ireland semi-final, Galway crushed their dream in the decider.
Unquestionably, McGrath's Waterford left an indelible mark on the hurling landscape.
He has an acute understanding of voids – he's still trying to fill the one left by his departure from Waterford.
But it's not just voids. It's government policies. It's the promotion of the individual above everything else and the extreme vanity that has engulfed every aspect of modern life.
McGrath feels all sections of the Irish population have suffered from the rougher edges of the prevailing economic system and the Darwinian nature of society.
“The whole idea of self-interest, ambition and caring for others, I think it's important to get the balance right and not always wanting to keep up with the Joneses,” he says.
“Sometimes the balance is kind of going towards the whole area of ambition as opposed to caring for others.
“Sometimes we're in danger of saying: ‘Well, I'm on the road in the pursuit of excellence and sometimes I don't care who I step on,' you know.
“It's probably a reflection of society. We were at our son's junior open night in October and the principal there explained there were kids as young as eight and nine years-of-age presenting with mental health issues.
“That's worrying. Where does it stop? How do you get the balance right when you need to be forceful in imparting something in a way that's not hurtful?
“It's a fine balancing act in teaching and managing and life in general.”
While politicians grapple with the challenges of rural Ireland, McGrath feels the GAA is playing its part in sustaining more isolated communities.
“It's just that communal, collective, unifying spirit of the GAA.
“It's real, it's authentic. You can't beat authenticity, you can't beat something that's real, and the GAA is real. There is a coming together of people – it sounds a bit corny.
“But I'd imagine it cures more illnesses than any scheme – just the goodness, that warmth of people in the GAA community.”
McGrath is back teaching again. He'd stepped away from it during his time managing Waterford.
“When I was involved with Waterford I wasn't teaching as well because I wasn't as organised as I should have been,” he says.
“I'd be a harsh critic of myself. I'm definitely teaching better. I lost a bit of weight – it's no big deal – and I've more time with the family.”
BUT don't for a second think McGrath is finished with managing at elite level. He is a self-confessed sideline junkie who wants to jump back into hurling's bear pit.
He's enjoying the media work – earning rave reviews on The Sunday Game while his columns in The Times have become must-reads for sports fans.
“I don't want to become that comfort zone guy that goes from being an adviser with teams or goes from team to team, does the odd session here, a talk there.
“I don't want to be that gravy train merchant. What's good about it at the moment is it's given me the chance to learn and reflect on what you didn't do well, what you did do well, how you over-thought it at times, how you under-thought it at times, you know. Ways you might have short-changed yourself.
“But I do miss it. I won't stay out of it too long. I miss it terribly. I'll take the lessons from the five years that I've had and the year or two that I've had and say: ‘Right, this is the way you'd go about it now.'
“A lot was done right, a lot of small things were done wrong. I suppose just learning along the way and being a bit more physically fit for it and maybe have a better life balance as well.
“I don't live my life with a cuteness in mind, that kind of planning where it's premeditated. I think things happen for a reason.
“I was talking about this in school and Ricky Hatton and his struggles after boxing. When you come out of the GAA environment after putting so much into it...
“I suppose you question yourself: Could you do it better? Could you be more calculated and less emotive about it all?
“In recent months I read: Sport Takes Care Of Itself by Bill Walsh – the old San Francisco 49ers coach. He felt he needed to have abnormal levels of concentration and focus.
“What I went through I'd say was fairly abnormal.
“You often look at [Pep] Guardiola – now, I'm not comparing myself to Guardiola – and you read his book Pep Confidential where he talks about being really weary, really knackered from the obsession that goes into something.
“If you're into something, you're into something. Recharging of the batteries is definitely necessary though. I'm not going to fall off the wagon into alcoholism – I'm just making the point that there can be people where the void presents too much.
“I remember talking to [Cork manager 2016 and 2017] Kieran Kingston and it has taken him almost a year to get used to the normality of life without it. I'm still in the middle of it. I won't say a breakdown but I'm still in the middle of it, that kind of emotional turmoil, without being cute or dramatic about it.”
HE'S stayed away from Waterford's National League matches this year but is looking forward to taking in their Championship games, starting with their opener against Clare on Sunday.
During his time at the helm, McGrath's Waterford side were on the receiving end of some scathing criticism for their perceived defensive approach.
Employing sweepers and the like seemed to insult hurling's blue-bloods and in the early throes of his managerial stint McGrath found the scrutiny tough.
“I would have listened to the inaccuracy in the commentary…but when I say we only played with an out-and-out sweeper four times people think I'm being completely untruthful and insincere.
“Now that you're out of it you can maybe explain it more as opposed to when you're in it – you're being categorised and pigeon-holed because of this when in reality your team and yourself are planning week in, week out with a different approach every weekend.
“Ultimately you're judged by the inner sanctum but sometimes things can permeate the group because it becomes ingrained in people's mindsets and the way it's imparted.
“It just becomes a lazy approach. If I was to pick the top four or five teams in the country – Limerick, Waterford, Galway, Cork, Tipp – I'd imagine 85 per cent of them have gone through the college system. I know the 15 players that played in the League final for Waterford have all been in third level [education]… I'm not saying this in an academically snobby way… For me, they're a little bit more intellectually curious – asking questions about: ‘what are you doing to bring an edge?'
“I'd say 2014, '15 and '16, is a carbon copy of what we were trying to do and what Limerick are doing now – one or two inside, guys flooding out the field, getting forward in numbers, keeping the ball, making smart decisions. I think that's everywhere and there's not much difference.
“And I'm seeing that in the football where Kevin Walsh was having a go as how they're perceived in Galway. There's a bit of that [defensive tag] following Kevin around. When you're in the media and you start going tit-for-tat with the media, you're in bother, so my policy was to say: ‘Well, it's actually a bit different than that.'
“And you try and be as affable as possible about it but it hurts a small bit too I suppose. But look, it never really got to us to a point where we wanted to change tack.”
** Electric Ireland Darkness Into Light walks take place in every county in Ireland, with 13 in the North, tomorrow at 4.15am
** The aim is to open conversations and destigmatise suicide so people feel more comfortable about seeking help
** Last year 200,000 people took part across 19 countries
** To find your nearest walk, sign up at www.darknessintolight.ie