GAA Football

'Now when I look in the mirror, I see somebody I recognise, somebody I actually like. That makes me proud'

It was only when he hit rock bottom that Domhnall Nugent really realised how much those around him cared. Now renewed and refocused, he is excited about life, and sport, again. In the second of a two part interview, he tells Neil Loughran about battling back from the brink...

Domhnall Nugent spent 12 weeks at Cuan Mhuire in Newry before returning to training with St John's in time for the football and hurling championships. Picture by Mal McCann

“It’s only about 40-45 minutes down the road, but that journey felt like three hours. More even. Everything goes through your head. At that stage it’s more self-pity than anything else… I’m 22 years of age - what the f**k am I doing going to a rehab centre?” 

IT was only an off the cuff remark, but deep down Domhnall Nugent knew that it meant something more; that it came from a place of real and genuine concern.

“Paddy Hannigan... he’s a brilliant, brilliant man, and I remember he said to me on Boxing Day last year: ‘Domhnall, if you ever need anything, anything at all, come and give me a shout’.

“He knew then that I needed help. I probably knew too, but you have to want it.”

By Monday, June 1 2019 he wanted help – needed help. That was the day he took his last drink, and the same day he phoned Cuan Mhuire to arrange the first steps towards regaining some semblance of a life he no longer recognised.

He stayed with a cousin “more or less on lockdown” for a further nine days before, on June 10, Hannigan arrived to take him down the M1 to Newry. Even then, part of him wanted to run.

“I was still trying to get a way out of it, but then you start to think of the people you’ve affected; my granny. It broke her heart.

“Emer. She was in the middle of doing a law degree last year during all this and she still got her law degree. Will she ever forgive me for the chaos I put her and her family through? Probably not, and I wouldn’t blame her.

“My da. Padraig. Our relationship was gone...”

He remembers the walk from the car to the front door. The fear, the apprehension, then straight into the toughest two weeks of his life.

“Paddy left me off and that was it - bag over my shoulder, beard, hair all over the place, shaking and shaking, nerves…

“You’re put into a detox/assessment area where you’re in a room beside a courtyard area, and that’s you. It was the first time I’d ever been forced to have a look at myself; to sit in my own skin with my own feelings, questioning everything, writing out everything from I was 18 until now, the madness of those years.

“I’d always thought an alcoholic was someone in Castle Street in the town, begging for money, but there’s teachers in there, county players… it’s from one extreme to another, but all our stories and the way we think were so similar.

“A lot of people who were there walked during those two weeks; the temptation was always there because nobody was making you stay. You’re climbing up walls.

“But when the other option is to go back to the life you’re living and probably die, from somewhere you have to try and find the strength to see it through.”

Once that initial fortnight was over, he moved into the main house, St Joseph’s, for the remaining 10 weeks. There you rise at 6.15am for meditation before breakfast, then carry out your therapeutic duties. For Nugent, this time was spent in the kitchen.

After that there are group therapy sessions, food prep, one on ones, constant conversation, dinner, the rosary, then bed.

It was as simple and straightforward an existence as he had ever known. And gradually, over time, some old wounds began to heal.

“I’d been going to counselling from I was 16, 17, 18 but I never told them the truth. I never had an honest conversation with anybody until I went to Newry.

“I would’ve told them what they wanted to hear, just ticking boxes, so for me to finally sit down and get everything out was unbelievable. And after that you’re thinking ‘f**k sake Domhnall, 15 years for a 15 minute conversation…’

“When I was in there I wrote a journal every day too, and wrote a lot of letters to people who I’ve affected... probably about 20 in all. Mine and Padraig’s relationship started to really build when I was away, through letters. You have a visitor once a month, he came down for the second visit and I was so happy to see him.

“We were very honest with each other, and what happened in the county final did come up. Like, we grew up dreaming of winning a championship together, then I went and did that…

“There was a lot of anger there; about the move, me kicking the ball off the tee, him getting sent off. It had been playing on his mind for a long time, so I was glad that all got settled.

“Now, it’s just pure honesty between us.”

A Johnnies legend was the familiar face waiting with a warm smile when he eventually left Cuan Mhuire on Friday, August 30. Andy McCallin had seen him at his lowest ebb, and was determined to offer whatever support he could.

“I stayed with Andy and his wife Josephine for the two weeks after I came out.

“He’s been unbelievable to me - he even gave me a job back when I was about 14. Andy goes around houses doing surveys and he gave me a job sitting in the car with him, working his sat nav. Like, Andy knew how to work a sat nav, but that’s just the way he is.

“He’s always had my back, 100 per cent. Even through the whole thing with Lamh Dhearg, even though he didn’t agree with what I’d done, he had my back.

“And when he picked me up, he saw a big difference in me. He’s helped me get sorted with an apartment since… I feel so blessed and grateful for having that support.”

In his darkest moments, Domhnall Nugent felt as though he was alone; as though no-one else was going through what he was going through. That nobody else understood.

But the journey he has been on – one that is still ongoing - brought him back into the arms of so many people he had cast aside, and of the faith he had turned his back on.

“I wouldn’t have been religious at all, but that has changed. Not that I see God as this thing in the sky; to me, he works through people. People doing good things, like Andy McCallin, my family, friends, Emer, my granny… I feel as if that’s God working through them to get to me.

“That’s just a God of my own understanding, and that’s fine. It’s strange when you get that feeling because I’ve never had anything like it before. I don’t really know how to describe it.

“I just… I don’t feel like I’m on my own any more.”

******************

Domhnall's Nugent's eye-catching performances in St John' Antrim SHC semi-final clashes with Cushendall convinced new county hurling boss Darren Gleeson to bring him back into the Saffron fold. Picture by Seamus Loughran

LONG before he left Newry, the target had been set. A promise made to himself that, unlike so many broken in the past, he was determined to keep. It may have meant bending the rules, but he could justify that in the knowledge it was for the greater good.

“I knew if I was going to get my head right, I couldn’t leave there in the shape I went in, so myself and a boy from Dublin were getting up Monday, Wednesday, Friday mornings running from a quarter to five, before the nuns got up. They caught on a few times but I think they sort of turned a blind eye at the end.

“That was me working, and I had the goal in my head that I was going to come back and play championship with St John’s.”

Hours after arriving at Andy McCallin’s house, Domhnall Nugent was warmly welcomed back into the fold at football training. By the time he went to bed that same night, he had the offer of a job, courtesy of St John’s boss John Kelly.

“I started here [at Homefit in Hannahstown] on the Wednesday after and it’s going well.

“When you come out of Newry, somebody’s taking a risk by employing you. You’re still very vulnerable, but my mindframe was good. I felt strong.”

He feels like one of the lucky ones, but knows that can change in the click of a finger.

Stark reminders lie around every corner, especially at this early stage in his recovery. The night before we meet, he attended the wake of a young man he had got to know in Newry.

But the rearview mirror is used only as a force for good now rather than a stick to beat himself with, with every glance back a reminder of just how far he has come.

“I’ve been out a few nights with the boys and I felt great because they didn’t make a fuss. I was still having the craic, they headed on to a nightclub and I went home and got a pizza. I felt so happy, I woke up the next morning and felt fresh.

“If I’d gone out, I’d still have been on the drink the next day. All my mates would’ve got up, shook themselves together and went to work; that would’ve been me for two weeks.

“Now I wake up and say the serenity prayer - God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. I am not going to drink today

“That’s what it is, one day at a time, and when I go to bed tonight, there’s a good chance I won’t drink tomorrow again. That’s how simple I live my life now. Don’t do anybody any harm, and if you can help somebody along the way, do it.”

Nugent fulfilled his other personal pact by returning in time to play championship for St John’s, football and hurling. Neither ended with the Holy Grail but, this year of all years, a bigger picture had to be considered.

And even though there was no silverware, there was a silver lining for Nugent as he was back to his swashbuckling best in the two epic hurling championship semi-final encounters with Cushendall, doing enough to merit a call-up from new Antrim boss Darren Gleeson.

The Tipperary man is looking to the future, and so is his latest recruit, completing the full circle journey back to the Saffron jersey four years on – boy, man, and all that went between.

“I don’t care what anyone else says, that 12 weeks [in Newry] will be the toughest thing I’ll ever do in my life. And I actually finished something… I didn’t finish university, but this has showed me I can do something with my life.

“I haven’t been with the Antrim seniors since before I went to Boston, and getting another chance there would mean the world to me. I haven’t really had a good solid year to prove that I’m good enough to play for the county but the way I feel now, if I get the chance I’ll take it.

“That’s where my head’s at. I’d work so hard for it because it’s where I want to be. I mean, it was only when I went to Newry that it really dawned on me that lots of people don’t even get into county set-ups until they’re 22 – look what you could do here.

“That’s when I started to get excited about my life again. It’s not that I feel invincible, but I feel as if I’m in a really good place and I can set myself targets and achieve them.

“I have a chance, whereas before if I saw photos of me playing, I didn’t recognise myself. I wasn’t connected to that person at all. I had no respect for myself, so how was I supposed to respect my family, my friends?

“Now when I look in the mirror, I see somebody I recognise, somebody I actually like. That makes me proud.”

Domhnall Nugent (far right) last played for the Antrim senior hurlers in 2016, and is determined to wear the Saffron jersey again. Picture by Seamus Loughran

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