GAA Football

Enda McGinley: Ronan McNamee's story a timely reminder that helping hands are out there

Stories like Ronan McNamee’s should act as a reminder for all of us to put our muzzles on when we find ourselves getting personal

RONAN McNamee’s candid interview and revelations in The Irish News last weekend provided a completely different view of the Aghyaran man than the one I, and I’m sure many others, had of him.

To me, he was the embodiment of the modern football full-back and, with that, of an Aghyaran man.

He was teak-tough, played the game in an uncompromising fashion and was as steady as they come.

Yet, with socks pulled up, tattoos decorating the skin and a cool, languid style on the ball that spoke much louder of his footballing ability than he ever would verbally, a typical mountain man he was not. Whether a game was going well, badly or was right in the melting pot, McNamee appeared unflustered.

A man just focused on doing his job.

Aghyaran is right on the edge of Tyrone.

I happened to be driving through it last weekend and recalled how that was where the Tyrone cavalcade ended its return trip with Sam Maguire in 2003.

Strange, you could say, to end the historic trip in what feels at times like an outpost of the county. But, in some way, if you wanted to end up among your own, few are as genuine an embodiment of Tyrone as Aghyaran and this genuineness was perfectly represented in its current county man.

His Allstar award three weeks ago was a formality.

Several years of solid performances at the top of the game had shown his calibre which, when capped off with this year’s dominant displays, meant he was that rare breed of a non-controversial, practically unanimous choice.

It was a well-deserved recognition and one which carried zero danger of fazing him or going to his head. It just wouldn’t be his style.

This was the narrative I imagined, as I’m sure did many others.

Nowhere in it would I have expected for one second to somehow have to include the very significant mental health difficulties he was suffering.

We all know it is important to refrain from judging others.

In the court of law, any jury or judge has to have the full facts before a judgement is passed.

In day-to-day life, the unattractive aspect of human nature means we are all prone to passing judgement too readily.

Thankfully, most have the wit to keep those often clumsy judgements private – but county players must face these judgements all the time.

Their performances on the field, their behaviour when socialising, at work, their home life or social media life are the Irish equivalent of tabloid celebrity fodder.

Yet stories like McNamee’s, so bravely retold, have to act as an acute reminder for all of us to put our muzzles on when we find ourselves getting personal.

While the forum and amount of voices at county level are obviously much bigger, the impact of words can have the same effect at any level and the mental health issues raised are as real when talking about youth and adult players, committee members, volunteers or anyone in our clubs and communities.

While McNamee’s remarkable story gives us all a healthy reminder of how we are ignorant of what is going on behind the public facade of someone’s life, it also reminds us how the GAA can be such a critical force for good in the health and wellbeing of our communities.

There are few truer adages than ‘Your health is your wealth’ and, in this sense, the GAA is showing once again that, while as a sporting organisation it has its issues, it remains so much more than that.

I have admired the work of my own club Errigal Ciaran’s health and wellbeing committee in raising the issue of mental health within the clubs activities.

It is imperative that the reality of the situation, brought into sharp relief by Ronan McNamee’s story, dawns on us all and maybe in particular those given responsibility over teams.

Mickey Harte, given how long he has been at the Tyrone helm, has naturally developed a growing number of detractors.

The quiet, private way he very obviously played a huge part in helping McNamee come through a terribly traumatic time in his life speaks volumes, and explains the ongoing loyalty players show towards him.

It is also evidence of the need for any of us within our communities to be willing to be the person who grasps the hand needing help. Finding yourself in the right place at the right time, would you be the right person?

The North has well documented mental health challenges and has the highest rates of suicide and/or self-harm in the UK.

In a YouGov survey of 16- 25-year-olds carried out for The Prince’s Trust in 2018, 44 per cent reported having experienced a mental health problem and 33 per cent said they ‘always or often feel hopeless’.

Where reality should start to bite is when we convert such statistics into a dressing room of 24 players.

Over the course of a season, it’s all but guaranteed there will be times when someone listening to the manager’s words is not in a good place.

It’s not about treating everyone like wallflowers or needing to be a psychologist, but McNamee’s story underlines the importance of trying to be more conscious of such factors in our interactions and aware of things to look out for.

Sport, in the impact of exercise itself, a social team environment, the escapism it allows and the resilience it helps build, has many of the most important attributes in combating mental health issues.

With that bit of extra awareness, we can minimise potential pitfalls and maximise the good.

The health and wellbeing aspect of the Association’s activities is a clearly positive approach.

In its outreach beyond sporting endeavours, it recognises the Association’s potential as a force for good in our communities.

It reflects a long-term willingness of clubs to engage in charity initiatives that do not directly benefit them, but for which they can act as a ready-made conduit of good will.

From my own connections I think of the Paul McGirr Foundation and the Cormac McAnallen Trust, or all the charity linked fundraising clubs are involved with.

For example, the Killyclogher club is holding a collection outside Healy Park in Omagh before Sunday’s Ulster Club SFC final.

It is to raise funds for the NI Air Ambulance who came to the aid of one of their club-men Tommy Nugent when he suffered an accident a few months ago.

While Tommy tragically didn’t survive, the value of having been able to avail of the Air Ambulance has meant much to his family, including his brother Paddy who instigated Sunday’s collection.

It is once again a reflection of the non-sporting role the GAA has in the fabric of our community and the health of us all.

It is only fitting that we continue extending ourselves in this regard for, as Ronan McNamee’s story shows, none of us ever know the when, how and where we need help.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

GAA Football