Picture perfect: Derry's Ruairi Mooney brushing up on art ahead of Oak Leaf return
After a frustrating couple of years with injury, Ruairi Mooney can't wait to get back out on the field with Derry in the coming months. But, as Neil Loughran finds out, the Eoghan Rua ace hasn't been stuck for inspiration while sport has been locked down…
THE lockdown anniversary is fast approaching. There may have been a few since but the first always matters that bit more, those precious memories of baking banana bread and wrestling with a Spanish phrasebook - either side of your hour out in the yard - enough to last a lifetime.
It was a time of short-lived ambition, of reaching for the stars. This is our moment, dammit, awaken your creative souls and be at one with the world! Until the tedium wore us all down, that is.
Gradually folk began to resent those new vices. All of a sudden the smell of banana bread was enough to make the stomach heave. Spanish? Sure you can barely leave the house, what the hell would you need to learn Spanish for? And don’t even mention Joe Wicks.
Ruairi Mooney, though, took a different tack. Where others went in search of enlightenment, he found comfort in an old friend.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Mooney was on the hamster’s wheel of club and county training with Eoghan Rua, Coleraine and Derry. Add in the daily commute from Portstewart to his day job at a primary school in Belfast and life didn’t allow for a whole lot else.
Don’t get the wrong impression, he was more than happy with his lot too.
Dual player Mooney comes from serious sporting stock you see. Dad Hugh was part of the All-Ireland winning Tyrone minor team of 1973 before relocating to the Port from Edendork, while mum Rita – part of the famous Neeson clan from Bryansford - played camogie for Down.
Older sister Maria is also a talented camog and younger brother Dara continues to make a name for himself with Eoghan Rua and Derry minors. Yet the GAA wasn’t drummed into any of them.
As offspring of a music teacher and a PE teacher, the multi-faceted approach to life encouraged by the surroundings of their adopted homeplace near the shore was passed down. Swimming, surfing and song were, and remain, as integral to their being as anything that occurs between the white lines.
“I would never say I’ve been a GAA fanatic… I don’t know if that’s to do with me, or where we’re from, or something else.
“Before Eoghan Rua played Ballinderry in the county final in 2010, we were driving around the Ballyronan/Ballinderry area and every single house had a Ballinderry flag hung outside it.
“Every household had someone playing either underage or for the senior team - that amazed me that they had 100 per cent total buy-in. Here’s us in Portstewart where there’s maybe only 20-30 people at training, max, and you’re up against clubs where there’s an entire army of people behind them.
“Their lives are so focused on the GAA... it just shows the stark contrast of what clubs have and the background they come from. Obviously playing is a real passion of mine, but I wouldn’t really study it.
“Even now I would watch the big games when they’re on but I wouldn’t be logging on to Armagh TV to watch some McKenna Cup group game.
“I can definitely switch off from it. No problem at all.”
When the first lockdown came in on March 16 2020, therefore, idle hands would not be long finding work. Except it never felt that way.
As a child, Ruairi Mooney would spend hours letting his imagination run wild with pencil and paper. When opportunity knocked again, he was drawn back in.
“I studied art through school, that’s actually what my teaching degree is in. Growing up I was always drawing, much more than playing football.
“My primary interest was comics, cartoons… in primary school I tried to make my own comics and had notions I would sell pictures or comics for 10p a go.
“On Saturday mornings my da would’ve been struggling to tear me away from cartoons to get me to training. I dug the heels in on a couple of occasions, I’d no interest in playing football then really. When I was younger I could’ve thought of 10 other things I’d rather do than go to training on a Saturday morning.
“I was happy enough sitting in my pyjamas with a bowl of Sugar Puffs, just staring at the screen, then going away and drawing.
“I always had notions of spending more time doing art because although it was something I wanted to do, I just never seemed to set time aside for it. But when lockdown landed on us, what else was I going to spend those hours doing?”
Captivated by The Last Dance mini-series, which revolves around the career of Michael Jordan and particularly his final season with the Chicago Bulls, Mooney was prompted to commit paint to canvas once more.
After posting the completed portrait on Instagram (@rpm_artistics) and Twitter (@ruairimooney), he was inundated not just with positive reviews but also, to his surprise, enquiries from interested parties.
“I actually have that one hung up in my room here.
“When I did that one of my team-mates, Ciaran Lenehan, sent me a photo from when we won the championship a few years ago and asked would I paint it. Then Barry McGoldrick had a different picture from our 2010 championship win he wanted done.
“It’s amazing how quickly it took off and messages started coming in… there’s maybe a bit of a gap in the market there. People who play Gaelic, or any sport, really love to see action shots, so it sort of goes hand in hand with what I’m doing.”
And while fads faded elsewhere, re-establishing that lost connection still feels fresh and exciting a year on. Researching the classics or meandering through museums nodding knowingly has never been his style and that won’t change now. In sporting parlance, it’s always been about the love of the game.
“My da actually said to me to watch I didn’t sicken myself of it. There was a time last year when I was spending eight or 10 hours a day painting, but it’s never felt like a burden.
“If anything I’ve probably got more ambitious since I’ve started, and there’s different projects in my head for the future, different things I’d love to do. It’s sort of taken over.
“I could sit and paint for six hours and feel like half an hour’s gone. It’s one of those things - you read about people getting into a state of flow… I don’t know if what I’m doing is that but it must be something fairly close.
“It’s good when I’m doing stuff for friends, it’s nice to have a challenge to take a piece from scratch and capture the likeness of someone or capture a scene. It spurs you on to do the next one.
“But I’d be lying if I said I’d established a style or I was happy with where my art was at or anything. Up until now I’ve just painted on impulse, I see a picture or have an idea. At the minute I’m really enjoying that mixture of sport with art, especially action shots.
“I definitely think there’s something about the influence of Portstewart, the beach, the seaside… I’d say that will have some sort of influence on my work at some stage. But I only feel like I’m getting started now.”
Mooney is currently covering maternity leave at St Colum’s primary school in Portstewart and, after another elongated period of remote learning, can’t wait to see the beaming faces of his P3 class when they return to school on Monday.
But the idea of doing the same thing “for the next 20 or 30 years”, whether teaching or anything else, doesn’t hold much appeal at the minute.
Instead Mooney takes inspiration from the likes of Armagh footballer Jamie Clarke and former Roscommon full-back Neil Patrick Collins as men who have helped dispel some myths that may have surrounded GAA players by venturing into the creative sphere.
Last year Clarke co-founded menswear label Ilk with Killian Walsh having interned in a fashion agency in New York, while Collins hosted a first major solo art exhibition in Dublin in 2020 having also been based in the Big Apple.
“A lot of the time when you’re involved with Gaelic, and county teams especially, it takes over your life.
“I would never complain about that, you have to have that level of commitment and obsession, but it’s nice to also be away from that and have other interests - something that doesn’t revolve around your involvement in sport. It’s nice to be able to set that aside and do something else.
“Jamie Clarke has played at the top level and is branching out into other areas. He became a household name and any time he was playing for Armagh or Crossmaglen after that, it would always be mentioned how he was involved in fashion, almost like ‘here’s this one person who’s done something crazy’. Thankfully people are probably more forward thinking now.
“I’m still working as a teacher and I love that, and I’m still doing a Masters in St Mary’s, so I’m keeping my options open. But when you see the likes of those boys trying to begin a journey or a venture, it does make you think about what you want to do.”
The GAA, and his sporting ambitions, remains a major part of the picture too.
Tall and athletic, the versatile Mooney announced his arrival in the big time as part of the St Mary’s side that defied the odds to land the Sigerson Cup in 2017.
A year later he helped Eoghan Rua claim their second Derry championship title, before his strike beyond the brilliant Rory Beggan almost saw the Port boys claim Scotstown’s scalp in Ulster.
Pictures of that moment in time conjure up some magic memories, although the man bun that completed the look is long since gone.
“Ah that was a bad oul hairstyle.
“The man bun was good while it lasted but it had to go. I was subbing at a secondary school one day and I could hear the pupils in the class, GCSE students, whispering that I looked like Jesus.
“When you’re getting slagged by GCSE students, it’s time to make the call. It’s hard to demand respect when you’ve to fix your bun.”
A three month expedition across South America with team-mate Liam McGoldrick in early 2019 aside, though, the two-and-a-half years since have been tough.
Injuries have curtailed a playing career approaching full bloom yet the lack of competitive action over the past six months has allowed Mooney to rehabilitate successfully, leaving those dark days firmly in the rear-view mirror.
Now 25, his focus is trained on nailing down a spot in Rory Gallagher’s Derry side as soon as a return to play gets the green light.
“Osteitis pubis is what they would’ve called it but that’s not technically correct. Pete Hughes, our strength and conditioning coach in Derry, said it’s more like tendinopathy. It’s a very niggly injury, a painful one and hard to shake.
“I started to feel it in 2018, around the time of the Scotstown game but I thought a couple of months off, going to South America and not doing any real training might help and I’ll come back fixed. But that wasn’t the case.
“I played a couple of games for Derry in 2019 but it got worse so I took time off once we were out of the club hurling championship last year. There was no point being half fit and wasting more time.
“It’s the kind of thing that if you don’t nip it in the bud it could become aggressive. Our club physio Paddy Morrison has been a massive help and Pete has been amazing so, touch wood, I’m on the mend and feeling the effects of a good winter spent following a programme.
“I got back to art during the first lockdown, and one of the positives this time is knowing that, once we get back out playing, I’m not going to have to look at a physio bed or watch other people train and play matches.
“I can finally get back to where I want to be.”