Paul Brady: Still holding on to the chaos

Once described as ‘the greatest Irish sportsman you’ve never heard of’, former Cavan footballer Paul Brady carved out a legacy in handball that has been under-appreciated at home in Ireland. Juggling the two left him physically and mentally drained but he continued to pursue them for almost a decade, and he still hasn’t closed the door fully. The Mullahoran man spoke to Cahair O’Kane…

Paul Brady has won 11 US Open men's single titles, but hasn't given up on setting the outright record of 12.
Paul Brady has won 11 US Open men's single titles, but hasn't given up on setting the outright record of 12.

PAUL Brady sits by the bar in Houston Airport, his mind racing as the Texan world buzzes around him.

It was in these departure lounges that he developed an interest in people-watching. He’d spy out someone and study their behaviours, see if he could work out a complete stranger.

If anyone had been studying his behaviour that Friday night in June 2005, they would never have guessed the weekend he was having.

Stowed away on the plane that will take him to London on the first leg of the journey home is the trophy he’d chased and now cherished.

From not long after Fr John Gilhooly introduced him to handball as a first year at St Patrick’s Cavan, he’d fixed eyes on becoming the first Irishman to win the US Open singles title.

Canada’s Danny Bell was no match, beaten 21-12, 21-5.

This was everything Brady had ever dreamt of.

And here he is barely three hours later, alone in an airport in the dark of night.

He orders a beer. When it arrives, he just stares at it.

“I remember thinking ‘this is all I ever wanted’, and I didn’t drink the bottle of beer.

“You’re nearly rebelling against the situation. I was trapped in it.”

No sooner had he lifted the trophy than his mind was transported to where it next needed to be.

He hadn’t taken time to even shower at the venue. Ran back to the hotel, stuffed all into a case, into a taxi and gone.

His mind wanders to how he should be staying in Houston, living it up, enjoying what he’d worked so hard to achieve.

Today, he can feel the anxiety building inside him at the thought of the bus through rush-hour traffic to get from Stansted to Heathrow. Being late wasn’t an option if he wanted home in time for Cavan’s Ulster semi-final against Tyrone – a day that would end sourly when he is sent off for a stamp on Conor Gormley, leading to a three-month ban.

“And I’m sitting in that airport thinking ‘here I am at the pinnacle, and I’ve never been as unhappy as I am right now’.”

* * * * *

TWENTY-five thousand people baked in the glorious summer sun of Clones that day.

It doesn’t take much to make a Cavanman dream and even less to waken them up.

When Jason O’Reilly nipped in behind and found his way through Packie McConnell’s tree-trunk legs midway through the second half, they deliriously led Tyrone by three.

It would end a draw, with Brady sent to the line by a referee who left to a torrent of Tyrone boos having given the Breffnimen the softest of equalising frees as the game ran out of breath.

Paul Brady’s legs had run out of juice fifteen minutes early. No wonder. From Houston, Texas to Clones, Monaghan in just over a day was one thing, but to be in the thick of the extraordinary tension of the sporting events on either side of the Atlantic aisle was a strain with which he was discovering he couldn’t really cope.

“You know the film Planes, Trains and Automobiles? I remember thinking ‘this is almost my life here’,” says Brady.

“I’d be in the States one week and within 48 hours, I’d be in Breffni Park at a training session, completely exhausted, but I have to go to that session because I’ve missed the week before.

“It was just normality for me, that chaos.

“That day I got sent off, that was just a get-out. I was breaking down. To be honest, I was almost having a nervous breakdown at that time.”

This is no sporting sob story. It’s a tale of the realities he brought upon himself, and continues to do so.

He’s long gone from the Cavan scene but is still playing club football for Mullahoran. He has talked about retiring from handball for a decade and still hasn’t.

Naty Alvarado Snr’s record of 11 US Open titles has been in sharp focus all the while that Brady collected one after the other after the other.

He tied with it in 2019, having lost both previous finals, but hasn’t had the chance since to break it.

The 2020 tournament was cancelled and 2021 is up in the air. If they play it later in the year, as is being discussed, he’d most likely play. If it runs on into another year, he most likely won’t.

Either way he’ll have turned 42 in September. He’s a husband and a father to two toddlers under three.

“The curtain at this point is closing, rapidly, but it hasn’t fully closed,” he offers.

“I’m happy to leave it if that is it, but I just want to make sure I’ve no regrets that if it was possible.

“Even if I went and I lost, I’d say ‘right’. You can see where the hesitancy is coming from.

“I can’t make a decision because I don’t know what’s happening.”

Paul Brady chose the life he wanted. He pursued his goals with everything he had.

When handball went well, as it almost exclusively did, it brought him enough money to live on and some sense of notoriety.

He was living rent-free in his cousin’s house in Dublin and flew back and forth to the States for handball tournaments once a month.

Yet when he lost for the first time in a few years in 2008, missing out on a $25,000 pot, he suddenly realised that winning was about far more than he’d realised.

“People asked how I’d stay motivated. At that time, it was like I had to eat, so I had to win – simple as that.

“This [defeat] was after six or seven years, and I decided I couldn’t live like that and applied to do teaching. I couldn’t live with that pressure.

“That loss, even though the whole world fell out of me and I’m thinking ‘I’ve no income now, what am I gonna do?’ it spurred me on to do teaching.”

Excellence and a complicated relationship with the field in which it is achieved is nothing new or unusual.

Brady found a particular relatability in Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, the tale of this tortured soul who spent his life needing tennis to exist and wanting it to go away all at once.

He may not have been as rich or famous, but the Cavan man conquered his own small corner of the sporting market with a similarly obsessive nature.

When he won the men’s World Open title in 2009, he played through a torn quad. In 2011, he had a badly-broken left index finger, a career-threatening injury that he strapped up and ploughed through to win the All-Ireland singles title.

His career was defined by the 2012 World Championship final against rival Luis Moreno. In front of 4,000 people in the CityWest in Dublin, he came back from 13-2 down in the first game, winning it 21-19 on his way to victory.

Victory sustained him but the journey ate him up, bit by bit. When he quit the Cavan panel in 2007, he spoke of his exhaustion.

In an interview at the time he recalled winning the All-Ireland handball title in Dublin before rushing home to play a league game against Wexford.

He spent most of the night vomiting with dehydration and didn’t sleep. That was the kind of torture he put himself through.

“You have this talent and you want to develop it, and you don’t want to walk away from it,” he says now.

“You feel this responsibility to develop it to its full potential. It comes at such a cost. That’s the way I felt during those years, especially the peak years.

“You felt a bit tortured. You nearly didn’t want the responsibility of the position I occupied.

“There is a lot of that; a lot of conflict. Now, the conflict has changed, but it still remains.”

This man from Mullahoran, whose famous 1947 All-Ireland winning uncle Phil ‘the Gunner’ passed on the moniker, the genes and the expectations, was off in America doing his thing on an almost monthly basis.

Most of it escaped public attention. Everyone knew he was the handball fella, but the magnitude of his achievements in the sport were mostly lost.

“The greatest Irish sportsman you might never have heard of” was how he was often described by fellow countyman, handball aficionado and journalist Paul Fitzpatrick.

The lack of widespread public recognition for his sporting endeavours on a global stage never bothered him, he insists. But when he was wrapped up in the heat of a big game with Cavan and things didn’t go as planned, he couldn’t help but wish a sense of understanding upon those in the stands.

The aftermath of the red card against Tyrone saw his three-month suspension accepted in spite of Mickey Harte and Conor Gormley both sending letters in his defence to the disciplinary bodies.

“You’re being dragged through the media a lot, my name, and I didn’t like that at all. You just wanted to tell people ‘hold on, come and look at my life the last few years, I feel really trapped’.

“I was full-time at sport so I had no real outlet, no joy. I came straight back in a club game and got sent off, not in the semi-final but subsequently.

“I just needed an out, I wanted away from this, I’m sick of this, I can’t keep going on. Physically, it was taking so much out of me.”

* * * * *

TURNING into his 30s, teaching became his first full-time pursuit outside sport.

He qualified in 2010 and has been in St Felim’s national school in Cavan for four years now, but up until then he’d take maternity posts so he wouldn’t be tied away from the handball.

There were spells where he’d stay in America for a few months in the off-season but for 15 years and more, he spent more than enough time going this way or that across the ocean.

When he first joined the Cavan football panel in October 2002, the team were heading off to Tenerife for a week.

He came with the family heritage, two Cavan U21 club titles and the intention that he’d see if he could learn anything in training that he could translate to handball.

Nine seasons he’d end up playing, living a double-life that involved monthly visits to the States for handball tournaments, flying back home and jumping back in with the county footballers.

A fearless, classy wing-back, his name jumped off the teamsheet as a nephew of the great Phil ‘The Gunner’ Brady, star of Cavan’s 1947 All-Ireland winning team.

The pressures he felt to play were never external though. He was never once forced into a Cavan changing room, or a Mullahoran one.

Hindsight suggests to him the reason he put such a strain on himself for so long was that football provided something handball couldn’t, and vice-versa.

Cavan football frustrated the life out of him. That 2005 Tyrone game being the case in point. This was a team that had been embarrassed by Antrim two years previous, yet here they were with the eventual All-Ireland champions down on one knee.

Then they were beaten out the gate in the replay and that was what frustrated Brady. He always felt the “structures” weren’t in place to facilitate the consistency needed for success.

Handball allowed him to dictate his own trophy-haul, his own income, his own legacy.

It allowed him to win. Football didn’t.

But the football was a far less lonely pursuit, and even though he chased success there too, really he needed it for the social element.

“I enjoyed the outlet it provided for me. But it was an incredibly frustrating period. It still doesn’t sit well with me.

“I think back to how far away we were but how close we could have been – very close.”

“I enjoyed the outlet it provided for me. But it was an incredibly frustrating period. It still doesn’t sit well with me."
“I enjoyed the outlet it provided for me. But it was an incredibly frustrating period. It still doesn’t sit well with me."

There were so many nights secretly training before National League games, thinking it would help his handball but inadvertently leaving him drained for football.

Then there were the missed sessions when he was in America that he knew were causing friction with his team-mates, some of whom began to resent him coming and going.

When he was brought back into the fold weeks before the 2008 championship having initially taken the year out, there was disquiet when Brady was brought on against Antrim.

“That didn’t go down well with a few players,” he says.

“I know it caused a bit of conflict with team-mates over the years. I could feel it off them.

“I was giving everything to try and play with Cavan, more than I felt anyone else was, and I used to think I could rationalise my absence to myself.”

He’d become so used to winning on his own that he concedes it was difficult to cope with being part of a group that didn’t always share his vision or pull the same direction as he wanted to.

“My inter-county career, overall, wasn’t particularly enjoyable – because I don’t like losing, and, y’know, we didn’t win very much.”

Yet even when he found in handball the success he chased in football, the more he won, the lonelier it got.

Having reached the top, he began to take literally the assertion that getting there takes talent and staying there takes character.

“I saw that as if I was knocked off that [number one spot], that was a real attack on my character. Probably dysfunctionally so, but that’s the way I took it.

“It wasn’t as lonely trying to make a breakthrough, but at that point I’d established myself as the best player. Suddenly I had no peers.

“The whole landscape changed at that point and the loneliness became very apparent. Where do I go here? Do I go into the pack and be less lonely? Because this was just a by-product of occupying this position.

“That’s the way it remained, that’s just the nature of individual sport on some levels. Maybe some other athletes handle it better than I did.”

For a spell “five or six years”, he’d suffer from anxiety and regular panic attacks before tournaments, mostly through the financial pressure of needing to win.

When he inevitably did win, there’d be brief elation followed by a lull. Nothing to do until the next tournament, he’d be “out on the beer for a few weeks, which added to the anxiety”.

“It was just chaos. But then I reflected on that, and I learned a lot about life.”

The interest in psychology took him when he’d sit in airports and study those behaviours. He translated that into sport, where he developed a “sixth sense” for vulnerability in an opponent.

That followed on into his early work in teaching, where he found himself drawn towards helping those he perceived to be vulnerable.

In the end he’d study a Masters in psychology and write his thesis on the pressures of inter-county management in Gaelic football.

And yet none of it has put him off. There remains an ambition to work in psychology but he’s starting to think that it’d be more easily applied if he simply joined a management team rather than dipping in and out.

Continually he talks about making the next chapter better than the last one.

But if anything sums up his complicated marriage to sport, it’s that Paul Brady continues to resist turning the page.