GAA Football

Ronan McNamee's arduous journey reaches its peak

After winning an Allstar in 2019, Ronan McNamee opened up in an Irish News interview about his struggles with depression and an attempt to take his own life in 2016. Hours after winning the All-Ireland that threatened to elude him, he spoke to Cahair O'Kane about completing the journey, why the medal will go to his parents' house with the Allstar and what it meant to have his father at a game for the first time ever…

Ronan McNamee lifts aloft the Sam Maguire trophy after Tyrone's victory over Mayo last Saturday. It was the completion of a long, arduous journey for the Aghyaran man. Picture by Seamus Loughran

HEADPHONES wrapped around the back of his neck, his face bearing the contentedness of a veteran rather than the disbelief of the youth surrounding him, Ronan McNamee takes pause in a world that is spinning crazily around him.

Two years after bringing a first Allstar back to the club, he joins Shane Sweeney and Marty Penrose on the short list of Celtic Cross winners to hail from Aghyaran.

Sixty five years after Paddy McLaughlin’s tractor and trailer transported the wood from the Baronscourt plantation to a field that would host the club’s first game on the day of the 1956 All-Ireland hurling final, this was for them as much as for him.

The week after McNamee was given his Allstar, we met in Strabane over a coffee. In that hour, his life spilled out into the dictaphone sitting on the round mahogany table in front of him.

McNamee recounted how, in early 2016, he had sunk so low into the depths of depression that he had attempted to take his own life.

Football kept reaching out to save him.

In late 2015, he was very close to boarding a plane to New York and disappearing away from it all.

One particular Saturday morning he was due to attend training. Danny McBride was coming to lift him. Instead, McNamee got in his car and drove the opposite direction from Garvaghey, ending up at his cousin’s house in Donegal, where he hid out for the day.

Mickey Harte worked with him and brought him around, and put him in touch with a Pieta House counsellor. That Harte was so determined to help rather than pushing him away is something that Tyrone’s full-back will remain eternally thankful for in a context that goes far beyond sport.

With Saturday’s post-match celebrations in full flow up towards the Hill, McNamee breaks off on his own. He walks down the Hogan Stand side and falls into a long embrace with his mother, Anne, at the barriers in the Hogan Stand.

His mother is a Tyrone Ultra, part of a group of supporters who travel to games home and away, from year’s start to end.

Behind her, his father, Johnny.

He had never been to a game before Saturday, club or county. It’s not that he doesn’t care, it’s just that he never really understood football.

When Ronan would be playing on TV, he’d watch the start and then get so anxious he’d go off up the road with a handful of stones, skipping them off the ground.

“Today, my oul boy, it’s the first time he’s ever come to a game of mine in his whole life, club or county. He was there today.

“I was chatting to him after and…ah, it’s unbelievable. He’s super proud anyway and he’d watch it at home.

“My brother Conor sort of pushed him into it, guilt-tripping him a wee bit maybe. It means an awful lot. It’s nice to have it. Things like this will be cherished.

“It means an awful lot to him regardless of how he shows it, I know it does. It just feels super sweet.”

And his mother?

“Up to high doe all week!”

When McNamee won that Allstar, he left it at his parents’ house as a small token of his thanks.

The All-Ireland medal will join it.

“The medal will go there too. It was her, and the oul boy to an extent but more her, that was driving me about when I needed drove about. I’m reaping the rewards of it now.

“It’s nice to be able to pay it back in some sort of form. It is super sweet. It’ll live long in the memory for sure.”

Along with Mattie Donnelly, Peter Harte and Niall Morgan, McNamee has soldiered for more than a decade. It’s often said they deserved All-Ireland medals but as a straight-talker, he would appreciate that until Saturday, they hadn’t really.

Sport gives you nothing you don’t earn.

“Sticking at it has paid off. There were times when it didn’t feel like it was gonna happen.

“Every game now feels that wee bit more important. Not that others weren’t important, but the older you get, the less time you have. The nerves be worse.

“It’s a great feeling because you know at some stage you’re gonna have to stop. I don’t want to but it’s whether your body’s able.

“You’re always striving to get to the pinnacle you watched for years. The Canavans, the Doohers, the Cavanaghs, the Gormleys, seeing that and wishing.”

From behind the sealed solid doors that bear the Tyrone crest, the party emerges almost ready for home.

Players turf their kitbags into either of the two buses. At the back of one, Conor McKenna leads the party. At the front of the other, Feargal Logan’s face bears that same smiling contentment as McNamee’s.

This was an All-Ireland nobody expected Tyrone to win.

Describing the last two months as “pretty nuts”, McNamee revealed that the squad didn’t know who’d be available for the Ulster final against Monaghan until “two or three hours before the game.”

They were given no hope against Kerry and were second favourites to Mayo, but outplayed both of them to become the first Ulster side in nine years to win Sam Maguire.

“It’s nice to prove people wrong. Inside your own house, you know what’s going on. Outside it, it’s nobody else’s business. If you feel that you’re good enough then why listen to noise?

“Every team’s the same. Keep it tight-lipped and you know yourself if you’re good enough.

“We’ve been there or thereabouts this long time but just stumbling at the last hurdle. I felt there was one in this team, with the ’08 minors and 2010 minors both winning All-Irelands, the likes of Mattie [Donnelly] and Petie [Harte] and wee Ronie [O’Neill] flying about.

“We were never far away but it’s just getting over the line. This year’s been pretty hectic but boys have been putting their shoulder to the wheel and buzzing for it.

“Naysayers spur you on and give you the feeling of ‘I’ll prove that f***er wrong’. We did. We did.

“We’re sort of laughing now, to be brutally honest, and it’s nice. Nobody’s gonna take this from this team, nobody. Whether they like it or not, it’s ours.

“The same as my Allstar that time, that medal will be in the house and there’ll be nobody taking it away.”

From darkness into light: Allstar Ronan McNamee opens up on his battle with depression

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