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The pursuit of happiness: Conor McCarthy’s story

Conor McCarthy’s eighth birthday party doubled up as a leaving party in San Francisco. From reciting the Declaration of Independence and playing baseball to being the lost ‘alien’ in Urbleshanny National School and growing up without a father figure, McCarthy has had a unique journey to the Allstar he won last summer. He spoke to Cahair O’Kane…

Monaghan's Conor McCarthy. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Donegal v Monaghan - Allianz Football League Division 1 Monaghan's Conor McCarthy. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile (Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

FOR truths to be self-evident. All men created equal. Unalienable rights. Life. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness.

Conor McCarthy’s recall for the Declaration of Independence has faded. It’s more than 20 years now since he would stand as a third grader at the front of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic school, staring up at the stars and stripes as though they were his own.

Instinctively, he knew they weren’t.

In photos that he has at home now in Monaghan Town, where he’s lived with his mother for the last few years having spent the second half of his childhood in the townland of Ballinode in Scotstown, there’s almost always a hurl and a sliotar.

His father, Mick, tried to infuse the love of it.

The front of their home at 141 Westbrook Avenue was two minutes’ walk from the Catholic school in a part of San Francisco where the Irish roots really took hold during a land rush in the 1850s.

“There was a big single pane of glass at the front window. It was broke more times with a sliotar or a football than you could count.”

Baseball was number one, though. The bat was heavy for all the size of him – “I was no good at hitting” – but rather than fight with it, McCarthy made it work for him.

At that age there are no pitchers. The first stage is to strike off a large tee that the ball sits on. By second grade, the ball is lobbed gently by a machine.

“I was very fast back then. So I wouldn’t even go to smack it, I’d just tip the baseball and I’d sprint to first base and I’d always get there before the ball got there.

“That was my tactic. You have to make something work. I absolutely loved baseball.”

The photos make it easy to remember the navy uniforms with Daly City PAL (Police Athletic League) emblazoned across the front.

He played a bit of seven-a-side soccer too. Loved golf and still does.

But school was a problem, ironic given how much he went on to love his time at St Macartan’s.

“I absolutely hated school out there. Hated teachers, hated all that.

“My mother reckons that it was because out there, when you’re playing at lunchtime, teachers wouldn’t let you tackle. It was like non-contact soccer, if you can picture that.

“There was no score kept, no winners, no losers, and I just hated this idea of not being able to win or tackle.

“I ended up put on the bench more times than enough. Days my mother would have to come in and collect me at lunchtime.

“That was a big part of us moving home, was to get an Irish education.”

A young Conor McCarthy playing baseball in the Daly City Police Athletic League in San Francisco.
A young Conor McCarthy playing baseball in the Daly City Police Athletic League in San Francisco.

Not that a child would be able to see it like that.

His eighth birthday party doubled up as a leaving party. Two weeks later, him, his younger brother Rory and his mother Catherine were on a flight to Dublin.

“At that age, you don’t want to leave home. I remember kicking and screaming on the plane on the way home.”

Home. In his subconscious, San Francisco still bears joint-custody of the title.

But home quickly became Ireland. Monaghan. Scotstown. Urbleshanny National School and the tricolour and the blue and white.

The boys’ grandfather had passed away and their grandmother was alone at home. Catherine came home to see to her.

It thrust Conor McCarthy into a completely different way of life.

At his first training session in Scotstown, Niall McKenna told the players to run a few laps. He didn’t know what a lap was.

“I came home with a big American accent.

“I remember going to Urbleshanny school and they thought it was some sort of alien had landed to their front door.

“This exotic Californian kid. They couldn’t figure me out at all.”

Only really able to understand each other, Conor and Rory stayed stuck close.

Sean Mohan was the one friend he knew, but he was two years above in school.

The headmaster was Gerard McCague, brother of former GAA president Sean and father of Scotstown’s most recent championship-winning manager David.

“You know in primary schools, the way the yards are separated by classes? I wanted to go up and play with Sean Mohan at lunchtime, with two years above. That was nearly going against all rules,” says McCarthy.

“I remember going up and asking the master McCague could I go and play with the lads two years above because they were the only ones I knew.

“It’s maybe the only time it ever happened in Urbleshanny. So I used to play soccer in the yard with them, that was my introduction.

“Then I started playing with Scotstown and that was my way in. The accent fairly dropped after that.”

Mick McCarthy had stayed back in San Francisco, where his electrical business was just taking off. He’s remained there since.

Conor has always kept really close ties. He’s been out a good few times. When Monaghan were beaten by Longford in the qualifiers in 2016, it was the perfect opportunity to head back out for the summer.

He visited his old home, his old school, kicked ball for the Ulster club, made some new friends. And he spent time with his Dad.

“I’ve a very, very good relationship with him to be honest. I lean on him a lot with different things.

“He’d always ring me before games and text me after games. I’m very lucky.

“It’s something I’ve probably learned as I’ve got older. I probably didn’t think about not having my father figure around when I was a young fella, just got through it and never really thought about it much.

“But as I’ve gotten older, I kind of realised in the last few years that I needed to start pushing myself to succeed. That absence of that father figure at home probably did affect me more than I realised at the time.”

His mother’s family had no grounding in Gaelic football at all but it’s got to be that she wouldn’t miss a match.

“She has all the pictures stowed away, awards up on the mantelpiece, she’s more mad into it than I am, giving out about so-and-so,” laughs the 28-year-old.

Half his week is at home and the other half in Dublin, either staying in the room he took over from friend and team-mate Shane Carey or with his girlfriend Jean.

He has, in his own words, stepped into himself in the last few years.

“I’d have a very close friend group, I would say I wouldn’t be a real outgoing person. Probably an introvert.

“The last few years, I’ve probably put myself out there a bit. I would have been very reserved as a young fella, very shy, very quiet.

“As I’m getting older, I’m starting to enjoy going out and socialising a bit more.

“I don’t know what the perception out there but if it is that I’m a bit reserved, it’s probably true is some sense. I would be a private enough person, I don’t do a lot of media or be out in the public a lot.

“You’re probably right enough with that outlook that I can be reserved at times.”

The theory that his social inclinations go back to the adjustment to being that ‘alien’ arriving in the hallways of Urbleshanny National School makes him ponder.

“Maybe it is. I haven’t really...

“I just thought that’s who I was. But maybe coming home, trying to fit in as a young fella, that’s where it comes from.”

______________________________

“INCONSISTENT.”

The word sits on the tip of his tongue, ready for the inevitable question.

2023 saw Monaghan reach an All-Ireland semi-final. With ten minutes left, they had Dublin by the collar, only for Brian Fenton to shrug them off.

McCarthy’s performances were the best of his career, earning him an Allstar.

But everything prior to last season was boxed off by that one word.

There were days when he was unplayable, like the one where he scored a first half hat-trick of goals against Donegal in a league game in Ballybofey.

There were also days when he could leave Malachy O’Rourke and the Farney faithful scratching their heads.

Having played in three consecutive Sigerson Cup finals for UCD between 2016 and 2018, winning the two outer ones, questions were asked of O’Rourke over his use of McCarthy and Owen Duffy in the summer of 2017.

Their introductions from the bench sparked Monaghan into life against both Fermanagh and Cavan.

It came to the Ulster semi-final and both got their start.

Down caused one of the upsets of the decade and McCarthy hardly touched leather.

That kind of summed up a lot of the early part of his career, something he doesn’t shy away from admitting.

“When I started back then, I was looking over my shoulder thinking ‘if I do anything wrong, I’m gonna be the first man taken off’. That was the mindset I had going into those games, which is not the right way to be thinking.

“Whether that was true or not, whether it’s what Malachy was thinking, I don’t know but you can’t be going in to games like that. You’re fighting an uphill battle straight away if that’s your mentality going into games. But that’s the way I was thinking.

“On the opposite end, when I was coming in as a sub, I was thinking ‘this is a free shot here’. I’m thinking I’m not gonna be – well, I could be! - taken off after being brought on, so it’s a free hit to make an impact.

“That shows the two different sides of my mentality.

Conor McCarthy of Monaghan with his All-Star Award during the 2023 PwC GAA/GPA All-Star Awards at the RDS in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
2023 PwC GAA/GPA All-Star Awards Conor McCarthy of Monaghan with his All-Star Award during the 2023 PwC GAA/GPA All-Star Awards at the RDS in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile (David Fitzgerald / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

“I knew I always had it, I always had the skills and the talent to be a top player but I just couldn’t string together three or four good performances in-a-row, especially in the championship.

“I had some really good league campaigns with Monaghan but in terms of championship performances, there were some eight-out-of-ten performances and then the next day I’d go out and have a four-out-of-ten.”

By the end of the 2018 summer, O’Rourke had learned to trust him. He was Monaghan’s best player in the All-Ireland semi-final loss to Tyrone, scoring three points, laying on a handful of others, tormenting Ronan McNamee.

Seamus McEnaney gave him his first run at wing-back and Gaelic football’s doyen of tackling Donie Buckley improved his defensive play immeasurably.

Vinny Corey returned him to wing-forward when he took over last year but with the caveat that it could change at any moment.

Corey’s rationale behind the half-time alterations when they were five down and struggling against Tyrone was that he wanted another forward on the pitch.

Whether McCarthy’s redeployment was the point of it or a by-product, it worked out.

He doesn’t feel like he was any fitter or faster or stronger in 2023 than any other year.

Nor, revealingly, does he believe that his fate was necessarily transformed by half-time in Healy Park.

“If I had stayed at number 10, I’d like to think I would have had a good year. There was probably a lot made in the media of that switch back to wing-back, that was maybe a factor in the media that it was a genius stroke as if I hadn’t played there before.

“This is the competitiveness coming out in me, me backing myself – I still think I would have won an Allstar, if you want to say that, at wing-forward. Just the way I was approaching games and my mentality, the shape I was in. I still think I would have.”

He wouldn’t have said that two years ago because he wouldn’t have been thinking like that.

Richard Shanahan came in as Monaghan’s sports psychologist last year. He made small tweaks to McCarthy’s mindset, encouraged him to think more positively. It helped.

But he found a second psychologist in Vinny himself.

“In the past, if I did something wrong or missed a score, I’d be beating myself up. It’s probably an Irish thing.

“I would have been my own biggest critic. If things didn’t go well, I’d want to go home and hide, wouldn’t want to talk to anyone.

“I’ve changed that now, thank God. Vinny was probably as much as a psychologist for me as anybody last year.

“Chatting to him before games, after games, he’s been through it and his mentality when he was playing was top level. Bouncing a few things off him as well really helped me.

“Towards the latter end of the year, he was my biggest psychologist. That was the biggest difference, changing that mentality.”

When the Allstars were announced, McCarthy got a shock.

Between the nomination and the night itself, people told him there’d be some nod or wink or text that would let him know. It never came.

“Checked my bank account that morning, nothing!

“I thought I would have got something if I had won it. I was thinking how am I gonna tell my family that have travelled from San Francisco, Cork, all over that sorry, I don’t think I’ve won one here.”

When his name was called out, he went upstairs into a small room where the winners go for photos and media work. The first man over to shake his hand is Stephen Cluxton.

“There’s Brian Fenton, Paudie Clifford, James McCarthy and I’m thinking ‘what the eff am I doing here?’”

But all the men in that room were created equal. He knows what he’s doing there, that he belongs there.

Conor McCarthy’s pursuit of happiness is down to little more than a stroll