Donegal and Gaoth Dobhair Gaelic football star, Eamon McGee, talks about fatherhood, dealing with loss and standing up for what you believe in.
I’m from Dobhair and very proud of where I’m from. Its where Clannad and Enya are from too. I call it “Millionaires’ Row”; except they have all the millions.
Clannad’s name originated from a play on the Irish “Clann as Dobhair” and that’s me, I’m a Dobhair man not a Gaoth Dobhair or Donegal man, that’s how strong I feel. I love my home.
I had an ideal childhood in the countryside. Mum would let my brother and me out to play for hours until we heard the shout from the back door. Get the dinner, back out again.
We played two-man hunt there, built tree houses, played rounders, fought, played football.
In the summertime, when the trees are green, from my house, you can look down to the sea, down to An Gaoth, the inlet from which the area gets its name. I love taking in that view now. It’s beautiful. Maybe we didn’t appreciate that growing up because incredible scenery was just the norm for us.
Mum is from Glasgow, so we didn’t speak Irish in the house, but we had to learn fast. It’s a Gaeltacht area with so much love for our language and our culture. That was passed down to us.
As kids, we went looking for a field that we could turn into a GAA pitch. We covered the whole local area of Dobhair looking for good ground to play Gaelic Football. The field we were playing on had tree stumps and was at a 45-degree angle, so it wasn’t ideal.
We found the perfect spot, no idea who owned the field, not that it mattered, there are hundreds of fields there, dotted around with stone walls. We built goal posts, cut the grass. It was perfect.
I went for a walk in that area recently, and the field is still there. It looks smaller now. When we were playing there as kids, it was huge. These days I could nearly hand pass the ball from one goal to the other.
”That field is where we built foundations for our careers in Gaelic football. It’s where we brought Sam Maguire back to.
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When we lost the All-Ireland Final in 2014, Kevin Cassidy sent me a message saying, “Hard luck, there’s more important things in life.” That annoyed me, because for me at the time, there was nothing more important than football. It was the ultimate.
Fast forward two years and my daughter, Daisy, was born. I finally understood what Kevin meant. When you hold your child in your hands for the first time, the world changes in an instant.
Whether it’s just me or it’s a general Irish thing, you grow up emotionally stunted. Then fatherhood arrives and brings a whole host of emotions you never even knew existed — all these worries and fears. I think I’ve cried more in the last three years than I have in the previous 20.
Recently I went to watch the movie “IT”. I remember watching the original series as a child and being terrified. So, when I got to the end of the movie instead of being scared, I was just sad. I was missed being scared of silly stuff. I’d love to be afraid of evil clowns or the dark, but now I’ve real fears. Will my kids be all right? What will the future be like for them?
A case can be made to make yourself emotionally dead and save a lot of hassle, if you don’t get close to anyone, you can’t get hurt. You’d end up missing out on so many good things in life, but at least you wouldn’t get hurt.
I went through a stage of experiencing great loss. In a short space of time, my cousin died by suicide. A work colleague succumbed to cancer. My teammate and friend, Micheál Roarty was tragically killed in a car accident.
You’re thinking, “If something happens to my children, how am I going to deal with that?” That’s where the case for suppressing emotions comes to the fore – save yourself, shut yourself off.
But, you would miss so much; watching my son go to sleep. Hearing my daughter say her first words, or watching her take her first steps. You’d lose those moments. So, you learn to live with the fear of loss, and hurt, and be grateful for all you have.
One of the things I try to do when I’m not sleep deprived is make a gratitude list. I have a loving partner, healthy kids, brothers who would do anything for me. I know it sounds corny and new age, but it works for me.
Loss helps you to grow. There’s more to it than grief. There’s also guilt. You look at yourself and ask, “Did I help them enough while they were alive? Was I there for them?”
”I also had to ask myself, “Did I set a good example? Was I a good role model?”
When I set off on my football journey, there was a lot of messing about. I was not a good role model in how I conducted myself. I let a lot of people down. I was a poster boy for the drinking culture.
Micheál watched me on that journey, as many other young fellas did. We had a responsibility, and we didn’t heed to it. The All Blacks have a saying “Be Better Ancestors.” In the early days of my football career, I definitely wasn’t a better ancestor. The All Blacks also have a dressing room rule “No Dickheads.” Back then, in the Gaoth Dobhair dressing room, there was no bigger dickhead than me.
Me and one of the lads got in a bit of bother one night and had managed to evade the guards for a few hours, but they caught up with my friend on his way home. They said to him, “What are you doing hanging about with Eamon McGee, that just brings trouble.” That’s the reputation I had at the time. I regret not being a better ancestor.
Another aspect of dealing with all that loss was the fact that I’m an atheist. I couldn’t put my hand on someone’s shoulder and say, “They’ve gone to a better place.” I couldn’t say that and mean it. That was hard.
I remember being at a funeral, and the coffin was leaving the house. The man’s wife was watching her husband leave home for the last time. I was looking at her. She had rosary beads, and all she could do was pray; that’s what was getting her through that moment. Up until that point, I would have been a militant atheist; my way was the right way. But, that day was a learning experience for me. Sometimes faith and religion are all people have.
”To see people get by with their faith, it’s a powerful thing.
Maybe I will return to religion later in life. I would have been quite religious growing up. Maybe in ten years, I’ll find something there that I can explain.
I’ve always had an immense interest in science. As I got older, the view that I had of God and spiritualty was continually clashing with the way I saw the universe. I’m not trying to be a rebel. It’s just how I approach logic. I have firm beliefs about the universe. One of them is that what happens in life is random, with no higher power at play.
That’s not to say I don’t see the beauty in science. There are atoms in all of us that are there from when the universe began. Stars have died to create us. So, we are all connected from the very moment of creation. How is there not something beautiful in that? And the fact that we know, and understand how we came to be, makes it even more beautiful.
When you look at earth from the International Space Station, there are no borders. We need to put a hand around one another and go in one direction.
It was from that idea of empathy and helping one another that I began campaigning to pass the Equality and the Repeal referenda. Ironically, it put me on a collision course with religion and the church.
There was an occasion where my name was called out from the pulpit as someone who was not to be supported in their efforts to pass the referendum; that somehow my motivations were flawed and “anti-religious”.
It angers me that we had come from a place where there was a lot of damage done by the church, and not once was someone’s name called out in a sermon. I rang the priest and told him just that. I’ve no problem with him teaching his teachings, but bringing my name into it was disrespectful at best. He personalised it.
Some people walked out of the church that day, so I wasn’t alone in my view that it was inappropriate.
The truth is that, in my community, I am a well-known Gaelic footballer. With that profile, I have a voice. It’s important that I use that for people who don’t have a voice. It frustrates me when I see others around me that can help but choose to avoid the inevitable hassle.
When I first got involved in campaigning, I was relatively green. Myself and another Donegal player had initially been asked to come down to a campaign launch and lend our support to the marriage equality referendum. At the last minute, my mate pulled out of the meeting. He said it would attract too much grief and hassle. He was right; it did. But, if you believe it’s right, you shouldn’t be afraid to take a stand. We have to create an environment where people are free to speak out for what they believe.
”I made a point at the time that if any of my children turned out to be gay, how could I look at them in the eye and say, "I had the opportunity to do something for equality, but I did nothing."
I got a lovely letter from a guy in Waterford. He said that of all I had done in my football career, campaigning for the referendum was the most important thing I’d done. He talked about his son, who was gay and that I, as a man from a rural area offering the hand of friendship, was such a massive help to his son. To see that in black and white, I could see why I did it, and why it was right.
When it became known that I was campaigning for marriage equality and Repeal, people started to paint me as a “whiter than white” individual – a perfect person. That made me uncomfortable because it’s not reality. People that know me, my partner Joanne, my family, and friends, they know that I’m a flawed individual. So, I struggled with that.
Once you get involved in a social justice campaign, talk inevitably turns to the possibility of entering politics. As it stands, I have no intention of going into politics. I’ve seen too many people with strong ideals go into politics, bend to the system. I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that.
For now, I’m happy to be outside the house shouting in, rather than inside the house selling my principles. As for whether or not I’ll get involved in another campaign, we’ll see.
Some people go to mass for 40 minutes a week; I try to spend that time in the week helping someone out. It doesn’t have to go up on social media with a selfie saying, “I did this, hurray for me!” I just try to go out and do my bit because it feels like the right thing to do.
As a father, I have to set the right example for my kids.
There’s no sat-nav for being a parent, and no book that will guide the way. One thing I’m determined to achieve is that my children will become better versions of me and Joanne. That’s what my parents tried to do. I believe if we all tried to do that as parents, we might make the world a better place. Just say to our kids, “Be a better version of me, and go out into the world.” That’s all you can do.