This is the companion piece to the blog about clinical depression written by Donal’s brother Conor, that I put up on the Almanac site last week. That piece with an autobiographical summary of both brother’s career in the Irish hard-men’s sport of Hurling can be found here:
In a week where we had a lot of debate about anxiety and depression in the wake of Jonathan Trott’s withdrawal from the Ashes tour, I wrote an extended comment on E.Regnan’s excellent piece about the fierce pressures on professional sportsmen. In it I said that my personal and now professional experience was that we all needed 3 things to lead a well-adjusted life: acceptance; hope and fun/fulfilment.
They are broad concepts and I would take acceptance to crucially include self-acceptance, particularly in relation to personal identity. The old saw of “who am I really?” is probably the core concept that most of us struggle with. We often develop an identity more related to what gets approval or reward from family and society, than what is in our innate nature and yearnings. These things that we call “me” are developed so early in life it is hard to understand that we could be different inside to how we “choose” to present ourself to the world. You can’t describe water to fish.
But in the long term, the shaky external self that relies totally on validation from deeds or people outside of us, is very fragile when time or events turn against us. But those often necessary crises that lead to growth and true self-knowledge are the reason Conor called his blog “Depression is my friend not my enemy”. We are like snakes continuously shedding skins of identity until we find one that feels true from the inside.
This article is a profile that appeared in the UK Sunday Observer (written by Tom Humphries) in 2009, shortly after Donal Og ‘came out” about his gay sexuality in his autobiography “Come What May”. What struck me most in reading the piece was that this was no celebrity revelation or an activist trying to make a political point. It was a man honestly at peace with himself, and prepared to be matter-of-factly self revelatory just because he wanted to tell the truth about his life in all its diversity. A well-respected man due to his considerable sporting achievements, putting a stake in the ground so that others don’t have to tread a minefield behind him.
Donal Óg Cusack: ‘There was no torment or agonising’
“Ireland’s first openly gay sports star tells Tom Humphries why he decided to come out
Donal Óg Cusack sits in the Dublin office of his publisher and perseveres with his day’s work. He has come to the city to fulfil some media commitments but it is a regular workday too. He hasn’t been able to snag a day’s holiday so, between the demands of OSM and Channel 4 News, he fields calls about contracts and tenders and the month he will soon be spending in Zambia building a school for an aid agency.
All is normal, but all is changed. A couple of days back, as leader on a work project, Cusack had met a few new faces. The 32-year-old is widely famous in Ireland as a goalkeeper for his club Cloyne and his county Cork, and a political agitator within the world of hurling. It is an amateur calling but the fame that comes with it is useful in the business of business.
During a coffee break after a morning meeting, one of the new acquaintances picked up a discarded copy of an Irish daily newspaper, spotting Cusack’s face and his name trailed above the masthead.
“Ha!” said the man. Delighted with the connection, he began reading aloud. “‘Donal Óg Cusack. My String of Male and Female Lovers.'”
Face brightening to a deep crimson, the man dropped the paper and vanished leaving the word “oh” hanging like a scent behind him.
Cusack recounts the story and grins. “The poor man. If only he knew the sad truth of it!”
In October, Cusack became the first high-profile Irish sportsperson to come out as gay, in his autobiography, Come What May. It would be an overwhelming experience for almost anybody but him. The news has been discussed earnestly throughout Ireland on radio phone-ins, chat rooms, editorial pages, talk shows, in saloon bars and dressing rooms. The headlines have ranged from the lurid to the laudatory, but the extraordinary interest his revelation has generated has been quite unexpected to the player himself.
Cusack has kept on working and training, riding out the media tsunami by agreeing to fewer than a handful of print interviews, two TV appearances and a refusal to waste any more of his time doing photoshoots. He points out that the disclosure of his sexuality occupies just two chapters of the 35 that comprise his life story and he says that proportion is about how much importance he places on the issue.
Ironically, it is his unapologetic, no-fuss approach that has made him so fascinating. “There was no torment or agonising,” he says. “Once I knew what I was, I just got on with life, got on with hurling. I wanted to write this book while I was still playing; it would have been too easy to write it and walk away, but I’m amazed at the amount of interest in it. Stunned. It’s a sports book by a fella who just happens to be gay.”
It was fashionable in the days after the revelations for people to shrug their shoulders wearily and to pretend to have known that Donal Óg Cusack was gay since… well, since before Donal Óg knew he was gay. And yet the news has drawn media interest from places as close as Britain and as far away as Nepal.
For a top sportsperson to out himself with such unblinking bravery is rare enough anywhere but Cusack has been the undisputed leader of just about any team he has ever played on. He has been outspoken on player welfare issues in hurling and Gaelic football, the leader of three strikes by his own team and the lightning rod for more vitriol and abuse than most people could handle, regardless of their sexuality.
“I know,” he says, “that there are a lot of people who won’t buy the book, not because of what is in it but because of the name which is on the front of it.”
Plus, Donal Óg Cusack is Irish. As one newspaper columnist pointed out, the Ireland he was born into was one which only decriminalised homosexuality under pressure from the European Union in 1993 as the conclusion to an epic legal struggle. A few hundred yards from Croke Park, the stadium where Cusack would have his greatest triumphs as a hurler, a young gay man, Declan Flynn, had been lured to his death in 1982. The incident was far from isolated but Flynn’s killers had their manslaughter sentences suspended and the local community staged a celebration march through the area.
Change has come slowly. Last summer in a game played in Tipperary in front of almost 50,000 people Cusack endured shocking abuse from a man with a megaphone on the terrace. Cusack’s warm-up and every quiet moment in the game was interrupted by crass homophobic chanting: “He’s gay, he’s bent, his arse is up for rent, Donal Óg, Donal Óg.” At least one former playing colleague of Cusack’s went to the police on duty to complain. Nobody did anything.
Cusack was horrified for his family, especially his dad who is an avid hurling follower, but the abuse itself washed over him.
“A guy like that? I don’t care, I really don’t, if he wants to amuse himself calling me brokeback or imagining my arse is up for rent. He has paid to see me play. I’m playing the greatest game in the world in the mecca of the game, I’m playing with my friends and comrades for the place I come from. I’m doing something I love. Fuck it, his little problems don’t concern me. I’m obviously far happier being what I am than he is.”
The game of hurling is a critical part of life in rural Ireland, a traditional and heroic game played by men’s men, in the traditional and heroic sense of that phrase. It is one of the few remaining doors through which gay men and women in Ireland fear to tread. So it is apposite that Cusack should come from the small east Cork village of Cloyne, a place of pilgrimage for followers of the game. It was Cloyne that gave hurling Christy Ring, the player who is to hurling what Pelé is to football, Michael Jordan to basketball. Cusack grew up two doors down from the house in which Ring was raised in the 1920s and 30s and spent thousands of evenings playing and practising on the same pitch upon which Ring served his own hurling apprenticeship.
The pitch runs along the back of the row of terraced houses and is the central focus of all life in Cloyne. Hurling is played at two levels, club and county, with the best club players making it to their county team. When Ring played, Cloyne was too small and isolated to contain him; his glory years came after he moved to Glen Rovers, a big city team.
Cusack, however, has stuck with Cloyne, and his passion for the place he grew up in, as well as for the game he excels at, dominates his book. The village has always craved, more than anything else, a county championship which is, at a local level, the most prized achievement in the sport. Cusack’s standing within the tight community he comes from is such that while still in his 20s he trained the club to three county finals in a row (2004-2006), captaining the side for the first two years. They lost each time. Defeats normally found him sitting out on the pitch, drinking and thinking until the sun came up; but after the third final, he remembers sitting at the end of his parents’ bed, shedding rare tears for what might have been.
Rumours about Cusack’s sexuality had crept around the hurling world for years. Cusack says he has never wanted to hide or deny his homosexuality, but that nobody asked him and he felt no need to tell. Having discovered his sexual orientation in his early teens, he did not see the need to make a drama out of it.
Then, in early 2006, while on a team holiday in South Africa, he began getting phone calls from home. Cork was rife with rumours that he had come out to his team-mates. He hadn’t – but his team-mates were now getting the same calls. He sat down with them individually and explained his situation. It says something about his standing within the group as a player and a leader that there wasn’t one negative reaction.
When he returned home, he had the same conversation in the family sitting room. “I reckon my mother always knew,” Cusack says now. “Maybe not, but I reckon she did. For dad, it was a shock. His initial reaction was the same as it is to all problems: ‘How do we get ya fixed!’ He meant it in a good way. I explained a lot to him there and then. I remember my brother Conor getting up after a while to leave the room. He was completely unfazed. He gave dad a slap on the shoulder and said, ‘There ya are now, that’ll broaden your mind!'”
In confronting the terrace choirs, and declaring that he intends to be a top-level player for some years yet to come, Cusack has become a gay pioneer not just for hurling but for sport in general.
“I don’t understand myself why it seems to be more difficult for sports people to come out than for people in other walks of life, but hurling and football exist in every corner of Ireland and there must be a hell of a lot of teenagers and men and women who struggle with this more than I have. If a hurler from a small village in Cork can do it, maybe it isn’t so hard after all.”
Cusack gets up and heads out into the Dublin streets to meet a crew who will record a TV news interview. Heads turn and elbows nudge other elbows but there are only smiles and congratulations. The world turns.”
The original article can be found at http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2009/nov/15/cusack-gay-sport-interview