For most Irish people, fine weather means a quick trip to the beach or a lazy afternoon in the back garden, but for GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) players (or more accurately, GAA lads) sunshine means championships.
If you have to ask why you’re not one of them. Donal Og Cusack, All-Ireland champion and legendary Cork hurling goalkeeper, is one of them, in more ways than one.
Born and raised in the hurling mad village of Cloyne, Co. Cork, Cusack, 32, lives in the GAA the way Buddhist monks live in their faith.
And as he makes clear himself in his remarkable new autobiography 'Come What May,' for years now the GAA has touched every part of his life; the glory, the graft, all the praise and blame are a part of the fabric that has shaped him. Many players have lined out for Cork over the decades, but few have loved the game and all that goes with it quite as much.
He has made many friends along the way. Cusack writes about characters with names as colorful as their outsize personalities, like Pa the Piper, the Bomber Roche, Bunty Cahill, Sean Og O’hAilpin and Fraggy Murphy.
He also talks about his hurly sticks with the kind of awestruck enthusiasm that Harry Potter has for his magic wands. Cusack writes the way he speaks too, in the terse English of a champion sportsman.
He’s the definition of a straight shooter. Not a word is ever wasted.
For the non-GAA fixated, his story may be a tougher draw at first. Every page is crammed with the insider jargon of hurling, and few concessions are made to the uninitiated. But for ardent GAA players it will be like looking in a mirror, because Cusack is obsessed with hurling, with its games and rituals, with competition and winning, and perhaps because of this he achieves every goal he sets himself.
But there’s far more to a captivating player than just games and trophies. For over a decade Cusack has been a national star in Ireland, but he found international fame earlier this year for something quite unexpected.
Although Cusack is in every way typical of a senior GAA All-Ireland star -- strong, capable, very sure of himself -- he’s also gay.
It’s that last part that has caused him a problem. More accurately, it’s that last part that caused some other people a problem.
A few fair weather friends started keeping their distance from him and a few enemies found a stick to beat him with. But Cusack himself, it turned out, was happy to be gay.
Although he says surprisingly little about his private life in the book, it seems appropriate to acknowledge the scale of Cusack’s courage. The gay life and the life of Cork hurlers don’t often overlap, Cusack writes, until he realizes that in him, they actually do.
Before he went public about his orientation no GAA champion had ever identified as gay. Not one, in the entire history of the sport.
Statistically, of course, there have to have been hundreds through the years, but Cusack was the first to man-up and say so to the whole world.
His fellow players, he tells us, were only sorry that he didn’t feel he could have told them sooner. Even his parents eventually came to terms with it and were, in the end, only disappointed to hear the vicious anti-gay abuse hurled at him from the stands.
Cusack himself is philosophical about all the tongue-lashing. In the book he makes a long list of the things people abuse him about from behind the goals -- for being from Cork, for his personal life, for goals that Waterford have scored against him, for his personal life, for short puck-outs, for strikes, sendings-off, for his personal life.
Famously, he also recalls the moment at a championship game in Semple Stadium in Co. Tipperary, when a man started up a hate-filled chant on a megaphone to taunt him.
“Donal Og, he’s gay, he’s bent, his arse is up for rent,” shouted the man on the megaphone, over and over.
No one in the packed stadium said a word. Cusack’s teammate Diarmuid O’Sullivan asked the Gardai (Irish police) to throw the offender out, but they took no action.
Dennis Walsh, Cusack’s boss, heard it and was so shaken he wrote a letter to Cusack because of the effect it had on him. For Cusack it’s one of many defining moments, because he played on, and won, and had a realization that has fortified him ever since.
“I’m thinking that in a large stadium like this, almost filled with hurling people, there must be many men and women standing silent, knowing that their sexuality or that of someone they love isn’t to the liking of this man with the megaphone. So it’s here in this book, between the covers, come what may,” writes Cusack, with all the defiance that has made him such a formidable sportsman. Now that’s what a real man looks like.
'Come What May' is printed by Penguin Ireland, and is available on Amazon.
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