THE DAY BEFORE I was released from Loughlin House prison in County Cavan, I watched some tennis tournament. One of the Williams sisters had just won it. She was standing on the court with her trophy, taking the applause from the crowd. All I could see was the words, “Stella Artois”.
I was released the following afternoon and given a bus ticket back to Dublin. Having no one to go to, no family that could trust me, not a friend in the world, I was drunk by 5pm. I slept rough on the streets around Dublin City centre for a period and found myself in a Salvation Army homeless hostel where alcohol and drugs were a very evident and real issue. I drank daily and spoke fondly of sport with the other residents as we drank on the streets.
I often recalled an under 21-game I’d played in as cornerback. Playing alongside someone who is now a GAA legend – my claim to fame. I played well that day and indeed that season. However alcohol was certainly taking control as the season progressed. And so, my behaviour around my football club worsened and I was no longer welcome there, actually missing out on the under 21-league final, which we won.
Looking back now I remember mentors and club mates speaking to me about my drinking but at the time I was blind to their opinion – theirs, my friends and, sadly, my family’s also.
However shortly after presenting to the Salvation Army hostel, I was in a place where I could ask for help in stopping drinking. I asked, and two hours later I was at my first AA meeting. Almost eight years later, I haven’t drank since.
Playing a role in my recovery
Through that time and indeed from my early recovery days I thought of my time playing GAA. Good times in a club where for the only time I felt “part of” something. I was too frightened to go back, my behaviour had been totally unacceptable and I couldn’t bring myself to face up to my wrongs. As time went on and recovery continued I needed to move forward. I’d made many amends to my wrongs and had regained friendships and family. I was also working for the Salvation Army, having returned to education.
I still had a fondness for GAA and a longing to be part of my club again.
Family members and club members I’d met all encouraged me to go back. I checked the club website and took down the former chairman’s phone number, a number that was in my phone for two years. Early 2010 I made that phone call. To my surprise, my call was met with a welcome and surprise on his part as rumour had it I had been killed. I asked if I would be welcomed back and I received a honest welcome and we spoke of the opinions that had been voiced when I was 21.
Help had been there for me if I’d have been in a place to take it. Concern was felt throughout the club for me over the years and I could honestly feel that from the tone of his voice. So, I bought some boots and some gear and I went back. As I entered the hall for pre-season training, I was met by some strange looks, but also met with a few handshakes and generally I was welcomed back.
Earning back trust
That was three years ago and as time went on I earned, I think, the trust of the club again. It is one of the most positive moves in my personal development, bar none.
I have achieved personal wins (player of the year) and team awards captain to a promotion winning junior side and promotion the following season to that. All of which were enjoyed in our club house bar. I took part but did so without having to need to drink. My team mates though, well, you can imagine there was a pint or two had. Which brings me to the filling of cups with alcohol. Since man first crushed grapes, “victory on the field” has always been celebrated with “wine and women”.
I see people these days concerned around alcohol advertising in GAA and indeed other sports. I can say, however, that certainly in GAA clubs there are officers in place to raise awareness of the dangers of alcohol to young people in general – a system that wasn’t in place in my day. If it had been, then who knows what may have happened in my life. Although I do say that what did happen, happened.
It is true that such programmes are funded by such alcohol advertisements. I also believe that the ‘safest’ way for a youth to drink is to not drink at all, however we were all young once and that’s on the whole not a possibility. Raise the issue with them, inform them, make them aware of the dangers that way their choices and decisions are educated.
Some media commentators think this idea ironic, but if these ideas where in place when I was 21, who knows.
To be part of my football club means the world to me. The GAA means the world to me. My dad told me recently the worst thing I did was disconnecting with the GAA. My club like many others rely on bar revenue and sponsorship from alcohol companies. I, like many others, rely on my club.
Should there be alcohol advertising in sport, in the GAA? As a recovering alcoholic I should say no. I was blind to choice at one time in my life, but I think in today’s economic climate sport maybe isn’t blind to choice – but has very little options either.
The GAA needs it, the clubs, the grass roots need the GAA to make such decisions and more importantly, to me, I need the GAA. I need Croke Park. I need days like the September 18 2011, standing on Hill 16. Most of all I need my club to keep its doors open.
The writer of this article wished to remain anonymous.