Former Armagh football star Oisin McConville detailed the impact his gambling addiction had on his playing days for an audience of students last week in Cork, saying he “was there but wasn’t really there” when Armagh won their historic All-Ireland title in 2002.
McConville overcame a missed penalty to hit 1-2 in that All-Ireland victory over Kerry but he explained that his emotional immaturity at the time cut across his memories of the day.
“I couldn’t handle happiness and I couldn’t handle sadness,” McConville said of that time.
“We won the All-Ireland in 2002 with Armagh and those guys, we still meet up today maybe once a year and play golf and have a few drinks.
“We reminisce — and if you listen to those conversations we were a lot better than we actually were — but I don’t remember a lot of the things those guys talk about, because even though I was there, I wasn’t really there.
“That’s what sums up my early years, I had to get to some self-realisation, and only then I was able to begin my recovery. That was thirteen and a half years ago, and I’m still in that recovery mode.”
McConville pointed to his environment as a child affecting his emotional development.
Growing up in Crossmaglen at the height of the Troubles, in the shadow of a British army base, there was a culture of “saying nothing”, particularly in dealings with the security forces.
“Tell nobody anything. If the police stop you, say nothing, if a soldier stops you, say nothing… and for the next 30 years I might have done a lot of talking but I said nothing.
“Growing up the bombings and the shootings, the killings, those scared me but you couldn’t admit that, so I was already living a lie.
“The only thing I had in Cross(maglen) growing up was football, and I was a very simple, uncomplicated child — the only thing I wanted was to be the best Gaelic footballer I could be, and I set about that from when I was four or five years of age to the age of 14.
“That’s when I walked into a bookies and put my first bet on a horse, and that’s when my life completely changed. On the football field I could express myself but at the bookies I was comfortable and felt I could connect with everything that was going on there.”
Growing up, and well into his late twenties, McConville says his immaturity was masked by his football prowess.
“I had no self-awareness, no maturity, no emotions, no feeling. My emotions burst out the day before my 30th birthday, the day I admitted I had a problem.
“The reason I loved football was that it masked everything else. When people met me they saw me as a footballer. They didn’t see the person who was struggling day in, day out, who was — if I wasn’t at the bookies or playing football — I’d maybe be lying in bed with the covers over my head.”
Valerie Mulcahy, winner of ten All-Ireland ladies football medals with Cork, described sport as “my safe zone, my comfort zone” to the students but added that the confidence she felt as a sportsperson wasn’t always as evident for her off the field, particularly when it came to her own sexuality.
“I didn’t turn to drugs and drink because when it came to sport I really wanted to get the best out of myself, I really wanted to make it.
“Football found me, and I was part of a hugely successful team, which was great, but my secret was who I was, and coming to terms with my sexuality. Being on the field meant being in my comfort zone, where I excelled and felt comfortable. But off the field it was totally different, and I was trying to figure out who I was, there were rumours about me that I was this or that… and I wasn’t ready to come to terms with who I was and to embrace that.
“On the pitch there was a freedom to it, you didn’t have to overthink it, I felt good about myself and I felt confident about myself. But off the field that confidence didn’t translate into other things, other aspects of life.”
Mulcahy described ladies football as her “coping mechanism” growing up: “I was immersed in sport, but I didn’t realise sport was my coping mechanism. I was so engrossed in it I didn’t think about stuff until my late teens and early twenties, why I wasn’t connecting with conversations some of the girls were having and so on. It took a while.”
Professional boxer and European bronze medallist Eric Donovan told students: “I was one of the leaders in the gym, but outside the gym I was lost and used coping mechanisms like drink, drugs, and gambling to get through life.
“When I look back, it surprises me how much I achieved, despite that, but it came to a head when I couldn’t deal with this anymore and had to put out the hand in 2012 and ask for help.
“That was the moment when I said ‘I need help, I’m struggling,’ and since then I’ve become happier in my own skin, and I love going around and sharing my story.”
– McConville, Donovan, and Mulcahy were speaking at a Couch Talk/Healthy CIT discussion facilitated by Cian O’Neill of Cork IT’s Department of Sport, Leisure, and Childhood