Three weeks ago, Ronan McNamee became Aghyaran’s first ever Allstar. In the first part of an incredibly candid interview, he talks about his journey from the depths of depression and his recovery and the pinnacle of sporting excellence. Cahair O’Kane writes…
“Not all those who wander are lost”
YOU will find that quote tattooed on the back of Ronan McNamee’s arm, beneath the faces of two lion cubs. The handwriting is his mother’s. It’s one of five tattoos down his left arm that will eventually become part of a full sleeve. There’s a lion and a wolf, a compass, a map of Ireland. They’re all hidden up in behind the half-rolled up sleeve of his checked shirt. The most recent pokes out through. “This is the Celtic Goddess of War,” he says, pointing to the unfinished art. His performances this year were ravenous. From Patrick McBrearty through Ben McCormack, Dara McVeety, Conor Cox, Brian Hurley and David Clifford, his displays have made him Aghyaran’s first ever Allstar. The idea of such an accolade couldn’t have seemed further removed just under four years ago. Struggling with depression, he had come to the conclusion that there was no way out of the hell that his mind was trailing him through, day after day. He wanted to get away from it all. Football, family, friends, team-mates. Ronan McNamee’s demons wrapped themselves so tightly around him that he wanted to get away from life itself. “It’s mad like… I went and bought a set of knives out of Argos in the Showgrounds in Omagh. “And the process you have to go through in there – you have to pick them, you have to write it down and then you’ve to wait on them. “You can’t go in and buy them and be out in 10 seconds after doing it. I had time, loads of time, to unthink it. “I went to the car park in Omagh Hospital and cut my wrists.” In that instant, he wants to live. He rings Michael Harte, who rushes over from work and cleans up the wound. Then he phones his mother, Anne. She has been the rock in his life, always. “I phoned Mammy to tell her I needed help. I know it nearly killed her with worry. “It was a good lesson to me. When I was doing that to myself, what was I not doing to someone else? It would have killed my Mammy and killed my Daddy and my brother if anything had happened to me. “I didn’t think of them once. Not once. I just felt like I had no way out.” The smog had become so thick that he couldn’t see, hear, think of anything else. Almost four years on, the air now is clear. It hasn’t been a simple journey, nor a solitary one. For while he had to want to find a way out, his parents, brother, girlfriend, team-mates, friends, Mickey Harte – they all reached out a hand for him to grab. Ronan McNamee’s sixth tattoo will be placed over the scar on his left wrist. The wounds have healed. Same as the white wrist tape that he’s worn on the pitch to disguise the scars ever since, covering them over with ink won’t make them disappear. But with each day they fade deeper into the background. It’s a part of his life he’s never talked about before, and didn’t think he ever would. “I’ve never spoken to anybody about it. I just know I’m not the only one who has come through something similar, but you just want people to know that there’s always hope that you can come out the right side of it. “That’s where the first tattoo came out of, the idea that you tend to wander a lot of the time, but there’s good people will get you out of wandering the wrong way.”
HIS head was all over the shop for almost a year. The start of it all coincided with a relationship ending, and across 2015 and 2016 it spiralled completely out of control.In terms of footballing displays, McNamee was showing no sign of the strain. He earned himself an Allstar nomination at the end of 2015 after Tyrone reached the All-Ireland semi-final, in a summer where they didn’t concede a goal after the first round of Ulster. But off the pitch, his life was in turmoil. In the off-season from Tyrone, drink had become a feature. After taking bad manners one night at Katy Daly’s nightclub in Strabane, he got into a friend’s car enraged, and drove it for home. “I crashed up the road outside Castlederg, put it into the ditch. I nearly rolled on to her roof. “I wasn’t driving hard but I’d met this boy and we passed each other, both on the wrong side of the road – he was full, I was full. “He’d come back and was like ‘are you alright?’ and then he saw lights and legged it. “There was nothing to stop that boy and me from going head on. And at that stage, it would have been a lot easier for that to happen me than the way I’d initially thought it out. “At that stage, you’d nearly have wished something like that had happened you. “That was when everything was going to f***. It was an accumulation of a few small things and a few bigger things that were tipping you towards the brink of doing something ridiculous.” When he went up home the next morning, he never told his parents. Headed out into the yard at the farm, grabbed a few bits of fencing wire, some barbed wire, a few posts and the necessary tools. He went back to the field he’d crashed into and started about rebuilding the fence. When the farmer who owned it arrived, he’d just called the Gardai. But in seeing McNamee coming back to clean up, the farmer suddenly drew a blank when the law arrived. “It wasn’t my fence, it wasn’t my car. I had to sort the mess, it was my mess.” Nothing sums up that period of his life better. There were reckless moments that threw a harsh light on his character. Those that really know him speak of the sense that, wherever he might have wandered, there’s an unmistakable goodness in him. Wandering, but not lost. Very few people realise how close they came to losing him. By the stage all this was happening, football wasn’t a release any more. The car accident happened in the summer of 2015, and it was at the start of 2016 that he found himself sitting outside Omagh Hospital. In between, he found himself trying to get away from the sport he loves. “I was at football and didn’t want to be at it. I went through a shite period and tried to leave the panel. “I never went to training for a few weeks. I remember a Saturday morning, I was to go. Mickey Harte was ringing me to see if I was gonna go. I said I’d see. “It wasn’t so much wanting me to go to train – he just said ‘you’re better off in the environment up here than the environment you’re putting yourself in now’. “Not that I was putting myself in a bad environment, my head was in a bad place and I couldn’t get myself straightened to get out of it. “Danny McBride, who was very good to me, was going to come to Aghyaran to lift me. I got into the car to go and meet him and I drove to Dunfanaghy instead, to my cousin’s house. I stayed there the whole evening. “I’d just got in the car and drove Donegal direction, I didn’t know where I was going. “I drove to Ballybofey, I was gonna go to Rossnowlagh and ended up going out to there, because I knew if I went there it’d be grand. “Mickey rang me that evening, I remember looking at my phone and seeing his name coming up and thinking ‘f***’.” Despite appearances, McNamee would find himself drifting through games, unable to concentrate. He’d spoken to Cathal McCarron, who had his own off-field problems, about trying to block out all the outside stuff, but he couldn’t manage it. “I used to just think ‘how the f*** do I do that, just switch it off and worry about my football?’ Everybody’s different. Everybody’s head’s different.” For a few weeks, the best way out looked to him like being New York. “I was gonna go and get away from everything at home. I thought the problems I had were going to disappear if I left and went somewhere else.” Those around him knew better. McNamee told Harte of his plans, but the Tyrone boss could sense that he was suffering. One evening, Harte rang his mother and told her that if she was happy for him to go to New York, he’d let him go, but that if she wasn’t, he would pressure her son to stay.
Harte also set him up with a Tara Centre counsellor in Campsie, “a lovely wee woman, Mary” that McNamee went to see every fortnight for nine months. He’s never been a particularly good sleeper. Training or matches set the adrenaline coursing through him, and it’s often 1am or beyond before he’ll get over. It wasn’t necessarily football keeping him awake at that stage though. Doctors prescribed him sleeping tablets, but his mother, scared of what new reliance it might bring, warned him off them. For a long time, she bore both burden and secret. No-one else knew. McNamee’s only sibling, Conor, was in Australia. The weight of Ronan’s anguish grew and the more he tried to bury it, the more it began to overwhelm him. “They were small matters now when I think about it, but it all felt massive. I never said to anybody so it got worse and bigger and bigger. “After the hospital, that’s when the shit hit the fan, that I had to get it sorted out. “I got back into the football and it straightened my head out and it picked up from there. I got my first Ulster in 2016, so it worked out. “I used to think if I leave here, what would it be like to watch the lads win something then? It would have put you worse off, it would have broke your heart completely. “I’m very happy I stuck it out.”
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ANNE McNamee (neé Ward) is a native of Doochary in Donegal, but moved to Aghyaran after meeting her husband, Johnny. He had his own Donegal blood in him, with his father coming from Glenfin, but had been born and reared in Tyrone. There was a farm of land on the Red Hand side of the border that they still operate off. Conor was always more into that side of it. He fished for Ireland too, and has a bronze All-Ireland medal from it. “Hopefully it’ll not be the only one ever gets into our house, but at the minute it is. He’ll always hold that over you,” laughs the 28-year-old, whose openness and clarity throughout suggest a man at relative peace with his past. Summer holidays as children meant a week down in Doochary with the cousins, usually to coincide with whatever festival was on in the place in early August. Johnny McNamee doesn’t have a passport and Anne’s only flight was to Australia to visit Conor. Their parents are different and the same. Both gave up whatever little bit of drink they’d have taken and dedicated their lives to the boys. Anne’s always been a GAA fanatic, and has become part of the ‘Tyrone Ultras’ as they’re jokingly referred to, a group from Aghyaran that would travel the ends of the earth to watch the county. She drove the boys everywhere. When Conor was fishing, they’d have regularly gone to Loughrea in Galway, or Mallow in Cork, for big competitions. “I would never have got where I’m at without her. She took us everywhere. Daddy supports you but there was always work to do on the farm and football wasn’t gonna pay the bills. He’s right to an extent, but it can open a lot of doors for you.” Their father never really got football, but even though he doesn’t go to the games (partly because of his health “and a temper 1,000 times worse than me, he’d have somebody reached for”), he’d sit down to the TV. And then within 10 minutes, he’d be unable to watch any more and away down the road he goes with a handful of stones, skipping them off the ground out of the sheer anxiety. When McNamee won his first Ulster title, his father was ringing within 60 seconds of the final whistle. “He couldn’t understand why I didn’t answer, me still out on the pitch,” smiles the son.
“He means well and he wants the best for me and Conor.” When he was at his lowest point, it was his mother that Ronan McNamee turned to. He’s found a new rock too in girlfriend Clara. She was by his side as Joanne Cantwell opened the envelope to call his name as the Allstar full-back for 2019. Back home in Aghyaran, Anne and Johnny leapt to their feet in the front room of their home. In a flash, she was into the gladrags and hightailing it down the road to Dublin. “Conor and Clara knew she was coming but I didn’t. I landed out into the foyer and she was just standing there, came over and gave me a big hug. The smile on her face…… She was super, super proud. “I’ll keep it [the Allstar] at the house in Aghyaran. It’s more Mammy’s than it is mine.”