“The club was blown up twice in the troubles, they went through a s***load of aches and pains to get out the right side of it. It’s good for a lot more people than me”
Ronan McNamee is one of the most interesting and colourful characters on the current playing circuit. In the second part of his interview with Cahair O’Kane, he talks about the rumours of poisoned water, rows with team-mates, not caring what Pat Spillane thinks and where his deep-rooted republican side comes from…
IT’S as if everything that Ronan McNamee is comes from the hills and fields and trees that surround him. The family farm is the definition of ‘out of the way’. On the fringe of Aghyaran, the house sits up a narrow country road that would hardly hold two bicycles never mind two cars. It’s postcard Ireland. Green on all four sides. Rural, and raw. He’s never tried to be anything other than what he is. The man that was four years ago, at the height of his depression, is still the same man as a month ago and the same man that walked into Costa in Strabane, stopping at the doors to chat to a well-wisher. His ruralness, his rawness, they’re among his best qualities. Those that are closest to him have a great word on him. Friends, team-mates, even those that only occasionally make his acquaintance, they speak so highly. Everyone else will him judge him on what they see on a football field. And that goes back to the raven in his tattoo, and how he transforms when he goes to war. Steered by the need to win – “the most driven man on the panel,” said one team-mate – he can be a different man on the pitch. Uncompromising, unforgiving, unflinching. And always prepared with fire to meet fire. “I remember asking a fella from Kildress one time what he thought of Aghyaran and he said ‘I hate playing Aghyaran, hate going there’. I assume there must be a grittiness in us. Going into Aghyaran’s a tricky place for anybody. “I don’t know what way I come across. I could come across as a c***. I’m sure there’s people think I am one,” he says when asked how he thinks people perceive him. “But plenty of people probably think I was poisoning water too in an All-Ireland semi-final.” Within hours of the final whistle against Kerry, the rumours had spread like wildfire. One of the Kingdom players had reportedly taken ill at half-time. It went around like wildfire that he’d been poisoned by McNamee’s water bottle. The conspiracists took something as normal as Stephen O’Neill coming on to the pitch with two bottles in his hand to be unequivocal evidence of foul play. McNamee laughs it off. In his mind, it all just feeds the narrative that the rest of the country hates Tyrone. “I haven’t a clue where that came out of. You’re hard up if that’s what you have to do, poison water. I could think of 1,000 better ways to poison somebody than give them a drink of my water! “There’s always a hatred towards Tyrone. Sean Cavanagh pulling Conor McManus down, Tiernan McCann’s hair incident, the water incident now – people just want a story to run with. “It feeds into this idea that we’re tramps, even though you don’t practice the dark arts in Garvaghey, we don’t practice pulling people down regardless of what they think. It’s just laughable a lot of it, but somebody has to come up with it. “The Kerry fans and Dublin fans singing about Tyrone on the Luas the day of the drawn All-Ireland final, singing “F*** Tyrone, f*** Tyrone, f*** Tyrone” at each other across the carriages. Kerry playing Dublin in an All-Ireland final and they’re singing about Tyrone… “A lot of stuff would annoy you but sure it’d be worse if they weren’t talking about us. Maybe people just don’t like Tyrone. “The short space of time that they were so successful maybe bred a hatred. That could turn on Dublin some day with all their success, or maybe it’s just gonna be that way. Let them beat away.”
AS he sat among the subs in the stand in Killarney, having lasted just 33 minutes of his championship debut in the bearpit of that famous 2012 qualifier, McNamee heard a random booming voice coming down from the crowd.“’Number 25, ya dirty b*****d!’ Ricey [Ryan McMenamin] was wearing 27, I always pass it on that they were talking to him not me,” he laughs. “It was just a cauldron of hate that day.” It’s hard to avoid the sense that they don’t much care for him in Kerry. In his appraisal of the Allstar selection, Pat Spillane settled on a synopsis of “a lucky defender and an unlucky forward”, namely McNamee and Stephen O’Brien, who harshly missed out. “Someone told me that’s what he’d said. It doesn’t bother me. I’ll forever be grateful, regardless of what Pat Spillane thinks. The Allstar’s sitting in my house in Aghyaran and I don’t think they’ll change it now.” He can live with that. Coming from a man with the accolades under him that Pat Spillane does, it’s easier to take.
Social media though? Have-a-go heroes? Not so much. “You go and play for Tyrone, and you never wanted anything else, but the shite you listen to for trying hard, for actually trying… You’d swear you were going out at times to f*** stuff up. “People are so fickle. They’d hang you on something when they know nothing about you. “See on social media, where you can be hung, drawn and quartered, it takes a lot not to get sucked in to letting people chat shite about you. “I’d rarely be tagged in it but there’s plenty of times it’s brought to your attention. The older you get, the easier it is to cope with. “If I was a young player coming in now and having to listen to the shite people have to say about certain things, you’d do well to hold your tongue. “It’s a lot of your own fans too. We’ve a lot of great, great supporters who are there from the first to the last. “Then you’ve assholes that jump on a bandwagon, they don’t go and then when they do, it’s losing to Donegal in an Ulster semi-final, and they probably haven’t been to a game since the All-Ireland final. You lose the two games they’ve been to and then they’re tweeting: ‘I’m wasting my money on these c***s’.” A very odd time there’s a manifestation of the hard-man routines. Nights out can throw up unexpected challenges. On a recent evening in Derry with Cathal McShane and former team-mates Kevin Gallagher, Ronan McNabb, Danny McBride and Johnny Lafferty just after the Allstar nominations were revealed, a lad walked up to McShane and put out the hand, seemingly to congratulate him. As McShane goes to take it, the lad turns on his heel and walks off. It was set up to be recorded and the video was then widely circulated on social media. “Yer man was lucky I wasn’t there. I just thought ‘you d***head’. McShane up ordering food. It just shows the immaturity of people. “To get a lock of likes on Instagram or Twitter, that’s all it was for. Plenty of people would write shit but if you met them, they wouldn’t say boo, they’re all ‘how’s things?’ But then they’ve a keyboard in front of them and they’re locked away in their house and…”
THE year before Ronan McNamee was born, Aghyaran’s clubhouse was firebombed by the UFF.September 1990. Thursday was card night. They sat until 1.20am before the last of them left the club, all heading off in a group as they made sure to do at the time. Half an hour later, it was blown up. Club members who were there that night have always suspected the attackers watched them leave. It was the second time the club had been targeted during the Troubles. This time, it took their home away for 18 months and cost them £150,000 to rebuild. Like so many communities in the north, Aghyaran dug their heels in. Whoever wanted them to go away would never win. There’s a deep-rooted republican in McNamee. The morning after he won his Allstar, there’s no humblebragging on his Twitter account. Instead, he quote-tweets a picture of women kneeling outside Mountjoy Prison to pray for rebel Kevin Barry, to which he adds the line from the song dedicated to him: “Lads like Barry will free Ireland, for her cause they’ll live and die.” Reared four miles from the border, the family has always carried a strong Irish identity with them. He’s a true son of Aghyaran, who speaks with such pride of those that have gone before him. Of Marty Penrose being the first man from the club to score in an All-Ireland final. Of Shane Sweeney’s forgotten equaliser that gave Peter Canavan the chance to land that free in the famous 2005 semi-final with Armagh. “Petie Harte said to me one day that it’s probably one of the most important points ever scored in Tyrone football.” And of Ciaran McGarvey. He wore the number three jersey during the 1980s, most notably in their run to the All-Ireland final in 1986.
But with Meath having won the Leinster title, they needed a slot on the team. Mick Lyons got in, McGarvey missed out.Despite having Jon Lynch, Eugene McKenna and Damien O’Hagan on that year’s team, it still remains a sore point in Tyrone. It was far sorer still in Aghyaran until McNamee was given the number three shirt for his outstanding performances in 2019. The award has Ronan McNamee’s name on it, but it’s far more than just his. “Ciaran McGarvey didn’t get one in ’86 and anybody that was there would say it was a disgrace. “He’s just a good skin, a gentleman. You could read into it and get caught up in your own wee bubble, but for the likes of him, I’d like to think he’d nearly take it on as his own. “Aghyaran was only formed in 1956. There was a fella up the road that Mammy said called to see her and he started to cry because he was one of the boys formed the club. “He talked about the number of people that have been through the club and passed away and never saw this day. You’d never think of that, the people who formed it. “The club was blown up twice in the Troubles, they went through a s***load of aches and pains to get out the right side of it. It’s good for a lot more people than me.” Aghyaran have three men on the current Tyrone panel. McNamee is the only regular, with Benny Gallen coming in this year to challenge Niall Morgan for the goalkeeping position, and Ronan McHugh on the fringes of the forward line. He strikes into a yarn about a starred league game with Pomeroy last year, in which county players weren’t allowed to play. “Benny [Gallen, Aghyaran’s goalkeeper] was on one of his runs up the pitch and as he went down the line, one of the Pomeroy bench stepped into him. “Next thing there’s 10, 15 boys in. Me and Frank Burns were both on the far line and we run over into it. “My brother was doing the camera and he had these couple of great photos. All you see is me in the middle of it and Frank reaching in over the top and clipping me. “And then you see me reaching out and smacking him back. “We didn’t get chatting after the game, we went on home, but at training the next night our eyes met coming in and we just smiled at each other. It happens. The two of us are the same person, you want your club to do well. “When I say the same person, I mean you’d do anything to win.”
Whenever they’re all about home on a weekday, the Aghyaran trio travel up to Garvaghey together with Cathal McShane. The craic can be ninety.But it’s ironic that he brings up a game against Pomeroy. The two clubs have, by McNamee’s own admission, suffered for having six county men between them. Instead of having their trio as a force with which to push on, Aghyaran lose them for much of the year. Despite only playing one game for Tyrone all year as sub ‘keeper, Gallen was subject to the same rules as the rest. McHugh suffered an injury that took him out for most of the year, club and county. The club was relegated from senior last year and only just survived a drop to junior this year. That pains McNamee. “It’s like a punishment for your club to have county men when it shouldn’t be. Your club should thrive for having them, but they don’t. “We’ve three and we do not have room to be losing three men for five games.”
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WITHOUT so much as a glance at the plate of traybakes as the sun breaks in on Strabane while he sits in Costa, Ronan McNamee bares his soul into the recorder over the space of an hour. It’s only scratching the surface. There’s much more to know than one afternoon could ever cover. He’s been working for Coca Cola now for a few years, selling on the road around Tyrone, Derry and Fermanagh. He went back to university too and finished a Sport Science course in Jordanstown. It hasn’t always been easy, and he’d admit that part of that is because he hasn’t always made it easy on himself. Just as they were small steps that plunged him into depression in the first place, they’ve been small steps that have brought him back out again. As he contemplated ending it all four years ago, he didn’t think he’d be sitting here now as Gaelic football’s premier full-back and Aghyaran’s first Allstar. “I’m happy now. Going well. A lot of good people looking out for you helps. Playing ball helps. “Everybody goes through a certain stage of their life that isn’t the easiest. But with the right people around you, you’ll get through it.”