Hurling Abuse




Come What May by Donal Og Cusack (Penguin Ireland)

The death of Stephen Gately rang out the bells of irony, but their chimes were absent from the mournful proceedings in Dublin. What occurred amounted to a state funeral, in a Catholic country. The deceased, an openly gay, married pop star, was given respect, the kind of respect he would still have been denied had he not been famous.

Ireland pretends to be a modernist state, but the Catholic Church still casts a disquieting shadow over the lives of those of whom it disapproves. Priests have been routinely exposed as child abusers, money has been paid to the victims, yet their church continues to rail against homosexuality, without ever wondering if truncating the sexuality of young men might not be the major mitigating circumstance in such unhealthy manifestations later on.

Recently it has finally admitted, after years of pressure from the victims who refused to remain silent, the full level of collusion it undertook to protect men who didn't deserve such understanding. It still cannot say why; to do so would require much soul searching from those who are supposedly in the business of saving souls.

A mere smattering of weeks after Gately's pomp and circumstance, the bastions of Irish expectation took another kick to the vulnerable parts when one of their major sporting heroes, hurling star Donal Og Cusack, announced that he preferred the physical company of men. Tea cups rattled, pints of Guinness were spluttered into, and what had been an occasional rumor became an undeniable fact.

Cusack used his autobiography, Come What May, as the vehicle to explain himself. It was serialized in the Daily Mail, the paper that suggested Gately's death was a result of his sexuality and lifestyle but seemingly saw no contradiction in praising the bravery and honesty of its new exclusive.

Cusack has been remarkably direct and unapologetic, appearing on television, giving press interviews; the conventional world momentarily faltered, gawped, then dusted itself down and got on with things. However, when he took to the field in Semple Stadium, Tipperarary, in front of 50,000 fans, a disgruntled idiot with a megaphone kept chanting: "He's gay! He's bent! And his arse is up for rent!" 

This sort of treatment has been more difficult for the parents than their son, who retorted: 

"A guy like that? I don't really care. If he wants to amuse himself by calling me brokeback, or imagining my arse is up for rent, he has paid to see me play. I'm playing the greatest game in the world in the mecca of the game. I'm playing with my friends and comrades for the place I come from. I'm doing something I love. Fuck it! His little problems don't concern me. I'm obviously far happier for being what I am than he is."

But Cusack's mother no longer goes to watch him play because of the homophobic abuse she hears vented towards him.

The book bristles with passion, but not of the sexual kind. There is little soul searching or sexual pondering. Cusack's heart belongs to hurling, a violent, often brutal sport which in Irish homes rivals Catholicism in the influence and drive it exerts. What gets him through the occasional night isn't much discussed, although what does keep him awake is doing badly in a match, especially losing one.

He was instrumental in fighting against the injustices heaped upon players by self-serving officials, even instigating strikes to improve their facilities and their medical and personal care. The moment he confessed all to his parents and siblings was tactlessly lightened by his brother suggesting that the news would give their father something to broaden his mind with.

Surrounded by the family trappings of a sport he has loved for all his life, I felt for his father; he had little reason not to expect the conventional result from his son's sporting life. Come What May isn't really a gay book, it is a fairly standard sporting memoir -- but one where the author mentions, in a few brief chapters, that he isn't quite what he seems.

Og Cusack remains a hurling icon, his masculinity hasn't been altered from what it was before. If people saw him as such, he remains as such. That he doesn't look gay is part of the fascination and his value as a breaker of conventional stereotypes. He isn't the only gay hurler, or whatever other sport may spring to mind, but he will likely remain the only publicly recognized one for quite some time. His treatment from the stands would suggest that erring on the side of caution might not be a bad idea.

In 1982, only yards from Croke Park, the scene of many of Donal Og Cusack's sporting triumphs, a young gay man, Declan Flynn, was lured to his death. Eventually his killers had their manslaughter sentences suspended, and the local community took it upon themselves to organize a celebratory march through the area. Flynn wasn't protected by the trappings of fame, and his treatment is more telling than the bowing and scraping involving those in the glare of the spotlight. Sport is a forger of powerful emotions, strong bonds, and blurred boundaries. Generally, the news has been greeted with a positive air, and his teammates have been refreshingly supportive. One shocked friend touchingly arrived with a list of handwritten questions.

Donal Og Cusack is going to be a subject of speculation and gossip, but the world changes slowly, and his stance will make life easier for others, because he comes from a sport many respect. In a very Irish way, Cusack wasn't in the closet, he didn't confirm nor overtly deny, he went to clubs that suited his nature, and he seems pretty sanguine about needing to make a public issue of something he was merely dealing with. As usual the press had other ideas. Gay or straight, his achievements remain. In the end, that is all it should really come down to. Sadly, as we know, that isn't the case.