The great balancing act of being DJ Carey
Exhilaration of a great hurling career no shield against life’s vagaries
DJ Carey in action against Tipperary’s Bobby Ryan during the 1991 All-Ireland final. Photo: James Meehan
It says something about the enduring appeal of DJ Carey that more than seven years after he retired from inter-county hurling the launch of his autobiography should open so many doors, including the prime television portal of the Late Late Show.
It is true that in the time since he last pulled on a Kilkenny jersey he hasn’t been entirely absent from the spotlight given his high-profile, nine-year relationship with businesswoman Sarah Newman and then the financial calamities of the age keeping him in the eye of the media.
This publicising of his private life never appeared to sit well with him. He expresses that discomfort with ‘celebrity’ in a rare detour through such matters in the pages of DJ A Sporting Legend (with Martin Breheny, Blackwater Press), which as the title suggests, concentrates on the game that propelled Carey into the public consciousness in the first place.
It is salutary stuff. There is an image, cherished by many in the GAA, of the games as essentially recreational activities in which ordinary people do extraordinary things and, despite all of the acclaim, go back about their lives as soon as the stadia empty.
DJ Carey’s career shows however that for some players the focus that comes with an elite sporting career, even if amateur, becomes impossible to compartmentalise and separate from the humdrum rhythms of normal life.
He recounts how the first call to county arms at senior level came so early that he was still in school. That early prominence facilitated the chance of going into business on his own so that by the time he was 23, he had two senior All-Ireland medals and his own commercial enterprise.
The strong sense is of someone who never quite had the time to enjoy the fecklessness of youth and young adulthood: missing out on things like the abandon of college life and a few Fitzgibbon campaigns, things routinely enjoyed by hurling peers.
Hurling fame had its compensations but also its burdens. The most striking image I have from talking to Carey during his career comes from before the 1999 All-Ireland final when he was reflecting on the strange decision to retire two years previously – which he reversed within a few weeks.
“Maybe two years ago or more it was a lot more difficult because I was trying to build up the business and meet commitments as well as hurl,” he said. “That’s when you’re pulling the hair out of your head on a Sunday during a game wondering where a cheque is going to come to meet the bank on Monday. That’s when it’s tough. Now I’m no millionaire but business is going well.”
There in a nutshell the incongruities of the amateur game. He might have enjoyed talent and a status and reputation that in a professional context would have made him beyond comfortable but instead he was on the pitch trying to concentrate on the ball while his head makes a doomed attempt at a bank reconciliation.
The game ate away at his time and indirectly fed his anxieties but it was also the gift that elevated him to fame whatever about fortune.
For someone who always appeared to be easygoing and who was both generous and genuine in his engagement with media, he was also prey to rumour mongering on an industrial scale and immensely sensitive to it.
One of the chapters in his autobiography is entitled A Rumour a Day Keeps the Truth Away and scans a few of the untruths about him that have circulated. Worst of all, earlier in the book, he recounts how when he suffered a heart scare last year, his 13-year old son was told - by a schoolmate, via social media - that his father had committed suicide.
It would be great to say the genius of his hurling allowed him to soar far beyond this offensiveness but it remains an issue even in his book.
But painting DJ Carey as a touchy neurotic would be a gross misrepresentation.
Although life wasn’t – and still isn’t – averse to dealing him belts, he remained friendly and good-natured to all within the hurling world he dominated. On the back of the book is a quote from former Wexford All-Ireland winner Tom Dempsey: “You won’t find an opponent who will say a bad word about him”.
Within the game he wasn’t as sensitive, seeing through the posturing of hatchet-men markers and sensing the fear of his prowess. He was never interested in engaging on that level despite provocation, knowing that he could within the rules do more damage than they could even imagine.
The snap of the gloved hand on an inviting delivery and the awesome pace that took him effortlessly past defenders followed by that deadly, sniper precision – he was the epitome of the Guinness poster silhouette: The man who could level an entire county.
Although for much of his career Kilkenny weren’t the juggernaut presence they would become, he terrorised - and exhilarated - the crowds by the possibilities of his presence. Everyone will wish him well in continuing to meet the challenges that come his way.