Ronan Brady is a fine figure of a man. It's a description you won't hear too many former intercounty footballers use to describe a one-time opponent, but it's a fact. From a physical, functional and, yes, aesthetic, perspective, he is fit.
If one were to follow stereotypical expectations, Ronan and I should only ever have met on a playing field while wearing our respective Leitrim and Roscommon jerseys. Or perhaps afterwards in Coppers, the Mecca of the GAA's madding crowd.
Instead, I've been watching him, agog, in the Spiegletent in Merrion Square, Dublin, as he runs through the aerial acrobatics that add yet another twist to what was one of this year's must-see shows at the Tiger Dublin Fringe, Riot. Brought to you by theatre collective THISISPOPBABY, Riot has been described as a "genderf*ckery-filled variety show that delivers a titillating cocktail of theatre, dance, performance art, and music". Panti Bliss happens to be the olive in this dirty martini.
So how the hell did the 28-year-old Connacht championship-winning Elphin club man and hard-hitting full-back end up in this circus? The journey starts with inflamed joints, repetitive injury, and a desire to explore the road less travelled.
"I needed to take a break from football, I had lost my love for it as a result of carrying injuries and some general frustration with team sport. I wanted to work on my core and explore an individual pursuit so I went to a friend in Carrick-on-Shannon Gymnastics Club, Shane Holohan, who is also an aerial coach. I got hooked pretty quick."
Having cut his teeth in aerial acrobatics, in 2013 his focus turned to the floor when he was introduced to "the most enjoyable circus apparatus of all" – the roue Cyr or Cyr wheel (which performers stand "inside", made famous by Cirque du Soleil).
Being an engineering teacher, he made his own wheel, “practised like hell and fell out of it many times”. He had gone too far down the rabbit hole though, and decided to go to the source, spending summers in Quebec (École du Cirque) in 2014 and Montreal (La Caserne) in 2015 to advance his skills. Back home, he honed his growing repertoire and expertise with Taking Flight, Fidget Feet Aerial Dance and contemporary circus troupe The Radiant.
Think Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man and you get an idea of what Brady looks like in his roue Cyr. The show, according to co-director Philly McMahon (for the record, not the Dublin footballer) follows a revolutionary narrative. But rather than a call to take up arms, it seeks to inspire its audiences to experience a transformative personal and collective revolution borne of the imagination and realised on the dancefloor.
I am joined in the Spiegeltent booth by Riot set designer Niall Sweeney, and stars Ruth Smith and Panti Bliss, both in full James-David Seaver-designed costume. We tease out some of the nuances of working solo or part of a collective, and the stereotypes or expected roles of the worlds of sport, the arts and of being Irish.
"I don't think a show like this could have happened until recently, it is pretty queer for a mainstream audience," explains Panti, who is responsible for much of the oral narrative in Riot. "Ronan is emblematic of how Ireland has changed. A former GAA player from the west of Ireland swinging topless above the Spiegeltent stage, a sex object and hunk for both the female and male audience to enjoy. His GAA jersey even makes an appearance."
"You have to look at it in the context of what's happening in Ireland – the marriage referendum, a gay Rose of Tralee a couple of years ago, another Rose raising the question of the Eighth Amendment this year," says Smith, herself a chameleon: former Galway Rose, musician and member of the Evertides, drama teacher, and no stranger to the GAA either, working with the events team on big match days in Croke Park.
For Sweeney, it’s just a matter of community, what tribe you happen to belong to, and the customs of that particular ensemble. “The GAA is a club, dance is a club . . . some have balls, some have music, and some have both,” he laughs.
When Brady returns to terra firma I ask him how this gender-bending sex-object status sits with him, a heterosexual male from the only constituency, Roscommon/South Leitrim, to return a majority No vote in the marriage referendum.
“This show has been great, and in terms of personal development I love the way it is challenging me. Growing up in Roscommon, homosexuality was so taboo, it still is. I’m still uncomfortable with some of the wild stuff they have me doing here,” he says. “But it’s important for me to be able to get out of my comfort zone as a performer and a man, and be comfortable sitting here looking like a . . . I don’t know what I look like!”