The goals are still up in the front garden. The years have left the net good and raggedy and the grass won’t need a lawnmower this side of spring. The green and white flag of Curry GAA is listing in the November drizzle as Redmond Murphy comes out to offer his welcome. “That’s where it all started,” he smiles. “Look up at the roof there – the amount of slates they broke kicking balls over the bar.”
The Murphy house is in Moylough in Sligo, a few hairy fields west of the Mayo border. They moved here in June 2005, Redmond, Geraldine and their three boys. Daithí was two months old at the time, Oisín two-and-a-half. Then there was Red Óg, the eldest. Four going on five, with the emphasis on the going.
“He never sat still,” says Geraldine. “Such a hyperactive child,” Redmond says. “Always on the move, no matter where we were. There was an old man I used have to get to give me a hand to keep an eye on him down the back of Mass. He was that mad for running around.”
In the livingroom, Red Óg is still here. In photos, both up on the wall and on the table by the TV. In the miniature Eiffel Tower he brought Geraldine home from Paris in February. In the Sigerson Cup Team of the Year plaque sitting up on the mantelpiece – although, as his mother points out, if he was physically here, he’d have it stashed up in his wardrobe, away from public view. He never liked showing off his trophies.
But they keep it there because, really, how could they not? It was the last thing he won. Four nights before he was due to receive it at the awards ceremony in Limerick back in April, Red Óg died by suicide. He was 21 years old.
He left so much behind him. A family, a girlfriend, a devoted circle of friends. Team-mates and classmates. A teaching career that he looked born to excel at. A football career that could have been anything.
The one thing he didn’t leave behind was an answer. Eight months on, nobody knows why he did it. He had no history of mental health issues. He gave no hint to anyone that he was struggling – his family are as in the dark as everybody else. But they don’t obsess over it either. The way they look at it, they were blessed to have him for as long as they did.
“There’s nothing sorrowful out of this,” Redmond says. “We want to help people.”
“The hope,” says Geraldine, “would be that if somebody reads this, if they have mental health issues, that they wouldn’t hide. That they’d talk up. Obviously there was something that Red Óg covered up. Or maybe there was an accumulation of stuff that week that got to him. We don’t know. But we hope that they would talk. Because I don’t think young ones do talk.”
Red Óg. The name marked him out from the off, maybe confused people as much as anything. He was blond on top, never had ginger hair in his life. Soon enough though, it was him who made the name famous rather than the other way around.
Red Óg Murphy was a footballer. For Moylough NS and St Attracta’s Community School, for Curry, Sligo and DCU. He played soccer for Real Tubber FC and had a spell in Aussie Rules for North Melbourne. If you saw him, you saw boots – probably new, definitely stylish – and you saw a ball.
He won a county sevens title and the Cumann na mBunscoil with Moylough. At St Attracta’s, he played in 13 Connacht finals and won eight. They beat Jarlath’s of Galway one time in a Junior A final where Red Óg scored 3-11 of their 3-15. Redmond Senior, a Galway man, got some kick out of that one.
So his name rang out. In any conversation about the sorrowful mysteries of Sligo football, there was at least word that they had one coming. In 2017, when Sligo reached the All-Ireland minor quarter-final, Red Óg top scored in every game despite being a year younger than everyone around him. Derry beat them by a point in the end up but he was man of the match, scoring 0-11 of Sligo’s 0-15. He captained them the following year but it wasn’t a great crop.
Soon after that, he was in Australia, tilting at the AFL on a rookie contract. Like plenty before and since, he loved the life but the sport itself was a foreign language he just couldn’t get on his ear. He went in January but was home in September. Before going, he had promised Geraldine he’d do his Leaving Cert if it didn’t work out so after he landed back on a Saturday he was sitting in school on the Tuesday.
In everything, he was a perfectionist. “Come up and I’ll show you his room,” says Geraldine. “You’ll see it on his desk.” Right enough, there in the corner, his homework desk is covered in equations and bits of poems and chemical compounds, all written out neatly and clearly to help him remember. It’s more than the idle doodling of a bored student. Graffiti with a purpose.
“Red Óg would keep at something until he got it,” says his father. “The year we won the intermediate championship, we were playing Molaise Gaels and he took a free near the end, last minute, a chance to equalise the game. He missed it. It was outside his range, it was a wet night, the ball was cold, it wasn’t going to carry.
“We came back up here and he went straight to the pitch to try and score a free from that spot. He mightn’t have come home at all only we went to get him. I went down – Geraldine or I often had to do it. He was there, in the pitch dark, with only the light of the car, trying to kick the free that he missed.
“We played them in the county final then. And he scored three unbelievable points from frees. Harder than he had in the first game. That was the result of what had been churning in his head that night.”
Paddy Christie finds an empty classroom and pulls up a chair. We’re in Kilcoskan National School in north county Dublin, one of the countless plates he has spinning just now. School principal, recently appointed Longford manager, father of two under-10s and, despite it all, still over the DCU Sigerson team. To the Murphys, he was more than that again. “He was Red Óg’s life coach in Dublin,” says Geraldine.
When Christie first came across Red Óg in September 2021, he was inclined to be wary. It was obvious the lad could play – but plenty of lads come into DCU who can play. Beyond that, he knew two things about his football career. He had gone to Australia but came home after a few months. He had played senior with Sligo but had recently stepped away from the panel. Red flags? Orange, anyway.
“When somebody comes with a name and a profile,” Christie says, “you often dig down a bit deeper and you find that the person either goes beyond that name or doesn’t live up to it. The little bits and pieces that I had heard about him was that he was a fine footballer but that he could maybe be a bit difficult at times. Maybe a bit hard to manage. So there were these question marks.”
It didn’t take long for Christie to make his own judgment. He brought Red Óg for a scan on his ankle one time, just the pair of them in the car wrestling the Dublin traffic to the southside and back for a morning. By the time he dropped him off, Christie could see had very little to worry about.
He brought him out to Kilcoskan soon after to do some substitute teaching. School principals never have enough bodies but even so, Christie wouldn’t always be rushing to get lads with names for being footballers in from the teacher training colleges to help out. He’s seen plenty of them come and go down the years, strutting through the door as intercounty stars passing the time when what he needed were trainee teachers looking to learn.
“Within weeks, I was certain that this guy was going to be (a) a fantastic footballer but (b), more importantly, a good person. A good citizen, with a very decent side to him. That was even more to do with what the teachers here said about him. Some of them wouldn’t have a notion about sport – they wouldn’t have a clue even who I was! So they were only judging him on the person he was.
“One of the SNAs here is a lad who does know his sport and he was talking to Red Óg the first day he was here. He knew who he was but he didn’t let on. Red Óg did his Leaving a year late because of the AFL thing, so he was 21 coming to us when usually they’d be 19 or 20. When he mentioned this, Red Óg said, ‘Ah, I was abroad for a while.’
“I thought that showed a lot of class. No mention of the AFL. Just, ‘I was abroad for a while.’ That’s who he was. Some people would only be dying to tell you that they were on the other side of the world playing professional sport. But there was no side of him that thought he was a superstar.”
By April of this year, Red Óg was carving out what was, by any measure, a grand life for himself. His girlfriend, Rachel, was a Dublin southsider who couldn’t have had less interest in football. They had been together since the previous September and were both doing teaching practice out in Firhouse, quietly enjoying the fact that nobody there knew they were together.
His first season as a college player had gone well. Second years don’t usually make the DCU Sigerson team – and if they do, they don’t make it as a midfielder. But Red Óg stood out as they won the league, albeit they came up short to UL in the championship semi-final. He twice scored penalties to overturn late deficits and one outrageous sideline kept them alive against St Mary’s in Belfast when they were four down in the closing stages. He was one of two DCU players to make the team of the year.
He wasn’t playing with Sligo but even that was a positive, conscious choice. He had been there for two seasons, straight out of minor. The first one turned into the Covid year and ended with Sligo pulling out of the championship. The second was under new management and though he played every game, he didn’t enjoy it.
“People make rumours and gossip about Sligo but it was all fairly simple really,” says Geraldine. “You hear all these stories that he fell out with management but there’s nothing in them. Red Óg wanted to take a year away to concentrate on playing for DCU and to put his time into his studies. That’s all it was. He was going back to play for Sligo this year.”
“He needed a break,” says Redmond. “There was nothing wrong with Sligo – it just wasn’t his game. It was all systems and he wasn’t enjoying it. His confidence was shot. We would be the same with all three of the lads – if you’re not enjoying something, take a break from it.”
At DCU, Christie quizzed him on it a couple of times and came away with the same conclusion. He had a lot going on and he wasn’t loving it so he stepped away. Still, Christie said, you’re too good not to be playing at the highest level. Don’t leave it too long. Make sure you go back.
“I will,” said Red Óg. “But I’m still young.”
On the last night of his life, Red Óg gave nobody a reason to worry. His father works in Dublin three days a week and stays in digs out in Ashbourne so they would often meet up. They spoke on the phone around teatime and Redmond wondered if he wanted to go for coffee but Red Óg said no, he was tired and he was just going to stay in.
It was a Thursday night. He had plans laid out for each of the next four days. He got on to one of the teachers in the school where he was doing teaching practice and said his printer was out of ink and asked could she print off something he needed for the next day’s lesson. He had a physio appointment down home booked in for Saturday.
Rachel was coming down for the weekend and they were going clothes-shopping on Saturday after the physio appointment. The Sigerson awards were on Monday night and if Red Óg was going somewhere there’d be photographers, Red Óg would be getting new threads for it. On the way down to Limerick, they had arranged to call in to visit his granny, Redmond’s mother, in Galway.
This is who he was. A grown-up version of the four-year-old Redmond had to wrangle down the back of Mass. Always going, always planning. He didn’t do things on a whim. He didn’t do things in secret. He talked to his parents every day.
“We had no reason to believe anything was wrong,” Geraldine says. “The second fellah, Oisín, is as deep as the sea. He wouldn’t talk at all the way Red Óg would. Red Óg would talk to us about anything. A small thing would be a big thing for him.
“He broke somebody’s wing mirror in a car park one time and he was still there on the phone to us half an hour later wondering what he should do. He had fixed it back up and wrote a note giving his details but he was worried that he’d be doing the wrong thing not waiting. And we were saying, ‘Sure you could be there for hours – just leave it and come home.’”
What was on his mind that Thursday night? They don’t know. A few teachers have told them since that teaching practice can be very stressful in the moment but though he was finding it intense, it didn’t feel like something he couldn’t handle. Footballwise, he was weighing up offers from different clubs in the US for the summer and wasn’t full sure whether to go at all. But even then, it was all upside. Whatever he decided was going to be good.
“I was talking to him after Redmond that evening,” says Geraldine. “And we were texting then after 10 o’clock about the weekend and about Rachel coming down and them going shopping for style on Saturday for the awards.
“The last text was at 10:17. He said, ‘Night Mam, I’ll chat to you in the morning.’”
Oisín was the first to get wind that something was amiss. Rachel made contact to say Red Óg wasn’t at school. He’s in college in UL so he rang Geraldine to ask had she heard from Red Óg. It was around midday at this stage.
“And I said, ‘No, sure I wouldn’t be hearing from him at this time of day, he’s in school until three.’ But Oisín said, ‘No Mam, he’s not at school.’ And when I heard that, I knew there was something very badly wrong. That would not be Red Óg. If Red Óg hasn’t turned up somewhere without a call, something has happened.”
“I was on site in Blanchardstown,” says Redmond. “So I made my way across to DCU and it was just as I got there that Oisín rang to say he’s with the footballers. I said, ‘Is he alive?’ And Oisín just said, ‘No, he’s dead.’
“I got to spend two hours with him in DCU which was really nice. The Gardaí let me in when I got to the room. The body was on the floor and I got to spend the time with him. I found that helped.”
Lots of things helped. Community helped, the club helped. The local parish priest, Fr Leo Henry, went above and beyond. School, football, college – all his circles contracted to hug the Murphys close. Their house in Moylough was filled with young people for the week, grieving, sharing, laughing. Youth won’t be denied, even at a time like that. Especially at a time like that.
Their faith helped too. It’s still helping. Somebody asked Geraldine one of the days was she cross with God and she said she couldn’t be because it was a miracle they had him at all. She had a miscarriage before Red Óg came along and he was a very difficult pregnancy that they weren’t ever sure would be successful until he arrived. “We had him for 21 years,” she says. “I’m not a holy Joe but I couldn’t be cross with God after we got that.”
Red Óg was a streak across the sky. They prefer to spend their time marvelling at the light rather than trying to make sense of the dark.
“We firmly believe that Red Óg is in heaven, he’s just gone ahead of us in the queue,” says Redmond. “He’s here with us. We’re still a family of five. He’s just in a different form. That gives us strength. It’s a positive thing.”
All in all, they’re doing okay. Not brilliant. Not amazing. Not, on any level, unaffected. But okay. Today they’re okay.
“I think for us, it’s about living one day at a time. It’s having the memories and reflecting on what Red Óg gave us. Focusing on loss won’t get us anywhere.”
In a strange kind of way, not knowing what drove Red Óg that night is a comfort to them. The fact that it makes no sense is the only way they can make sense of it.
“My one consolation is that if he was in his right mind, he wouldn’t have done it,” says Geraldine. “He wouldn’t have dreamed of hurting us that way. Me especially. I know that. Daithí's birthday was the following weekend. There was so much going on. His mind just went and he snapped. I firmly believe that.”
Red Óg was a streak across the sky. They prefer to spend their time marvelling at the light rather than trying to make sense of the dark.
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