This week’s Laochra Gael features Donegal’s first All-Ireland winning captain Anthony Molloy, who – according to Frank Craig, a local reporter and co-author of the former’s memoir, Life, Glory and Demons – joked about giving his knees so the county could take home Sam Maguire.
It says something about Molloy’s serenity that he can find anything humorous about something that caused such hardship in his life, requiring half a dozen operations throughout his life, having first sustained the damage as a 19-year old.
Eternal Derry adversary Brian McGilligan contributes to the programme and sympathises with his plight and the need to “wear bags of ice for days and days and days”.
One of many contemporary players sporting impressive knee bandaging and strapping, McGilligan points out that they weren’t wearing these accessories “for the look” but literally to hold things together.
The documentary is revealing as is often the case with this series but it also depicts an epic journey, almost a pilgrim’s progress, through late 20th century Ireland and beyond.
Adversity is obvious in the physical impairment Molloy has to manage, cope with and in return accept the permanent price of “living in pain”. There is more, though. Sporting prowess within Gaelic games can also come at a cost.
From a remote Gaeltacht part of Donegal, Léim an Ghabhra (he mentions that the family home was only electrified in 1975) and one of 12 children, he sets out on a path that brings him to national prominence as captain of the first team from the county to win the All-Ireland and indelible status within the community.
In 2016 he became the first GAA figure to be bestowed with the freedom of Donegal in recognition of his football achievement but also his later life as an ambassador for the county.
In 1992, though, he was unprepared for the avalanche that would follow All-Ireland success over Dublin. “All of a sudden,” he says on Laochra Gael, “this shy man from a remote place is the centre of attention.”
To give it context, Molloy was just the fourth man in 49 years to be presented with a county’s first Sam Maguire.
“He couldn’t say no to anybody. He didn’t want to offend anybody by saying no,” according to Martin Gavigan, his Ardara clubmate and the team’s formidable centre back.
Drink culture is constantly in the background. “You trained two or three nights a week but you also drank two nights a week. We didn’t know any other way.”
The springboard for the All-Ireland is the Ulster semi-final against Fermanagh, which they win easily but with a performance they know won’t get them anywhere different than they’ve always gone. Part of the renewal of their vows is no drinking.
Molloy’s sister Caitlín Ní Chinnéide emphasises his kindness and generosity – how he always thought of others. In 1986, he decided to join most of his siblings in New York – leaving just one of a family of 14 still at home – when news comes that his mother is unwell with a form of dementia.
Anthony insists on going home despite the abundance of well-paid work across the Atlantic. His return has an appreciable effect on his mother, which prompts the thought that maybe she was suffering from loneliness with so many of her children thousands of miles away at a time of limited communication and travel opportunity.
His playing career has the unusual distinction of him having retired twice – once in 1981 after initially sustaining the knee injury and then 10 years later – and returned twice to win All-Irelands.
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In 1982 with the under-21s, it was Donegal’s first at any grade, and in 1992, the first at senior. On both occasions he was talked back by the managers, Tom Conaghan and then Brian McEniff.
The 1991 retirement came in a fit of unhappiness at not having been played in that year’s Ulster final. By coincidence I saw him shortly after that match, a defeat by Down, in a pub complete with pint and cigarette and looking every inch a retired player.
He and McEniff repaired their relationship that winter and he recommitted and was reinstated as captain.
His galvanising presence at centrefield is visible even in short excerpts: the bravery of his ball winning, the physicality in possession and the deft accuracy displayed in his kick passing. Despite all the strapping, he is Prometheus unbound.
There is irony in how things played out. That unwillingness to say no to people or be thought standoffish becomes a vulnerability. ESB give him time off to bring Sam Maguire around the country and he dutifully takes it to all the schools in Donegal. But it becomes a curse.
“This was a cup that I had dreamed about from a young age and now I’m sick of looking at it.”
The non-stop socialising, perpetuated by his reluctance to turn down offers, takes a toll in a drink problem that ends his marriage and leaves him even looking back, feeling demeaned.
“People were buying me, buying my company and I was letting it happen.”
Redemption comes paradoxically when he realises that he has to start thinking of his own self-interest. For all his leadership in a team environment and his tolerant acceptance of social duties, the only way back is to depend on himself to change.
It prompts a sobering question. How would his life have turned out had he never won an All-Ireland?
Now at 60, he works in the community and is a Fianna Fáil county councillor. He looks well and appears content when viewing it all through the perspective of three decades.
“It was a special moment in my life,” he reflects, “but it was hard to deal with. However, I had to deal with it.”
Laochra Gael – Anthony Molloy is on TG4 this Thursday at 9.30