I have had a week or so of holidays in Ballina. It wasn't the best timing to return to the fatherland after the controversy of the Dublin-Mayo game. I made a mistake in my initial commentary on the John Small foul on Eoghan McLoughlin and I suppose I had a bit of a Mayo version of a Fatwa placed on me. It might have been wiser to holiday elsewhere. But back to the soft craggy boglands and tall majestic hills we went anyway.
There's an old truism that Ireland is small. And it's never smaller than when you want to keep the head down. As it happened, many of my old team mates were on a charity cycle around the clubs of Mayo when I was in the county. It was really the 1990s team led by Dermot Flanagan.
Myself and my girls were out walking the Erris Loop head and, naturally, we bumped into them. We made arrangements to meet up in McDonnell's pub in Belmullet, one of the great GAA pubs. There was a good atmosphere in there by four o'clock when I arrived: you could tell the boys were warming up. But when I walked in the door, John Maughan stood up and said: 'Right lads, here's Kevin now, ye feckers: tell him what you were saying about him for the last half hour!' It was a good ice breaker and a fun evening.
Much of the debate on that tackle was carried out on social media. I left Twitter about a year ago because I found opinions so polarised and humourless and angry. What this latest controversy proved is that partisanship is alive and well in the GAA. I was deemed to have gone ‘against’ Mayo by not immediately crying foul in that moment. You are from Mayo? Then be Mayo.
In all the debate about the John Small foul, I heard nothing from local media or Mayo supporters about the removal of Shane Walsh as an effective player by a Mayo defender in the Connacht final. And that incident was off the ball: there is the tiniest mitigation in that Small's foul on Eoghan McLoughlin involved the ball - however notionally.
It all got me thinking about the history of violence on Gaelic football fields. It’s only when you sit down and reflect that the memories come flooding back. They are not pretty.
I was on the field when John Finn had his jaw smashed off the ball in the drawn All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin in 1985. Four years later, it was my turn: I was hit off the ball in a championship game against Galway in Tuam. My jaw has clicked every second day for the past 30 years. I could be talking to someone and it will just click and I have to rub the joint back into place. It is annoying - and painful.
I was concussed twice in club games. In the first one I was just taken out with a typical football shot. It was a north Mayo final at minor level. I think it was against Lacken. I was running at the defence and was about to play a one two - with my brother, actually. I flashed the ball to him and as I moved for the return, the guy stepped into my path and knocked me out. You see it all the time. The attacking player has his eye and mind on the ball so is completely vulnerable.
I remember a half-time during a league match in Monaghan in Clones in the mid-1980s. Monaghan were mean and flinty then. I was so frustrated at watching their forwards getting nice handy points. And I was roaring in the dressing room because our forwards were getting the s**t kicked out of us. And none of our defenders were laying a hand on Monaghan.
I once saw a promising young Mayo player hit so badly in a club match that he never played properly again. I had my teeth damaged in a vocational school final against Derry. It was a punch into the side of the mouth. I had an ankle broken against Knockmore. I broke my leg twice in quick succession going for balls I had no right to win - and didn't. The second break finished my Mayo career at 28.
They were complete accidents and entirely avoidable if I had not bought into the stupid machismo stuff that informed my approach to those tackles. You’d have old guys on the line telling you that you were yellow or windy if you backed out or tried to protect yourself.
There’s an old army story I heard several times down the years. It involved an Offaly footballer from the 1960s: an enforcer with a formidable reputation and a catalogue of big hits to his name. In his old age, he would arrive around the front door of the village church and greet rival club men - former victims - by saying: Howya, Lads. Are ye still getting the headaches?
When I played underage football, my late father would not allow me to play against a certain north Mayo club. He knew that a tidy towny player would be an irresistible target. Martin Carney has told me about a vicious assault in a championship game against Sligo. He got a smashed nose and lost much of his sense of smell. Permanently. This stuff was happening all over Ireland.
But I told him to f**k off, to be honest. I was annoyed by it.
A pitch opener was particularly dangerous. You could do what you wanted. I played a game in Shrule where Meath's Liam Hayes was absolutely destroyed with a belt. The culprit did it because he knew he could. A year later we reciprocated for a pitch opener up in Meath. Within minutes, it was open warfare. And shortly after that certain players were asked to leave the field in order to restore calm. I suppose that meant it was Mayo 1 Meath 1 after that game. But a few years later, Meath won the big boxing free-for-all on points in Croke Park.
Maybe the players who received these belts and assaults contributed to the culture by staying silent. But what were you supposed to do? Often, these assaults went unseen. For instance, my jaw was dislocated in June in that Connacht match. The culprit and myself were called to a disciplinary meeting. In October! In a hotel in Castlerea. I knew this guy and later played Railway Cup with him.
After that match, we were in the shower and he tried to say hello: wanted bygones to be bygones. But I told him to f**k off, to be honest. I was annoyed by it. We didn’t speak at all that night in Castlerea. His punishment was a three month suspension. Those months were: November, December and January. The close season.
Funnily, a few weeks ago I was in Galway for a break. We hit Anthony Finnerty's pub in Salthill. Fat Larry remains one of the funniest people I have ever met. I asked after his son Rob, who, of course, plays for Galway and was injured in this year's Connacht final.
“Well,” Larry said.” The swelling has gone from his head to his ankle so that’s positive.”
We were in that land of: ah sure it might have been an accident about Rob’s injury. But the Walsh one wasn’t. Talk got around to the old saying that Mayo needed enforcers to win. And we were chatting about the old days when who walked in only my former marker from that night in the Castlerea Hotel. We had a few beers on us. He walked up and said ‘howya Kevin ‘and put his hand out. We shook hands. And it was a good way to put it to bed 30 years later.
Did I ever do anything myself on a pitch of which I am not proud? Yes. Just once. A fella from Ballinrobe was pulling and dragging out of me. A very nice fella. He was a rugby guy who thought he could pull and drag in Gaelic.
It is much better to be labelled an assassin or thug.
I said listen, I’ve gotta free myself here! You need to quit this. He kind of grumbled and carried on and eventually I swung back and I damaged some of his teeth. I hated that I did that. I still do. He lay on the ground and I got the ball and kicked a point. Nobody even wondered why he was on the ground. Again, this happened all the time. He played on.
To be classed as soft or windy is the worst reputation a Gaelic footballer can have. It is much better to be labelled an assassin or thug. It is well known that all teams have these enforcers. But the contradiction is that it is often the enforcers who are cowardly.
My brother Paul, more of a basketball player, was playing full forward once in a club match. He could see that the fullback was, let’s say, emotional, before the throw in. As he trotted in before the start of the game, the fullback trotted out. Paul presumed he was going to shake hands. The guy punched him on the nose and broke it. For no reason. It was insane stuff. And it happened everywhere.
Culture of machismo
The culture of machismo is the greatest stain on the GAA. I was working with Sean Cavanagh recently on the Sunday Game. Before we went on air, I asked him if the game was meaner or dirtier now than in my time playing. I was sure he would say no. But he suggested that the dark arts of the modern game produces a meaner type of intimidation. It's a different type of violence: more psychological. Sledging, late knee tackles, constant holding off the ball, blocking runs, grappling contests, nippling, even eye-gouging and biting.
I am asking the question here: why do we accept that kind of intimidation of our star players? These guys get special treatment. Cynical treatment. And we are allowing ordinary players to cancel the special skills of these players - through foul means.
I often get emails from people concerned that these star players will soon fade from the scene. The Conor McManus type guy. The once in a generation talent. They are identified young as brilliant footballers. And their reward is ‘special treatment’ from a young age. And there is a school of thought that the next generation will begin to walk away, do something else with their lives.
One last memory. I was out in New York in 2016 with Roscommon. Cian Connolly was playing a lovely neat game for us. A corner back from Ulster just hit him and broke his jaw off the ball. I was fuming. I went into Maruice Deegan's dressing room afterwards. The conversation went roughly like this: 'Jesus Christ. How can you let this go?' 'Kevin I didn't see it. If I did I would have done something about it. I'm bringing a guy to hospital. What do I tell his parents?'
No suspension, nothing, out of that day. It was ultimately the work of a coward.
There’s a hypocrisy at work too in that behind the ‘shock’ at these incidents is the fuel of adrenaline and excitement. Gaelic football thrives on the edges of wild athletic abandon. At its best, it is played on the edge. But when players are so inclined, they can move into that grey area where you can knock a guy clean out and nobody even blinks. The fights and melees and the hits get the blood going in the crowd and they provoke brilliant pub conversations and they make us feel alive.
It’s all very well unless you are the guy in the hospital with the smashed up face. I’ll tell you, Cian Connolly was a fine young inter-county footballer. But he lost interest in playing for Roscommon shortly after that. Could you blame him?