On healing and wild hurling: The re-education of Diarmuid Lyng

Diarmuid Lyng  on the beach at Bunaneer on the Dingle Peninsula. Photograph:  Valerie O’Sullivan

“Not to be looking for anything,” Diarmuid Lyng says, laughing but fully serious when asked what he is looking for. It’s Tuesday lunchtime on Inch strand: storms threatening on the radio forecasts and on the violet skyline. The mountain peaks and treks of the Dingle peninsula are snow-dusted and in-your-face enchanting.

We get hammered by hail stones walking across the sand. Lyng laughs and sucks in the air. The beach is deserted. He swims here most days but as a recent convert to surfing, he is worried that his tolerance for the Atlantic salt-freeze is lessening.

“The wetsuits are making me soft,” he jokes. Later, after lunch, his partner Siobhán makes a quick run into town and their two-year-old boy Uisne sleeps and Dubh Dubh, the family dog, makes himself comfortable and doesn’t disguise the fact that he is deeply unimpressed by the conversation, which is pretty much about how his master turned his back on it all.

Except if you asked Diarmuid Lyng, he’d reject that idea completely and argue, passionately, that he has turned his back on nothing: that, at the age of 37 he is learning for the first time how to face into the world and into himself with complete honesty and openness. It has taken concentrated un-learning. He came across a book recently and the title alone made his heart sing.

“The Body Keeps The Score” he announces with satisfaction. “As soon as I saw the title I thought, thank God somebody has written this book.”

Those five simple words may have illuminated a truth that it had taken him decades to arrive at. It has led him from his years as a wiry, skill-laden athlete who hurled through a shadow decade for Wexford to here, on the untameable Kerry coastline, where time obeys its own laws. The rectory he and Siobhán share is just a five minute walk from Tom Crean’s pub, the tourist beacon, but set into a dark sloping hill, it is its own self-contained idyll.

They’ve revived the soil. They’ve laid vegetable and seaweed beds. They’ve located a natural spring in the ground and built a well. Lyng was the kind of fella who, apart from his felicity with a hurl, was useless with his hands. So there was one solution only.

“Whatever the things I can’t do or am squeamish towards, to go towards. Compost. Or compost toilets. Go into it and see what it feels like. There was a spring there. I had to find it. And dig. A lot. I had never planted anything in my life. The first bit of food this man ate was a strawberry that we grew. And it provided a certainty that I could navigate these uncertainties.”

He still regards himself as a novice in the Irish language but speaks it over the afternoon constantly to Uisne and Dubh Dubh and won’t ever get over the thrill of dreaming in Irish for the first time. He thinks the language is there like a natural spring in anyone who sat through school Irish, waiting to be plumbed.

“We are only three or four days away from it.”

There is another Diarmuid Lyng out there, he knows, who stayed on what was, on the surface, a smoother path through life. He was a practicing teacher and, later, a sought-after media analyst who had enjoyed the profile that comes with being an elite hurler. And even though he still has affection and respect for that life, he recognises now that it was slowly killing him.

“I felt that a lot of the time, I didn’t fit in even though I wanted to fit in. Sometimes you slip into a notion of convention and you slip into mortgage, car loan, salary, kids . . . all that stuff. I was a teacher too and teachers are definitely creatures of security. I find that there is a great security in teaching and stepping back away from it, you tend to look back and think: ‘oh yeah, that is convention’. But I would be much slower to class it as that.

Diarmuid Lyng in action for Wexford against Cork’s Seán Óg Ó hAilpín during the 2004 All-Ireland hurling semi-final at Croke park. Photograph: Tom Honan/Inpho
Diarmuid Lyng in action for Wexford against Cork’s Seán Óg Ó hAilpín during the 2004 All-Ireland hurling semi-final at Croke park. Photograph: Tom Honan/Inpho

“I have met people who have worked these things out within their society and I have intense admiration of that. But I couldn’t do that within those confines. I had a track for myself based on what I thought I should do. And I think I was basing that a lot on what I was seeing around me and what the subtle messages of society were. And I followed that and found that in getting to a relatively stable place, it wasn’t my path. And I had to step off it then.”

It would be wrong to say he fought it because he didn’t know what “it” was. But in 2007, just three years after making his senior debut for Wexford, he was in deep trouble. He was always lean: as a hurler, he had a tungsten-wire athleticism. And that year, he came out of a cryotherapy chamber feeling shattered.

“Couldn’t eat. Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t drink. And that begins to affect your mind.”

He was curious. He searched for answers. He felt about a thousand years old. He was captain of Wexford hurling team. He was ‘Gizzy’ – the GAA only has to catch wind of a family nickname to saddle it to your back forever. He went through the litany of dietary changes. Non-dairy. Gluten free.

“Tried all the medicine too. And it was obliterating my system.”

He lit out. He served up beers in Molly Spillane’s pub in New York for six months, kicking football for Kerry. He had a vague plan to trek through South America. He met this Chilean cat named Sergio who persuaded him to head with him to a Buddhist monastery in the eastern Thailand. An 18-month odyssey through China and Russia with mucho meditation, tai chi and sincere chats about permaculture ensued.

“Forty-eight hour train journeys discussing that, yeah.”

He was on a beach in Vietnam and finished reading ‘The Alchemist’ when he was hit by a blinding certainty that he needed to get home to Wexford. Went to the lodgings to check his email. Waiting for him was a message from Tomás Codd, his clubmate.

“It’s still the only email I ever got in my life from Tomás.”

Codd wrote Lyng if he was interested in hurling for Wexford that summer, then he had to get his butt back: in effect that while the Shakyamuni Buddha had infinite patience, Liam Dunne did not and the Leinster championship started in late May.

“I arrived home on Tuesday morning and trained with Wexford Tuesday night.”

And he arrived home feeling enlightened with a capital E. Lyng felt awoken, spiritually and all the rest and he was eager – no, insistent – that he share it with his friends. He couldn’t understand that they’d rather swamp pints and quote Sopranos than hear Diarmuid’s thoughts on ecology and meditation and the big shebang. He wouldn’t let them off.

Diarmuid Lyng at his home in Annascaul in 2017. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Diarmuid Lyng at his home in Annascaul in 2017. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

“Not only was I coming across as an arsehole, I was an arsehole,” he confirms. When he finally realised how he was coming across, he felt ashamed and confided as much in Tom Harkin, an Australian friend he met who’d been on a similar reckoning.

“And Tom said: ‘oh yeah, the spiritual arsehole stage’. I remember that. We all do it. You make a breakthrough and you feel judgmental of everyone else. And I just thought: ‘Thank God’. So I imagine, yeah, for family and people close to me at that time, it was hard. I got a little bit too intense. Part of the teaching was the ability to laugh and be jovial. But there was too much seriousness.”

He hurled until after the 2013 season, when his body, maybe in response to his mind, began to rebel again and break down. Hurling, see, had been the epicentre of his world. The game, its magic and demands, didn’t allow room for another world – but that world crashed anyway. Part of him wanted the identity that came with being a feted hurler so badly. When he came into the Wexford team, the remnants of the wild bunch of 1996 were still there. Adrian Fenlon. Rory McCarthy. Damien Fitzhenry.

“I knew what made them champions,” he remembers now. “They have a very specific type of energy. I think it was the effect Liam Griffin had on them as men. I could be wrong on that but I think it was. And I wanted that too.”

Oh, he wanted it. He revered Griffin, the shaman-disguised-as-hotelier who sort of hypnotised Wexford into winning the 1996 All-Ireland title. He reveres him still. When Lyng was a minor in 1999, Griffin was over the team. There was this incident he still remembers.

“Ah, sure, feck it, I went drinkin‘ after a game.”

They drew with Kilkenny in that year’s minor final. The plan had been to hit Wexford town that night, win or lose. A few of them chanced it anyway.

“I wasn’t really drinking then. A few of us had a skinful though. And the night fell apart.”

They were thrown out of a nightclub. Someone picked him up off the ground. Griffin told him he was an asshole at training that Tuesday night.

“He was right too. He wasn’t calling me an asshole in a light or heavy way but he was saying the energy you worked from to make that decision was an asshole energy. So I got dropped for the replay.”

He had this cassette tape of Griffin giving a public speech after the All-Ireland. Ancient-warriors-through-the-veins stuff. He’d listen to it on loop.

“Going to games I would have it on the headphones listening to it over and over. So I was gutted – over my own stupidity. But there was, too, always that desire to prove to Liam, or the figure Liam represents in my head, that that is not what it is about for me. That I was serious about my place and the game.”

Wexford’s Diarmuid Lyng in action against Tommy Walsh of Kilkenny during the Leinster Hurling Final in 2007. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Wexford’s Diarmuid Lyng in action against Tommy Walsh of Kilkenny during the Leinster Hurling Final in 2007. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

He doesn’t give himself too hard a time over that. After all, he was 17. And anyhow, wasn’t he conforming to who he was supposed to be? The minor star: out on the town. He wonders about all that: how strange it is for young men to be lionised in Irish towns because of what they do in the GAA.

“It was definitely an issue. It was the single issue that caused me to fall out of love with the game that I was completely in love with. And that had burned very brightly in me for a long time. And then after a time playing, I noticed people’s response to me had changed. ‘Heroic worship’ is far too strong a phrase but that was the force behind the subtle interactions that you’d have.

“The only mistake you can make is that you begin to believe it. And then you seek it. And then you need it. And suddenly you are in a group and you steer the conversation towards hurling because that’s where you are safe – and on top. And then you don’t have to fear anymore. And you feel the disingenuousness of it as it is happening. But you still crave the feeling.”

And that was the tension. He loved it and hated it. “I loved it, yeah,” he confesses. But he knew it wasn’t real. And much as he read and meditated and spent a few winters, car-less and broke and foraging seaweed in Ballyferriter and beginning to live conscientiously, it was none of that, really, that made the skies clear for him.

“No. Fuck, man. I fell in love, like.”

Siobhán de Páor is a Waterford woman, a poet and performance artist who did a little athletics in her schooldays and who was, and remains, blissfully unimpressed by GAA stardom. Lyng saw her perform poetry one night in Brick’s of Ballyferriter. “It had this spiritual, intense activist message to it. And I went up to talk to her about it afterwards and she was saying you have to temper these things.”

A while after that, they bumped into each other by chance – she literally took a wrong turn and ended up at his house. And he began to see, that the real source of joy – whatever he had been galloping around the world after – was located within himself.

“Siobhán, I suppose . . . we were going off in the evening time, I mean, going off overlooking the Blaskets and climbing on rocks and taking sunsets in and chatting about our ideas. And I always thought love was: you ‘love’ somebody – you attach it to them. What I wanted to say was, ‘Siobhán, be the centre of my world, now, so I can love you’ and all that. But I felt a voice came in very clearly and said: ‘that love isn’t for her. This is for you to mine’.

“And all the medicine you’re looking for is in this love as well. So I did that. And I was working on the Blaskets for six or seven weeks one time. And I had the island to myself a few times. And I was thinking: ‘okay, this is the wildest of wild nature’. I’ve read the books. They all say, nature, you’ll heal me. So I am here. And I am ready for it! And after a few weeks of that kind of a dialogue going on, I was looking out through the half-door of Peig Sayer’s old house one day, looking down at the beach and seals and saying, ‘nature heal me’.

“And all of a sudden that turned right back on me. It was a clear message. I’m alive too. It doesn’t work one way. But to feel as if I had heard the voice of nature speaking to me was a huge departure for me. And that made sense to me. I had been reading a lot of John Moriarty around then and he was giving me permission to see the world in this way. That it was all . . . alive.”

That was a few years back. The couple run occasional retreat weekends, Wild Irish Retreat, reclaiming the language in nature. As part of the events, Diarmuid holds a hurling class. Rather, it’s the opposite of a class. “Wild hurling, I suppose you’d call it.” For all the gifts the GAA have given, he has met so many people scarred by the organisation too: scared away as kids because they felt they were no good at the games or players who could have been good but were turned off by the uniformity of thought and attitude.

“We ran a lot of creatives out of the GAA. I’ve met them. And they do feel wronged. And I try and heal that. I often think: what if those people’s talents were part of the GAA? What could a GAA club become if we brought all different types of people into it as opposed to: okay, you don’t want to kill the fella up the road because he plays for the other club? So fuck off out of here and go play the fiddle or whatever.”

Diarmuid Lyng collects kelp and dillisk seaweed with his son Uisne on the beach at Ard Draighneáin on the Dingle Peninsula. Photograph: : Valerie O’Sullivan
Diarmuid Lyng collects kelp and dillisk seaweed with his son Uisne on the beach at Bunaneer on the Dingle Peninsula. Photograph: : Valerie O’Sullivan

He sometimes thinks about the 13-year-old boy he was as a first year in St Peter’s, swanning around the school as a kind of made man because he had a rep as a hurler. And he knew the non-GAA kids resented that. “And hated me for it, yeah,” he says now. And he thinks about the 20-year-old hurling man-about-town he masqueraded as. And he remembers that guy when he speaks in schools to young kids now. Lyng’s openness is generous and disarming but he is much too savvy not to get that his image and lifestyle leaves him open to ridicule or suspicion from the GAA fraternity. “I’ve had both,” he laughs. But he has also been surprised at the responsiveness to his ideas. And just because he quit the job doesn’t mean he lost his vocation to teach.

“We tend to be a bit afraid of our inner wildness because we think there is no end to it. So I tell classes that you can step back from your feelings – like, anger is just a movement of energy. Experience it but realise you are not ‘it’. You are not your fear or disappointment or anger – but those things will guide you. And then there is ecological stuff, that to engage with would create a deeper meaning for people – for players, say, that will last well beyond the game where at 32 years old there isn’t this big cliff they fall off and, like so many past intercounty players, struggle with addictions and problems. I think we are dealing with a much bigger struggle there than we realise primarily because those people are seen as . . . our heroes.”

Four years ago, Lyng took part in a GAA documentary. He bared his soul. Plus, via a photograph, his butt. Afterwards, his grandmother took him aside. “She’s a good, strong woman.” She told her grandson that she felt he might be sharing too much of himself. She told him be careful.

“And she was right to say it. But I do feel, too, that she grew up in a generation where there were shiny doorknobs all over this country and there were a lot of things going on behind them. I know that phrase of not selling the family silver. And I believe in that. But I do feel we are struggling with things. And nobody is saying it. And why not say it?”

The afternoon light weakens. Lyng prepares yoghurt and blueberries for his son and roars laughing when asked if he is still a GAA man. “Fuck. What a question.” It doesn’t require an answer though. Maybe he’s not your stereotypical county chairman but it’s clear he still has the game in his veins.

“I committed the cardinal sin. I left the club. And I feel guilty about that because of all the people who invested so much time in me. And I am not giving back,” he says. But he thinks – hopes, questions – that he might yet: that he might be able to push the dressingroom door open a bit more. To help others not fear the judgment of the room. To encourage kids out of the gym and feel and breathe where they are from. To know that there is nothing wrong with winning and losing.

“But it’s the importance we attach to it all. That is what I observed. Now I was blessed that my father didn’t see the world that way. The GAA, you know . . . has had such a profound impact on Irish life that, of course, there is shadow as well as light.”

It’s pushing five on the peninsula. Dubh Dubh is restless and senses a rampage across Inch strand in his immediate future. Diarmuid Lyng stands at the doorway of the rectory, Uisne in his arms and points his son’s gaze at a fresh torrent of hail falling all about. He guides you out whispering to Uisne to wave goodbye.

He wishes you safe home.