Seán O’Brien: Anger over my parents’ break-up never left me

Book extract: Former Ireland star opens up on tough teenage years in autobiography

Seán O’Brien: “For any young kid, the two people in the world who you are meant to trust the most are your parents. And as a result of this trust being broken, I didn’t have too much trust in myself or in many other people.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Seán O’Brien: “For any young kid, the two people in the world who you are meant to trust the most are your parents. And as a result of this trust being broken, I didn’t have too much trust in myself or in many other people.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

I think I was 12 or 13 years old when it became clear that not everything was right at home. Stephen was 20 and had already moved to Jersey two years before. Caroline was 18 and going out with Willie, who is now her husband, so by then I was usually the oldest child in the house.

Looking back, it’s now clearer that my parents were going through a break-up. I didn’t understand exactly what was happening, but I could hear the constant arguments, at all hours of the day and night. Sometimes I’d just lie in my bed crying. Other times I’d go to their room or the kitchen, where they had most of their rows, and try to calm them down, to be a peacemaker. Not that the rows between them ever became physically violent. They wouldn’t necessarily be shouting or roaring either. But they’d be arguing angrily, and emotions would often run high.

More often than not the rows started after Dad had come home from a night out drinking. Mam doesn’t drink really at all, but Dad did like a drink when we were young. He was very sociable and known for his storytelling and being generally good craic. He was probably a bit too sociable and liked drinking a little too much. That was most likely the underlying cause of their problems. Also, my parents were married at 19. That was the kind of thing to do back then, but that is just too young, in my opinion. They were still kids themselves, and soon were having five kids and all home truths, the pressures, financial and otherwise, that come with rearing a family.

Mam says she did try to talk to me about it, to tell me what was going on, but I don’t really remember the full conversation. One of the reasons I’m writing about my parents’ break-up is because there are probably loads of kids from my area, and in the country generally, who have gone through or are going through this sort of thing. At the time, I didn’t deal with it at all, in part because my parents continued to live in the same house even though they had split up, and to this day they still do. Mam cooks Dad meals in the evening and they have a civil relationship now. They put up with each other, there aren’t many arguments, and Dad gives Mam money to pay the bills, while Mam keeps the house tidy.

I don’t know when they actually agreed to break up, or even if it was ever said. I don’t think my Dad is the kind of man to sit down and discuss things through like that. Instead, issues would be brushed over and life would just go on.

So the marriage broke up over a period of time as they continued to live under the same roof. And I lived there too, until I moved to Dublin when I was 18, so I had six years of living with it. Maybe that’s partly why I kept myself so busy: I worked after school every day before going home.

There was also a need to bring more money into the house. All through our school years, some days Dad would have lunch money for you, or half of it, and some days not at all. While everyone else in the class was heading downtown for some lunch, I might have been in the canteen having whatever I could afford. That wasn’t very often, I have to stress, but I think money used to be an issue between my parents. Mam would spend her last penny to be generous to someone else. Dad, on the other hand, wanted to have enough for his few pints at the weekend.

Some days my parents would be civilised with each other. Other days they’d be cutting at each other. And on some of those days I would blow up myself.

‘Will you two please stop fucking shouting at each other!’

It would take a lot to rile me. But if something kicked off, I’d lose my marbles altogether. Stand back, everybody, because the red mist would consume me and that would be it

Then that would make me feel bad, a 15- or 16-year-old young fella talking to his parents like that, because normally I was very well-mannered towards my parents. I never disrespected them, but after listening to the rows for three or four years I became very frustrated with them, especially as the rows were usually over the same small little things.

Of course, their frustrations with each other were at different levels, and their tolerance for each other had virtually ended, so anything could set off another argument. My Dad is a very stubborn man and my Mam, although not quite as stubborn, is certainly more animated. Discussing things together is not their strongest point.

It is probably not mine either. I have a short fuse. There were times, particularly when I came home from Dublin in the early years with Leinster, when I’d go out with friends in Carlow and there were lads wanting to have a cut off me.

‘Do you know what?’ I’d say to myself, fuck this. And I’d let fly!

Seán O’Brien in action during Ireland’s game against Canada at the Aviva Stadium in November 2016. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Seán O’Brien in action during Ireland’s game against Canada at the Aviva Stadium in November 2016. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The one thing I would say is that I’ve never started anything. I hope all the lads at home would verify that. I never initiated a fight during that period in my life when there were lads looking for a scrap, and it would take a lot to rile me. But if something kicked off, I’d lose my marbles altogether. Stand back, everybody, because the red mist would consume me and that would be it.

There were two big fights in Carlow when I was 18. Apart from a few punches being thrown on a rugby or Gaelic pitch, I’d never been in a fight before then. I thought, why are people having a cut off me here? Neither fight was sparked by me, but it was my fault engaging with that shite. I had to learn to walk away, and that’s what I did soon after those fights. And I had to, because if I lost my temper, I could hurt somebody. That was also a very real fear.

I did knock a few guys down and I got hit myself. Lads tried to kick me down the stairs one night. But I was never badly hurt, and I never badly hurt anyone else. It’s the same with verbal rows. Over the years, away from the rugby pitch, if someone really annoys me, I’ve learned that I have to walk away for half an hour to think about it, cool the jets and come back to speak to the person.

I felt an obligation to try and fix their marriage, or at any rate manage it. It was too much responsibility at that stage in my life

At the time, however, I didn’t realise how much of an effect my parents’ break-up had on me. I was an angry young man until I went to Leinster and began to learn some discipline, but even that came only after a few fights in training. It was only around that time that I began to deal with my parents’ breaking up and started to understand it a little better.

Until then, I always had this anger towards my parents, and wondered why they hadn’t fixed their problems. To be honest, that has never completely left me. It still annoys me now when I see them getting on really well because it only reinforces my feeling that they could have worked things out. Like any kid, I never wanted my parents’ marriage to break up. If I ever become a dad, I’d never want that to happen to my kids without trying everything imaginable to sort out whatever problems exist.

In those early years, I was a bit distant from them, and even now my relationship with my parents isn’t as close as it should be. I don’t call them as much as I ought to, although I love them to bits. It scarred me, and perhaps more than my brothers and sisters, although I’m sure it has affected William and Alex too.

Myself and my older brother, Stephen, are quite similar in our desire to get outside of Tullow or Carlow, whereas William will happily stay in the county for the rest of his life, and Alex is the same. Stephen has worked outside Ireland since he was 18, and he met his wife in Jersey. He’s also lived in Spain and Gibraltar, and he got away from it all at the right time. He didn’t really experience our parents’ marriage collapsing. Caroline is similar to me emotionally and would have had to deal with it more than Stephen, but she was older and moving on, both with her own life and with her husband-to-be, Willie.

Of the five kids I was, perhaps, the one who was most aware of their problems at the time. I am also the one who tries to fix everything. I felt an obligation to try and fix their marriage, or at any rate manage it. It was too much responsibility at that stage in my life, and I wasn’t able to do it. It made all those years from age 12 onwards tough times, right up until I was 26 or 27. At that stage, I finally came to the conclusion: I can’t be dealing with this any more.

Seán O’Brien scores a try for the Lions during the 2017 series against New Zealand at Eden Park in Auckland. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Seán O’Brien scores a try for the Lions during the 2017 series against New Zealand at Eden Park in Auckland. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

I went to see a psychologist in Rathgar. He simply said: ‘Get to the root of the problem.’ The root of the problem was, of course, my lack of trust in my parents. After all, for any young kid, the two people in the world who you are meant to trust the most are your parents. And as a result of this trust being broken, I didn’t have too much trust in myself or in many other people. And I probably still don’t trust that many people, not least because of various incidents on nights out that have grown legs compared to what actually happened.

I only trust a handful of people. The psychologist gave me some perspective. I realised that all my anger issues and emotional baggage stemmed from my parents’ breaking up, and from the way I bottled it up and kept it to myself. I’ve learned that it is good to talk to someone else. Don’t wait for 10 or 12 years.

I look back and wonder what might have happened if Mam or Dad had come to me when I was 14 or 15 and asked: ‘Are you okay? Do you want to talk to someone about this?’ As stubborn as I was at that age, I was also upset, and I might have said: ‘I think that would be a good idea.’ But no one asked and I said nothing. I put up with all the rows and all the shit at home and soldiered on. That instils fear in a young mind. I never want to be in that situation again.

It’s been a source of sadness in my life for a long time, and sport was my release. The great thing about sport is that for an hour, or however long you are playing, it takes your mind off all your problems. And the great thing about rugby, in particular, is that it teaches you about respect. If I had continued playing soccer after 16 or 17, I could have gone the opposite way. I could have been an angry man.

But from early on, even in underage rugby, I knew never to talk back to referees. I was also very respectful toward referees in football too, even though not everybody else always was. It was rugby that taught me how to behave better on the pitch from a young age, and maybe rugby was also best equipped to make me more even-tempered.

Fuel by Seán O’Brien is published by Sandycove on October 29th

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