Conall Cahill talks to former Wexford senior hurling captain Diarmuid ‘Gizzy’ Lyng about GAA players’ struggle with identity, what it feels like to create sporting magic…and why ‘hippy commune hurling’ will never exist
MOST of us have spent at least some portion of our lives chasing after it. Clutching for it. Grasping at the thin air behind it as it rushes ahead of us, mocking us with its unattainability. What is it? It is the answer, the light; the medicine, the answer to the ache in our hearts. The job, the salary; the girl, the boy; the trophy, the medal. It is what we have dreamed of, what we live out each day; it is both who we are and what we seek to be. Defining us and shaping us in equal measure. And, potentially, destroying us.
In a sense, sacrificing everything in pursuit of a goal – an All-Ireland medal, say – is the definition of living, full-blooded and complete. As Donal Óg Cusack wrote of moderation in his powerful autobiography, Come What May, “it’s neither doing nor not doing. It’s the wobbling compromise that makes no-one happy.” Letting that goal define you and affect your self-worth is, though, a step too far – and yet it is a step that is taken by many of our most talented sportspeople.
Diarmuid ‘Gizzy’ Lyng is one such sportsperson. A former Wexford hurling captain (one of very few Model county hurlers from the past quarter-century to hold a Leinster senior medal), Lyng once admitted: “I spent my whole career thinking if I didn’t win an All-Ireland or play in one, then my career was a failure.”
Watch Lyng’s TEDx Talk on YouTube on the rich and varied meanings behind a hurl and how they require us to “walk more beautifully on the Earth”, listen to him speak about hurling during his time with Off The Ball, or watch the TG4 documentary examining his complicated personal journey; Lyng’s deep and complex understanding of hurling is shaped by his own troubled and intense love of the sport. He is, therefore, well-placed to comment (in tellingly complex fashion) on whether more “moderation” is needed regarding the huge commitment required of inter-county GAA players:
“I guess it depends hugely on case to case and how you approach it. There’s definitely not one-size-fits-all…if you argue against capitalism you’re a communist or a socialist. When you put down one side and try to get the other side of it across, it’s as if you’re kind of pinned down with the other side. And I don’t think that’s the case. The idea of a hippy commune-style hurling commune where everyone takes part for the fun of it and everything else, that’s cloud cuckoo land. We’re in a world where a tiger is still a tiger. There’s death and there is stress and there is pressure…all of these things exist in total coherence with the other side of each of those things, in some kind of relaxed state. I think it becomes destabilised in certain people, and I think it became destabilised in me – just (because of) the different conditions that were in Wexford at the time, or how I grew up, or how I developed as a person.
The idea of hippy commune-style hurling where everyone takes part for the fun of it, that’s cloud cuckoo land
“I suppose that led me to open my eyes, to look around at the players around me and to get a sense, or to think back…and did I think that there was joy in that exploration, (an awareness) that excellence is something you must achieve within a healthy respect of the game and of yourself and of your place, to try and eke out that enjoyment in that healthier kind of dynamic? When I looked around, I didn’t feel that that was what was most prevalent.”
There is often, it seems, an intense pressure on GAA players that ties them almost inextricably to their sport. It is here that Irish society, and the GAA, need to exert care and awareness. Conversations around the need for Gaelic footballers and hurlers to forge an identity outside their sport are well underway (listen to Alan O’Mara’s excellent Real Talks podcast, for example) – and yet, even within as varied an environment as university, it can still perhaps be hard for players to find this alternative face.
Imagine, then, the struggle to do so in a rural or small-town area of Ireland. Former All Star Clare hurler (and founder of SOAR) Tony Griffin wrote in his own book, Screaming At The Sky: “Because the game has always been so intertwined with who I am and where I am from, at some point the lines blurred and it became difficult to separate the hurler from the person.” Lyng echoes these sentiments:
“There is a thing that happens definitely in the countryside…(people) meet an image they have of you. And I think that image they put upon you can kind of skew your view of the world in a way, and leads you to identify yourself more with the image that they are putting forward. I think that’s maybe why players, when the lights go down, and after two or three years of trying to figure things out when that (their sporting career) is gone – that’s when I think difficulties start to come in.
“Now there is more help, there is more awareness, the GPA are doing more work on it, the GAA are more aware of it, society is a bit more aware of it. But I still think it is a disconcerting thing for past players and that there is a lot more internal struggling going on than these past heroes can actually allow for.”
There is all of that, of course. And yet, to quote Cusack once more: “If you could live again you would hurl more, because that is living.” There’s a beauty to it, a joy, a luck in being fortunate enough in your position in the world that you have the time and space, the physical capacity and the opportunity to spend part of your life playing such a wonderful game, playing sport. Each time you pick up a hurl or a football – or hop on a bike, or go for a run – you do something more than just exist – you live. And that’s why we harp on about the demands on players and player identity. Because we should never lose sight of that essence of our games, of sport. Lyng sums it up quite beautifully:
“If you are purely focussed on winning and you don’t stop on the way in some shape or form to hear the wind and to feel the power of the natural forces that are around you as part of the game…the wind, or the crowd, or the feel of the grass, whatever it is… there’s a whole process that’s part of the journey along the way and even though that’s being talked about a huge amount now – ‘process is everything, process is everything’ – if you’re really focussed to an extreme degree, I think that the thing that we lose out on is the journey towards it. That’s where most of the gold is…and that’s where I learnt to accept it more for what it was and be less emphatic about having to win.”
The basic and pure capacity to experience sport is available to all of us – the rush of scoring a point, making a block or beating a friend with a winning putt on the eighteenth green – but there is one aspect of its magic that most can only ever love through observation. It is Lionel Messi seeming to slow down time itself as he slaloms past three defenders and coolly slides the ball past a goalkeeper; it is Colm Cooper taking two steps back and playing a pass no-one else could see; it is Diarmuid Lyng scoring a sideline cut from near half-way. What it feels like to produce such an exquisite moment is the experience of a chosen few in sport, just as it is in all walks of life. Perhaps it is unfair to ask such individuals to put their actions into words – but in the presence of Lyng, it’s hard to resist the urge to delve deeper:
“I suppose it (the experience) is achievable in so many places…I would have been preoccupied with it in sport – like, this is this opportunity – or music or theatre or dance. But I don’t know is it there in walking, I don’t know is it there in sitting, I don’t know is it there in washing up. I don’t know are these moments there…this is what, I guess, mindfulness and meditation and these things tell us – it is always available, this heightened state. In a game, you’re in some kind of battle and all of your senses are heightened at that moment in time to some kind of maximum. And when you look at, I guess, mountain climbers – who talk about coming down through mountains and not putting a single foot wrong – their body is in complete control for that four hours because anything else and they will die.
Wouldn’t it be a lovely question to be asking young people: ‘Did you have any moment where it all made sense?
“I suppose I was as surprised as anybody to fall into that moment and then fall back out of it. There’s something I’d like to ask somebody after a game. ‘Did you have any moment where you fell into flow with the game, a moment where…everything that was happening and everything that could happen was just all within your grasp for a brief moment? Did you have that experience?’ As opposed to just: ‘Did you win?’ Or: ‘Did you score?’ Wouldn’t it be a lovely question to be asking young people? ‘Did you have any moment where it all made sense?’
“So… to have ever felt those things, I can only talk about them through my experience of them. I have cultivated those situations in an observer kind of way in different areas of my life at different times, doing yoga or meditation or whatever… a moment of clarity. And that’s kind of what it feels like, just a real moment of clarity where your mind isn’t in the way and you’re just doing everything that needs to be done. Quite disturbing in a way, to feel like your mind isn’t in control, because it always wants to be in control. But then it is glorious when you think about what it is, and what that experience is.
“I feel gratitude that it ever happened, and you just hope that it happens to anybody else at any stage of their life – that they find a thing where that state of being can come in and just highlight a moment that they will never forget…that it would be impossible to forget.”