The Ironman

Every New Year’s Eve, just before the clock strikes midnight, I write a list of things I want to accomplish. They’re never particularly complex, but within each bullet point there is something I want to achieve that I haven’t been able to do previously.

Sitting here in Mexico, looking at my diary, there in blue biro underlined twice is to complete an Ironman triathlon. An ironman is an endurance triathlon, consisting of a 3.8k swim, a 200k bike ride and a marathon to finish.

With less than a month to go before the event, I have started to question why have I put myself mentally and physically through this regime for over a year. I am currently unable to run properly due to Achilles issues and after hundreds spent alone in the ocean and on concrete, I am searching for the reason I need to compete.

Primarily, I use sport to define myself physically, when I find it difficult to do so mentally. The comfort of a routine, no matter how onerous or physically taxing brings a sense of calmness. There is undoubtedly a loneliness involved in these events. I can only answer to myself if I don’t give everything in a training session. With few exceptions, I choose to train alone, covering the hundreds of miles needed with only the rambling and sporadic thoughts in my mind as company. Ultimately I know in this race, I can only rely on myself to get to the finish line.

After ten years away, I have stepped between the ropes and sparred countless rounds in a boxing ring. I seek out stronger more skilled opponents who will periodically snap my head back with their jab. It hurts of course, but I take a deep breath and keep fighting until the end of the round. I use these boxing sessions to condition myself mentally, to keep going in the face of physical pain and exhaustion.

Each leg of an Ironman will affect you mentally as well as physically. The swim starts with a loud gun shot. You find yourself in the middle of a chaotic vortex of arms and legs. You will inevitably take an elbow or foot in the face. You can’t panic, even though it would be completely reasonable to do so. I always keep my Dad’s voice in my mind, the words he used to say to me when I was terrified before a school exam. “Keep calm Jonathan, you will be absolutely fine, keep calm.” I move into a rhythm, and move onto the bicycle.

The cycle leg in France, is almost solely on mountainous and hilly terrain. I have ridden all over Sydney, trying to build strength in calves that seem permanently taut. I am lucky that relatively speaking, I am built to climb, I have strong legs and a light upper body. This will win me no points on a beach, but in the mountains I am grateful. I have no idea how my body will stand up to 30 degree heat on an 11 percent gradient, but I will be able to keep going somehow.

The race will end with a marathon. I know that my legs will scream their reluctance to start running 40km, but I won’t listen. My Achilles tendinitis has involved a complete halting of my running training and a weekly meeting with a physio for injunctions to loosen my legs. I will divide the race into quarters, and take each one as an achievement. The pace won’t matter, all that matters will be to finish what I set out to do.

When I train alone, no matter how sore I am, I think of my friends who are no longer here, and it reminds me to keep going. For me, an Ironman represents a physical triumph of sorts, but far more than that, it represents the strength of the human mind in the face of adversity, urging you to keep going.

It’s only a race of course, but more than that, it defines how I want to try and live my life.

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Defend yourself at all times

Boxing has been a life long fascination for me. I grew up in Belfast, a city fascinated with its prize fighters and idolised the men who fought professionally between the ropes. My friends and family found it largely barbaric, but I always argued that it is a sweet science. The brutal knockouts weren’t the sport’s only satisfying objective, a fighter’s nous and artistry were valued just as much by the fans.
In the early hours of an Australian morning, I watched a brave English fighter called Nick Blackwell fall to the ground at the end of a brutal British title defence against Chris Eubank Jnr. Blackwell’s formerly handsome face resembled a swollen mess with an eye fully closed shut. A doctor examined the stricken fighter carefully before the referee decided to call an end to the fight in the tenth round. The crowd booed loudly during the examination. They were delirious at what they had paid to see, two fighters standing toe to toe and not taking a backwards step. They didn’t want the fervour of the fight spoiled by a staid medical practitioner.
Blackwell had been waiting for this fight patiently for a year, it would represent the pinnacle of a career that already had four losses on it. Fighting Chris Eubank jnr would give the young man from Wiltshire a rare chance to fight in the spotlight, with millions watching on free to air television. He started the fight gamely as expected, even winning some early rounds. Yet, as the fight progressed, Eubank jnr was using his head as speed ball, unattached to a sturdy bracket. The head snapped back sporadically after Eubank jnr’s vicious upper cuts found a way through Blackwell’s high gloved guard.
Late in the fight, Chris Eubank snr, climbed into the ring and looked his son directly in the eye. He wanted Junior to target the body, not the head. Was this a rare act of compassion on a sport that rewards knock out victories? Was this a horrible reminder to Eubank snr of the horrific injuries he witnessed as a fighter against Michael Watson who remains disabled to this day? Or perhaps, it was a genuine tactical move, to knock the wind out of a man who was refusing to be knocked out with blows to the face, no matter how many shots rained on his face.
The fight was stopped and Eubank jnr’s hand was raised. Shortly after both fighters had hugged and shared a few quiet words. Blackwell then fell to the ring’s floor unexpectedly. He was rushed to hospital, where it is reported that he has a small bleed on his brain. His family and friends face nervous hours waiting to see what will happen to a man they love, who was ultimately too brave for his own good.
Can a corner be blamed? Stop the fight too early, and you are potentially depriving a man of his livelihood and his dreams. Refuse to stop it, and the consequences can be fatal in seconds. Can the referee be admonished? He is making a judgement, trying not to bow to the pressure of a crowd, a corner and ultimately the bloodied fighter who will want to continue no matter of the consequences in the heat of the battle.
Or, are people like me to blame. People who have climbed into a ring and fought at a humble level, and feel foolishly that they know what it is to feel blows, proper scathing shots that hurt, having never stepped into a professional ring. People like me who will lose themselves in a close and brutal fight, and urge their man to stop it. Watching Carl Frampton, I have rarely if ever stopped to think about the other man, his family or his friends. I have argued that it is a sweet science, and it is. At its best, this fight game has given a lot to so many people, the fighters I have known are always the most cordial men in sport.
I sit tonight wondering about the sport I love. No man should have taken the beating that Nick Blackwell took in a professional ring, regardless of the fame and fortune on offer. A fighter has only his two fists and a determination to win regardless of the outcome, the responsibility of bringing him home safely to his loved ones, lies squarely outside of the ropes.nick-blackwell

Life after the whistle blows

It ends for everyone eventually. Whether you are running out to a thousand adoring fans in a packed stadium for the last time, or sitting alone in a lonely physiotherapist’s office awaiting results on a career shattering injury, the life of a professional athlete is both sublime and fragile. Yet, for most of us, it remains a distant dream. The dream of being paid to live out a passion. Imagine if you had this dream for a few short moments and experienced every brilliant and brutal moment, then you either ended the dream yourself or worse, something did it against your will. This is what happened with four men from Ireland in three different sports in their twenties.

Jamie O’Reilly is in his student flat by the River Lagan in Belfast knotting a tie for work. It may be a grey Saturday, he may be mentally and physically exhausted from a week of intensive gaelic football training and study for his master’s degree in software development, but he still has to pay the bills somehow, and does this in a clothing shop most weekends.

He can afford to look back nostalgically at his previous life only just over a year ago, playing professional Australian Rules football for Richmond Tigers in Melbourne. A former Down minor star, he was offered the chance to pursue professional sport far away from his home. “It was a life experience thing for me, the chance to play professional sport, meet new people and experience a new life, it was incredibly attractive.”

O’Reilly went to Melbourne at 22 and worked hard in a sporting culture that demanded it. “I had to work really hard coming from gaelic football, and life can become quite regimented and strict. It’s repetitive. I found the structure helped to improve me as a player, but then I also understand that if all you’re doing is playing football, you’re in a fishbowl, you need something else.”

O’Reilly was two years into a business degree at Queen’s when he moved to Richmond, being assured that he could transfer his studies to a university at Melbourne. This never transpired due to academic bureaucracy, leaving him with a difficult choice. Take up a full time contract in the AFL with Richmond, or go back and complete his degree.

“For me the whole choice came down to education, the club tried their best to help, but I couldn’t continue my degree. My Mum and Dad have always said don’t give up on your education, and I knew one injury and my career could be over. It was a smart choice, but not necessarily an easy one.”

O’Reilly is now back gaelic football for Queen’s and is studying for a master’s degree in software development. He admits to thinking about his old life in the sun sometimes. “I was cycling back home recently in the pouring rain in Belfast and my chain came off, I was standing ready to throw the bike in a ditch, soaked to the skin far from home, thinking one year ago I was running about at the MCG and now I’m a skint student, but no regrets, I know I made the right call, education was too important.”

Sean Brophy was part of the Dublin schools’ rugby conveyor belt. He stepped on to it because that’s what his friends were doing at Belvedere College, he simply forgot to get off and ended up playing prop for Leinster. “I was just like a lot of Dublin kids, I played rugby since I was 8, it was something I enjoyed and was lucky enough to get onto underage teams at Leinster and then for Ireland, it just went from there.”

After a stellar rugby career at Trinity, he played for Leinster under Gary Ella. He had never planned to be sharing a dressing room with Brian O’Driscoll, but sport can work in mysterious ways. “I found rugby difficult to understand at times, there were guys I played with at school or later I could have sworn would have been Leinster or maybe even Ireland, then something happened, an injury, selectors looking the other way and it was over for them.”

After a season with Leinster, at 23 and facing competition for places in the front row, Brophy received interest from Connacht. “In that season, towards the end, I was weighing up options, and had also applied for Oxford University to do a master’s. I could go to Oxford, do something different, play rugby and hopefully have a good career afterwards. I went for it because I couldn’t afford to risk everything on my rugby. The attrition rates were too high.”

Brophy now lives in London where he works in banking for Lloyds. After this interview he makes his way to see Leinster beat Cardiff at the RDS, rugby is still a huge part of his life. “For me rugby is about commitment. I was lucky to play for Leinster and share the pitch with amazing people, but pro rugby for me was looking at the world in quite a narrow way, it can be monotonous and hard work. I needed something more than just sport for an income.”

Kevin Grogan never felt that sport was a narrow existence, it was all that mattered to him. Like Brophy, he attended Belvedere College, but instead skillfully sidestepped the Jesuit Priests wish to turn him into an Ollie Campbell prototype. Grogan’s game was football, and he was exceptional at it.

Every school holiday from the age of 12 was spent at Manchester United. Seeing Alex Ferguson huffing and puffing in the corridors at the Cliff became as normal to Grogan as a schoolboy cowering at the sight of a totemic headmaster. He progressed to win the European Championships for Ireland at under 16 level, doing things with the ball came naturally and instinctively.

“I remember when I was first went into Manchester United when I was so young, Alex Ferguson had me up in his office and talked to me, I was very comfortable in a football sense. I was battling homesickness, it was very tough mentally, I had a lot of growing up to do, but I knew I was never going home, football was going so well.”

Tragically, Grogan’s career at 17 was practically over at Old Trafford, a pelvis injury frustrating him by teasing him into thinking he could still survive at UCD and then Millwall. He felt a brutally hard work ethic would carry him through, unfortunately it couldn’t. “Once you leave something you love and it’s out of your hands, it’s so hard. My family and friends were brilliant when I came home, but they didn’t quite understand. Footballers were all I could relate to.”

After succumbing to feelings of hopelessness and depression, Grogan decided to work in the game he loved through coaching. He has lived in New York for the last three years where he manages a successful semi-professional team. He shared a breakfast a few weeks ago on 6th Avenue with the man who helped secure his visa by writing a personal letter.

“It was surreal seeing Alex Ferguson again after so many years, you’d think at 30 you’d be relaxed, but seemingly not. I was still a bit nervous, like he was still the boss. I’ve learnt a lot from him, when I finish my playing I was depressed and could barely get out of bed, now I have that huge passion again for the game. I have no regrets.” Grogan politely ends the conversation, another full day beckons that starts at 7am and ends in the small hours.

Keith O’Neill never played more than 10 games of football in a row from the age of 14 as a schoolboy in Dublin, but it almost didn’t matter. He was talented enough to gain 13 caps for his country and play professionally for Norwich, Middlesborough and Coventry. But it was over at 27 due to persistent back injuries, and he is in a reflective mood in his office in Cornwall where he heads up a sales team for a meat company.

“For the couple of years after I had to stop playing, it was great. You travel, you go where you want, when you want, there were no rules that you get when you’re playing football.All I knew was full on training, games and injuries. Then reality kicked in, what was I going to do with my life? I was very down and very dark, you can go either way then, wallow in self pity or try to do make a new life.”

O’Neill played at the highest levels of the game, but was unequipped for real life. “I was so cocooned, I didn’t have a doctor or dentist or money worries. Normally things you should deal with, but the club did everything for me, I was living in a bubble, I certainly know I’m a better person now.”

After speaking to his father-in-law, O’Neill decided to work in the meat industry. The pampered world of a professional football hadn’t prepared him for his new life. “At the start everyone was thinking who is this footballer, I never mention it, but you have to earn your own respect. I used to drive down to Preston and be in a slaughterhouse at 4am and travel back to Cornwall in pitch black. I remember sitting in the car thinking what am I doing.”

Things got gradually easier, and banter that O’Neill shared in the dressing room has helped him foster lasting relationships in his new game. “People in the meat industry are great people, real and true and everyone is always slagging, I love that banter, it’s almost like the dressing room. I get a huge amount out of it. Every day is different. I could have the worst day, then something will happen and it’s great.”

During the conversation, O’Neill has to put clients on hold. He has meat to sell, not a story.  But he remains engaging and animated when he talks about his happiest times. “When I chat to you now, I can still feel raw goose pimples on my arms when I talk to you about my football career, scoring a half volley for Ireland, that is just joy. Undiluted joy. It’s surreal like an out of body experience. It was the biggest rush, but I don’t beat myself up that it’s over, I still feel proud of myself and my career.”

The Shadow of the Old Stadium

When you are a child, there are a few places that remain special for the rest of your life. For me, it was a ramshackle stadium in Dublin over a hundred miles from the house I grew up in. The journey to get to the old Landsdowne Road on those glorious Saturdays with my Dad was rare and cherished.

It started with a concerted campaign for my Dad to get tickets for an upcoming rugby international to watch Ireland in the famous old ground in Dublin 4. By international standards, the ground was small and shabby. This reflected the Irish rugby team that I grew up watching with the old fella. They were huge lumps of men, hewn out of Irish oak covered in baggy green jerseys that embarrassingly never seemed to fit them properly, the sleeves flapping awkwardly at the arms. The teams of that era are freeze framed in my mind hunched under the posts, poorly sheltered from the wind and the rain battering them as they tried to make sense of how they had conceded yet another soft try to their then superior neighbours across the sea.

The fact that the Irish rugby team of that era was a haphazard collection of bankers, students, teachers and even a vet who had a collective ability to lose by huge margins mattered very little to me, I just wanted to pretend that one day my Dad and I might see a miracle and actually see us win a game, despite the odds at the time being heavily stacked against the men in green.

Getting tickets to international games at Landsdowne Road was a complex affair. The tickets came exclusively through the intricate web of clubmen across the island. My father was not a member of one, so he had to utilise whatever contacts he had to try and eek two tickets to pacify his restless son. Demand outstripped supply often, and despite my pleas, Dad could only do his best which left us empty handed come match days more often than not. It was extremely rare when he managed to get those golden tickets, and the moment was cherished by both of us. The excitement would last for weeks in the leadup to the game.

Intricate planning went into the day. Dad always took his green and white knitted bobble hat that my Gran had knitted him as a boy, I was frequently embarrassed that he insisted on wearing it. He said it would bring the team luck and it rarely did. I was wrapped up against the Dublin chill with the short green lambswool scarf my Dad had bought for me to my first match against France in 1995. I always tied it to make sure the shamrock with the rugby ball in the middle was there for all to see.

Dad grew up in Dublin, so he had a magician’s knack of winding our old family Volvo through the maze of streets and small houses near the stadium to get the perfect parking space that would enable a quick escape to Belfast afterwards. We got out of the car and I instantly was in familiar surroundings. The smoky smell, the sight of a city decked in green for the day, and the often ill placed optimism from the fans flocking to the ground. “Jaysus if we can just ship the ball to Geoghegan, we’ll give them a game of it.”

Simon Geoghegan was the shining light of the Irish rugby team in those days. He was blonde, he was a solicitor, he was raised in England and he was far too good for our often hapless team. A winger by trade, he patrolled his wing patiently for 80 minutes waiting for a ball that rarely came to him. His forwards understood his frustrations, but they were trying hard enough just to survive in scrums and rucks where they were getting pummelled and humiliated by their Gallic or English counterparts. On the rare times he did get the ball, he rarely disappointed, lifting the capacity crowd to their feet in acclaim at his speed and ability to change direction at the last possible moment, just before he was going to be ceremonially beheaded by his opposite number. With Geoghegan in our team, we dreamed that anything was possible.

Walking up to the stadium you crossed the canal and the elderly women with their huge antique prams filled with sweets for sale. I always asked that we got a programme to commemorate the day, Dad always humoured me and bought one, and I would sit before the game listing off the interesting facts as I read it studiously. Did he know our famed hooker Keith Wood was a bank clerk in Limerick? He did. Did he know that this was likely to be our 50th consecutive defeat to a French team in Dublin? He knew that also.

Our preferred place to sit was the West Stand. It had long wooden benches as opposed to plastic seats and a train went directly under it, rattling the whole stand in the middle of games. But I loved it because I could see the whole Dublin skyline as the sun dipped low and the floodlights slowly came on. The anticipation almost always beat the match itself. Dad would share a few knowing conversation with the man beside him about Ireland’s tactics and the shrill blast of the whistle would sound and the crowd would roar knowing at least at this moment in time Ireland were on level terms and we could even dream of winning.

Unfortunately those hopes generally faded quickly and were crumpled like the wet chip wrappers outside of the stadium at the end of the night as we all trudged out at the final whistle. Dad was always calm about the inevitable defeat, he and his hat had been at too many Ireland games in the old stadium. Carefully folding my creased programme into my jacket pocket, I was initially always very disappointed on the walk to car, never saying much, unable to accept how you could put so much childhood faith into a collection of adults who did their best but regularly fell so woefully short.

The car journey home was quiet. It was late in the night as we had to cross many country towns that zigzagged across Ireland from Dublin to Belfast. The car radio played Elvis or the Beatles, our favourites and the windscreen wipers provided their accompaniment as we sometimes sang together badly. The game was almost forgotten, when we arrived into the house exhausted. The result hadn’t mattered, the anticipation of it with my Dad was everything, and remains so.

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The Royal School

Ten years ago, Royal School Armagh, one of the smallest competing teams in Ulster lifted the schools’ cup. The huge, ancient trophy was lifted by their totemic captain John McCall. The traditional Belfast stranglehold on the competition was broken up for one year by a team that was defined by unity. Two months after that trophy was lifted, two members of that immensely talented team tragically died.

Armagh is a small picturesque town and the Royal School sits proudly within it. It retains a tight knit school community that extends out of its walls. In 2004, few people gave the schoolboys from the Orchard County much of a chance of winning the competition. The established rugby schools in Belfast of RBAI, Methody and Campbell could often count on fielding up to eight senior teams of enthusiastic schoolboys every Saturday, in Armagh, three full senior teams was considered an achievement.

Their captain John McCall refused to be intimidated by the dominance of Belfast schools. He was considered a leader even outside of rugby. His flame hair and stocky physique made him a conspicuous figure within the school body. He was known for his kind nature and wanted to become an architect. He was one of the most talented schoolboy players in Ireland. He led by example from flanker, sometimes switching to number 8 to drive the ball if he felt the team needed him to. He refused to take a backward step on the pitch frequently gathering the whole team into a huddle during breaks in play to tell every player what was expected of them.

In the year below, Todd Graham was competing for a place in the 1st XV. Unusually for a Royal School Armagh team, it was littered with representative players for Ulster and Ireland schools. Graham came from just across the border in Monaghan. His parents were working in Zambia, so he became a boarder. Highly academic and popular in the school community, Graham was being touted as a key player on next year’s team but would still compete for a coveted place in the 2004 team.

These two players were joined by a cast of characters that made this team unique. It was a team that was devoid of ego, that was something left for the Belfast schools. The team trained, studied and socialised together, comforted by a unity that would never be replicated by anything after their schooldays had passed. Adam Bartholomew was the most accomplished schoolboy scrum half in Ireland. He doesn’t play rugby now, his focus is on his pharmacy career, but he remembers the campaign vividly.

“That year just had a really good feeling, on that run we never had a easy game, we had to beat all of the big schools, Inst, Methody, Ballymena and Campbell. We were from a small town so we were just buoyed by this massive wave of support that just got bigger every game. In many ways our pack carried us, and me and our outhalf Jonny Gillespie just poked it into the corners and let them do the rest.”

Jonny Gillespie is still involved in rugby unlike his school half back partner, working for the Ulster branch as a community development officer. In those days, he was a gifted out half known for his polite request that his school mates kept chatting in the ground during penalty kicks. Silence put him off. He describes the cup as a series ferociously physical games even measured against today’s brutal schoolboy hits.

“I remember a fair few arm wrestles in the mud. There were four brutally physical games. You don’t have to face all those schools except during cup times. We got lucky in terms of a good draw that let us play some games at home. Our pitch in Armagh was pretty sticky, but we were used to it and that played to our advantage.”

Royal School Armagh had not won the cup since 1977, before that you had to go back to the 1800s for a victory. After they beat Methody in foul conditions in the early rounds, whispers grew louder in the town that a trip to Ravenhill could be on the cards. Willie Falloon, then an Ireland Schools backrow, is the only member from that gifted team to make it as a professional rugby player representing Ulster, and latterly Connacht.

“It just got bigger and bigger, I remember the nerves got to me at one stage. I was walking to art with John (McCall) before our semi final against Ballymena and told him I was afraid we would lose. By the time I arrived in class, I was utterly convinced that we would win, that was the effect he had on all of us.”

On the morning of the games, the boys’ fathers would gather for breakfast together, and  travel en masse as a group. On St Patrick’s Day for the final against Campbell College Belfast, they were joined by the whole school population and anyone with a vague connection to Armagh. Former Ireland winger, Kenny Hooks coached the boys and remembers the day vividly.

“It was very special, although it’s now bittersweet also. There were so many parents who supported us, and that support carried right through the school body. When we lifted the cup, we went back into the changing room at Ravenhill, and I said to the boys that in ten years we will have a reunion and that’s what we are going to do.”

McCall played an emphatic part in the final, as most expected he would. Graham was a replacement, his time was going to come next year. Nobody in that shabby dressing room in Ravenhill was thinking beyond the party that would be thrown in the town that night. Ten days later, McCall died on a rugby pitch in a game against the Junior All Blacks representing the Ireland Under 19 team. His young team mate Graham died in a car crash while visiting his family in Zambia two months later.

The support that had united this brilliant team to the summit of schools’ rugby helped bring those 20 boys comfort when they needed it most. Various parents’ homes were opened to the players who spent many nights sitting together, deriving support in silence. Today, those players are spread all over the world. Some rarely think about rugby now. Life has moved on. They are approaching their late twenties and have mortgages and careers to focus on. Yet, when they all reunite at their old school on St Patrick’s Day and look down on the distinctive rugby pitch low below steep grassy banks and trees that holds such precious memories for them, they will remember two dear friends and team mates who cannot join them.

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Arriving in Sydney

Seven hours of hearing about Tasmanian dog training laws. I just wanted to sleep, even for one precious hour, but my chair mate on Singapore Airlines to Sydney had other ideas. Jet lag would be my next companion. I arrived into Sydney into blinding blue skies and heat that was to be expected as a welcoming party. I was staying with a very good friend’s Mum. I had typically failed to ask him what she looked like. I checked and checked for a family resemblance as cars sped into the tightly marshalled pickup zone, but this was difficult as my friend is a 28 year old man. Some ladies waved, I waved back hoping this would be the correct mother. They looked back confused, I really should have known better with the Vietnamese lady.

I am relatively good at thinking on my feet, so thought I would make myself look as conspicuously like I’d arrived from London as possible. The ten pound Pom of 2014 if you like. I wore a black overcoat with a Poppy badge in 35 degree heat. It actually worked, Mrs Todman picked me up and we were driving over the Harbour Bridge into the beautiful Northern Beaches. I was hanging out the window like a dog with its tongue out, snapping generic and irritating shots of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. I had seen them twice before, they are still spectacular anytime.

I met the Todman family en masse and had a coffee. It was very early in the morning, but Bigola beach was teeming with small children, known as “nippers” with water polo hats learning how to lifesave. Their parents strolled about barefoot drinking flat whites with a nonchalance that told me they knew their numbers had come up when they were born on this island. Compare this scene to windswept parents watching their beloved children drown in icy mud playing football on Hackney Marshes with only a flask of Bovril for company.

I went back to the car, and patted my bags. I realised the plural had become singular. “Mrs Todman did I come with two bags?”, “No Jonny, your exact words were to me when you picked me up were, I am travelling lightly for once”. I had left my cabin bag in the densely populated pick up zone of Sydney airport. At 28, forgetfulness is a frustrating constant in my life, I fear for when I get dementia. I inwardly panicked, both passports were in that bag. If I had only my British one, I would be quite happy to sacrifice Mother Erin and hope that Michael D Higgins would forgive this boy from East Belfast. Unfortunately, I didn’t have either. We had to drive across a mass of traffic in central Sydney that makes the route to Heathrow look like the magic roundabout. Mrs Todman showed the calm that I think will define my time with Australians, “do you want to go for a swim in the sea now or try to find your passports?”. Deferring panic is not a strength of the Drennan family. We drove.

A weekend of beautiful beaches and languid coffees came to an end. One person recognised me from my brief days on Sunrise TV. She was drunk and said “we couldn’t really understand you, but you had SUCH GREAT ENERGY AND FEELING”. I was generally talking about bombs or child abuse, so I was grateful, and forever will be. I negotiated a bus system into town that insisted on the patience of Job and the military strategy of a Marine. It took 2 hours from door to door. A bunch of lads with bleach blonde hair sat beside me emotional, drunk and upset at losing all of their money on the Melbourne Cup, a horse race that shuts down the whole country. “I am as pissed as nit mate, I lost all me money and me girl”. I didn’t offer my bony shoulder to cry on, just nodded sympathetically. I sat with Bill Bryson’s Down Under for company, accompanied by pale skin, this is the neon badge proclaiming you are on a temporary visa.

I am staying in Surry Hills for the next two weeks, a beautiful part of Sydney with a friend from AFL in London. There are flowers in the hedgerows and people smile. There are things that will be different and difficult. But this is a path that has been trodden so many times by many Irish and British feet. Sydney, I think we’ll be fine.

Irish identity

When you come from Northern Ireland, identity issues abroad are common. I grew up on the island of Ireland, but where I grew up was indelibly culturally British. Belfast is not a big city on the world scale, but separated by a few short miles you have completely differing cultural spheres. On my street, cricket and touch rugby were played every night throughout the summer. A stone’s throw across the city, children in West Belfast pucked a sliotar about. We tuned into CBBC, they watched Dustin on the Den.  We sang God Save the Queen at school prize days, they rose for Amhrán na bhFiann at Antrim GAA games. We lived in opposing bubbles on the same island, ultimately largely ignorant of eachother.

I left Belfast when I was 18, to go to Trinity and Dublin. Before this, I would have considered myself solely British, because this was all I knew.  Irish culture was foreign to me, simply because I had never experienced it on any deep level.  In Dublin, I was able to make friends from all over Northern Ireland, from the Bogside in Derry and Andersontown.  It was obvious with all of these friendships that they never would have happened if we had stayed together in Northern Ireland. The bigotry and segregation was never obvious or stated in my experience at home, we were simply raised in parallel worlds separately. It would have been difficult to relate. It took the equalising experience of being new in Dublin and university to find common ground beyond our childhood experiences.

I found myself on a conveyor belt of sorts. From university in Dublin onto an advertising graduate scheme in London.  I immediately felt at home in London, culturally after all it was what I had grown up with.  However, for the first time, I understood on a very slim level the ignorance that Irish people have had to field abroad. Jokes were sometimes made at work about bombings and terrorism, never realising in their innocence that everyone in Northern Ireland is affected by a killing in the Troubles on some level. In many ways, I had to go to London, to find and accept that Ireland and being Irish was part of my life, regardless of how I had grown up.

I sit alone in Sydney now years later. There will always be a part of me that is from Belfast. I adore the city and its people. I haven’t lived there for nearly ten years, but it is still my home. I was brought up surrounded in a British sphere, but now love to visit every side of the city, comfortable in my ability to do so having made those connections in Dublin. I can’t hide from my British background, nor do I want to. But equally, I can now comfortably embrace my Irishness. Being abroad, I am comfortable with being Northern Irish.  To me, it captures my hybrid identity perfectly. Raised on the beautiful island of Ireland in a British context. Sometimes you have to travel far away to realise where you are really truly from.