Sunday 23 October 2016

The ultimate Rebel took on the battles no one dared fight

Published 02/02/2013 | 16:06

There'll be plenty of ugly, craven muttering in some quarters, proclaiming "good riddance" to Donal Og Cusack as his inter-county career appears to fade.

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That won't surprise him. How could it when he's lived his hurling life, pulling up a collar against the Neanderthal chorus? Maybe part of what made him exceptional in a routinely intimidating environment was that ability to shut out the prejudices of people who believed the only GAA men worth following were those for whom expressing a challenging opinion represented some kind of subversive act.

The political agitator in Cusack vexed a specific constituency long before he chose to toss in the added incendiary that he was homosexual. He just had too much revolution in his head.

Maybe to understand why his personality chafed with so many, you need to remind yourself that, by his early teens, Donal Og discovered he had what the law of the land decreed to be aberrant tendencies. In other words, he would be 16 by the time his sexuality was decriminalised in this state.

For any kid, that would have been troubling. For one so deeply immersed in the manly world of hurling, it had to feel like a bewildering puzzle.

Cusack has always maintained that his sexuality is the least important part of his story. He's right in one sense, wrong in another. Airbrush everything bar the hurling from his life and it still makes for a pretty compelling narrative.

But Cusack pioneered such change in the GAA, challenging principles that were considered sacrosanct for more than a century, that he could never be defined by the game alone. He questioned a hierarchical chain in which the player was all but deemed the least important link. To do this, he went to war with his own people.

And it is impossible not to connect that fearless challenging of authority with the sense of exclusion some of his early life experiences had to bring.

You think of the sheer cojones required in August of '02 to do that local radio interview, accusing his own county board of intimidating young players on the issue of GPA membership, just a month after Cork had been eliminated from the All-Ireland qualifiers.

They had lost four of their previous five championship games. The players had no reason to believe they'd find the ear of a sympathetic public.

But Cusack was, as his old team-mate Mark Landers put it, sufficiently "ballsy" to put himself in the line of fire. Three times he would lead strike action in Cork, battling for a level of player welfare considered de rigeur countrywide today.

He got things wrong, no question. When Cork made it two-in-a-row in '05, he was one of those who seemed to fall into the trap of believing that they'd all but patented a new game. We now know they hadn't figured on Brian Cody's genius. If they'd discovered penicillin, he was doing stem cell research.

So, it's Kilkenny's world now and no one would have ached to hunt them down this summer more than Donal Og. He'll be gutted at Jimmy Barry-Murphy's call, but he'll understand – at least – the decision wasn't vindictive.

For one of the great activists of modern Irish sport, that should be a gentle consolation. Knowing the small minds never beat him.

Irish Independent

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