Paul Kimmage meets Cathal McCarron: 'Until I go to the grave, I will be battling this disease'
Published 30/10/2016 | 17:00
Cathal McCarron tells Paul Kimmage how he will be battling his gambling addiction for the rest of his life.
When it was all over, the guy I had just had sex with asked me how I had found the whole experience. "Do you want the truth?" I asked him. "Fucking disgusting." He sniggered. I walked straight past him. I just wanted to shower and get home. As I was standing under the water, I felt filthy. Stained. Soiled. Polluted. Defiled. And, deep down, I knew all the water in the Atlantic Ocean couldn't remove those stains on my soul.
'Out of Control'
Nine months ago, on a cold Monday evening in the second week of January, Christy O'Connor left his home in Ennis and took the M7 towards Newbridge for his first meeting with Cathal McCarron. They had spoken on the phone and agreed to collaborate on a book, but most of what he knew about the 28-year-old footballer had been gleaned from headlines in the tabloids:
'Red Hand Star Caught Red-Handed'
'IRA Threat to GAA Gay Porn Star'
'Fears for Gay Porn GAA Ace Cathal'
'GAA Gay Porn Star back in Tyrone Squad'
And as he drove north, his head was filled with doubt.
Was there a book in McCarron?
Would it sell?
Would it be any good?
He didn't know.
Good books mattered to O'Connor. In 2005, 'Last Man Standing', his study of hurling goalkeepers, had been shortlisted for the BoyleSports Irish Sports Book of the Year. In 2010 'The Club', a masterful depiction of a season with St Joseph's Doora-Barefield, had won the William Hill Irish Sports Book of the year. In 2014 'Dalo' - his first ghost-writing project with Anthony Daly - had been warmly received. But McCarron was a step into the unknown.
They had arranged to meet at a steakhouse in Newbridge. O'Connor arrived first and secured a quiet table and then McCarron pitched-up dressed in a crisp navy suit and a red tie. They shook hands, ordered a drink and exchanged some pleasantries. Then O'Connor set out his terms. "I want total honesty," he said. "We're doing this right or not at all." But three hours later, when he hit the road for Ennis, he was buzzing.
They met again a week later for a second session. And a week after that. And a week after that. And slowly, during those long commutes to Newbridge, the chapter themes were formed:
O'Connor had his book, and knew it was worthy, but it wasn't what was driving him: This was a story that had to be told.
A Friday evening at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Dublin. Cathal McCarron enters the meeting room, pulls up a chair and glances at the props on the table: two voice recorders, a book of notes, a recent edition of The Irish Daily Star ('GAA porn star avoids prison term') and a copy of 'Out of Control', his just-published autobiography.
"Well, you've read it anyway," he says.
"What did you make of it?"
"You'll find out."
He coughs, nervously, and pours a glass of water.
"It's a big week for you," I suggest.
"Yeah," he replies.
"How are you feeling?"
"I'm a bit nervous to be honest."
"Because I'm a footballer, I'm not . . . You might read the book and think: 'This man loves attention, or loves getting into trouble' but I just wanted to explain what happened. I'm in recovery from gambling, and a long way off from being perfect or anyway near it; all I'm doing is trying my best to be a so-called normal human being."
"How's that going?"
"It has its challenges."
"Is that a challenge?" I ask, nodding towards the paper.
"The gay porn star? Yeah, but I've been called that for so long I'm kind of used to it. It's not nice to see but it doesn't annoy me as much as it used to. And I don't buy papers. I'm in recovery for three years and there hasn't been one piece of good writing about me . . . Actually there was one (a column by Michael Clifford in the Irish Daily Mail on November 12, 2014) - my partner, Niamh, has it in the house - but other than that it's always negative."
"But you never sat down with a journalist and said: 'This is what happened me.'"
"Was that deliberate?"
"It was deliberate because . . . look, after what I had been through and done through my addiction, I just felt blessed to be given a chance to have a life again. I just wanted to keep my head down and let my football on the field do the talking and for people to remember me for the footballer I am, and not what happened in London."
"Take me back to the start and your parents: You refer to them throughout the book as 'Daddy' and 'Mummy' - not quite what you'd expect from a Tyrone footballer."
"It's soft," I suggest.
"I'm a soft-hearted fella to be honest," he says. "I've a soft heart. I like to think deep down I'm a good person. I know I'm a good person. I know deep down I was always a good person. One of my friends in Dromore told me before I went into rehab: 'Everyone loves Cathal McCarron, but they don't like him when he's gambling'."
I was in the bookies in Irvinestown one day having blown a huge wad of cash. I was down to my last tenner. I knew I needed that tenner for fuel for the car to get me home, because the red light had been flashing for over twenty miles. I just about had enough juice to get me to the local garage before heading for home.
I wasn't thinking in those terms. I was only thinking of what I could win with that tenner. I won £1,000 once starting from a tenner, one of those days when I backed ten favourites and they all won.
This time I staked the tenner on a favourite and lost. I went back to the car, poked around in the glovebox, rummaged deep underneath the seats and cobbled together £4 in loose change. It might have been enough to get me home, but I only entertained that thought for a second. I went back into the bookies, laid a bet, and lost.
As I turned the key in the ignition, the frame of the car started chugging, its belly gasping for a drink of diesel. I managed to get it on the road, put the gearstick into neutral, and was freewheeling into the filling station when it stalled just as I entered the forecourt. I jumped out before anyone saw me and pushed the car up beside the pumps. I put £20 into the tank and told the fella behind the counter that I'd left my wallet at home. I drove the ten miles home, got the £20 off Daddy, and drove back again to pay.
'Out of Control'
Daddy is Seamus McCarron, a joiner from Irvinestown in County Fermanagh, who inherits a house from an uncle near Dromore in County Tyrone and starts a fuel distribution business.
Mummy is Margaret Catterson from Castlederg in Tyrone, who meets Seamus young and falls slowly out of love.
Cathal is ten years old when he first notices the friction. He shares a bedroom with an older brother, Barry, and they lie awake each night listening to their parents ripping each other apart. One night, the shouting gets so bad that Cathal furtively dials 999. The police call to the house to investigate but find only embarrassment. The boy is dragged out of bed and admonished for making the call but after a brief truce the arguing resumes.
Five years later, when Mummy decides to leave, Cathal is damaged goods. He's causing trouble in school and constantly being disciplined by his teachers. He's fighting with classmates in the yard and with rivals on the football field. He quits school and takes a job with a bricklayer, smouldering with anger and hurt and resentment, and is 16 years old when he finds something to fill the hole.
"Gambling was a release from the anger," he says. "I was in a safe place and I could feel this buzz, this energy, and it felt good. When I had money and was gambling I was never angry - that only happened when the money disappeared."
It started one Saturday afternoon at the bookies in Dromore with £1.50 on a horse that won him £6. He ran to the shop and bought some sweets and started betting with tenners. His first big punt was £50 - a fifth of his week's wages - but when the horse ran badly he couldn't bring himself to leave. He peeled off another 50 and felt a buzz pumping through his veins that was as strong as heroin.
And by his 17th birthday he was addicted.
Soon his wages weren't enough to support his habit and he started stealing from his parents. He bought a flash new car and moved into a new apartment, defaulted on the loans and was arrested by the fraud squad for scamming his mother's credit card. The addiction was becoming corrosive. "I was a lying, conniving bastard," he says, "with no respect for anyone."
But he was also making waves as a footballer.
In 2007, he won a county championship with Dromore - their first title in history - and was paraded around the town like a king. A year later, he reached the All-Ireland final with Tyrone and cheered the defeat of Kerry from the bench. His girlfriend was pregnant at the time but he ended the relationship before his daughter was born.
Cathal didn't do commitment. He didn't deal in consequences. The only thing he cared about was football. The only thing that mattered to him was gambling.
Things got messy when the economy crashed. He started fiddling his dole allowance and thinking about new ways of finding cash. He concocted a false charity - a generic cancer research project - and started knocking on the doors of his neighbours and friends for sponsorship for a charity skydive.
Before long he had raised more than a grand but for Cathal, charity began at home.
"It was the worst thing I had done," he says.
Word spread that he had gambled the money and he received a visit one night from three friends. "What the hell are you at, Cathal? Do you realise what you are doing to yourself? You either cop yourself on now, or we're basically washing our hands of you." He broke down and started crying: "I'm fucked from gambling. I need help."
A meeting was arranged for the following day with Oisín McConville, the Armagh footballer who had battled similar demons, and it was agreed that McCarron needed rehab. Two days later, on November 16, 2009, he travelled to the Cuan Mhuire centre near Athenry with tears streaming down his face.
A friend, Seamus Goodwin, hugged him at the door: "This is the beginning of a new chapter, Cathal. You'll be back playing for Dromore in a couple of months."
But that first night was hell. He was put in a room with eight other people - alcoholics and drug addicts - and spent the night haunted by the sound of withdrawal: moaning and sweating and cramping and groaning. The place was freezing. The stench of vomit and piss was nauseating. He thought: 'I'm never going to survive this.'
But after a week in 'detox' he was moved to a separate room and slowly, over the weeks and months that followed, he started to find peace. Mickey Harte (above) came to visit one afternoon and handed him a small velvet box. It was the All-Ireland medal he had won in 2008, the famed Celtic Cross. He asked Harte if the door with Tyrone was still open for him.
"It has never been closed, Cathal," Harte replied. "If you focus on life, and on living life well, just think of all the possibilities out there. Look at the football you were playing, with all the hell that was going on in your life. Imagine, just imagine, what you really could do if you got all of this sorted out."
Christmas came and went and he started counting down:
"Six weeks done."
"Only five left now."
"A month to go."
"Twenty-one more days."
"Nearly into single figures now."
And when the great day arrived his father was waiting at the gate. The month was February, 2010. He felt like a new man.
Sister Susan, who is based in Athy, is one of the few people in Ireland qualified to specialise in gambling addiction. She had never gambled in her life but had studied the subject extensively in the USA and was an expert on it. She once neatly described to me the difference between a gambler and an alcoholic. An alcoholic's mind is like a washing machine. You throw in your clothes and turn it on. If you look inside, you can pick out your red jumper, or spot one of your yellow socks. A gambler's mind is like a spin drier. You look in and can see nothing.
'Out of Control'
On May 23, 2010, three months after leaving rehab, McCarron made his Championship debut for Tyrone. Two months later, he'd won his first Ulster title, found a job selling advertising for a magazine, Gaelic Life, and started his first serious relationship with Andrea, a local nurse.
He opened a savings account with the credit union and secured a loan for an old Volkswagen Golf. He was attending GA (Gamblers Anonymous) meetings regularly, playing the football of his life and had started to build a relationship with his daughter. And for the two years that followed, life could not have been better.
But there's an old saying: it's not the mountain that wears you out, it's the grain of sand in your shoe.
He drove home one afternoon and his car was low on fuel so he filled the tank, as he had often done, from one of his father's pumps. Normally, when his father wasn't around, he'd leave the money on the table with a note, but on this day, for a reason he still can't fathom, he kept the £30 in his pocket. 'I'll get him later,' he thought.
The devil had returned to his shoulder.
In the months that followed his discipline began to slip. He was flirting with a woman behind Andrea's back, had skipped a couple of GA meetings and had started googling some online betting accounts. The month was March, 2012. His favourite horse, Kauto Star (above), was running in the Gold Cup and before he knew it he'd put £200 down - his first bet for almost three years.
There was no stopping him once the buzz had returned. He bet on every race in the Festival and did a £1,300 treble one afternoon on three Premier League soccer matches that netted him £16,000. And the beauty of gambling online was that nobody knew. Not his parents. Not Andrea. Not Tyrone or Dromore or Mickey Harte. He had become a master at concealing it.
"I would plague people and manipulate them," he says, "because that's what I was - a master at manipulation. I put on a mask that told them what they wanted to hear. I had a split personality - Cathal and whoever I needed to be."
Winning big meant losing big. He 'borrowed' Andrea's credit card one afternoon and blew £1,200 from her account. He was 'diverting' money paid by advertisers and lost his job at Gaelic Life. In October, after seven months of madness, Andrea threatened to leave him if he didn't stop. He was offered a job with The Dealer, a free-ads paper based in Donegal, returned to the GA meetings and did not place a bet for four months.
One morning in January 2013 he travelled to Cookstown to meet a customer. He was early and had a lot of time to kill and decided to soothe his boredom at the bookies, where nobody would know him. He had £100 in his wallet when he walked through the door but had blown a £2,500 hole in his bank account within four hours.
As his life began to unravel again his football continued to thrive. He played in his first All-Ireland semi-final that summer and was one of Tyrone's best players in the six-point defeat to Mayo, but the whistle blew and the madness resumed and two months later he was forced to flee the country.
It started with the theft of a chequebook, three days after the game with Mayo. And not just any chequebook. Steve Fitzpatrick was a lifelong neighbour and friend. A few weeks later, he was caught trawling for money in another neighbour's house and was front-page news: "Red Hand Star Caught Red-Handed."
His name was dirt in Dromore - a big republican town - and he was given some chilling advice by a friend: "You're fucked here lad. You've gotta get out of the country."
His brother, Barry, had married and settled in London. He got a job on a building site, played football with Round Towers - the only GAA club in south London - and got his life back on the rails. But the craving to gamble was relentless and by Christmas he was almost skint. Home was a flat in Wimbledon. Christmas dinner was a sausage and some beans.
He couldn't pay for electricity or heat. He was shoplifting ready-made meals from supermarkets to eat. Things were getting so bad that he'd have done anything for money.
And then he did.
He was on the tube one morning and spotted an advertisement in the Metro newspaper looking for male models. He sent a picture of himself in some boxer shorts and received an email a few weeks later to come in for an interview.
The agency was a front for a porn company. They offered him £3,000 to play 'Fergus' in a movie and assured him that nobody would see it - they dealt exclusively with US hotels.
He needed the money. Three grand was huge. "Okay," he said. "When do we start?"
But there was a catch - they wanted him to have sex with a man. He was sick to his stomach. "No way," he said. "I can't do that."
And then he did.
I often wondered who was the first person to see me in that porno movie. Was it a gay footballer or hurler watching gay porn who suddenly recognised that Fergus was Cathal McCarron, the Tyrone footballer? Whoever it was, or whoever posted the video on social media, those first taps on the screen of a phone or a computer were like detonating a massive explosion.
The video went viral. It was trending on Facebook and Twitter. Every football team in the country was apparently sharing it on their WhatsApp group.
Even though I knew what I did was crazy, that it was high-risk stuff, I still convinced myself that I was insulated from the apocalypse. 'This will never get out,' I said to myself so often. 'That footage is going to the USA. Nobody will ever see it.'
Yet at the back of my mind, there was this underlying fear. 'Jeez, imagine if anybody here ever saw that?'
Now, the four horsemen of the apocalypse had just come over the hill with their swords and spears at the ready. It felt like the end of the world.
And there didn't seem to be any place left for me in this world any more.
'Out of Control'
A month after the shoot, he was lying on a bed in his apartment one night when his phone pinged with a message on Twitter. It happened again a second later and within a minute his phone was in meltdown: ping, ping, ping, ping, ping, ping. The first five tweets went over his head and then he spotted one from his former team-mate, Owen Mulligan: 'Holy fuck, what am I seeing here lad? What have you gone and done now?'
He dropped the phone.
"I still can't describe how I felt that night when my phone started beeping," he says. "It still gives me shivers down my back. The people who wrote those horrible things were entitled to their opinion but I don't think they realised how close they were to tipping me over the edge."
He left the apartment the following morning at 6.30am and walked to Wimbledon Park Tube station. After a night spent tossing and turning he had determined to kill himself.
He stood on the platform and felt a warm gust of air on his face as the first train went past. Five steps would end it. And he wanted to end it. But he stood for 45 minutes, rooted to that spot.
His brother was ringing constantly. Eventually he picked up.
"Where you Cathal?"
"I'm fucked, Barry," he replied.
"Don't worry, we will get you help. You need to go home today. You have to get back into rehab. Don't move. I'll meet you shortly."
He caught a flight to Dublin that evening and was collected by two friends who drove him straight to the Cuan Mhuire Centre in Newry. Pat McGinn, a great football man from Armagh who worked there as a volunteer, met him at the door.
"Everything will be all right, Cathal," he said. "Look, did you kill anyone?"
"Well, it's alright then. It can be fixed."
But McCarron wasn't convinced.
The tabloids were already feasting on him. His reputation was in tatters and his relationship with Andrea was gone. And he would never play for Tyrone again, of that he was sure.
His second spell in rehab was easier than the first, but when the three months were over he had no desire at all to face the outside world. He returned home to Dromore but was afraid to leave the house, and left a few days later for the Cuan Mhuire house in Athy to continue his rehab and work as a volunteer.
After a few months in Athy, he was sitting in his room watching TV one night when an interview with Gareth Thomas, the former Welsh rugby captain, came on. Their stories were different but they had both stared into the abyss. He ordered a copy of Thomas's book 'Proud' and found it inspiring. And challenging. It had taken massive strength of character for Thomas to return to the rugby field. Did McCarron possess that character? Could he return to Gaelic football?
Nicola Kelly was one of the best counsellors in Cuan Mhuire and had become a close friend. Her husband, Joe, was a huge supporter of the Athy senior team and was keen for him to get involved. "You'll be fine Cathal," he said. "It's all good GAA people here. You're in among your own."
Pascal Kelleghan, the former Offaly player, was the manager. McCarron arrived for training one night and was welcomed with open arms. His love of the game returned. He was playing with a freedom he never had before and his new team-mates had become friends. But there's no place like home. And no people like your own.
His first contact with the Tyrone senior team was a text message from the coach, Gavin Devlin, in October 2014. "How are you feeling for 2015?" he enquired. "We need you back." A week later, he returned from the gym one night and noticed a missed call on his phone from a number he didn't recognise. He rang the number. It was Mickey Harte.
A month later, he travelled north to Ballygawley for a Tyrone players' meeting. He was sick with worry and shaking like a leaf. Seán and Colm Cavanagh were the first to arrive. Seán gave him a hug; Colm extended the warmest of handshakes. Relief flooded over him. Two months later, he was selected in the team to play Armagh in the McKenna Cup.
He has not looked back.
'Am I sorry for what I did?'
'Well . . . are you?'
'Not a day goes by I don't feel regret, and not because I'm in here or because you think I should. I look back on myself the way I was . . . stupid kid who did that terrible crime . . . wish I could talk sense to him. Tell him how things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone, this old man is all that's left, and I have to live with that.'
Eillis Boyd 'Red' Redding
'The Shawshank Redemption'
More than two hours have passed since we sat down for the interview. He takes off his jacket, unbuckles a cufflink from his shirt and rolls up the left sleeve: "You asked about the tattoos."
His left arm is mesh of ink
The tattoos are interesting. The prayer inked to his bicep:
'God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And wisdom to know the difference.'
The line from the Bible:
'Let he without sin cast the first stone.'
The Roman numerals on his forearm - the date he travelled to Newry and entered recovery:
. . . But they are also puzzling.
I remind him of that great line from the book when he stood under the shower in London knowing that "all the water in the Atlantic Ocean couldn't remove the stains from my soul." So why get a tattoo to remind him?
"It's not a reminder," he says. "I won't forget about these things. It's more . . . this is what happened to me. This is what I've come through and that's a huge pillar of strength."
I show him another quote: 'The hardest part to change - even to this day - is worrying about what other people think of you.'
"Yeah, but that was more when I was coming through recovery," he says. "I tried to get people to like me, I wanted them to like me, but that's a huge burden to carry around with you. And I soon gathered that no matter what I had done - even if I was the Pope - somebody out there wouldn't like me. The only person I can change is myself."
He continues: "The reason I did the book was to show people what gambling can do to you and where it left me. And for the next guy, because there's another guy coming and that's a fact. The amount of county stars in the GAA who are struggling at the moment is frightening."
"And what about you?" I ask. "Does this story have a happy ending? What happens next?"
He laughs: "I was talking to a guy the other day who had been to a graveyard and noticed this headstone. It was marked with the day the person was born, the day he died, and 'Programme Completed.' And that will be me. Until the day I go to the grave I will be battling this disease."