Sunday 4 December 2016

'GAA players don't come out because they are afraid of getting the piss taken out of them'

Ger Brennan is no longer a Dublin footballer, but his life is rich and varied

Published 06/12/2015 | 02:30

Ger Brennan
Ger Brennan

There's Psalm in the Old Testament where God calls Samuel, and Samuel replies, 'Here I am'. It reminds Ger Brennan of his life growing up on Dorset Street in Dublin's north inner city. Reading it brings him back to a time where his father PJ was always calling him.

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Every night between 9.0 and 10.0 the Ringsend native used to cycle around the streets near their home gathering up his nine children getting them in out of harm's way.

He needed to do that because although they lived in a close-knit community, there were social problems right on the Brennan's doorstep which would cause headaches for any parent. Crime and drugs weren't unusual for the residents to see and for many of those caught up in that way of life there was no way back, no escape.

So the footballer's father was relentless, always checking, always calling, always caring. His brood were never afforded the opportunity to go too far astray. With Croke Park just around the corner, their area was a hive of activity on match day but when the fans disappeared the landscape could be very different.

To pass the time, Brennan and his friends would do what all kids do - play football, hang around and throw a few eggs when they could get their hands on them. But it wasn't long before the innocence left many of them.

"A lot of lads who grew up around me became sidetracked and our paths diverged," explains Brennan. "But they are really good guys, they just caught up in the wrong thing. They were part of my group of friends. I still see them around town and we'd chat away, but it's not the same as when we were young."

Ger Brennan during his time with Dublin
Ger Brennan during his time with Dublin

Of course it would be naive to think that Brennan was always protected; every now and then he would skid off the tracks and do something he'd regret. Looking back at it now it wasn't anything that he can't live with but on reflection it shows the life he could have led.

Starting school at the prestigious Belvedere College when he was in his early teens helped keep him on the right path. He earned a scholarship, one of those the school gives out as part of their social inclusion programme. The discipline and structure it brought came at the perfect time. He played rugby there, and football of course, and was on under 14 and 15 Dublin development squads.

But before sport started to dictate Brennan's path his faith was already influencing his decisions. His beliefs and commitment to his religion have been present ever since he can remember. Again, his parents PJ and Mary played a part; he attended church with them regularly and was also an altar boy.

It was at Gardiner Street church where his commitment to religion was really cemented. They encouraged youth involvement and provided opportunities to learn music through the Music Makers and Br Tom Phelan SJ.

So he played the guitar in their gospel choir and also percussion and tin whistle. Rather than diminishing as he got older, his belief in God went from strength to strength. He went to Colombia twice with the Jesuits where he visited orphanages and met many religious people. Through those experiences, along with the influence of his parents, he became even more aware of God's hands in his life. He did toy with the idea of becoming a priest but now a vocation to married life is on the cards as he is due to marry his fiancée Aisling Lonergan.

Over the years some terrible failings of the Catholic Church have been brought to light and although Brennan sees them as heinous crimes they don't affect his relationship with God.

Dublin's Ger Brennan in action against Mayo
Dublin's Ger Brennan in action against Mayo

"If I was personally affected by someone who abused their position of power I don't know how I'd feel. But what I feel very strongly about is that the church have fooled themselves into thinking that it's more important to protect the institution.

"And they covered up all sorts of stuff that was wrong, systematically wrong. John Paul II did a lot of work on personal and social sin and if enough people permit personal sin to occur then it develops into a much larger problem. It can become structural sin and that's what happened in the church.

"Any organisation develops because there are a group of people who share a personal relationship with something. It starts with one first and when more come together with similar feelings the group starts to develop. But unfortunately men and women are sinful and in terms of the church's development the desire for power, for control, the fear of change and the fear of the institution being branded poorly because of the sins of one of its members were all the things that led to the structural sin of the church.

"So I fully understand why people are fearful or have lost touch with the church. But I would always invite people to go back to that personal relationship with something that is greater than you and I. That feeling is subjective and personal and in many ways that is a belief that you know to be true.

"You can't always put words on it or explain it in a scientific or mathematical equation, but in your heart of hearts you know it to be true. And I think that's where people need to find that personal relationship with their own spirit and for me Jesus Christ is the perfect example of a human being who was fully aware of his divinity within."

Brennan has never been one to shy away from speaking out. If he feels strongly about something he will more often than not make his feelings known. His most recent public stance was on the gay marriage referendum where his support for the 'No' campaign brought a lot of criticism.

"I felt there was an unfair and much stigmatised treatment of those who were unsure of whether they were going to vote yes or no. I spent time thinking about it and prayed about it and followed my conscience. While I never sought to align people with my reasoning, I'd like to think that anything I said was fair and compassionate and that I listened to people on the other side in a fair and compassionate way. And I think most of the yes voters were the same and would listen to the no voters. If I see something that is wrong and I feel strongly about it I'll do something about it."

Ger Brennan lifts the Andy Merrigan Cup
Ger Brennan lifts the Andy Merrigan Cup

After St Vincent's won the All-Ireland club title last year, Brennan garnered public attention when he thanked the girlfriends and boyfriends of his team-mates. It wasn't a planned speech but being inclusive is something that he stands for. And from his chaplain and counselling background, it's something that comes naturally. In Gaelic games and sport in general, there are very few openly gay men, especially when compared to women's sport.

"They don't come out because there is a fear of getting the piss taken out of them; men being men we take the absolute piss out of one another a lot, but there are never any prejudices, certainly not within a team environment. I guess bullying is defined if and when the person on the receiving end of a joke doesn't see it as a joke and in that case you have to say, 'Sorry I didn't mean that' and move on and don't do it again.

"Some people are more susceptible to maybe feeling that, because of insecurities. Generally any team that I have been involved in, we have really slagged each other in a very healthy and positive way - that keeps you grounded. There is a danger of saying stuff and no doubt I have said stuff, but I'd like to think they know me well enough to know I wouldn't intentionally go out to hurt anyone."

"I would say certainly that Dónal Óg's presence in the GPA and Conor Cusack being involved in player development is a massive plus for equality within the GAA. Knowing Conor personally he is the ideal sounding board for players who are struggling to realise their own sexuality. It will help the culture."

Brennan did his undergrad and Master's in Theology and Irish in Maynooth and having taught for several years he has now taken the role of the late David Billings in UCD. Billings passed away last summer, leaving a lasting legacy. As well as being a phenomenal county man with Dublin and club man with St Vincent's, he touched the lives of so many of the country's GAA players past and present - some of those who passed through UCD and many who didn't. Although Billings cared about what happened on the pitch, what happened off it was of vital importance to him too. And the outpouring of grief at his untimely passing was a testament to that.

Billings was one of the Dublin selectors when Brennan joined the panel and he mentored him through his time studying to be a teacher in Maynooth and through his Dublin career.

"When I became a teacher people sometimes asked what was my teaching style and I've always answered I teach the way I was taught by my favourite teachers. I don't necessarily remember the content but I remember how they taught and how they made me feel. I very much experienced how Dave made me feel, he made me feel like I belonged, like I was worthy and that he was there to take care of me. So that is something I will take forward in my role here and try and build on that legacy and that foundation that he laid over his 18 years here. So there are certainly big shoes to fill and I will fill them as best I can."

Brian Mullins is head of sport in the college, another man who has known Brennan since he was a youngster in St Vincent's, and he has had many words of wisdom for him since he embarked on his new journey.

One of the major parts of Brennan's new role will be dealing with the pressures that come with playing for several teams. He's been there and done that having played on six teams at the same time. The twice AIB club player of the year reached his last summer just as he turned 30 after suffering three injuries.

"I wasn't enjoying it for the last year and a half because I was hurt. Any time I played in the last year or trained I was particularly sore. It was a case where I was taking an hour to warm up and then I was sore for two or three days after. Then I'd go and train again and certainly at inter-county level the competition is so great, especially in the Dublin squad. If you are missing sessions ahead of going into Croke Park then you can be left exposed, not having done all the work that is necessary. There is always a pressure on you to play and train as much as you can.

"My injuries have all been fatigue-related injuries, nothing to do with contact, I haven't broken a bone since I played with my brothers in the back garden. I've four brothers, broke a few wrists and things like that I've never broken a bone playing senior football."

Brennan has always been known as a tough player and reveals he hates losing. When he joined the Dublin senior panel in his early 20s he was willing to do whatever it took to win, and admits he'd have crossed any line.

"Going to Belvedere I played rugby and I was training for rugby the whole time. And growing up in the north inner city in Dublin I was involved in one or two scuffles. I've always felt comfortable in terms of looking after myself; I wasn't ever worried about getting a box. If I had got one I would have deserved one. But I used to just deal with aggression on the sporting field."

On the advice of performance coach Caroline Currid, the centre-back wore a white wrist band as a reminder to re-engage his logical side. Although his inter-county days are behind him he gets huge joy from playing for St Vincent's but he isn't happy with the club scene.

"Club players are second-class citizens. The current problems could be sorted by shortening the inter-county season, playing the finals in August. They need to have a central organisational fixtures committee based in Croke Park. It's time to take some of the power from provincial boards, have a master fixture play, it would be very difficult to do but it can be done. Also the only time a game should be called off is if a pitch is unplayable or someone dies."

Management is something that Brennan wants to do when he hangs up his boots. He wants to give something back - to club and county. With that in mind, it feels like Brennan is just getting started.

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