'It's just second nature to me'
Evan McNamara's long hurling career shows that nothing is impossible in sport, writes Marie Crowe
H e tried the attachments when he was six years old, but he just didn't take to them. Yet despite only having one hand, Evan McNamara was determined he was going to hurl. "I was born in Kilkenny and hurling is what they do there so I just did it too," he says.
He moved to Clare when he was eight. No one in the village of Scariff had seen the like of it before, a one-handed boy playing hurling, and doing it like it was the most natural thing in the world.
"I was born like this," he says. "I never knew any different. When you're a kid you don't really notice people's reactions. It wasn't until I got older that I realised people were looking at me but that's to be expected and it never bothered me.
"In my own head I play like everyone else but when I saw myself in a video for the first time I got a bit of a shock. I didn't realise that I played like that at all. It's just second nature to me, I do it the way I always have. I'm used to doing things my own way so I just get on with it."
And get on it with it he did. He could hold his own on the field and was a welcome addition to the village team. From day one his technique was always the same: when the sliotar is approaching, he carries the hurley under his arm, then he catches the ball, throws it up and quickly switches the hurley back into his hand before the ball falls. Finally he connects with it, all the while holding the hurley in one hand.
"The only thing I'm not so good at is when I have to catch a high ball," he says. "I can't protect my hand so when the goalkeeper is hitting it to me he will put it in front of me or hit it low. A half decent wing-back will cop on pretty quickly that I'm not good in the air and go for the elbow and he would be right to do that too. I try to alternate my play, maybe go up for one out of every four, that way I won't get caught out.
"When I was younger, for the first few minutes lads took it a bit easier on me but when they realised I could hurl they changed their tack quickly. The hardest thing for me has been trying to get on teams, but hurling is a hard game. I just concentrate on doing the basics right. I keep the ball in my hand and try to get rid of it or get it over the bar.
"I was at my sister's wedding recently and I got chatting to a guy who I had played against at Harty Cup level and he remembered marking me. He told me he thought me togging out was a joke and that I was getting a run out of sympathy. But then I got five points off him; eventually he got taken off and he never forgot me. Until the game starts and I start doing something, people don't know what to expect."
Unlike now, the underage scene in Scariff during McNamara's time was very strong. They had a decent team in his age bracket and won a lot of competitions. Former Clare hurlers Barry and Enda Murphy were the same age as McNamara and having three younger brothers who were handy with a hurley also helped. Over the years the wing-forward followed the same path as every young hurler, moving up through the ranks, going for county trials and hoping that some day he would get a crack at lining out for Clare.
"I always wanted to represent my county. Who doesn't when they are growing up? I made the East Clare under 16 team but that was as good as it got. I knew pretty early that I wasn't good enough and I concentrated on club."
As a hurler, he never received any special treatment, but he didn't expect it and definitely didn't want it. He trained as much as everyone else and in many ways he even worked that bit harder.
Hurling is in his blood. His father is former Clare hurling manager Mike and he grew up in an era when his father was part of the coaching ticket which inspired the county to win All-Irelands. Famously, Mike Mac was the man responsible for the team's fitness training, the one who sent them up and down the hills in Shannon and around the field in Crusheen in the dark.
Evan McNamara doesn't find that many differences in the way he plays compared to other hurlers. Anticipating the ball is important and if anything he needs to do it better than his opponent to get that extra second needed to swap the hurley over.
"I get terribly frustrated sometimes. If you saw me on the field you'd think I was a bit mad, my trainers were always telling me to relax. If I couldn't rise the ball properly or if I mis-hit it, I'd be harder on myself than anyone else. Maybe I felt that I had to be a little better than the other guy because of the disability."
Even though he was a teenager when he joined up with the senior panel, it took him a long time to break onto the team and nail down a regular spot. "I'm on the senior team now at 35 years of age but I couldn't make it when I was 25. When I wasn't picked back then it was very disappointing, I didn't know why it wasn't happening for me. My team-mates used to tell me that it must be the hand because they reckoned I was flying in training. I'd like to think that it wasn't about the hand and that it's all about opinions. I was playing Fitzgibbon Cup at the time in Tralee IT at a seriously high level. In the end, to be honest, I got quite bitter about it but still I never gave up."
His Fitzgibbon Cup days are still a source of great memories and pride for him and events in Cork this week reminded him of a time when he marked Seán óg ó hAilpín.
"Playing Fitzgibbon was tough but it was enjoyable. I got a got a few points off Seán óg which is a nice memory to have and I have a scar on my head from a run-in with Mark Foley which isn't as nice. They were serious hurlers but we had a savage team in Tralee. Niall Gilligan was down there and Alan Markham, John Carroll and Seamus Prendergast.
"The Clare lads knew me growing up so they wouldn't pay any attention, but lads from other counties often asked me how do I do it, but they never meant it in a bad way. After a week or two training with them they would be coming after me as much as anyone else, shouting at me for not passing the ball."
In all his years hurling, McNamara has only ever had one bad experience on the field, a few years back in a championship game. He went down low to gather the ball but it bounced away from him, whereupon his marker told him he needed two hands to catch a ball. It hurt, there was no doubt about it. Never before had a player made reference to his disability and he was angry.
"As soon as the ball was gone I turned him upside down," he says. "That was the only time in all the games I played that it had ever been said. I suppose it's amazing in a way that it hasn't been mentioned. There is always sledging in games but in fairness lads don't go there."
For McNamara, sport is an overriding passion so he didn't limit himself to just hurling. In his mid-20s he joined the local rugby club. It was a new challenge but one that he embraced. His speed helped and he found himself out on the wing. In his first run-out he scored a few tries and soon became a permanent fixture on the team.
"I didn't take it seriously initially but then a guy from New Zealand arrived to play with us, he was a serious rugby player. He could pass the ball 30 yards and all I'd have to do was catch it and run. I loved playing rugby but when you get older it's hard to keep up everything."
Inevitably, as it is with all players, McNamara's time to retire has arrived. The good thing was, he knew when his time was up. "I was playing a senior game few weeks back and I was marking a lad who was about 20. I jostled him as hard as I could and he just smiled at me so I knew then it was time to call it a day."