'I woke up one morning and couldn't do it anymore' - Ireland's Jack McGrath on confronting the death of his brother
There is no one right way to cope with a sudden bereavement and there are many who immerse themselves in a tangible endeavour as a means of supressing their grief, but as Ireland prop Jack McGrath can attest such remedies are merely temporary
Although the divide between the public and professional athletes has become increasingly less pronounced in the digital age, more often than not, the shared discourse remains sanitised and cloaked in cliché. Rarely do meaningful exchanges occur and perhaps that’s the way it should be.
However, when that paradigm does shift, it tends to be for matters that swallow the ultimate triviality of sport.
Jack McGrath was just one of many eager academy prospects on Leinster’s books when his brother took his own life in 2010.
In the 2009-10 campaign, the then 20-year-old made a solitary appearance for the senior side, coming off the bench to replace Ronan McCormack in a 30-6 league loss at the hands of the Glasgow Warriors.
Unwilling and unable to confront the pain that had just befallen his family, McGrath committed every ounce of his being to progressing into the professional ranks. Rugby provided him a bespoke outlet to channel or stifle the reality of losing his brother.
“I was 20 when it happened,” said McGrath at the launch of IRUPA’s( Irish Rugby Union Players' Association) Tackle Your Feelings Mental Wellbeing capaign. “I was trying to become a professional rugby player, that was a distraction from it. Then trying to break into the Leinster team, that was a distraction from it. Then trying to break into the Irish rugby team, that was a distraction from it.”
In a strange twist of irony, McGrath found that in achieving his ambitions, he could no longer delay the prospect of coming to terms with his brother’s death. While striving to make the grade, the prophetic words of his brother had initially fuelled his desire.
“When I did all those things, the seed was still there and it had just been wrapped up in other things so it raised its head again and the anxiety came. I thought by playing rugby and just by completely forgetting about it that that was the way to deal with it. It wasn’t, obviously.
“He always said that I’ll play for Ireland so that was one thing that would have always motivated me to go on and try and succeed in that regard. It’s funny what things motivate you and that was definitely one of them,” McGrath said.
The St Mary’s alum earned the first of his 30 Ireland caps against Samoa in 2013 and, even after back-to-back Six Nations winning campaigns and establishing himself as a marquee loose head on the global stage, McGrath was no closer to taming those demons.
In the world he occupies, one which extols and often glorifies unbridled masculinity, McGrath felt compelled to keep an ever-swelling mass of dread within, but something had to give and he turned to his girlfriend.
“I got to a point in my own life that I had to start talking about something. For me, it’s something I want to make people aware of and it is ok to be vulnerable, and it is ok to talk about your feelings.
“That’s the message I’m trying to get across; when I was in my bad stage if anxiety I eventually just woke up one morning, I’d had this knot in my stomach for two years, and I just woke up one morning and said ‘I cant do this anymore, I can’t have this feeling anymore.’”
“So that was the day that changed me forever. It’s funny how, even from the smallest thing, it doesn’t have to be death, it just has to be something that really upsets you as a person, if you just open up and speak about it, it is really incredible how much better that can make you feel.”
Upon learning of the project, McGrath immediately offered his services and, if he can, hopes to encourage anyone in the throes of internalising grief to take that first step in breaking their silence.
“IRUPA look after the players in Ireland so they’re able to get players involved. Rugby is seen as such a macho sport and people forget that the players have feelings as well and normal stuff happens to them. It’s one of those things that when I heard about the campaign I knew that I had to get involved.”
“I’ve never felt any better in my playing career or outside of that, and it’s definitely down to opening up about it. It may seem like such a small and simple thing, but you just need to find somebody that you trust, a friend or family, and just open up about it.”