Former GAA star Oisin McConville on his gambling addiction: 'I felt as if the walls were closing in on me and I became suicidal'
According to Oisin McConville, gambling is an addiction that's easily hidden. For 16 years, no one knew the extent of his problem. Now, however, he has confronted his demons and is enjoying life again
When Oisin McConville (39) won a vast sum of money, he knew deep down it would all be gone by the very next day. And indeed it was - such is the nature of addiction.
His first experiences of gambling occurred when he was a child living in Crossmaglen, Co Armagh. "My dad used to send me to the bookies on a Saturday to put a bet on a horse," remembers Oisin. "He'd only have one bet a week, so he had no problem with gambling himself; he didn't even take a drink."
This was at the height of the Troubles, and every day Oisin would walk past the British Army barracks to catch the bus to school in Newry. "There was plenty of shooting and sniper fire," he says. "There would have been an element of fear at this time; the police and the soldiers were intimidating. So you could get involved in that, or you could do what I did, and throw yourself into sport."
Oisin went on to become an exceptionally skilled player and was part of the Armagh team that won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship against Kerry in 2002; he was 27 at the time. That he could put in such a world-class performance was something of a miracle, given that by then he was almost drowning in debt.
Having been exposed to the betting world as a youngster, he began to dabble himself. He explains: "In those days, the 'betting office' was a smoke-filled room at the back of a pub with a dog sleeping by the fire. But there'd always be a couple of high rollers, and they represented what I thought was a route to easy money."
When he was 16, Oisin was gambling the proceeds from his part-time job once a week. "At the beginning it wasn't a problem, so I didn't try to hide it," he says. However, at 17, he was visiting the bookies three times a week, and by the time he was 18, he was gambling every day and was now completely and utterly hooked.
"When I left school, I got a job in a factory, packing boxes, so I'd have money to gamble," he recalls. "I was spending every penny I got at the betting office. So while my friends went out on the town, I would isolate myself in my room, feeling very alone."
Oisin says there are few outward signs of gambling: "With drugs and alcohol you can tell they're strung out, but with a gambling addiction there are just no outward, obvious signs." By the time he was 20, he was working as a paralegal for a solicitor. "I had my own private office, so I could do as I pleased," he says. And that also meant betting over the phone from the comfort of his office.
"As a compulsive gambler, it's all or nothing," he says. "If I had a good win, I wouldn't treat myself to a new shirt or a holiday. Instead, I would say, 'now I have serious money to gamble with'. I once won a vast amount of money. The lady at the counter told me to smile, because it was more than she would ever earn in her own lifetime. But I couldn't smile, because I knew that money was going to go back to her, or a bookie like her. I'm certain it was gone by the next day."
In 2003, a year after the All-Ireland victory, Oisin took over the running of a pub and then his addiction became even more unbearable. "At the time, the banks were throwing money at everyone. I got loans from all over the place; from credit unions, banks, and by borrowing from people. And, of course, I took money from the pub's till and failed to pay suppliers. When I began gambling, it was a pound or so. Then it increased to £10, and then to hundreds, and then thousands of pounds. It's a deadly addiction, it's an addiction that is entirely secretive," he says.
Oisin's debts were now mounting at an alarming rate. "I owed so much money I became paranoid that people would find out," he says. "I still thought I could gamble my way out of my problems. Nonetheless, I felt as if the walls were closing in on me. I couldn't sleep, and I became suicidal."
Then came the day when things came to a head. Oisin had borrowed yet more money, and was still convinced that if his horse won, his problems would be solved. But the horse didn't win. Finally, Oisin had had enough. And thankfully he found the courage to talk to one of his three brothers (he also has three sisters) about his problems.
"I opened up just a little that first day, but over the next week I told them the whole story," he says. "I'd built up the idea that my family would disown me, but actually they promised to do whatever they could to help. Now I had an opportunity to stop telling lies - the sense of relief was unbelievable."
That's when Oisin first heard about Cuan Mhuire, an organisation founded by Sister Consilio Fitzgerald, a member of the Sisters of Mercy, in 1966, to help people with various kinds of addictions. Oisin wasn't convinced. "I thought, 'what the hell does a nun know about gambling?'" But he was so desperate he decided to give it a go, and 16 years after he first started gambling, he did a 12-week residential programme at the Galway branch of Cuan Mhuire.
He says prayers, meditation, a work programme and an introduction to Gamblers Anonymous (GA) all helped in his recovery. And after he left, he continued to go to GA meetings four times a week. He says that having calculated that he owed a staggering £100,000, his sister Dora and her husband helped him get a loan so he could pay all his debtors in one go.
Thereafter, whenever he got paid, he would give his pay packet to Dora, so that he wouldn't be tempted to gamble ever again, and so he could repay his debt. As a result, that loan is now paid off in full.
Today, Oisin, a generous, softly spoken, good-looking man, is very happily married to Darina, whom he met 18 months after he stopped gambling. They have two boys, Ryan (2) and baby Conall, and live in Crossmaglen. Oisin works with adults who have learning disabilities, and is also in charge of Gaelic football at the Dundalk Institute of Technology. And he is now a trained addiction counsellor.
He is so grateful to Cuan Mhuire, that he does whatever he can to spread the word about this wonderful organisation, which recently benefited from a €500,000 donation from State Street, a financial services company based in Dublin's IFSC. This allowed the Dublin branch of Cuan Mhuire to increase the number of beds to 57.
Oisin urges anyone with an addiction of whatever kind to seek help now. "Accept you are powerless over your addiction and wave that white flag," he says.
Cuan Mhuire runs a Gambling Helpline, which operates from 9am-5.30pm, Monday-Friday, tel: (1800) 753-753. Cuan Mhuire has centres in Kildare, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Newry. For more information, tel: (01) 878-8877 or see cuanmhuire.ie