Long way for Cahir to here

Despite relentless travel and several knee injuries, Laois star Cahir Healy is 'Doing it for Dan' and taking on a new challenge

DETERMINATION: Cahir Healy training for his marathon in Old Deer Park, Richmond, London.

Frank Roche

On Sunday, May 17, Cahir Healy will run a marathon - just two months after undergoing his fourth knee operation in three years.

He will run those 26 miles and 385 yards while scoring 2,000 points - 1,000 with a sliotar, 1,000 with a football. Bisecting rugby goalposts in a London park, just to add an ecumenical twist. And he will 'Do It For Dan' …

Dan Donoher, recently turned one, is a young man who has been diagnosed with a rare genetic neuromuscular disease, Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 1.

His parents, Niall and Aisling Donoher, are both former Laois footballers. Cahir Healy progressed with Niall from Laois U14 all the way to senior. Brendan Quigley - Aisling's brother - shared in the journey.

The Donohers need to raise $2.1 million for life-saving cell infusion treatment, only available in the United States. Dan's story has captured the hearts of a nation - so much so that their eye-watering target was reached at the weekend.

But this doesn't mean the end of Healy's marathon. After discussions with the fundraising committee, it has been decided that the first Stg£7,500 raised will go towards 'Do It For Dan' - and any money beyond that will be used for the purchase of PPE, split equally between the Midland Regional Hospital, Portlaoise and the NHS.

London has been Healy's home for a decade. That may surprise some who have followed his unstinting service in the white-and-green of Portlaoise and blue-and-white of Laois, in both codes.

It's only when you delve into his story that you appreciate what separates some GAA stars from their professional peers in other sports. Call it an obsession. Call it lunacy.

But there is something magical about the madness that has propelled this primary school teacher to fly over and back, weekend after weekend, to play for club and county. Or his determination to overcome two career-threatening cruciate ruptures, a medial ligament tear and cartilage surgery in pursuit of his dreams.

"I might have to do a Go Fund Me page for another knee operation after it!" the 33-year-old quips, as he explains the modus operandi of his '2000 for 2000 Marathon'.

The aim is to score 2,000 points for 2,000 donations. His first training session was last Monday, when he brought a bagful of sliotars to the nearby Old Deer Park in Richmond and hit 287 points in an hour while running 5.1km.

Armed with 20 sliotars (hit from 45 metres) and 20 footballs (kicked from 20 metres), he aims to complete his marathon in eight to nine hours, all the while adhering to Covid-19 social distancing guidelines.

Did we mention he had his latest knee surgery, at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry, on March 13?

It was the summer of 2009 and Cahir Healy was on his inter-county 'gap year', wondering what to do with his life.

An All-Ireland minor football medallist in 2003, and two-time Leinster U21 football winner, his senior Laois career had started with the hurlers in '05. He switched to football in '08 but ended up double-jobbing after Niall Rigney, a Portlaoise demi-god to the young Healy, was elevated to hurling manager mid-championship.

Then he went travelling and ended up in Boston, in a house full of Carlow men. They were all heading back to college that September; Healy had completed business studies in DCU. "Lads, what am I going to do here?" he asked, trying to figure out what next.

He found his answer in teaching.

Post-graduate studies in Strawberry Hill provided a route into the classroom. "When I went to London first, I was just looking forward to the adventure," he says. "I didn't have honours Irish to do the teaching in Ireland, so I was excited to go and see a bit of the world and live in a different city. And, sure, it just kind of snowballed."

Bar one year back home teaching in Emo, he has spent all his career there, including the last five-and-a-half years in Marshgate Primary School, where he oversees a classroom of seven- and eight-year-olds - before coronavirus forced everyone online.

This September will mark 10 years of living and working in London. But not playing there.

He was a Laois dual player in 2010; football-only in '11 and '12; and then, from the spring of '13, hurling-only until he gave county football one final fling at the start of 2019. Therein lies another saga …

As Healy recounts a typical weekend schedule (flying home on a Friday night for Saturday night games, then back to London on Sunday; or jetting home Saturday for a Sunday match, then rushing to catch the last flight back) it begs the question: has he ever stopped to ask why?

"Sometimes," he only half-agrees. "But I know why I'm doing it. Like, I love playing for Portlaoise and Laois. I say to people, 'When I was 10 years old, that's what I grew up wanting to do.' So sometimes I feel if I quit now, I'd be letting down that 10-year-old.

"People I work with don't really understand this. 'Why don't you just play football here?' They don't get it … when I was a child, I wanted to play for Portlaoise and Laois, so I'm living the dream."

You wonder if Portlaoise's relentless success, winning 12 of the last 13 Laois SFC titles, has sustained his airborne ambition. Healy agrees that "it must help" but doesn't sound fully convinced.

"I never sat down, in January or December, and said 'Do I think we still have a chance of winning something here?' It was always, 'No, I'm playing with Portlaoise and Laois next year, that's it!' I suppose the opposite could be said for Laois. We haven't really come close to winning anything in my time … and it never really crossed my mind to pack it all in."

There are, by now, other considerations. Healy lives in London with Francesca and his two stepdaughters, Olivia (16) and Camilla (14). His Italian partner loves sunshine, AS Roma and Francesco Totti. He loves football, hurling and Laois.

"There was a stalemate - she wasn't moving to Portlaoise and I wasn't moving to Rome!" he quips.

And so, for now at least, London is very much home. Lately, however, he has started to question whether England is the place it once was. After Brexit and Boris came the unfolding carnage of Covid-19.

"When this all kicked off, before there was even a case in the country, (the public health message was) 'Make sure you are washing your hands," he relates. "Then he (Boris Johnson) came out in a press conference and said, 'I was in a hospital with coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everyone.' I mean, that's just recklessly negligent from a man in his position."

Wavering attitudes to the virus have left him scrambling to make sense of it all. He harks back to when Italy's epidemic was the big nightly news story. "Look at the death count, God it's terrible," is how he describes the British mindset at the time. "And now you're looking at the same situation here, the same number of deaths, but I don't see the same consternation.

"The talk now is 'How do we start up again?' And I'm looking at it, going 'We've announced almost 17,000 deaths and they don't include nursing home figures, so God knows what that real figure is.'"

Does it make him wonder if London is no longer the best place to set up home?

"My girlfriend is from Italy and she would certainly feel that way," he says. "There's two kids in the house here and they're in school, so they're the primary consideration. She'd love to move back there. For me it would be different.

He recently started Italian lessons and is enjoying "the buzz". On the flip side, he adds: "London kind of suits me because there's a GAA community here that have been quite good to me and, in the future, I plan on giving a lot back to them."

He even speaks of finishing off his county career with London - "if they need a crock with two bad knees!"

Healy's knee troubles started in July 2017, hurling for Portlaoise, when an innocuous collision had serious ramifications for his right knee: the dreaded cruciate. He missed the e tire 2018 county hurling season before returning for Portlaoise. Then came another career switch.

Healy had been 26 when he last played county football. "We have a terrible thing in Laois that, the longer somebody doesn't play with the county, the more their reputation grows!" he reflects.

"I only actually ever played four full seasons of inter-county football. So, I wanted to go back before it was too late."

John Sugrue gave Healy his chance. But then, in a pre-league challenge against Kerry in Killarney, disaster befell his left knee.

Another ACL rupture meant more major surgery, in early March. But Healy had also torn his medial collateral ligament and, despite leaving his knee in a brace for six weeks, the MCL didn't knit. Further surgery followed in June. Cue a change of Laois football manager; and he was both delighted and surprised when Mike Quirke phoned.

"I kind of thought that was me done," he admits.

He describes last January's league comeback off the bench in Roscommon as "dreadful". He had a shorter cameo against Armagh, then started against Clare on February 23. But barely 20 minutes in, running out for a ball, the corner-back's studs got caught and his left knee wobbled.

And so, just as Covid-19 was ushering Ireland towards lockdown, Healy found himself back in Santry. Surgeon Cathal Moran - "I must be his best customer!" - wasn't optimistic when checking the joint's mechanics beforehand.

But, post-op, he was greeted by a delighted medic: his lateral meniscus had been tidied up but there was just a partial cruciate tear that didn't require surgical repair.

Six weeks on, Healy is immersed in the familiar world of rehab. In a normal year, he would aim to be fully match-fit by July. But normality no longer exists.

Listening to the recent comments of Simon Harris, his gut instinct is that there won't be any more GAA in 2020. "If the Health Minister says social distancing for a year, sure how can you have any sport?" he wonders aloud. "It's the opposite of social distancing. It's social un-distancing!"

Will he see a Laois dressing-room again?

"It's hard to know. If I don't get back, I think mentally I'll be able to deal with it because I gave it a go and things just didn't work out I certainly still have the ambition to play for Laois, but the coronavirus might have put paid to those ambitions. We'll see."