On the cover of Aidan O’Mahony’s new book, Unbroken, there is a photograph of the player from his last day in a Kerry jersey. A tear trickles from his right eye. Towards the end of a long interview he says that this was a perfect depiction of an emotionally loaded day, his parting from the county panel after 13 years. Oddly enough, for all its masculinity and posturing, sport allows some latitude on public shows of emotion amongst men. Society has often been a more reluctant host.
As O’Mahony knows only too well. A winner of five All-Irelands, remembered as a combative and robust player, his career peaked with the All-Ireland win in 2014 when he subdued Michael Murphy, a colossus in the game, at the age of 34. It was a fitting epitaph even though he went on to play for two more years, the teary cover shot taken after Kerry lost to Dublin in 2016.
That win, and curtailing Murphy in particular, had a tie to his father’s death a couple of years before. Written with the help of ghost Michael Moynihan, the book teases through O’Mahony’s life and football days and his own difficult transition from a self-proclaimed introvert to a more open and learned human being. The pivotal moment in his life came in 2010 after he suddenly pulled out of the Kerry squad having lost interest in football and, more alarmingly, life.
If he were to trace the roots of his discontent he could burrow his way down to a childhood where chronic asthma led to numerous doctor visits and hospital trips, late night emergencies which left him with a sense of being a burden on his parents, and also presented an impediment to his football career.
He overcame that and was one of a number of new players introduced to toughen up Kerry, Paul Galvin being another, leading to the All-Ireland win under Jack O’Connor in 2004. People may forget how much Kerry’s reputation had been tarnished by the failures of previous years, their players deemed too soft and too fancy.
O’Mahony came with none of that frippery. He was raw and determined. From Rathmore on the border with Cork, growing up in a rural area created a sense of himself as a person that existed most comfortably on the margins. There were just five in his class in primary school and when he went on to secondary level even that change seemed startling. But by 2008 he was playing the best football of his life and had three All-Ireland senior medals with Kerry.
At this point it all began to unravel, leading him to the despairingly low point where his family intervened and persuaded him to get help two years later. The result was a six-week stay in the counselling and addiction treatment centre, Aiséirí, in Cahir. It proved his salvation.
“I’m not one of these people that wants pity,” he says. “I know the controversies that happened in my career on the pitch were down to myself. So the book is not a way of justifying myself but a way of putting out there how I would have dealt with it or wouldn’t have dealt with it. And where the whole thing came to a head at one stage.”
It all came to a head in 2010, which is where his book begins, when he had lost the joy in everything: work, football, life in general. When he quit the Kerry panel in mid-season it became clear something was deeply wrong. The previous year he lost his place on the team for the first time and didn’t feel an essential part of their All-Ireland win. The year before that there were two incidents which sent him spiralling towards a period of darkness. The first was an incident involving the Cork footballer Donncha O’Connor in the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final drawn match. After the Corkman gave him a light slap on the face, O’Mahony hit the ground theatrically. O’Connor was sent off and O’Mahony stood accused of simulation and cheating.
In the GAA that kind of behaviour is frowned upon and his reputation was severely damaged. “For a guy who sought respect, for me to do that above in Croke Park on one of the biggest days of the year,” he says, “it was desperate, I was embarrassed, I embarrassed my family. That is something that doesn’t leave you too quick.”
He takes a long deep sigh. “I suppose that happens in three or four seconds, and afterwards you have tv and media (saying) it’s not the Kerry done thing, and it’s not. And then like for me, for someone that plays on the line, to throw yourself like that . . . I am one of those people that always says since that there is no part in the GAA for it. Afterwards I remember, coming down on the train, my legs started cramping on the front and the back and it was like the Lord was saying what you’re after doing today you are going to get payback for that.
“It’s like a light-switch moment. Did I know what I was doing? Sure obviously you do. Like you throw yourself to the ground. I got a message from a very good friend of mine, he was being genuine, like (advising) me not to turn on my phone afterwards. The back is after being cut off you, he said. You know in your own mind what you’ve done. If you could turn back time.
“Pat O’Shea was trying to manage his team for a replay and jackass here is after causing controversy. And letting down I would say a dynasty of football, Kerry football. And even after losing the (2008) All-Ireland (final to Tyrone) I felt, well that’s payback for you now. I can remember marking Seán Cavanagh in the second half and he kicked three points. And it was like everything was payback. We’d lost the Sigerson that year with the guards.”
And being a Garda that time in Cork city he was always in the public eye. Easily identifiable when out socially. “People would come up and it would get heated. I remember getting a glass of water thrown in my face one night and being called a scumbag and what not over it. You see the seriousness of it then, it doesn’t go away.”
That was the first episode. Worse was to follow. After the All-Ireland final in 2008 O’Mahony was asked to provide a urine sample for drug testing. It later showed an excessive amount of Salbutamol and he was looking at the possibility of a lengthy ban. He had to go to a hearing in Croke Park to explain that the result was down to his inhaler and need to control his asthma, which he had been using since he was a child. He was cleared of any deliberate wrongdoing or attempt to enhance performance but the controversy raged for long enough to leave him sinking into a place crammed with negative feelings and emotions.
“It absolutely floored me. And I didn’t talk about it. It’s like zipping up the jacket, keeping it all in. And I found there was no way of explaining myself because people make their mind up anyway.”
Those feelings carried into 2009, and were simmering away under the surface, when Jack O’Connor returned to manage the county for a second term and dropped O’Mahony after the Munster final — the first time he lost his place. “I found myself getting into a rut where you were sitting at home, watching television, next thing you could be crying for no reason. I was finding myself saying, ‘Buck up now, don’t be soft. Cop yourself on’. For me that time, talking about mental health or going to get help, I would have seen as a weakness in myself more than anything. I would have felt that stigma.”
He began to socialise more frequently which provided no relief, it just deepened his despair. “I knew the socialising with the mindset that I had didn’t suit me. But it didn’t stop me. You surround yourself then with people that would probably be negative as well. That would feed into your thing of you should be playing there. You didn’t give a shit about life either. I just got caught up in that whole dark side of it. It was a weight on my shoulders.
“But it was weight I was willing to take because I felt I was bulletproof, I didn’t need help. I didn’t need anything. I was the person I was. You are soaking up this negativity. You are hurting all around you. You are pushing (people) away. Like I know myself, when this book is released, and people look back, people will say he was a difficult guy to deal with. Why didn’t he open up? That’s who I was.
“If I met you 13 years ago we wouldn’t be having this conversation. You’d go out to your car and say, Jesus he’s an odd character. But now those six weeks have opened me up. It doesn’t change you for life, I still make plenty of mistakes but I can sit down with you and have a conversation about where I’ve been and what I’ve learned.
“I am not an angel or I don’t have all the answers to everything. But all I know is where I’ve been, where I left myself go to. Like when you talk about rock bottom, everyone’s rock bottom is different. I found at that time at my rock bottom I had people who realised it and gave me the tools to say, look, gather your traps there, you’re going here, you need to see what we’re seeing.”
What did they see? In 2010, a fresh season, O’Mahony had a good National League until he was sent off in the sixth round against Tyrone. But appearances masked an ongoing turmoil inside. When he pulled out of the Kerry squad before a training trip to Portugal, the red flag was unmissable for his family. They prevailed upon him to seek help.
“That morning I went to Aiséirí my parents cried in the kitchen. It was tough to see. Like my dad I’d never seen cry. That was a tough morning, getting into that car and going on a journey that is unknown to you but at the same time you know yourself that you need help. A lot of people said, ‘Why didn’t you just go to a psychologist or whatever?’ That’s fine but you still have to go back to work the following morning and you still have to go back training.
“People talk about depression and stuff, having really bad days, and everyone has depression for a day or a week. Jesus Christ when I got into bed at night-time I’d still be looking up at the wall at four in the morning and you are saying, ‘Why is this happening?
“They (family) picked up a paper and read that their brother is after walking away from football. I think they knew at that stage I wasn’t enjoying life, along with work and everything that goes on with it. I’d go to a social event with my family and next thing they’d be looking at me in a corner saying nothing. And the more you drink the more the negative energy was coming out and next thing the crying and stuff like that. And they are looking and saying, ‘What is going on in this guy’s life?’ I think they were at a stage where they knew themselves, I wasn’t making contact with them.
“I am very grateful. Because would I have done something about it myself? Probably not. And I don’t know where I’d be today. Or if I’d be here today, put it that way.”
Heading to Cahir that day with his sister driving, he had two goals: “I needed to get guidance on where life was going and I just needed to step away from reality. Because reality for me at the time was nothing next to reality. It wasn’t life. I pushed people away. You hurt people. You are not open to people. You frustrate people because you are a closed book.
“Players will always say, ‘Who were you close to when you played football?’ You were close to people you were on the pitch with but for me coming off it I wouldn’t say I was close to anyone because I wouldn’t open up to them. It all comes back to myself. It’s not blaming other people.”
In Aiséirí he found the peace he needed to get a better understanding of himself and where his life had led him to. “You were letting go of everything that you believed had given you an identity,” he explains.
Over the six weeks his mind was allowed empty itself of much of its agitation and anxiety. “I saw it fairly quick, where I’d gone to. Like the smallest thing like putting your head on a pillow at ten o’clock at night and being able to go to sleep without having to think about something was probably one of the best things that I’ve experienced in my life.”
He is asked if he thinks this could have happened were he not a Kerry player. “I think it would. I think it’s the way I grew up. I was an introvert, everything was always kept in.”
He says he felt “broken” as he set off with his sister Nora at the wheel. “It was a tough journey for her, with me sitting in the passenger seat not knowing anything about where my life was going. It was like I was at a crossroads. I didn’t know what road I was going to take.
“I can remember walking in and just sitting down and they ask you what you’re feeling. When I came back out after and even now if you were going out for dinner it’s the enjoyment of it, and being able to sit down and have a conversation with people where, Jesus for me like (previously), you were nearly staring into a glass.
“Six weeks is a long time in your life where there is no contact with the outside world. You go in with that barrier. And they slowly bring it down. Then you start seeing light and you start seeing life. And you start seeing reasons why these things are happening, you get answers. You start opening up, you start addressing things. All of a sudden you are thinking, why was I worrying there for the last 15 years about what people thought of me? Or why was I letting that negativity into my mind.
“I had an awkward personality anyway. Like if you came up to me for a conversation and found I was mute it is very annoying because you’d say this guy should be a bit more open.
“And it wasn’t a case that I had airs and graces about me. I never had. Maybe that came across because I was so dark and into myself.
“And then when you are inside in Aiséirí you are talking, you are constantly talking. And what I found that time was that there was a barrier stripped down and I could be myself. I wasn’t going around thinking who is listening here now? It was irrelevant.
“For me now I am happy in my own skin, I don’t need to be at an event just for the sake it, to show a face. I can say I am not going to that event, it is not who I am.”
He hopes the book will give a more complete picture of who he is and be of some use to people who might be struggling like he was. “When you put on that (Kerry) jersey it’s like you’re putting on that cape, like a superhero. And you were like a wimp because the superhero is the guy who can be honest and can be open.”
After retirement from Kerry there was a part in Dancing with the Stars which might be seen, like the stage, as the shy person’s revenge. For good measure he went on and won it, saying that his wife needed to persuade him to enter in the first place. Now 42 he is still playing football with Rathmore in the intermediate championship and in exceptional physical condition. His work now sees him stationed at Tralee Garda Station and he has become involved in a strength and conditioning venture, AOM Fitness, with a business partner. In 2015, he got married and has two small girls. He has found a priceless inner peace with himself.
Having been through the mill, winning the 2014 All-Ireland had a special resonance. He dedicated it to his late father Thade who had been watching Michael Murphy inspire Donegal to win the All-Ireland two years earlier, shortly before he fell ill and died. It felt entirely right that O’Mahony would, even in his late autumn days, be the player to police Murphy when Kerry met Donegal in September, 2014.
“When we got to that final there wasn’t a man in the world that was going to stop me that day and I mean that in a sincere way. You talk about mindsets and sports psychology and stuff. Jesus, like, I hadn’t even drained myself. I had so much energy. Then I am in Croke Park for an All-Ireland final and the sun is shining, I am in the shape of my life, my mindset is fantastic. And I remember going up the Hogan Stand steps to lift that canister for the man above and so much he had given me in life, no different to my mom as well, and I won’t say the story played out, I just did my job. I knew what I had to do. It was no different to when I started out, when Jack (O’Connor) would always say, ‘O’Mahony, go out there and mark your man, if you’re not seen, he’s not seen, job done’.”
And that is why the picture of him looking skyward, cup aloft, is timeless and perfect. “I’d followed through on a promise I made to my dad for all he gave me in life but also due to that morning when there were tears in his eyes for the wrong reason, where he saw his son broken, and I am looking up now thinking there are tears in his eyes for the right reasons.”
‘Unbroken: A journey of adversity, mental strength and physical fitness’ (written with Michael Moynihan) is published by Hachette Ireland and available now. Aidan O’Mahony will be signing copies in Eason, Killarney on Saturday, October 23 at 11am and O’Mahony’s Tralee on Saturday, October 30 at 1.0