'Some of my best friends back then are now in prison' - How growing up in Moyross made Keith Earls
Ireland international opens up on his upbringing and how rugby sent him down the right road
Keith Earls puffs out his cheeks and smiles. "Being from Limerick means everything to me."
He doesn't need time to think about the question because his sense of identity is so firmly etched from his humble beginnings that his response rolls off the tongue.
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Earls has never forgotten where he comes from and having recently turned 32, he has had time to sit back and reflect on his journey that could so easily have led him down a much darker path.
Growing up in Moyross, a tough neighbourhood on the north side of the city, had its fair share of ups and downs, yet such was the role it played in making him the man he is today, Earls wouldn't swap his upbringing for anyone else's.
To understand why he is, and has always been, so proud of his roots, it is important to provide some context to what his early life in Moyross was like.
The gangland feud in Limerick was rife and all around him Earls was witnessing the devastating effects of the violence.
Such was the frequency that Limerick and Moyross in particular hit the headlines, turning a blind eye to it was difficult, but everyone in Limerick knew that those horror stories didn't paint a true reflection of their city.
To this day, Earls counts himself lucky that his parents Sandra and Ger, a respected former rugby player, kept him out of harm's way.
Then there was rugby - an outlet which provided him with a chance to escape the madness that was often going on. It was for that reason Earls had 'Moyross' stitched into his boots when he first broke onto the international stage.
"Moyross was constantly in the papers for bad stuff - it was to remember where I come from and the people who helped me or the stories I have from Moyross, it relaxed me a small bit," Earls recalls.
"I had a normal upbringing like any other young lad in Limerick. There were a small group of people who did what they did.
"I have seen a lot of crazy things, but I'll probably keep it for a book or maybe I'll never put it out there.
"I hung around with some fellas who were my best friends, who are now in prison. I had a lot of friends who came to that fork in their life and they were either going to go one way or the other.
"I suppose I was mature when I was 12. I knew what was right and what was wrong and what I didn't want to bring to my parents' front door and what I didn't want to bring on myself.
"I had that respect from my buddies even when I was 13 or 14.
"Some of my friends, if they were up to something, they would say ,'You go away now because we don't want you to get in trouble. We know you have rugby and we know your father.'
"I would be with the lads, sitting around and I could be drinking a bottle of water and they could be smoking a bit of whatever they were smoking.
"I was around it, but they never forced it on me. I think that was the same anywhere in Moyross. Fellas were up to stuff, but it was never forced on me."
That fork in the road came earlier in Earls' life than most as he watched some of those closest to him veer out of control. Even now, he shudders at the thought of what might have been.
Becoming that mature at such a young age is largely down to his father, who knew the kind of temptations that were lurking on every street corner.
Ger, an outstanding flanker in his day, would often remind his son about the important things in life, which blossomed a special relationship between the pair.
"Obviously my old man was well respected around the city through rugby," Keith says. "He reared me with good morals. I have a lot to thank him for.
"He was only just 20 when he had me, so as I got older we were kind of like friends or like brothers.
"He just told me to look after what's between your four walls at home. I remember him beating into me 'please' and 'thank you' - when to say it and when not to say it and just to be respectful of other people. You don't know their story, just like they don't know my story.
"He made a lot of sacrifices for me. He would often slag me about him having to suck his thumb on a Saturday night while the lads were out having a few pints because I wanted a PlayStation.
"He always put me first and I suppose it's the same now with my little sister (Jenny). She's only 12, so there's a big gap between us. There is only two of us. She's like a sister to my daughters now.
"We both basically grew up as two only kids. I moved out when I was 21 and she came along when I was nearly 20.
"I remember having her at the end of my bed when she was just born because we only had a two-bed in Moyross at the time.
"I got stuck into fatherhood from quite a young age, having her at the end of my bed. I was giving my parents a break because my father was a taxi driver as well, working crazy hours."
Earls and his wife Edel have three daughters Ella-Maye (seven), Laurie (four) and Emie (one). He likes to think that his parents' approach has rubbed off on him because just as Ger and Sandra did when Keith was growing up, everything he does is for his family.
Life wasn't always as simple, however, as Earls often became so absorbed in rugby during his younger days, he couldn't see anything else outside of it.
"I met my wife when I was 12 years of age - she's from Woodview, just over at the other side of Thomond," he explains.
"I knew nothing outside of Moyross. She was the first girl I ever met from outside Moyross and now I am married to her. You're thinking back, 12 years of age and 20 years later we're here with three kids. She kept me on the straight and narrow.
"Rugby isn't that important. If I am going home kicking up a fuss about it and putting my family through things, I would prefer to give it up.
"Health is everything to me. Health with my girls, my wife, my parents, my sister. Health in myself. Without that, you don't have anything else.
"I will do as much as I can to win a game and I know there are good and bad days, but the way some people carry on, the keyboard warriors, I don't think they know the effect it is having on the younger lads who are constantly on it.
"And then I see the abuse Axel (Anthony Foley) got before he died, then he died and then it didn't really matter any more."
Foley's untimely passing had a profound effect on Earls as it changed his outlook on life. The pair were close and after all, before Earls was blazing a trail in St Munchin's College, Foley had been the poster boy for the Corbally school.
Although he only lasted a few months of first year in Munchin's, Earls returned for fifth and sixth year after briefly moving to St Nessan's, closer to home.
"I started acting the maggot and Munchin's told me to find another school, that I wasn't coming back here," he laughs.
"I went to Nessan's for two-and-a-half years and had the time of my life. It was good, I had woodwork and metalwork in school, that was something I enjoyed. Then I had to go back out to Munchin's in fifth and sixth year and take up biology and business!"
Ger, Sandra and Jenny have since left Moyross and moved to Meelick, a nearby village just over the Clare border, while Earls lives at the other side of the city with Edel and their three children.
Earls still has family in Moyross, and when he visits, he admits that it is unrecognisable from his 21 years spent living there.
"I have an aunt still in Moyross and a lot of friends. It's not the same place I grew up in. With the regeneration, there is loads of houses gone. The house I grew up in is still there. Thankfully, all the trouble seems to be gone out of there.
"We're like a close family in Limerick. Everyone knows everyone. You know yourself, you can't walk down the street without seeing someone you're related to.
"It had its fair share of bad stuff in the early noughties with the feud. It was always seen as a bad place but that was only a handful of people. I think that's what makes Limerick, the people."
Three years ago, Earls very nearly gave it all up when he came "quite close" to joining Saracens as he thought the move would benefit his family. Looking back on his decision to stay in Limerick, he is in no doubt that it was the right one.
Nowadays, the 82-times-capped winger is conscious of giving as much as possible back to the Moyross community.
With three young children, it's not always easy, but Earls understands the importance of making time for those less fortunate.
"I just got a text there this morning from the principal in Corpus Christi (primary school), Tiernan (Martin O Neill).
"There is still some unbelievable sporting talents out in Corpus Christi and Thomond College. It's just giving them the same chance as I had.
"I want to show the kids that I grew up in this environment as well and if you have your head screwed on and you want to achieve things in life, and I know it's cheesy, but you can if you put your mind to it."
Suddenly, it becomes clearer why being from Limerick means so much to one of the Treaty City's proudest sons.
Without ever setting out to do so, Keith Earls has become a beacon of hope for the people of Moyross, and for that, he will forever be respected in the place he still calls home.
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