There’s a moment in Crossmaglen: Field of Dreams, last year’s terrific BBC documentary about GAA club Crossmaglen Rangers, that perhaps best encapsulates where, at that stage of his life, Armagh and Crossmaglen’s star forward Jamie Clarke stood in his relationship with Gaelic football, with the club that had nurtured his precocious talent, with the town that he felt he had to escape. And, perhaps, with himself.
He’s talking to John McEntee, the Crossmaglen joint manager, and informing him of his intention to leave the team behind at a crucial point in the season and head off travelling. In McEntee there is more than just a manager, however. There is an embodiment of the very essence of Crossmaglen as a club, their journey to greatness and their continued mission to remain at that point.
As a teenager McEntee was part of the side that won Crossmaglen’s first ever senior All-Ireland title in 1997 and two years later he kicked the winning point as captain at the same stage; he went on to claim three more club All-Ireland titles (and help Armagh lift Sam Maguire in 2002). In him there is the strength of Crossmaglen as a place; there is its pride, its unique language and history. If Clarke is part of a generation that is (largely) blissfully unaware of the true devastation and terror of the Troubles, McEntee and his contemporaries were, as Oisin McConville put it, “shit scared” growing up in the town. From this fear, their resilience and defiance grew.
So one should not underestimate the task it was for Clarke to step up to McEntee, to look him in the eye and tell him that, for now, there were more important things in his life than Crossmaglen and football. In telling McEntee this, Clarke would have been painfully aware of the importance these things hold for McEntee and the people of Crossmaglen. He would have been very conscious of how such a decision would look to people who had been through so much with and for the club — people for whom the club and the GAA was everything, life-affirming. For whom it was an escape during tough times.
Margaret McConville (mother of Oisin), who lost a son in the Troubles, said if she hadn’t the club “to look forward to” she would “have nothing to look forward to”, that she “mightn’t be here at all. Through bereavement and sad times, it got people out. It’s that important…life or death.” For Clarke’s team-mate Johnny Hanratty, playing for Crossmaglen “means everything…it’s more than just football”.
So Clarke walking away, even if temporarily, “took a lot of courage”, as he said himself on Alan O’Mara’s Real Talks podcast. As he steps away from McEntee in Field of Dreams, he looks slightly and briefly awkward, undoubtedly self-conscious with the camera’s presence.
Yet in that moment, Clarke epitomised something that all GAA players — club and county — can relate to, something any young person in Ireland can relate to: the struggle in one’s heart between the love of home and the desire to explore our varied, wonderful and ever-shrinking world.
And while Clarke said that losing “gets worse every time you get beat”, he also bemoaned “having to win all the time and wanting to just win for the sake of winning, so nobody else can win. It’s not about having fun and enjoying the game any more.” In expressing the conflict between his competitive adult self and the child still inside him that yearns simply to play, Clarke neatly encapsulated another issue faced by players across the country who perhaps shouldn’t be making time for hurling or Gaelic football but do, powered by their unquenchable love of the game.
Jamie Clarke left Ireland and Gaelic football behind in 2016 and nobody was sure if he would ever return. Yet he did, and in his example there are lessons for any aspiring or current hurler or footballer at club or county level. Yes, Clarke looks like he belongs more in the smoking area of the Workman’s Club in Dublin than on a GAA pitch in south Armagh. And yes, he speaks of Hemingway and Sartré and Godard and his love of Paris and coffee and fashion. In this open expression of his varied and wonderful interests, Clarke helps those in a similar position to him who are perhaps (as he told O’Mara) “holding back a bit from themselves because of that social status and because of who they’re expected to be”.
But in this, thankfully, Clarke — though he is perhaps a chief protagonist — is not alone. Players like Jackie Tyrrell and Kevin McManamon are just two other examples of players who have happily and openly indulged in interests outside GAA while achieving success at the highest level of their sports and it is safe to say that GAA players now, like most young people in Ireland, have a wider and more varied range of interests than their predecessors.
Where Clarke has set a healthy and still fairly novel example is in taking time out of playing the game at the highest level to see the world, to explore his interests and himself and hence to discover a new and seemingly happier perspective on the GAA and its meaning.
Jack McCaffrey did it the summer before last by missing Dublin’s championship campaign to volunteer in Africa when he was reigning Footballer of the Year, while Waterford hurler Tom Devine left behind his fine League form in early 2017 to go travelling in the USA this summer, missing Waterford’s run to the All-Ireland final. Former All Star hurler (and co-founder of SOAR) Tony Griffin missed a year with Clare to cycle across Canada in aid of cancer in 2007. Griffin returned to play with Clare for two seasons. McCaffrey returned and won another All-Ireland and, aged 23, has many more years in blue ahead of him. Devine will return to the Waterford panel for the 2018 season, life experiences gained and his hunger for hurling set to sustain him for a fine career with the Déise.
As for Clarke? When he informed John McEntee of his decision, perhaps fearing disapproval or disappointment, McEntee listened carefully, looking straight into Clarke’s eyes. Pausing, he quietly told Clarke: “Get whatever you need out of your system. We are here for you when you come home.” He patted Clarke on the back and walked off.
And just like McEntee said, they were there. Clarke returned to Armagh for the 2017 campaign, and played a style of football that christened him as the north’s version of Colm Cooper.
The thing is, it will always be there for you, the GAA. At home and all around the world. To be a comfort, a source of friendship and community, a place where lessons will be learned and experiences gained. So go and explore life, taste the freedom at your fingertips and, when the adventure and wildness in you has been satisfied, return to the GAA and experience a more familiar adventure. Just like Jamie Clarke.