For all Mickey Heeney has achieved, for the people he has touched through devout kindness, the joy he’s brought via the medium of sport, his life has been tangled in complexity.
For all Mickey Heeney has achieved, for the people he has touched through devout kindness, the joy he’s brought via the medium of sport, his life has been tangled in complexity and not always the happiest.
Really, the past two editions, in which the legendary GAA coach laid bare his decades of involvement both inside and out of Louth, has skirted around the core issues that make up a quite extraordinary individual and a truly unique character.
The reaction, mostly positive, was unexpected. Your writer’s description of Heeney as ‘Louth’s discarded genius’ has resonated with people, some only now coming around to the realisation that this county has stood stagnant for the best part of 50 years.
Maybe it was the return to relativity that this platform afforded him that sparked the offer, or the time could just have been right. Agreed as a two-part series, the original conversation stirred Heeney’s mind.
A few days of reflection later and he was now prepared to talk about the most intimately personal matter of his existence, disclose how, for much of his life, a childhood trauma has lurked like a demon in the background, resulting in a prolonged battle with depression and three veers towards ending it all.
“I’ve never spoken about it before,” Heeney says, leaning on his right elbow for support, wincing.
“I was diagnosed with depression over 40 years ago. I’ve been on medication every day of my life since and I predicate everything I’ve done in football and in my life based on the fact that people aren’t always well.
“I was told depression was a stigma 30 years ago, but I would not like people to suffer the way I have suffered.
“In 1965, I had a young brother who was taken from his home and murdered at six years of age. It was horrific. I saw the devastation that caused. We had a big family and people deal with things in different ways. I, personally, am a pioneer, never smoked or drank, so I found an escape route through sport, through occupying my mind.
“It was my defence mechanism, to absorb myself totally in distractions. In my lifetime, I would have given everything to football and administration, and in the winter-time, I immediately moved over to the dogs and coursing.
“But, in the early 90s, when I was heavily involved in managing and chairing the Clans, I wasn’t feeling particularly well and hadn’t been feeling well for a while. My doctor encouraged me, with a stick, to go and see Professor Anthony Clare, who was a top psychiatrist at the time in St. Patrick’s hospital.”
Niall O’Donnell snr, a trusted family friend, drove him to and from the Dublin outlet, twice on the one day, in fact. Heeney having insisted that he must return to Dundalk on the Sunday afternoon for Clans’ championship match with St. Patrick’s; the consultant arguing otherwise, before a compromise was reached.
He was back in St. Patrick’s that night and didn’t leave for eight weeks, in which time, he claims, he met several high-profile people suffering similarly, only worse. Determined not to return, Heeney used this as the basis upon which he developed a more positive outlook, but depression is acute.
“If you can imagine yourself being in a very, very dark room - and there’s no light,” he explains. “You’re fully aware of the darkness and there’s no chink of light anywhere. How do you escape from that darkness? When that negative thought hits you, the darkness, if possible, gets deeper and denser and you’re completely lost within that space.
“I understand very well if people can’t escape. There may well be people outside who are very willing to help you, but you’re in such a dark space you can’t see that. You can’t escape. The end? I was on the brink three times.
“Several times I was hospitalised after that. Depression is a very, very lonely place and for people who don’t understand it, you’re in the darkest of dark places; you’re surrounded by people, but there’s nobody there.
“If you’ve a broken leg, you go around with a crutch; if you break your arm, you put it in a sling; if you have stitches in your face, you’ll have a cut. People immediately respond to that, but for something like depression, there’s no crutch, and because there was a stigma attached to it, people didn’t recognise or accept it.
“I went totally into activity to keep myself alive. But the biggest thing I found was that some people knew you weren’t well, but there was no vehicle to escape and within the GAA especially, because we’re a big, macho organisation, there was nobody or nothing there that you could turn to to alleviate the pain and suffering.
“If you can imagine yourself hanging over a cliff and the abyss is beneath. You’re hanging by your fingertips, but you need some help - and there are people there who see you, but refuse to put the helping hand out to lift you up. That’s how I consider what the GAA was - and probably still is. Outside the high-profile people we hear talking about drug, alcohol and gambling additions, how many at the under level are suffering and there’s nothing within the GAA to help them?
“If you were living in a dark space for a long time, and you’re used to this dark space, if somebody opens the door, that flash of light which comes in, some people get it very hard immediately to go towards that light, because they’re blinded. They’re so used to the isolation, to dealing with it themselves, they’re reluctant to go towards the light.
“We need to be opening the doors for people to see there is help available.”
POSITION OF TRUST
Heeney, while declaring his non-intention to paint himself as a type of samaritan, is mindful of his days spent managing teams where players came to him with severe issues. Likewise in his career at DkIT. He was a pillar of strength to so many, but the jug can only take so much water prior to its overflow. There was, it seems, nowhere for him to offload, especially when conflict resulted in one-way backlash. His late wife, Breege, struggled long-term with heart trouble, too.
“When things went pearshaped for me in football, in 1992, when I was physically assaulted, and subsequently in DkIT, and there was no support, I blanked again. But I hid it all.
“One day I left the house and drove to Dublin Airport, got on the first plane out of town and it just saved my life. It brought me to Prague. I woke up the next morning and the only place I knew to go to was The Child of Prague. I met a very special man, Fr Victor, who helped me enormously through that particular scenario - because I’d no return flight booked.
“When the rug was pulled under me, through Leinster Council - Louth County Board had already cut all funding, I was left with no money, no income, there was no pension, I’d a very sick family and I was left high and dry. Under any circumstances, no matter how strong you are, given the sensitivity of your own mental health, that’s a serious case.
“Was there help forthcoming? No. People scorn and look down their nose at you. People will find it easy to blame you for things they were doing wrong. I think that’s a terrible place to be in. I wouldn’t have survived without the help of my daughter, Eimear, and some very good friends I had around me.
“I was youth officer, U21 manager, minor manager, over the Summer Camps for umpteen years in Louth. Both my parents died within two years of each other, my brother died last year, my sister died two years ago, my wife died three years ago. Not one mass card did I get, or any message of sympathy after any of those deaths, from this community, from Louth (GAA).
“The day my father died, Kilcoo were playing Clonduff in Hilltown. I got a phone call when the game was nearly over to say that my father was on his last legs. I left the game and he died that night. The next day, and it’s a comparison between how communities operate, at the wake in my house on the Castletown Road, every single member of Kilcoo football team and the parish were queued up from our house to the bridge to offer their condolences.
“Just look at the contrast. That team have recently been in an All-Ireland final, so there is something there. In this community, where I was a serving officer, nothing. How can anybody tell me that this is a good situation?
“That day with Kilcoo was a brilliant lift to all my family, because there was a community gathering around. When you don’t have that, it’s a very lonely place.”
He adds: “I’m not proud of my past, I’m not. I’m angry that I let people down. You can’t change the past, but I will say this, about life and this organisation we’re in, I found that there was plenty of hills put in my way. I got over them all. Then, when they saw you successfully negotiating it, they put a mountain in front of you. I believe I climbed that mountain, but when I got to the top they pulled the plug. Again, you were left isolated, and that shouldn’t happen.”
“What’s experience? The definition of experience is the mistakes you make. We make mistakes and I’d be the first to admit I’ve made lots of them. You learn from your mistakes, that’s a simple philosophy.
“Shouting at players and officials is a negative reaction that isn’t going to help your players. You develop that manner of dealing with these things over the years. My life experience added to that means you’re able to control your emotions because you’ve kept them to yourself - you can look at things in a very detached way.
“If you come into my dressing room - and I’ve learned these lessons over my life - you’re dealing with a complex group of people, maybe all with the same aim, but not all with the same pathway to where we are, particularly in relation to children.
“You don’t know if a child, or an adult for that matter, is leaving a difficult circumstance in their own life, maybe things aren’t great at home. They’re going to you as their coach or manager maybe to escape and if we don’t observe the protocol, they won’t stay - and that’s their escape. The last thing they want is more hassle, anger and angst.
“There are large portions of my life that are still dark and blocks of time that I can’t actually remember specifics. I’m quite sure that in those times there are people that saw things in me that I didn’t realise myself.
“If I offended people, which I’m sure I must have, or upset people and done things that are out of the ordinary, I’ve no recollection. If I offended anyone, in any way, I offer my deepest apology.
“If I ever made a child cry, it would be one of the biggest regrets in my life. I simply couldn’t tolerate it if I deliberately made a child cry. Unfortunately, I’ve seen when that was not the case for other people - and that hurts.
“The Democrat story has got a tremendous reaction from people way outside of us, here, because we (Heeneys) would be well enough known around the country. It got great reaction, but locally I’ve met more people who said it’s time somebody said something.
“What is the point in continuing on in the same basis year-in, year-out? And that was my point on the amalgamated teams in Dundalk. Why are we complaining about it when it’s obvious there is something wrong with it? Nobody wants to fix the problem. They want to be at the top-table, but they don’t want to go down and sort it out.
“And, if you’re passionate about what you do, that’s a painful thing.”
PLEASE, LISTEN, I KNOW
Heeney is soon to move to Waterford, where his daughter lives, spelling the end of a long term of life in Dundalk. Not that that is altogether a bad thing, in his mind.
“One of the reasons I’m not sad leaving Dundalk is that I don’t have to face any more shite. I don’t want to see it any more. What’s happening? Where’s the outlet?
“I believe that because I never drank, smoked or took drugs, if in any way you’re affected or in that space, I wouldn’t have survived taking those because with that false courage you’d have taken the ultimate step and it would ultimately have been disaster for the communities we live in.
“There’s so many young people dying by suicide and always the answer is, ‘nobody knew why’, ‘we all thought everything was ok’. There has to be a vehicle and an urgency within our association to make it easy for somebody to cross that.
“The person hanging over the cliff, the people are there and they see, but they won’t put out their hand and help you up. It’s my experience, some of them walk away. All I want to say is ‘take my hand. I may not get you up, but I won’t let you fall’.
“For young people especially, drugs or drink isn’t going to bring you out of the darkness. It’s going to make it worse. Ask for help, please.
“And if we purport to represent young people in this great organisation, the GAA, how is it that we can’t help these people? Why is it that we can’t get down there? And don’t give me lip-service about the top people canvassing about having this programme and that programme. It’s not reaching down.”
They say your childhood days are the greatest. I, your writer, can safely say many of mine were enjoyed in the company of Mickey, his array of hats and lethal wit. An enigma, he truly is Louth’s discarded genius.