- 29 Mar 05
Flying winger Denis Hickie is one of Ireland and Leinster's leading stars. But when he takes off his boots, it's music he turns to for inspiration – from Nick Drake, through Mark Lanegan and Hem to Athlete (but of course!). Interview by Steve Cummins. Photography by Cathal Dawson
Denis Hickie has a little black book. He carries it with him everywhere. It’ll be in his locker when he does some weight training later today. While travelling to Cardiff last week, it too will have travelled with him.
It’s a small book, similar in size to that of a referee’s. Hickie’s however, isn’t a place to note those who do him wrong. It is not the type that Jack Charlton used to carry. Benoit Baby’s head butting of Brian O’Driscoll will not see his name noted for retribution in the Irish winger’s book. No. Rather Hickie jots down the names: Brendan Benson, Feeder, Athlete, Interpol, and a host of others as well.
“I might go to see Hal on the 8th,” he says picking the diary up from the chair beside him. “Ah shit, we’ve an important game against Leicester that day. I’ll have to wait and see.”
This is Hickie’s gig diary. It’s been one of his most important possessions over the last number of weeks. For a serious rock fan, as Hickie is, immersed in the world of professional rugby, it's a kind of lifeline.
We’re sitting in the bar of Dublin’s luxurious City West Hotel, base camp for the Irish rugby team during the Six Nation’s Championship. Hickie is sick of the place. He’s been here on and off since mid-January. It’s St Patrick’s week when we meet – four days after Ireland's humiliation by France and three before the season's final bitter twist, losing to Wales in Cardiff.
Hickie has yet to achieve any 'silverware' with this Irish side, having missed last year's Triple Crown win through injury. At 29, time is no longer on his side.
He did well this year. Heroics against England and Italy cemented his reputation as one of our leading performers, and throughout the campaign he jostled with Brian O’Driscoll for the try-scoring record.
Yet despite his knack for grabbing the back page headlines, Hickie maintains a low public profile. Rugby has grown hugely in popularity,and O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and Gordon D’Arcy have become celebrities. Hickie steers clear of such attention and that suits him just fine. He's an interesting, intelligent character whose main passion in life is music.
It's what takes up the hours in between training and playing. He is a huge fan. Alternative singer-songwriters and indie rock form the basis of his CD collection.
“Unfortunately a lot of the people I seem to like are dead now,” he says. “I’m a huge Elliott Smith fan and I really love Nick Drake’s stuff. Obviously, though, I won’t be seeing them in concert anytime soon.” There’s an enthusiasm in his voice as he speaks. He loves talking about music. Amongst his team mates, he's the one who has always played DJ, picking the music for the team bus.
Niall Breslin, a former team mate of Hickie’s with Leinster, and now a full-time musician with Irish hopefuls The Blizzards, remembers Hickie being in charge of the gym stereo. “No one dared touch it,” laughs Breslin, “that was Hickie’s baby. Fair play to him, though, he always had decent stuff on.”
That said, Nick Drake is not someone whose music would send the adrenaline pumping before a big game.
“For that I’d listen to the rockier stuff,” says Hickie. “Stuff like The White Stripes. These days I’ve also been playing a lot of Mark Lanegan. I went out the other week and bought all his solo stuff as opposed to The Mark Lanegan Band stuff. He's fantastic. I love that Bubblegum album. I went to see him a while back and he blew me away."
As Hickie’s black book suggests, he goes to a lot of gigs.
"It's a great way to switch off," he says. "Even when you're in camp, out here in City West, you have evenings off, so you can go into a town and catch a gig."
In the week after the England game he caught Doves at the Olympia – "They were OK," he comments – and Hem at The Sugar Club.
“Hem were amazing. Really good. Perfect venue for them as well. Their new album is ok but I really love Rabbit Songs. That album got me in a big way.”
He goes to a variety of gigs, constantly searching out new bands.
“I live quite close to town, so I’ll usually wander into Whelan’s or somewhere and see what’s on,” he says. “Some of the lads would join me as well. Shane Horgan would go to a lot of gigs. Shane’s a huge Libertines fan. Anything you want to know about Pete Doherty, Shane’s your man. Brian would also come the odd time and Malcolm O’Kelly would have a similar sort of taste to me.”
Denis has been spotted at the odd Frames gig.
"Yeah, well, I do like The Frames but I'm not their biggest fan. They're a great live act. You know, I'm the type that doesn't necessarily have to be a fan of a band to go and see 'em live. I go to a lot of gigs where I've never heard a band before. I like to discover new music."
It'd be hard to imagine Willie John McBride taking to Glen Hansard.
"(Laughs) Well, I don't know! Anytime I've seen The Frames they've been great. Glen Hansard has great charisma. His showmanship can sweep you away. So you never know!"
What's his poison on a night out?
"Guinness, I'm afraid! I also have a thing for dark rum. I went to Cuba on holidays last year and I'd never really drunk any spirits before, so I sort of got into dark, Havana rum. If they have that in the bar, I'll usually sample it, as they say."
Hickie’s career path was doubtless influenced by his background. Both his father and his uncle represented Ireland at senior level. It's a different sport nowadays, however. For a start, the switch to professionalism has seen it become more of a job.
“The older players from the '70s and '80s might say it’s not the same game, but that’s the thing – it isn’t! In the past, the lads had their jobs and used the games as a bit of a social outlet. Afterwards everyone got smashed. They met up once a week or whatever and socialised. Now the team spends so much time together that everyone tends to do their own thing socially.
"Sure, we’d have the odd night out, but it’s like any other job. You see enough of your work mates, so you tend to socialise with your other friends. The ethos of the game has changed in that respect. I think it’s a cleaner game too because of the speed it’s now played at. It’s still a tough game. I think the hits are harder and the level of contact is more intense.”
The increasing emphasis on the physical side of the game has made an impact even at schools level. Hickie went to St Mary’s College, Rathmines during an era when the use of muscle building supplements, such as Creatine, was creeping into the set up.
“Creatine wasn’t there when I played,” counters Hickie. “Though professionally, yeah, I’ve been in that era. That whole thing though was almost funny. Everyone was writing letters into newspapers about it, and there was uproar. I mean it’s just a supplement and a schoolboy won’t derive any benefit from supplements because you’re not training at the same level. You only have a chance of benefiting from something if you’re training intensively, at a professional level, every single day.
"It was wrong for it to be used in schools because it was of no benefit to anyone. I think it was a bit of a placebo, give a small bit to a school boy before he goes out and he thinks he’s superman.”
The use of supplements though is indicative of the huge emphasis on competition and success at school level. It’s served to increase the pressure on youngsters and to heighten the rivalry amongst competing schools. Too often this spilled out in to the night clubs and bars of South Dublin. There are those who believe that this was a key factor in the tragic events that led to the death of Brian Murphy.
“It’s terrible to say, but fights at nightclubs amongst schoolboy rugby teams, and schoolboys in general, aren’t anything new,” says Hickie. “It’s terrible that it’s taken something like the Annabel’s tragedy to highlight that. I think a lot of the guys in schools looked hard at themselves when that happened. I remember going to nightclubs in my day and there seemed to be a lot of schools into fighting.
"Really, though, it’s not for me to comment on the Annabel’s night, as opposed to any other. Look, a guy was killed. It’s an absolutely terrible thing to happen. Even to say things got out of hand is too light a way to put it. It was a cowardly thing to happen. It was tragic for that family and to be honest I don’t really know enough about it. Beyond that, it’s not my place to comment.”
Aside from music, Hickie has been passing his hotel hours reading The Roaring Nineties by Joseph Stiglitz.
“I can barely say I’m reading it,” he admits. “I’ve been reading it for three months. It’s a decent book though. It’s largely about the corporate corruption of the '90s. A lot of it is about the Bush administration and the scandals like Enron and all that stuff.”
He describes Bush as “an idiot, to put it mildly”. He is only marginally less critical of the Irish position on the war in Iraq.
“Look at the landings in Shannon,” he says. “I mean neutrality is a nonsense. That whole thing is a farce. This country is bit of a nation of fakes. We’re anti-Bush but we still have all the trappings of the US. Everyone keeps their head down and shouts anti-Bush rhetoric from a far. This country criticises Bush yet we still have the troops landing. How can we say we’re anti-Bush?” With the Shannon thing, we should go one way or another. We're not neutral at the moment. We have a good knack of being on the winning team (laughs)."
Describing himself as “the most a-political person you’ll ever meet” it’s unlikely we’ll find Hickie canvassing around South Dublin when he hangs his boots up. Nor will we find him going down the corporate route.
"Not at all," he says. "My commerce degree in UCD served to outline a list of jobs I don't want to do. I don't have an interest in anything I studied in college. I was no good at it either, to be honest. I did it because it was handy to do, and it was only three years. I didn't know what I wanted to do, and it seemed a safe choice."
He still doesn't.
"Ah the old six million dollar question for all professional rugby players!" he laughs. "I don't really know what I'll do to be honest. As I said, I've a list the length of your arm of what I don't want to do. I've another three years or so before I have to think about that. I won't be going down the corporate, shaking hands side. It doesn't interest me to talk to people I don't know, about things I don't know or have no interest in. I think I would struggle sitting behind in the office after the life I've had. I don't think I'd be able for it. I'd be no good to anyone."
With another disappointing Six Nations to show for all the effort, does he ever feel bitter about any aspect of his career? The two years when he was dropped, for example?
"Bitter? No not at all," he says. "I suppose when I first started it all came easy, and quickly. I maybe took it for granted. I was set up for a fall and I fell. There's no harm in that. It's something you learn from. Everyone's career has ups and downs. The high wouldn't be as high if the lows weren't as low.