- Lifestyle & Sports
- 19 Dec 18
Having lost his mother to suicide, All-Ireland winner SEAMUS HENNESSY has devoted himself to mental health advocacy, and hopes to raise €200,000 for charity by running the Antarctic Ice Marathon.
I think we can safely say that Seamus Hennessy is a glutton for punishment. Not only is the All-Ireland winning Tipperary hurler about to run his first marathon, but he’s also doing it at 80 Degrees South, just a few hundred miles from the South Pole where it’s even colder at this time of the year than it is in his native Cloughjordan.
“I’m told it could go down to as low as minus-25,” shivers Seamus who will arrive in Puenta Arenas in Chile on December 10 and then fly down to Union Glacier in Antarctica to compete with 53 other masochis…, er, runners from six continents in the thirteenth Ice Marathon.
“If I’m going to fundraise and take money off people – we’re currently at around the €150,000 mark – I need to suffer!” he laughs. “Top level county players run 12-13kms in a game, but I’m not top level and would cover only a fraction of that. We’d do team drills and gym work, but very little endurance running so this is all completely new to me. One of the unique challenges running at that level of cold is making sure that sweat can escape – if it freezes on your skin you’re in bother – whilst protecting yourself from frostbite. I’d love to do it within five hours, but the big thing is just making the finish line.”
Seamus’ participation in the Ice Marathon is in honour of his mum Josie – “A very kind, very glamorous woman, a great mother,” he says – who died by suicide when he was only eleven. While Seamus and his family have decided to keep the whys and wherefores private, he feels “duty-bound” to discuss what happened after in order to help people who find themselves in the same position.
“I’m an only child, so I lost that female family influence for the rest of my life,” he reflects. “Lots of lads give out about their older sisters, but I’d love to have had one. I went back to school the day after mum’s funeral and tried to reintroduce myself to the stuff that was normal – but it wasn’t normal. I don’t remember a whole pile of that spring and summer. But then, in September of that year, my dad started me off on a twelve-week counseling programme facilitated by Rainbows Ireland and delivered by a wonderful woman called Sister Nora. We did arts and crafts and played sports, and then she’d gracefully draw conversation out of us. Things like, ‘If you were teased in school today, who would you talk to now that your mum’s not around?’ Coming up with an answer – ‘I’d tell my teacher’ – and discussing it was hugely beneficial.
“Sport was a major help too,” Seamus continues. “The main sport in Cloughjordan is hurling and my dad played for the local club, Kilruane MacDonagh’s, for years and years and represented Tipperary for a while, so it was only natural that I gravitated towards it too.”
When did Seamus realise he was a bit decent? “There’s some days you wouldn’t think that at all,” he laughs again. “I was quite young playing with our adult club side, and then made it onto the Tipperary minors. I was bumping from team to team and having a fair degree of success. I joined the Tipperary senior squad in 2009. I was brought in with five or six other fellas who were also aged 19 or 20, and that first year, certainly, was the one who progressed the least. A couple of them went straight into the team and became All Stars, but I was treading water to stay in the squad.”
Never one to throw the towel in, Seamus stuck to the task and in September 2010 picked up an All-Ireland medal as Tipp stopped Kilkenny’s drive for five with a 4-17 to 1-18 victory at Croker.
“We went into that match thinking we were going to win it,” he recalls. “There was no doubt about that in our minds. I was a sub, so I just really wanted to get on and play, which I did for a few minutes. The management team at the time drove the idea that if you’re brought on at whatever stage of the game, you contribute and make things better. Seamus Callinan came on that day and got two points, Benny Dunne came on and scored a point and I also came on and scored a point in the 73rd minute, so that was four points from off the bench. It was only a handful of minutes, but I felt like I did my bit.”
Were there sports psychologists available to him when he was playing at senior level for Tipperary?
“Yes, we had a full-time sports psychologist, Caroline Currid, working with us both individually and collectively, which was important because you’re very aware that the whole county is pinning its hopes on you,” Seamus reflects. “I wasn’t privy to the conversations the other lads were having with Caroline, but a few of them went to see her after we took a pasting from Cork in the first round of the Munster Championship. As proud as people are of the team, they were disappointed with that performance – but no more than we were disappointed with ourselves. When you’re putting that level of commitment into an amateur sport, you never just go through the motions.
“As with rugby and soccer, there’s a very strong masculine culture to the men’s game. I’ve rarely been in dressing rooms over the years where you’d get open emotions from players about themselves personally. It’s important from a wellness point of view that they don’t bottle that sort of stuff up.”
Helping to get word of his Antarctic Ice Marathon out has been Gaelic Voices For Change, a group of past and present inter-county players, 400 of whom will be sleeping rough around the country in December in solidarity with Ireland’s homeless. There are also links to interviews like the ‘Silence Is Not The Answer’ one with Nicole Owens, the Dublin footballer, in which she discusses her sexuality.
“That was a very brave, honest piece with Nicole,” Seamus enthuses. “Gaelic Voices For Change was founded in September 2017 to host the first solidarity sleep-out, and has subsequently taken on other social issues such as mental health. We want to make the GAA as inclusive and supportive of the communities we’re rooted in as possible.”