All Paddy McConigley can recall was the pain. Searing. Raging. Blinding? Yes, sadly. The most excruciating experience he has ever endured.
So bad was it, he vomited a few times afterwards. But worse was to come. A blood clot formed in his right retina, one that has never disintegrated.
It’s almost six years since that ill-fated Donegal team bonding trip to a paintball centre in Milford. Brian McIver had taken the panel out for the day as they prepared for their third round qualifier against Monaghan.
McConigley was protecting his team’s hut along with fellow panel members Conall Dunne and Michael Maguire. His goggles steamed up. He knew taking them off was a risk but he was a sitting duck for the other team otherwise. As he quickly wiped away the condensation, the thud of a shot rang out and he crumpled to the ground in agony as his cries echoed around the forest.
McConigley, now 32, continues to play for his club Fanad Gaels but life has changed irrevocably. He reckons he has just 5% sight in his right eye.
Construction work has long since dried up but his injury meant he had to get out of that game completely because of the danger it presented. Wednesday found him sitting his latest exam in intellectual disabilities and general psychiatric nursing.
“When I was looking to get out of the construction trade I was actually going to do care work but my sister-in-law said I should try and do nursing.
“I said I’d give it a go and if I liked it I’d stick at it and I’ve enjoyed it, to be honest. It’s tough enough going because I’ve a young family now and it’s not easy but there’s great reward in helping people who are more disadvantaged than yourself.”
McConigley has his two-year-old son Odhra to think about now but he has never allowed himself to wallow in self-pity after his inter-county career and life as he knew it being was brought to an abrupt end.
There was no anger.
“Just one of them things,” he shrugs. “Part of life. There are a lot more people worse off so there’s no point in me getting worked up by something like that.”
But under McIver that year McConigley had made the right-half back spot his own, having lined out with London the year previous and won three consecutive player of the season awards in the English capital.
Being in Croke Park to watch the Donegal players celebrate with manager Jim McGuinness in Croke Park, there was a large part of him that thought what might have been. He’d have company in that sentiment, he philosophises.
“I’m sure there are about 20 other players who are thinking the same, lads who weren’t part of the squad and would love to have been part of it.
“It’s great for the fellas who were there, it was their time and they were lucky to have worked under Jim. They had somebody to drive the ambition they had. He could see there was something that could be done with that group of players. You’d love to have been part of it but they did all the work and earned it.”
McConigley had great support from his Donegal players in the aftermath of the accident, the six days in Sligo General Hospital as he came to terms with the possibility of being blind in one eye.
Doctors said they wanted to wait two months for the clot to dissipate but McIver put him in touch with an eye specialist, Dr JA Sharkey, who worked with Brian McGuigan after his terrible eye injury that same year.
Sharkey operated in October of that year but it wasn’t a success. So McConigley had to compensate and learn to live with it. Watching TV and reading a book were chores but he eventually got by.
If he looked at something for too long his eye would swell up with water and he’d get a pain in his head. But he’s managed even if his county team-mates have moved on. McConigley couldn’t blame them.
“You know the way life goes anyway, everyone goes their own way. But I’m still in touch with some of the boys.”
He might have so dearly wished to have togged out with them last year but seeing his old team-mates such as Paul Durcan, Karl Lacey, Rory Kavanagh and Neil Gallagher attain Gaelic football’s ultimate goal was a marvellous consolation.
“A surreal day,” he recalls. “But even the quarter-final and semi-final playing Kerry and Cork, going up, watching them and confident you could beat them from the way we were playing.
“The boys were stepping up and showing what they were capable of and giving themselves every chance. I enjoyed the quarter-final and semi-final especially because you felt even with Donegal going so well with the tradition of Kerry and Cork brought that might just make them naturally stronger.”
Tomorrow’s opener in the defence of their Ulster and All-Ireland titles brings to mind McConigley’s own experience against Tyrone — an 11-point hammering in the 2007 Ulster semi-final. They were the bad old days for Donegal as much as they had surprised Armagh in the previous round.
“We had a great league run and won it, there was the controversial goal against Armagh in the first game in Ulster and we had prepared well under Brian McIver.
“We thought we saw everything covered but Tyrone just blew us away in the second half. It was hard to put our finger on exactly what went wrong.”
He doesn’t forecast a repeat of that occurrence in Ballybofey. “I can’t see Donegal getting beat but I can see a massive, massive improvement in Tyrone.”
He counts himself among the lucky ones to have a ticket for MacCumhaill Park but he feels just as fortunate to be still kicking ball for Fanad.
He was never going to let his injury stop him and his spatial awareness is more acute than most would expect. “You always are aware but it would never affect me, I just get on with what I have.
“By losing sight in one your peripheral vision in the other eye is increased. You’re losing a bit but you’re not losing too much. It hasn’t stopped me, I’m still able to do the things I’ve done and I’m still playing football.”
Next month, he will travel with Fanad to An Rinn in Waterford to take part in Comórtas Peile Na Gaeltachta.
“I’m actually joint-manager this year with Kevin Gallagher and I’m still playing centre-back. We dropped down from senior to intermediate this year and we’re unbeaten so far in the league and won our first championship game so everything is going well so far.
“Going back to play for the club and giving something back to me is what it’s all about, playing with boys you grew up with.”
It’s the simple pleasures that provided McConigley with solace and sustain him now.
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