Mayo’s other Big Mac

A rueful smile, but no regrets. A trial for an U14 Mayo academy team in Crossmolina. He wasn’t picked. Not even considered. Character maker, character shaper?

Mayo’s other Big Mac

He acknowledges he shouldn’t have taken it personally. But it undoubtedly fuelled a personality trait that drove him to leave his family for American college basketball, to a life of sacrifice, through a battle cancer and onto Mayo’s quest for September.

Ronan Mc Garrity decided one thing when he was 14: no regrets.

When James Horan rang last November, he knew what it was about. This Mayo team was different from those he soldiered with since 2004. He had other voices too. His body. No Mas.

“I wished him the best and told him I enjoyed the two years with his squad, that he had a great bunch of lads with the ability to win an All-Ireland,” he says. “We left on good terms. James is a brilliant manager. I have so much respect for the Mayo football family and the dedication the players give. I know exactly the sacrifices and dedication it takes to be an inter-county footballer, I did it for 10 years and it’s even more demanding on your partner. It took Sarah [his wife] a couple of years to understand. She used to ask me why I’d go training every day...”

A month later Robyn [his first daughter] was born. A new perspective. “I’d prefer to be at home now than anywhere else. I’d given enough. I want to enjoy Robyn.”

Martin and Regina Mc Garrity moved to Ballina in the late ’70s and set up a bookmakers in the town. A Fermanagh man and Tyrone woman outside their natural environment. The GAA club was the obvious place to start. Martin played senior with Stephenites for a few years and became a fixture in the club. Soon he took over the club’s minor side. His sons Conor and Ronan joined him for training but it wasn’t until the town leagues that watchers on the mound noticed the burgeoning talent. Ronan, the goalkeeper, lined out for a St Pat’s town league outfit that would backbone future senior club sides.

From the very first day, he hated it. He might go an entire game without touching the ball and craved Saturday morning’s basketball practice. It wasn’t until his manager, Tommy Knight, gave him a chance outfield that he appreciated the game that would define him.

These were odd times in Ballina. Mayo managed an All-Ireland final appearance against Cork in 1989, but Ballina was Basketball Central. MacHale Park was fun, but the courts in Killala were his passion.

National cups and leagues. Showtime. Then he saw Larry Bird and started watching NBA highlights. There was something about the way Larry played. Around the same time he went to that football trial.

“I didn’t get past the first round of trials. I’ll never forget that. I was so disappointed. I became disillusioned with the whole thing. You were looking at the players selected ahead of you and I couldn’t believe it.”

By the time he was 16 he wasn’t playing football anymore. That year he grew from 5’10” to 6’4” and people started to take notice.

Liam McHale, Deora Marsh and Paul McStay were still playing basketball in Division 1 but the youngsters who followed them into the sport had ambitions of their own. A divide between old and young led to the formation of two clubs.

For Ronan though, a shooter, the conflicts that precipitated the demise of basketball became background noise.

“At a very young age I was driven. I was different. Most lads my age were hanging around the town at the weekend while I’d be up in the courts practicing. I worked relentlessly at every aspect of my game. Sometimes I trained too hard and at times became mentally fatigued. I reached stages where I couldn’t do it anymore but I couldn’t rest until I had given it my all.”

Going to America was the fix. Mark Cartmill made it possible. The American coach came to Ireland for clinics in search of his next star. He had brought Ciaran Quinn over from Waterford and liked the Irish attitude. In Ronan he saw a replacement.

At 17, he left home for the wilderness of upstate New York and Paul Smith’s College. He wasn’t the only foreigner on the team. A former Israeli soldier was their star. They won 22 games and a tournament title and Cartmill made Ronan his surrogate son.

The following year was tougher but he bagged 18 wins and a scholarship to Saint Lawrence in the big leagues. His future wife Sarah was studying primary school teaching in Dublin at the time. They had been going out since they were 14 but their lives were going in different directions when she came over while he spent the summer playing football in New York.

“When I went to play football that summer they had to buy boots, socks and shorts for me. I hadn’t played in years. Sarah came out that summer. I’d say we were only about 19 or 20. It was an eye opener. The strain of a long distance relationship had really taken its toll. Eventually we broke up.”

That made the move to Saint Lawrence tougher. That summer he played football again in New York but this time decided not to go back. “I came back to Mayo with nothing but I keep saying, when one door closes another opens. In the winter of 2004, I had the opportunity to play with a European club. I toyed with the idea but had just finished a big year with Mayo and felt we were on the verge of something successful. That was really it for me with basketball.”

A hometown kid with hometown values. Croke Park. September. Along the way, he played one of his best games for the county against Tyrone in the quarter-final. “I was up against Kevin Hughes and Sean Cavanagh in midfield for one of my first league games. I had never heard about them because I never read up on GAA while I was away and the lads in the dressing room just told me to follow Sean around.

“The trick about his [Cavanagh’s] game back then was that we were midfielders and we’d provide the connection with the forwards and the backs. Anytime their attack broke down, I’d take off and get involved in our attack but he’d play possum. When our attack broke down he was alone and I was like ‘holy God’. He scored two or three points. I remember John Maughan pointing to me in the dressing room afterwards and giving me stick for playing a basketball match the night before. He thought I was tired but I was just raw to the game.”

When they met in Croke Park that summer, Mc Garrity had his homework done. “Keep him in front of you at all times. I went man to man with him and in areas when he was out of the play I went forward because I knew he wouldn’t follow. We played them perfectly that day.

“Back then, I thought I was superhuman. Under the guidance of Liam [McHale] it made playing both sports possible as no one understood what I was going through more than him.

“I only realised how serious [the football] had become when we played a league game against Longford. The game meant nothing but Fergal Kelly dislocated his fingers. He just ran over to the sideline. Snap [he motions putting the fingers back in place]. They were back in and he ran back to position. ‘Jesus’ I thought to myself ‘this is serious stuff’.”

Over the course of three autumns Kerry gave Mayo a pair of spankings and while he won a club title (“that can never be taken away”) those losses to the Kingdom will always rankle.

“We were naive. Not prepared. Kerry came out on a totally different level and we didn’t do any work. We had no game plan either day. We went out thinking ‘we’re here, it’s a big day, we’ll play the same way we played every other bloody day and we might win it’. But then Kerry had bought into the whole physical training before the rest of us so it was like men against boys. At the time they were just ahead of the game.

“2006 was the end of it all. We knew at the function that night after the final that Mickey Moran and John Morrison were gone. I was disappointed because they were unique. They were doing the stuff going on today and basing everything around skills. It was a horrible job for anyone because their successor [John O’Mahony] had to rebuild the squad. We’re seeing the benefits of it now.”

March 2007 wasn’t a holiday either. He was 26. The first thing that went through his mind when he found the lump? Ignore it.

“Only that I said it to Sarah, I probably would have left it. She made me get it checked because her mother passed away with cancer a couple of years before that. If I was at home I would have said ‘fuck it’.

“If you’ve any doubts get it checked out. A few people told me they checked themselves when they read the story, found something and did something about it.”

Cards were posted Ronan Mc Garrity, Mayo footballer, but they still found him.

“There are loads of nice people out there and you find that when you’re in a that situation. Sons, fathers, brothers of people who had been affected from all over the country were reassuring me that I’d be ok. Dermot Earley talked to me after a challenge game about it. It was great to know there was another guy who went through it and was still playing. He’s a good guy.”

While he was undergoing radiotherapy he continued to set goals, the primary one was to play for Mayo again that season. Once the body recovered, he started training.

“I played for Mayo against Cavan that year. I set a goal and it was about self-healing more than anything else. Should I have played? For me, yeah. Of all the jerseys I covet, the one I got against Cavan that day will always have a special place.”

Up to that point, he had been open with the media. But after the news broke he felt his privacy had been intruded. Only for his captaincy role the following year, he might never have talked openly again.

“Looking back, I would have liked the press to stay away from it. It was hard enough to deal with myself but then it was splashed on the front page of the papers… I wasn’t very comfortable with it but it brought awareness to a lot of people of the importance of getting checked out, if you’ve any doubts.”

When he returned, he was made captain. An old team was being dismantled and a new one created. Alongside Alan Dillon and Andy Moran, he was a senior who felt too young to lead.

“I was never a captain. I was only 26 and had a lot of work to do on my game after missing a large part of the previous year. Looking back now though, it was a huge honour. John [O’Mahony] saw something in me I didn’t see in myself. At the time I thought the lads didn’t have the same respect for me as an older lad but we went ahead with it. I was uncomfortable and at times concentrated more on what I was going to say to the lads than my own game.

“That year we played Tyrone in the quarter-final but I didn’t start because I had a problem with my hamstring. I only got a few minutes. We lost by a point and they won the All-Ireland. I knew we could have beaten them and that’s what was so annoying.”

The next two years went from bad to worse. The loss to Meath cost them a chance of redemption against Kerry in 2009. Then came his worst experience for Mayo on a day he didn’t even play.

“We had a good league but came in tired to the Sligo game and lost. I was dropped for the Longford game with Peadar Gardiner and Trevor Mortimer. I didn’t understand it. But I’ve heard since when Galway won through the back door, John dropped his main players to build the hunger back up in them. He thought we’d get by Longford.

“That was the worst day I ever experienced with Mayo. There was a black hole in front of us and every player who played that day was finished. But James [Horan] came in with a freshness. He built a backroom team. We had so much expertise to call on and utilise to make our game better. He’s a very intelligent guy who calls it as he sees it. He knows who is playing well and knows their strengths. He had a vision and was always building to make the team better. He gave everyone a chance, trial games. He’s surrounded himself with the best people possible. If you can get the best, why not have them? Last year he had Cian O’Neill and this year he has Donie Buckley, trainers highly regarded throughout the country. When the players are surrounded by the best, it adds confidence to the group. I don’t think we were getting the best before Horan.”

Tomorrow, he’ll do something he hasn’t done since pimples. Go to a GAA game as a supporter.

After years of skipping work due to the Mayo commitments, he had a lot of shifts to put in at V Doherty bookmakers. But this weekend he’s off.

“I’ll meet up with the cousins as well. My uncle is involved with Tyrone minors. Maybe this time, I’ll have the final word.”

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