The Big Interview: Eoin Larkin - ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of. Just go and do what you have to do’

Winner of eight All-Ireland medals, part of a famed hurling dynasty, Eoin Larkin has been one of the finest forwards of his generation. He spoke with PM O'Sullivan.

The Big Interview: Eoin Larkin - ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of. Just go and do what you have to do’

Winner of eight All-Ireland medals, part of a famed hurling dynasty, Eoin Larkin has been one of the finest forwards of his generation.

But tomorrow he lines out at centre-back for his club James Stephens against Ballyhale Shamrocks in the Kilkenny SHC final.

It’s another reinvention in a week when he launched his autobiography, something he thought he’d never do.

In it, Larkin speaks frankly about depression, about changing attitudes, about life under Brian Cody. It’s a story of finding perspective and facing your fears. He spoke with PM O'Sullivan.

Eoin Larkin mimics having a stiff leg, him as an old man labouring on a mattress.

“That’s the way I was,” he says. “I was hardly able to get out of bed in the morning. It was gone into a major operation, simply getting out of the bed. One leg and then the other leg. Took a while to get both of them on the floor…”

This man, still a hurler, is now an author. Camouflage, his memoir, was launched last Wednesday in Kilkenny. Tomorrow holds a senior final between his club, James Stephens, and Ballyhale Shamrocks. The opposition are managed by Henry Shefflin, a key colleague from inter-county days. Treasured coordinates are resplendent in a new frame, hurling still resolute at the centre.

For Larkin, the last year involved a reckoning process, an examination of all he holds dear. Part of it lay in writing this book. Part of it was entering mid thirties, a natural time for reflection. He lives with his wife, Anne, and their three children in Callan. The eldest two, Mark and Holly, are now in secondary school. Ellie is eight.

That he will feature tomorrow afternoon in Nowlan Park seemed impossible mere months ago.

Larkin is candid: “When I came back this year, my body was broken. I was last in the running. Groin, hips, back… Everything was just wrecked.

We did savage running at the start of the year. And I was just wondering: ‘How am I going to get through this?’ I was just trying to get from one session to the next, trying to get your body right.

An old connection harked. Before Kilkenny took on Galway in 2015’s All-Ireland final, he broke his thumb. Seeking help brought him to Niamh Guy, a physio with Seán Boylan’s practice in Meath. Her assistance allowed him excel in that contest, broken thumb aside.

“I had been in contact with Niamh, off and on,” Larkin relates. “She is GAA mad, in fairness! She said: ‘How are you getting on?’ I said: ‘I’m broke up… This’ll be the last year. I can’t go this through anymore.’ She said: ‘Just pop up to me.’ That was it.”

Over tea last week, notably fresh of face, his gratitude was plain: “Everything changed. In the space of about an hour, I was pain free. I was able to run again. Seán has trained her in to do all the manipulation, all that kind of stuff.

“When I came back down, I went training, and I never felt as free in my life. Now, I’ve been going to physios for 15 years. And I’ve been getting needled and getting rubbed and this, that and the other. And I’ve never felt so good.”

A fresh approach worked: “Niamh never rubbed me out. She never put a needle near me. Nothing… Just manipulated all my joints. My ankle, my knee, my hip, my toe, my shoulder, my wrist.

“Aligning… ‘Your pelvis was all off,’ she said. It was just dragging everything. And I’ve never felt as good since. And I’ve been going up to her once a week for the past four months or so.”

This man achieved quite a pomp. Eoin Larkin hurled with Kilkenny for 12 seasons, 2005 to 2016, and won eight senior All-Irelands, the same measure as Christy Ring and John Doyle, a measure was long advanced as impossible to repeat.

Through his surname, he is part of a dynasty. The Larkins are hurling’s foremost family, the only crowd with senior All-Ireland success across three generations. Paddy Larkin, via four wins, began the process during the 1930s. Phil ‘Fan’ Larkin, a five-time winner, took the baton during the 1960s and ’70s. Then the baton went to Philly Larkin (Eoin’s second cousin) during the 2000s. He retired with three Celtic Crosses.

Family is always tight and The Village, as James Stephens are known, is a small place with huge traditions. Camouflage runs drôle on a doubled intimacy: “As I gathered All-Ireland medals, my father would always reference it in the context of Fan. ‘You’ve the same amount as Fan now…’ ‘You’ve one more than Fan now…’”

Inter-county might be the past but club remains a present to be seized. Larkin elaborates: “Eoin Everard, a talented runner, is doing the physical training with us. Eoin said to Matthew Ruth the other day: ‘Is Larks taking something herbal for energy? He must be taking something. Sure, he couldn’t run in February and March… Now he’s beating Jackie [Tyrrell], who was up the front of all the running. And now he’s overtaking him… What’s going on?’

“And I said to Matthew: ‘Yeah, because my legs actually work now! I’m able to actually run, like.’

This year’s hinge performance proved May’s league tie with Ballyhale Shamrocks. Having lost their opening two games, James Stephens were in crisis.

Relocated to centre-back, Eoin Larkin performed with renewed vigour and purpose. His confidence soared, establishing momentum. Tomorrow’s date with local destiny could seal an arc of good karma.

Over that tea, Larkin was equally candid about himself as an unlikely author: “I never had interest in doing a book.

Being gone a couple of years, having retired, my wife was always on to me: ‘You’ve a really good story there. You should let it out there.’ I was always: ‘No, no, no… I have no interest.’

But one day it just clicked. One day I just said: “Do you know what? Maybe I should. At least it’ll be out there then. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Just go and do what you have to do.’ That’s really how it started.

He rang Damian Lawlor, whom he knew from All-Star trips, hoping he might entice a ghost writer. For personal reasons, Lawlor passed but put him in touch with Pat Nolan.

The partnership sparked and this GAA autobiography now counts as one of the genre’s best offerings.

Media coverage thus far battened to Eoin Larkin’s difficulties and experience with depression. The man himself does not want this aspect to overshadow all else.

Camouflage is unflinching: “I’m not sharing any of this so that I can be called a hero or be described as brave.”

The text continues: “I’m not remotely interested in holding myself up as a champion for those who suffer from mental health issues. That’s not me. You see people from time to time coming out with long spiels on social media about whatever issues they may have and I often wonder are they doing it as much for the endorphin-rush that goes with the likes and replies and shares and retweets as much as anything else.”

Larkin nods in a hotel bar, pleased that I highlight this passage: “I said to Pat [Nolan] that I didn’t want the book to be a ‘poor Eoin’ story, some kind of ‘Eoin is another one that suffers with depression, and now he wants all your love and attention’. Was no way interested in doing that.”

He pauses, before addressing how the topic hit home: “Even the other night, when I got the first copies of the book, my eldest girl picked one up and she was reading it, flicking through to see where she was in it. Next thing, she came to the ‘depression’ bit. And she said: ‘What? Have I been living under a rock here? You had depression?’

“And I said: ‘Well, yeah, I did, Holly. But depression is not just a thing that you’re all doom and gloom and everything is all terrible. You can smile through depression. It’s an inner thing.’

“She was of the opinion, which I was before I got it and before I realised what it was, that you’re looking at someone and they’re all down, down all the time, and everything is doom and gloom, and they don’t smile.”

He continues: “It’s funny, because Holly would be getting ‘mental health’ talks in school, and all that kind of stuff.

“I’d like to hear one of those talks, to see is it a ‘one for all’ kind of talk, a ‘one size fits all’ talk. I genuinely don’t think that’s the way it is.”

Part of these insights must be early middle age. Born in 1984, Eoin Larkin was 35 last July.

Camouflage feels an autumnal book in several senses. The author is near the end of his playing career. Even more, the book’s controlling image might be releasing the old so as to enable the new.

I sense his own experiences as a parent grounded a remarkably honest account of childhood, one that counted as unusual in 1980s and 1990s Ireland. Larkin grew up, much loved, in what is now known as a ‘blended family’. His father, Allen, and his mother, Lucy, split up when he was barely primary school age. They both eventually formed a new relationship, which meant a sister, Louise, and two brothers, Anthony and Allen.

Eoin Larkin’s desire to achieve a close relationship with another sibling, Kim, forms a moving thread in this memoir. His father’s daughter from a brief relationship in the 1970s, she was adopted. Kim lives in Cork with her husband and four daughters.

Among its many virtues, Camouflage is a primer in the complexities of family life.

Its wisdom holds broad. Larkin does wry well: “If you talk to my wife about the early years when I playing for Kilkenny… If I didn’t play well, that was the end of the world. She couldn’t talk to me. The kids couldn’t talk to me. That was everything.

“Now don’t get me wrong. It’s still everything. But I just have a different perspective about sport. It’s been fixed in with life.”

He refreshes an anecdote from the book: “After the 2016 All-Ireland, which would have been the first All-Ireland Cillian Buckley lost, I spoke to his girlfriend, Niamh. And she said: ‘He just won’t talk to me…’

“This is in the players’ lounge afterwards. And I said: ‘Look, it’s his first loss. He will get over it. But it’s just you have to get used to it.’ And I was more upbeat. Disappointed? Yes. Absolutely devastated. But I knew it wasn’t the end of the world, even though it was a killer.”

Time’s passage alone is a salve: “2010, I would have been like that. It was my first loss. You could have picked me up off the floor. Anyone that comes near you, or tries to console you, you just say: ‘Go away! I don’t want to talk about it!’

But then, once you move on and experience life a bit, you’re able to deal with that somewhat better.

An obvious question: was he influenced by Jackie Tyrrell’s The Warrior’s Code: My Autobiography(2017)? There comes an amused but firm answer: “No, to be honest. I still haven’t read Jackie’s book. And I keep meaning to. Actually, when I went on holidays this year, I meant to get it and bring it, because that’s really the only time I ever read, lying by the pool or whatever.

“But I just forgot to get it. I was delighted Jackie brought out a book. It’s his kind of thing to do! I didn’t really see it as my kind of thing to do, at the time. And I hadn’t my mind made up when his one came out. Well, I had my mind made up: that I wasn’t going to do one.”

Camouflage offers a new perspective on Brian Cody’s personality. “From my point of view, I always got on with him,” Larkin notes. “I had him as a teacher, of course. But, in saying that, I never suffered the way Henry [Shefflin] and Jackie suffered. I was always there or thereabouts on the starting team. I was always playing.

“I was never just, as they put it, cast aside, dropped. So does that dilute your relationship? I would have said Cody and Jackie had nearly a perfect relationship up to the last year. I don’t know… Can you dilute that relationship in just one year, after so many years?”

Larkin begs to differ from standard views: “Everyone in the media obviously sees things as just that Cody is this cutthroat individual: ‘If you’re not doing the business, you’re out.’ But it’s not like that at all. I know, from seeing it over the years, he’s much more compassionate than is realised. The media always get the persona of ‘oh, Cody’s after dropping this lad, he’s gone off the panel’.

“What about the lads still in there? Or coming in there? They never see that if any of us have a problem, at home, at work, or an injury, they never see the chat Brian Cody has with you: ‘How you getting on? What’s the story? Is there anything I can do?’ That kind of stuff, which is massive.

“He’s great to get lads summer jobs, or even jobs in general. He’d always give you a good reference. And a good reference from Brian Cody, in Kilkenny, is gold dust.”

The steadiness that lands from being 35 and the father of teenagers sent him in new directions. He now sits on his club’s Hurling Committee.

U19 Manager for 2018, he is U21 Manager for 2019. Larkin glosses these swerves: “I enjoy a little bit of coaching. I just enjoy hurling. That’s what I’ve loved since the day I picked up a hurl. Once you can no longer do it, the only way to stay involved is to be into managing or coaching.”

As he freely admits, there are frustrations. A generation gap can be apparent: “You’d be looking at lads who have bundles of talent. And to get them to come training, to get them to push themselves, to get fit, to improve themselves… They just don’t seem to get it. Or they just don’t seem to want to get it.”

Larkin questions current orthodoxies about transfer of possession: “I think many young lads growing up now want to do what’s meant to be, I suppose, the glamorous parts of it: ‘If I get a ball, I’ll hit it over the bar. That’s my job done until I get the next ball.’ Regardless of what his man does.

“Their own man could go up the field and get three or four points himself. But he’s after having a good game, because he got three points himself.

“To get that mentality out of them, to get them to realise that what you do off the ball is possibly more important than what you do on the ball… Because, the way I’d look at it, you’re only going to be on the ball, if you’re lucky, six or seven or eight times in a match.

“For what time? Maybe for 30 seconds? 40 seconds? With the ball in your hand?”

Larkin parlayed playing experience into logic: “Break it down into seconds. Say, for arrogance’s sake, you’re on it for two minutes. That’s another 58 minutes at club (or another 68 minutes at inter-county) you’re not on the ball. What else is going on, then? What are you doing, then? That’s the way I’d look at it.”

He believes easy ways out are now too easily accepted: “You’d often be up in club training and you’d hear: ‘Just give it to me here! Just give it to me here! I’m on me own! I’m on me own!’ But then, if a ball comes between two lads, don’t expect them to win that.

“They want an 85% or a 90% ball, and they want it into their hand. And then they’ll do something with it. Then… But if they have to go and forage for a ball… Forget about it.”

Current inter-county orthodoxies receive the same gimlet stare: “I would have no problem with anybody playing a sweeper at a certain stage, or with three midfielders, or with anything like that. But I don’t see the point of doing it constantly: ‘This is our style. We play like that, and that’s it!’

“You start 15 on 15. If you need to go back like that, or if you have a plan for certain individuals or for certain teams, play like that.

“But I’ve always said, even when Wexford were doing it, and other teams were doing it: ‘You’re never going to win an All-Ireland playing like that.’

“You might need to do whatever at certain stages, and then revert.

But I think you need to suss out things in a game, suss out the opposition: ‘Are we going to be good enough to go 15 on 15 here? If we win our own ball, and then work from there, are we good to go?’ But you need, the way things are gone, to be flexible in your approach.

Larkin queries the level of training required for some approaches: “It’s a bit like some trainers . They would train you, and you’d last for two years at it. Then you’re wiped out.

“And then you’re finished. Your legs are gone after that.”

Whatever tomorrow’s result, whatever the falling leaves, the grass will be back green in appointed time.

“I don’t see myself finishing up any time soon,” Larkin stresses. “I’ll stay going as long as I can. I’m pain free now.

“I could be training hard on a Friday night and I’m going out to the park running, with the little one, and I do 5k with her, Saturday morning.

“She just loves going around the park, Daddy’s girl, and that’s our morning.

“We get up Saturday and we go down to the park running. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that at the start of the year. Now I’m sitting up out of the bed, swinging my legs out.

“It’s just unbelievable. A real transformation.”

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