How Antrim star Domhnall Nugent rebounded from rock bottom to 'Braveheart in a GAA jersey'

Domhnall Nugent won the Joe McDonagh Cup with Antrim in December. Two years earlier, he'd been on the streets.
How Antrim star Domhnall Nugent rebounded from rock bottom to 'Braveheart in a GAA jersey'

Antrim manager Darren Gleeson and Donal Nugent of Antrim celebrate at the final whistle of the 2020 Joe McDonagh Cup Final match between Kerry and Antrim at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

When Domhnall Nugent brought Antrim manager Darren Gleeson crashing to the ground with a bear hug at the final whistle of December's Joe McDonagh Cup final win, it was more than just a victory embrace.

Just 18 months earlier, the big St John's man had entered treatment for alcohol addiction, finally acknowledging after years of pain and 'chaos' that he was at a crossroads in his young life; "You have two options; you go ahead with this and you kill yourself or you try to get a bit of help".

Rock bottom is a darkly ironic term for where Nugent ended up because it was in the Rock Bar in Belfast that he felt his life bottom out, early in the summer of 2019. He'd lost his apartment at that stage and when throwing out time came one evening he had nowhere to stay. Homeless, he slept on the porch of his granny's house.

Nugent tells his full story, from struggling with being the child of a broken marriage, to playing for the Antrim senior hurlers at 18, to hitting the bottle and piling on three stone in weight at college, to bottoming out and thinking about death at the age of just 22 in a remarkable interview on the Little Inspirations podcast which is hosted by Declan Lawn, a hurling coach in the county.

"I ended up on the street," said Nugent. "I was one of those people I used to associate with being alcoholics. I wasn't totally honest with anyone. I was hiding all my problems. I was hiding the drinking.

"At that stage I'd stopped associating myself with friends or people or anyone. I was in the pub on my own in the corner, drinking, as if I was a lad much older than what I actually was.

"It was terrible. Skint. No money. Just absolutely heartbroken."

It was a lonely existence yet, in his lowest moments, Nugent craved the isolation.

"It was absolutely chaos, I was comfortable with being uncomfortable," he said. "It was very lonely but I loved being lonely. To be totally honest, I didn't want to be there. I wanted to be dead.

"I thought that was just the way to do it, go and sit in the corner and don't annoy anyone and just whatever happens to me, happens to me. It was terrible. I was lonely, especially with being that person, because in a two-year period I went from being a role model to people going, 'Jesus, he's fairly let himself go'."

Nugent says he was in denial about his problems for years, and constantly running away. Like spending summers in Boston or moving to hurl for Warwickshire in 2018, a period in which he recalls days spent in a single bedroom alone with a bottle of whiskey, the door shut.

Prior to leaving for the UK he'd left his club, St John's, and did the unthinkable by joining Lamh Dhearg, their rivals. A talented dual player, he lined out for Lamh Dhearg in the 2017 Antrim SFC final against St John's. His brother, Padraig, was in goals for St John's and his Dad, Paddy, was managing them.

Late in the game, with Lamh Dhearg two points ahead, midfielder Nugent raced 30 yards and prevented his brother from taking a kick-out by booting the ball away. Padraig reacted and was sent off. Lamh Dhearg held on to win.

"Even though afterwards we were celebrating and drinking and everything looked great, mentally that had a massive, massive impact on me," said Nugent. "'What have I just done?' Because I grew up dreaming of winning a championship with St John's, especially with my brother, and I still do. I still probably won't forgive myself until I win a championship with St John's, something I think about every day still."

Nugent returned to St John's and following 12 weeks in treatment in 2019, made headlines for all the right reasons in 2020. In September, he somehow scored 3-3 in a county hurling semi-final against Loughgiel Shamrocks despite dislocating his elbow early in the game and playing on one-armed. 

The video attracted huge attention online under the caption 'Braveheart in a GAA jersey'.

In December, and back in the county hurling fold, he came on 45 minutes into the McDonagh Cup final win over Kerry at Croke Park. That memorable picture of he and Gleeson celebrating at the final whistle sits proudly in a frame on the wall of his granny's living room.

"It was a full-circle moment," said Nugent of the wild embrace. "When that final whistle went I just took a look up in the sky and it was like, 'You know what, life's good, it is'. To think that two years ago I was debating or contemplating killing myself and ending this whole thing early. I was just so happy, so relieved, so many mixed emotions. It was a great, great feeling and it's given me medicine for more, I want more."

* Little Inspirations is a podcast series from the Inspire well-being group. Episode 8 with St John's and Antrim GAA player Domhnall Nugent is out now and available through Spotify and Apple. See @InspireWBGroup on Twitter.

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