Jamie Clarke is among a cluster of top Gaelic footballers who have chosen not to make themselves available this year. But, as he speaks about making his vision a reality in New York, it’s obvious the Armagh man doesn’t follow crowds.
“To discover the mode of life or of art whereby my spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom” – Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”
Jamie Clarke knows how it must appear. The week of Armagh’s Ulster quarter-final and he is still in the country. Truth be told, it wasn’t until he met his old English teacher on Monday evening that he knew the game was on.
This, after all, is a man who has already spent time in Australia and twice visited his beloved Paris this year.
But he also knows how it feels. He can no longer tarry. He admits he could have been persuaded to stay on in Armagh colours – “I’m an awful man for being persuaded in that regard. If I’m doing somebody else a favour and feel as if I’m needed, I would probably have stayed on” – but he couldn’t afford to ignore the spring in his wings any further.
Turning out for Armagh when the next stage of his life begins in New York in six days’ time just wouldn’t work.
Eight days ago, he scored Crossmaglen’s local soccer club Cartwheel United’s first goal in their surprise 2-0 win over Newry Celtic in the AOH Cup final.
It was the club’s first piece of silverware in their 35-year history. Afterwards, he was made offers by three bigger clubs. But he wasn’t for turning.
The following Wednesday morning, he was queueing in the US Embassy in Ballsbridge to complete his visa requirements for an 18-month J1 trainee programme to further his marketing expertise.
Clarke imbues creativity but he is also practical. The course will propel him towards realising his vision of encompassing fashion, culture and coffee under one umbrella, one that will likely in time be embraced in Ireland but not right now. His friend, Longford native and well- regarded New York bar manager Brendan Donoghue, has helped provide him with a home on 34th Street and Madison Avenue, close to the Empire State Building. It’s there where he can dream best. Where he feels he can be better. “I am Irish. I’m a big believer in moving to different countries. Even if I was American or French, I would love to move around. I think it’s better for society and people become more open-minded about things.”
Tuesday lunch-time and Clarke, cool as you like wearing a navy, baggy Ralph Lauren t-shirt, strolls into the bar area of the Carrickdale Hotel. The smell of carvery seems a considerable distance from the cocoa aromas of Paris that appeal to him so much but here he is suggesting he may plump for a roast. He is going away but so much of him still says home.
His decision to leave concerns what pulls him, not pushes him away. Gaelic football has been too much a part of his life just to forget completely. Scoring a goal still fills him with joy. He likes reminiscing about the one to help beat Derry on his championship debut in 2010 and the two he scored against Donegal on his home patch a month later.
“Against Derry, I kinda knew I was going to score but nobody knew who I was. I didn’t understand why people didn’t know. I suppose I was young, free and scare-free . It was just one of those things. The game in Cross, big players on occasions like that think it’s going to be their day and I went out with that attitude. At that stage, you do be thinking you’re going to be unstoppable.” The following year, Clarke put in back-to-back man of the match performances in Cross’ All-Ireland club final win and Armagh’s Ulster quarter-final victory over Down. All Stars at least were forecasted but when the county made tangible progress in 2014 Clarke felt he wasn’t making enough of a contribution.
“It’s weird because I was putting more hours in on the training pitch at that stage. Things weren’t going right and I was practising and practising. I had a one-on-one in the Cavan game and I remember missing it and didn’t understand why I was tentative. Against Tyrone then, I had a miss as well.
“I was influencing the game in a different way, chipping in with three or four points and dragging two men out the field but ultimately I wanted to be hitting the net.
“You ask any player what they want and if they are truthful they will say they want the plaudits. If you’re seen as one of the best players on the pitch, you want to be getting the man of the match. If you’re not getting man of the match, you’re doing something wrong. That’s the way I would be looking at it.” Finding himself swallowed by deep cover defences, Kieran McGeeney experimented with deploying Clarke further out the field early last year but it didn’t work.
“Kieran wanted us to run with the ball whereas the likes of the Gooch when he gets the ball he turns his head to look to make the pass. To have that freedom wasn’t really allowed because you were playing to the team’s system and you don’t really want to alter that. As well, it does rely on certain movement for you to pass the ball into and a quality of player.” Clarke still feels indebted to McGeeney. “Kieran changed me for a better way outside of football. Under Kieran, I became a lot more humble and even playing the soccer you could see that. I wasn’t going around with my head up my ass saying ‘I’m too good for you’. It’s only a bit of fun at the end of the day. But under previous managers? James O’Donoghue was coming onto the scene at the time, (Bernard) Brogan was doing well and you want to be up there with them but Armagh weren’t firing at the time.
“Even now, meeting people... if I got abuse in the past, I wouldn’t have taken it on the chin but I do now and just smile. I wouldn’t let it affect me. There was a transformation period for me from being that authoritative power figure walking about to now. I still have that natural aura. You don’t need to be arrogant to be that. Just be humble. Good manners go a long way. It’s something my mother would have always taught me!” Although his time with Armagh is only put on hold, he’s reconciled himself with the possibility he may not win honours with them.
“When I was younger, I always believed in fate and it would happen and the older I grew I kinda took the spiritual side out of it. It’s reality. Not everything is going to go your way. Even if you look at Tyrone at the minute, we beat them on the way to the 2014 quarter-final and beat them well. That’s basically the same team now and they’re seen as a force whereas we won’t kick on, which is frustrating.”
Going back to his adolescence, fashion has been as much a passion as Gaelic football to Clarke. Much like his love of coffee, it’s made him the butt of jokes. Not that he has ever minded.
“I remember being in university and I used to cut out pictures of outfits on the catwalks and put them on my walls. I remember one day forgetting to take them down and all these new lads from Newry and Down came in and they were obviously new to Belfast!
“It is what it is. It’s another industry that people are embracing more and more. I contemplated going the whole blogger route for awhile but I just find it’s got a bit saturated. I want to establish something new and fresh myself. That’s what I like to do – something that would attract me rather than something stale.” The metropolis inspires him. New York’s incessancy. The timelessness of Paris.
“I just fit in a lot more,” he says of the latter. “I think it’s a lot to do with how people carry themselves. There’s a perception they’re rude people but they’re not. I just think they like the way they dress and they’re all confident in their own way.
“They give off this idea that they’re effortlessly cool but they do try. It looks as if they don’t. There’s a lot more culture to it as well. In terms of literature, you have Hemingway and Sartré, something that I’m interested in. Even French film, I would watch a lot of Godard from the 60s. Paris is still like that in a way. It has moved on but it’s still old-fashioned and cool. It’s just something I find myself drawn more to than other things.” If it’s a crime for being a Francophile, lock him up now. “Even if you look at Zidane, he is somebody I would admire but I think everybody does. It looks as if he doesn’t care but he does care. Even when he hit Materazzi the headbutt, there was still a romantic feel about it if you know what I mean. He left in his last game walking past the World Cup. He still took the limelight even though he didn’t win it.” Clarke didn’t warm to Dublin. It felt too small a place to be defined a city as he knows it.
“I struggled in Dublin probably of the way people sit on top of each other. You have the whole D4 side and Grafton Street area then the northside is slap bang on top of it. If you’re not from D4... I struggled with how they dealt with other people. I don’t want to class all D4 people like that but I just found some of them were pretentious when there was no need to be.
“In Paris, it doesn’t matter who you are. Obviously, there are elite areas everywhere in the world but because of the demographic and amount of people there it’s not as prominent.” It shouldn’t come as any surprise he is friendly with fellow footballer-cum-fashionista Paul Galvin.
“I would speak to Paul regularly. He has his own style and he’s doing very well for himself. He was the first player to declare an interest in fashion and people laughed at him at the start but he’s one of those guys that there’s not enough of within the GAA.
“It’s a courageous thing to go away and do your own thing. That creativity, even on the pitch, is what’s missing at the minute.” The courage Clarke saw in Galvin is what he feels in himself. Showing an appreciation of coffee, which saw him for a time work as a quality consultant with Java Republic, was something not expected of him.
“It’s only now people are realising the importance of coffee and how much it impacts on people’s lives. It’s cool now, people are going to 3Fe (coffee shop) in Dublin whereas I was going two or three years ago and people were laughing at me. I will always do what I believe is right. If somebody criticises it, I will still do it because I trust myself.”
There were many stars in Thomas Niblock’s excellent BBC documentary on Crossmaglen earlier this year but Clarke’s contributions were the most intriguing.
“I just feel there’s a lot more to me than living in a rural town,” he said in the programme.
“It’s not that I can’t fit in here; it’s probably that I don’t want to. Ultimately, the only reason I am here is because of football. I don’t enjoy it as much because of the pressures of having to win all the time and wanting to win just for the sake of winning so nobody else can win. It’s not about having fun and enjoying the game anymore. There’s a lot more to life than kicking the ball over the bar.” Clarke has no regrets. “I felt that it was a good tool I could use to show people how I actually felt without hurting anybody’s feelings. It was difficult because you have to take into the consideration the older people in Cross like Margaret McConville (Oisín’s mother) who are so passionate about the club “ I was trying to give her a feel of what I was talking about but it was difficult. I didn’t want to leave the impression that I don’t care about Gaelic because I do. It’s something I love and always love but something is going to have to give at some stage and I wanted to get that point across.
“That I’m willing to do everything for Cross when I’m there but when I’m saying I’m going, I’m going.
“My biggest worry was the domino effect in terms of people also wanting to go to America and other places for the sake of doing it. It has happened a little bit and it’s pissed me off a little because a lot of people have asked me over the last couple of weeks if I can help them out and there are only so many you can help out. It seems like people aren’t doing what they want and that’s the lack of creativity I’m talking about. Why did they wait for me to do it instead of doing it yourself?” In the documentary, Clarke also spoke out against the drink culture in the town but alcohol’s association with inter-county GAA is just as unhealthy, he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy a drink. I enjoy the social scene. It’s not so much going into a pub and drinking 10 pints but being out and talking. From my own point of view, it has affected me personally but I didn’t want to offend anyone. It’s something that’s made me stronger and I know I won’t let it affect me.
“The pressures of the game and stuff, people can go one way or the other. If they do stop playing, there can be a negative aftermath. Players who are playing as well, it seems so acceptable to have a pint but if, you’re going to play at inter-county level, you can’t.” As for the club’s relationship with Armagh since Joe Kernan’s halcyon days in charge, Clarke admits there have been issues.
“Cross always had more different characters than any other team within Armagh. If Cross was in Tyrone or Down, I still say it would have the same impact. That’s basically because we would think we’re the best.
“I know it’s a mentality that seems a little closed-minded but if you want to win you need that mentality.
Sometimes the attitude from the Cross players coming into Armagh hasn’t been good in terms of arrogance in how they approached other players. But when it comes to playing on the pitch, they would never ever let you down. I still do believe if we had more Cross players it would impact Armagh in a better way. But with Kieran, the option was there for players to play.
“When we got to the (2014 All-Ireland) quarter-final, there were 10 and then boys dropped out for one reason or another. Aaron (Kernan) was asked back. It looks bad from the outside in as it does with me leaving but it’s not me leaving Kieran. It’s not his fault. I still think you have to respect Kieran for coming in at a time when things haven’t been good. I would love to see someone like Tony (McEntee) coming in alongside Kieran. That’s something I think that would even persuade me!
“There is going to come a time when things work out and who knows Sunday might be the start. But I don’t know.”
Where Galvin has developed his own fashion line with Dunnes Stores, Clarke’s vision is combining all his passions together as a brand. As an example, he holds up Maison Kitsuné, a French-Japanese company which developed from a music label into a fashion, art and coffee house.
“There’s one in New York, two in Paris and a Café Kitsuné in Paris. Simple clothing. Then they would have events and attract a certain audience.
“There’s a lot of that going on in New York, which is really cool. In New York, I have that space and even the creative mindset there would be completely different than what I would have here and that’s showing no disrespect. Having my own place like that is something that I think would be really cool. There might be an opening there for me.” Football will still be for him as it is here. Lining out for New York against Sligo next May is not something he rules out but it will have to fall into what he has in place. He wants to learn a second language, be it French or Spanish.
“I am 26. I don’t know how you’re supposed to feel when you’re getting older. I don’t know how it’s going to affect me. I have a good metabolism and I enjoy being active. In terms of fitness, it won’t be an issue.
“I would be able to catch up. Ultimately, deep down it’s not over for me. I want the year to stabilise my other needs outside of sport and if I get those right and can come back to what I want and play then great.
“I believe now it’s about making it happen for yourself, no matter what. Even it’s meeting your wife, you’ve to make it happen. I suppose being aware of that is a good thing rather than a bad thing.”
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