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Keeping the Faith: the Offaly hurler on the gambling addiction that cost €800k in 13 years and the road back

‘I robbed, stole, conned, hurt people throughout many years,’ says Derek Morkan as he rebuilds his life.

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IT’S A DARK image and one where Derek Morkan hit rock bottom. 

On 25 December 2020, the former Offaly hurler was sitting alone in a house in Dublin, eating a pot noodle for his Christmas dinner. It was all he could afford.

His parents had been on the phone begging for him to come home, but he couldn’t face it. His life had slowly deteriorated to take him to this point. He was in a bad way. In the months before, he had moved out of several houses to avoid paying rent and spent weeks living out of his van.

He hadn’t eaten properly in weeks. He had no money. He’d only spent one Christmas at home with his family in five or six years. Morkan had long since surrendered to gambling’s undertow. His addiction had a vice-like grip around his throat.

He was teetering on the brink and didn’t know if he had it in him to keep going.

“I just felt so low and sad within myself,” he tells The42. “I was so broke. I was so emotionally drained, I just wanted to be on my own.

“I wanted to go asleep and not wake up. I didn’t have money to eat, I didn’t have the strength to talk to someone. I was so isolated and lonely but I was comfortable in that uncomfortable. That was my way of living. I got so used to being so sad and low that that’s what I wanted.”

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Part of him thought he’d die there, alone in that house, and maybe that was okay. He was sick of trying.

“To be totally honest, I was getting towards that point again where I had another bet in me but I didn’t have another day of living in me.

“If I went one more time conning people and losing money, I reckon I’d have taken my own life. I’m glad I recognised that. With people I borrowed from, robbed from and conned…I had people contacting me looking for money.

“They had opinions of me and didn’t know I was in addiction. The stress and anxiety of all that as well, I had to take responsibility for that. I put myself in that situation and I accept that.

“Everything just got too much for me. Gambling wasn’t an outlet for me anymore, it wasn’t doing it for me. It was just making me worse and I just got to a point where I wanted to create something with my life, do better for myself and people around me. Just to be happy and not be in a state of worry, stress and fear.

“Fear would be the biggest thing of all. Fear of waking up in the morning, the fear of your phone ringing. The fear of everything, of just facing the day. I’d rather lay in the bed with the curtains closed for 24 hours a day than going around living.”

Somehow, he hung in there. When the new year came around, he experienced an epiphany of sorts. The 31-year-old had watched friends and family going happily about their lives. Getting married, having children, buying houses. Just being content and enjoying life.

He wanted more for himself than the depths he’d sunk to. Money, which had long been his trigger, was no longer making him happy.

He went into Cuan Mhuire for his third stint in rehab, after two separate stays in the Rutland Centre. This time, things were different.

In his prior spells at the Rutland, he completed the five-week programme but never took them as seriously as he should have. He relapsed after coming out on both occasions.

“I didn’t let out stuff,” he says of his first two stays. “What I’m after realising now I’m in recovery is the reason why I may have been gambling was stuff that happened early on in my life as a child and teenager.

“I’m after really understanding what was really wrong with me. It comes back through childhood, through being bullied very bad when I was young, through traumas in life, through losses and stuff.

“I never spoke about that kind of stuff and it had an effect on me. I never really looked at it because I had so much going for me in ways. I was talented at hurling, I had my job, I had a good car so I never thought anything was wrong.

“I just blocked it all out. Anytime all those thoughts and feelings about myself came in, I just escaped from all them every single time through gambling.”

In February, Morkan finally opened up about everything to counsellors, letting down the walls of protection he’d built up around the crippling gambling addiction that took him over the edge more than once.

derek-morkan-dejected-after-the-game Morkan after an All-Ireland qualifier clash against Cork in 2012. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

A talented hurler from the Shinrone club, Morkan represented his county at senior level 44 times in league and championship between 2009 and 2017. But for virtually his entire inter-county career, he was in the throes of addiction.

Like an evil spirit that wrapped its coils around his personality, it isolated Morkan and caused his life to spiral downwards, destroying all that was good around him.

He estimates he lost in the vicinity of €800k on betting between the ages of 18 and 31. 

That factors in the “accumulation of wages, stealing, loans, credit cards, winnings and losses.” He moved to England in 2014 and tried to escape his problems but things only got worse.

On one occasion while living in London, he won £25k on a horse. After losing that money, he managed to get his winnings back up to £90k. 10 days later he couldn’t afford a cup of tea. 

“Nothing was ever enough. In that moment when I got up to that £90k, I 100% believed that I was going to become a millionaire from gambling.

“That’s that delusion, it’s what the addiction does. It tells you you’re going to win every single time, it never tells you you’re going to lose. You always believe you’re going to win your way through life. ”

Twice, the pain became so great that he sought the ultimate way out. His first suicide attempt came while living in London in 2015. The second in 2019 after he’d moved back to Ireland.

“I was in a casino in Dublin and I lost a load of money. I actually wrote a message to both my parents and my brother.

“I apologised for everything that I’ve done in my life to them. I just said I had to go, I can’t cope anymore and I turned off my phone. My mother and father were so worried, they were ringing the guards.

“After I text that message to my parents saying goodbye to them, something happened in me because I turned on my phone and broke down crying on the phone begging them to come get me.”

Thankfully for Morkan, after checking into Cuan Mhuire on 1 February things have started to look up. He completed his 12-week stay in the Kildare treatment centre and stayed on to volunteer, helping out with other addicts going through similar experiences. 

He wanted to do this interview for two reasons. Firstly, to raise awareness around gambling addiction in the GAA which he believes has become a “massive” issue. And secondly, to help raise funds for Cuan Mhuire, the Athy-based charity organisation, as they attempt to open up a dedicated gambling unit.

It’s been a long road back.

******

derek-molloy-and-derek-morkan-celebrate Offaly's Derek Molloy and Morkan celebrate a league win over Dublin in 2010. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Morkan was just 18 when he was first called up to the Offaly panel in 2008 under Joe Dooley. As a former underage star, there had been a good deal of hype around his rise to senior ranks. 

Offaly’s fortunes had started to slide but they still had a good team and were capable of giving any of the top sides a game on their day. 

For a youngster who grew up following the county team’s run of success during the 1990s, it fulfilled his childhood dreams.  

Hailing from hurling-mad village Shinrone, all he wanted to do was hurl with Offaly. 

The Faithful were in their pomp and regularly competing for Leinster and All-Ireland crowns during the ’90s. It was a magical time to grow up in the county, with the footballers also highly competitive during that era. 

“I was delighted, I was loving it,” he recalls. “I was representing my county. I couldn’t wait to be in because I’d hurled at U14, U16, minor and U21 with Offaly. After getting the call-up, it was great. I went in training with the senior squad and loved it.

“I got a few minutes here and there in league games. That’s all I wanted to do was play for Offaly.

“My gambling didn’t affect my hurling back then.”

He was also 18 when he had his first bet. The family were involved with horses and Morkan used to put a fiver here and there on races with his brother. 

“The first few times, the bets won,” he recalls. “Instantly I enjoyed that feeling. The first thought that came into my head was, ‘This is easy. I’m going to make extra money, I can work and then have an extra wage. I’ll be able to have nice things, nice cars and all that carry on going into my adulthood.’”

It started out as a weekend thing, but slowly started to progress. The bets started to rise from a fiver to tenners, up to twenties and fifties. Before he knew it, he was heading into the bookies without his brother. 

He’d sneak off into town on his own to sit in the bookies for a few hours. When his bets started to lose, he became acquainted with that sinking feeling inside. 

‘Shite, I need to get that back. I’ll win it back, break even and go home.’

And in the early years, he did go home. Around the age of 21, it moved away from being a casual thing and started to get heavy. 

“The bets became larger, the frequency became more and I was going in nearly every day of the week. I’d started an apprenticeship at the same time and I’d go during my lunch hour in work, after work, before training, after training.

“It was just constant. I had to go and have a bet. It was just that buzz and excitement. I felt good. I felt like it was brand new, like I was invincible when I was in the bookies.”

And for a while, the hurling kept him away from the gambling. Things were going well on the field. In his second year on the panel, he established his place on the team at wing-back. 

“The persona and image I had around hurling, I’ll be real about it, there was a lot of talk about me because I was young and hurling well. There was a hype around me.

“I’ll say it straight up, even around women I felt invincible – that I could use my image to get whoever I wanted. I’d go into the pub and lads would be buying you drink and you feel like you’re a king around the place. You lived behind that persona.

“I’ll be honest at that time, I didn’t believe I had an addiction because I was hurling with my county. I had a job, a nice car, a girlfriend at the time, my family life was all good so I never thought it was a problem.

“I thought it was just a casual thing, a social thing and it was acceptable that you go into the bookies every day and spend money that you worked hard for. I didn’t see it as a problem.” 

It was at this stage that Morkan’s Offaly team-mates first started to notice something was up. They’d have spotted him heading into the local bookies, or noticed he’d be constantly talking about betting.

On the team bus heading a big Leinster championship game, he’d be checking the winners of a race or ringing the local bookies to place a bet.

derek-morkan-congratulates-shane-dooley Morkan with Shane Dooley after a draw against Galway in the 2010 Leinster semi-final. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

A couple of players asked him if everything was alright around the gambling.

“Straight away I was in denial, ‘Yeah, what do you mean?’ I nearly put it back on them for the cheek of them asking me because I was just hiding the addiction.

“That was at 22, 23 and that’s when it started to take over my focus in around the hurling. Being in the mindset for a game really, my mind had started to go elsewhere. 

“After three or four years hurling with Offaly that’s when the gambling got really bad to the extent where I couldn’t function. I couldn’t function without having to go and try win money.”

From the outside looking in, things seemed to be progressing well for Morkan. But hurling had started to lose some of its lustre. Despite acting like he had it all under control, it couldn’t have been further from the truth.

“I loved the hurling and I did like the attention but the reason I liked it was because it masked up what was really going on for me. Behind closed doors, when I was on my own, I was miserable and depressed.

“Crying myself to sleep more nights. Then the guilt and shame around the players that I was hurling with, the people that were looking out for me and that suggested maybe I go talk to someone.

“I remember a specific person, I used to think he was just annoying me at the time but now looking back he was only looking out for me.

“I had such resentment towards them that they were trying to control my life. I was out of control without even seeing it myself. Other people could see it but I couldn’t see it myself. That’s the whole blindness of addiction. I just could not see what was really going on for me.”

Morkan’s problems worsened in 2014 and the facade became harder to maintain. He was stealing and conning his way to money. His addiction wreaked havoc on family, friends, relationships, employers, work colleagues and team-mates.

“Anything just to get money I would have done,” he admits. “The gambling took away all my morals and values, I didn’t care who I hurt. I always thought I was temporarily borrowing the money but I was just stealing really to gamble.

“I put them through so much,” he says of his parents and brother. “They just couldn’t cope with me.”

So Morkan dropped off the Offaly panel, packed his bags and headed to London. 

“My thing was, ‘Go to hell with everyone.’ I ran away from all my problems. I thought a new fresh start and way of living was going to sort me out and help me stay away from gambling.

“I just ran away and hid. I lost a lot of friends through it. I lost a lot of connections through my home club team and county players I played with. I went over there and things got 10 times worse.”

derek-morkan-and-onathan-glynn-and-cathal-mannion Morkan battles for possession with Galway's Jonathan Glynn. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He continued to seek an escape from life through gambling. The only time he hadn’t a care in the world was when he was sitting in a bookies. He drifted between apartments, moving out to avoid paying rent on a handful of occasions. That money was put towards his betting. He lost count of the number of times he went to sleep hungry.

Two years into his time in London, Morkan had reached a breaking point. He started to find it difficult to access funds, having exhausted credit cards, bank loans and hand-outs from friends.

He got so low that he’d started approaching strangers on the street, telling them he’d lost his wallet or phone. 

‘Any chance you’d lend me a fiver? I need to get home.’

After taking an overdose of tablets, his girlfriend at the time found him and called the police. Morkan was arrested for his own safety and put in a cell for the night. That led to him returning to Ireland to check into the Rutland Centre for treatment in 2015.

For a while, things went okay. He started hurling with Shinrone and Offaly again, yet inside the familiar demons tortured him. He stopped going to meetings and a short time after getting out, he relapsed. 

“I just wasn’t content and happy in my own self. I always felt I was never wanted, that I was a waste of space of a person.

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“I felt so low, my self-worth was on the ground. The only way I was able to get away from them feelings was through gambling. I went back to it again.”

Only this time, he dipped his toes in online gambling for the first time. Horses and greyhounds were his thing, but now he needed the quick-hit of online casino and slot machines. 

“That’s where it really, really got worse. I thought I hit rock bottom when I tried to take my own life but things only got worse and worse. It was so accessible online where you didn’t have to go to bank and take cash out, you just go onto the app and deposit with the click of a button. 

“No matter if it was a tenner I lost or a massive amount of money, up to the thousands, that instant feeling was, ‘I want to take my own life. I can’t cope.’ The suicidal thoughts would come, ‘I’m here again, I have to go.’”

derek-morkan-and-richie-hogan Richie Hogan takes on Morkan in the 2014 Leinster championship. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He made his final appearance for Offaly in 2017 and two years later returned to the Rutland Centre after the second suicide attempt. He relapsed even quicker this time around.

In the last two years, he’d regularly win amounts of €15k to €20k and lose it all before the day was out. 

“I never knew what was wrong with me, why I was gambling to that extent,” he says.

“I always thought I was a bad person, that no-one loved me or wanted me. It was my behaviours that made me feel like that because they pushed people away so much and they couldn’t be around me or trust me.

“I broke so many morals and values towards myself. Not intentionally. I didn’t even see what I was doing. That’s the whole power of addiction. It gets a grasp of you.

“People you hurt, you think they’re not going to be affected by it because you go into the poor me behind the addict, ‘What about me?’ You forget about what you’re doing to other people. It was just a viscous cycle.”

The Gaelic Players Association was there along the way ever since an Offaly team-mate put Morkan in touch with them. They funded his stay in the Rutland Centre in 2019 and stuck by him after he relapsed.

They also paid for his recent stint in Cuan Mhuire. Morkan has nothing but praise for the organisation that helped him “in every single way” through counselling, weekly check-ins and help getting employment. 

******

Around eight weeks into his time at Cuan Mhuire, he started to feel emotions like empathy that had deserted him for years. After completing the three-month course, he decided to stay on volunteering. 

It keeps him in a safe environment and he can share his experience with others who are taking the first steps on the road to recovery. 

He has regrets over how his Offaly career turned out, but there’s not much he can do about it now.

He never fully committed to the nutrition or gym side of things, and in too many games he couldn’t concentrate because his head was filled with thoughts about a bet he’d placed or his financial struggles.

“I enjoyed the first four years of (senior) hurling with the county and club,” he says. “After that it was only to show up. So people wouldn’t realise something was wrong. 

“It went from one cycle to another. It was all hurling, hurling, hurling with a bit of gambling and then it was all gambling, gambling, gambling with a bit of hurling. 

“I robbed, stole, conned, hurt people throughout many years. The reason I’m able to speak about it today is because I want better for myself. 

“Hurling was my first love and I love it to this day. But I figured out during my journey it’s not the be-all-and-end-all either. What’s really going on for us is the main thing. We can enjoy sport but if we start to not enjoy it we need to make sure we speak about it and identify what’s really going on for us.

danny-sutcliffe-and-derek-morkan Morkan wins the ball head of Dublin's Danny Sutcliffe. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“We have great relationships and that camaraderie, but that eventually stops too. During that process unfortunately I didn’t talk about what was going on for me and I could have had more years hurling, more enjoyment on the field.

“But I didn’t speak about it so I’d love if someone is going through problems that they speak about it, enjoy hurling more and fulfil their potential because I didn’t. My addiction took over and I never spoke about it.

“I’m 31 years of age, I’d love to be still hurling to this day. But the way my life has panned out from my gambling, it took away that.

“I’d still be able to hurl with he club but I’m unable to commit to that now because I damaged myself so much, other people in around my team, my family and the village that I come from. I feel it’s very hard for me to go back to those areas because I’ve so much guilt and shame.”

Morkan delivers a stark warning over the issue of gambling in GAA, particularly in inter-county dressing rooms.

“When you’re training so hard we never really had an outlet to socialise. You’re expected to live at the high standards. You don’t drink if you want to perform at the top level. It’s so noticeable physically when people have addictions to drink and drugs.

“Gambling is so hidden that no-one realises what’s going on. People use that as an escape from the pressures of training six or seven nights a week. The pressures of relationships and life just needs releasing.

“I unfortunately went down the road of getting that release from gambling believing that it was going to make me a better life but it actually turned my life upside down and put me in a fierce dark place.”

He concludes by explaining that, in the recovery process, forgiving himself is the hardest thing of all. 

“In recovery we’ve to try separate the addiction from who we really are. The addiction is so powerful, we done stuff through our addiction that we wouldn’t do in recovery.

“The process around forgiving yourself is a very, very tough area because that remorse, guilt and shame is so strong within you.

“You do get your feelings back. When you start to forgive yourself it’s a nice feeling. I have a peaceful regret. I regret where I’ve been in life but it’s also taught me a massive lesson and created a massive awareness of how I want to live my life going forward: to be good to yourself and be good to other people.

“I’m ashamed of the stuff I’ve done but I’m not ashamed about who I am today. I’m not ashamed that I am an addict because it’s going to make me a better person with the experience I’m going through now in recovery.

“I’m not ashamed to say who I am. I’m able to say, ‘I’m Derek and I’m a compulsive gambler.’ Openly and freely.”

One day at a time.

******

You can contribute to Derek Morkan’s fundraiser to support addictions services at Cuan Mhuire here. 

Screenshot 2021-05-25 at 23.32.33

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact Gamblers Anonymous Ireland, Cuan Mhuire and Pieta House at 1800 247 247. 

  • For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Kevin O'Brien

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