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'I used to get letters about how I was going to go to hell and 'there's still time to save your soul''

Eamon McGee speaks to The42 about his social activism and being harassed by a detractor after this year’s county final.

EAMON MCGEE ALWAYS felt compelled to get involved in social matters.

eamonn-mcgee Eamon McGee in action for Donegal in 2014. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The Donegal All-Ireland winner was a vocal and prominent figure during the Repeal the 8th and Marriage referendums in Ireland, but his participation was not incidental.

Offering himself to such movements was something that came naturally to him. It’s an instinct that stretches way back into his youth.

At the time of the referendums, it was his inter-county profile that encouraged McGee to get involved, although he has since changed his view on what counts as a reasonable motive for social activism. 

Anyone can get involved if they feel passionately enough about the cause.

“It probably took an All-Ireland and a wee while in the spotlight to feel brave enough to go out and say, ‘you know what? I’m gonna back this,’” McGee tells The42 as he thinks back on why he gravitated towards these campaigns in the first place.

“There would be times when you’d want to say stuff but you’re just Eamon McGee from the stag party and who gives a fuck what he thinks? That’s wrong and it doesn’t matter what your profile is, you should just speak out regardless. If you want to help a cause, lend your help to the cause.”

McGee has received plenty of positive responses from the public following the outcome of the referendums.

After retiring from inter-county football in 2016, a man from Waterford sent a letter to McGee to inform him that his involvement in the Marriage referendum was a big help to his son who is gay.

eamonn-mcgee McGee has received plenty of support for his views but there has been some negative reaction too. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Similarly, women who travelled abroad to seek abortion services, approached McGee to thank him for helping propel the Yes campaign to victory last year.

But the Gaoth Dobhair native has encountered some difficulties as a result of his stance in the referendums too. A priest in the neighbouring parish of Annagry denounced McGee’s views on same sex marriage ahead of the referendum in 2015.

McGee says he “wasn’t being wild derogatory but he still called my name out on the pulpit.” The former Donegal player contacted the parish priest — who claims it was a different clergyman who made the remarks about McGee — to express his disappointment about the incident.

There’s also been some anonymous letters, instructing McGee to repent and retract his opinions.

I used to get letters. I’d love to know who wrote them from the start of the marriage referendum about how I was going to go to hell and ‘there’s still time to save your soul’.

“They’ve stopped now but you still get a bit of abuse on Twitter but they’re idiots.

“If it was someone who put their name to it you’d respect it in a way but it’s something like Eamon45678 and a picture of Pádraig Pearse. There’s not too much to worry about.

“At the end of the day, you’re not going to worry about what some fucking eejit thinks.”

eamon-mcgee-with-the-sam-maguire-cup McGee after Donegal's All-Ireland win in 2012. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

In his football life, McGee enjoyed an incredible 12-year stint with the Donegal team. In addition to lifting the Sam Maguire in 2012, McGee also collected three Ulster SFC titles and a National League medal before hanging up the jersey.

His most recent years with Gaoth Dobhair have been fruitful too. They ended a 12-year wait for a senior county title last year before edging out an extra-time battle against Monaghan’s Scotstown to become the first Donegal club to win the Ulster senior football championship.

Gaoth Dobhair returned to the Donegal county final this year. Their title defence was decided by a three-game saga against Naomh Conaill where the contenders ultimately came out on top after game three.

But it was after the first drawn game that McGee suffered further abuse for his beliefs.

McGee first wrote about this experience in his Irish Star column, describing the post-match actions of an aggressor who he calls ‘Mr Youtube.’

“I was getting interviewed by TG4 and the brother was staying about and I was wondering why is this boy staying about?” McGee recalls.

“It was out of character for him. But he had spotted your man and recognised him from online.

Your man came over after the interview and had the camera phone in my face. He says ‘how do you feel about bringing LGBT degeneracy and baby-killing to Ireland?’

“Thankfully Peter was there and he totally defused it. I might have been able to remain calm if I was on my own but the fact Peter was there, it didn’t feel like a threat. It was just a bit of craic.

“He says ‘how much did you get paid?’ and I says ‘oh blank cheque, blank cheque.’ I wasn’t too worried about it and I was just laughing.”

eamonn-mac-aoidh On the ball for Gaoth Dobhair. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

McGee says he still occasionally gets grief from his detractors on social media, but this incident was more personal as his partner Joanne was targeted as well. She was holding their daughter Daisy as she left the grounds when Mr Youtube confronted her.

We went off the field and they were going out the gate at the same time and he started going Joanne, ‘does your husband know what he brought to Ireland?’ And asked her how she voted in the referendum. Joanne just told him it was none of his fucking business and she was well fit for him.

“It was just the fact that Daisy was there and I don’t know should she be hearing that.” 

The three-game series in the county final brought other complications for McGee. He had booked a trip to New York with Joanne after the first game which they had planned long in advance.

Work was booked off and babysitters were arranged for their three young children, Daisy [3] and twins Luke and Evie [1].

In fact, Joanne came onto the pitch after the game to remind McGee that the New York holiday was not for cancelling, despite the impending replay the following weekend.

McGee agreed, although some of his clubmates wanted him to cut the trip short instead of arriving home a few hours before the replay. The difficulties were further compounded by the fact that McGee is a nervy flyer, and needs to take Valium to get through the long-haul flights over and back.

“I was landing in to Ballybofey at about 7.30am and up again at 11 [for the game],” McGee begins.

You’re still feeling a bit groggy and you’ve Valium in you. To be honest, I don’t know how I managed it because you look at the GPS stats, they were grand for a man that had slept for about three hours and had a rake of Valium in him.

“This is my theory, I could be completely wrong, but I was in emergency mode.

“It was tough on the body and I think I crashed on the Wednesday before the third game. I just knew I wasn’t right at all.”

eamonn-mcgee-dejected McGee went through a lot during the three-game saga of the county final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

That second final also ended in a draw, and the subsequent periods of extra-time failed to separate the sides. The final installment of the county decider saw Naomh Conaill dethrone the champions, winning by 0-8 to 0-7 in a low-scoring affair in Ballybofey.

It was a particularly disappointing result for McGee. His game finished early after he received a straight red card for striking a Naomh Conaill player at half-time.

McGee recalls that he was protesting about a lack of protection to the linesmen when a member of the opposition arrived to goad the Gaoth Dobhair man. 

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“There was nothing [in it], he was having a bit of craic and he’s laughing,” McGee remembers about the clash.

“I just lashed out and as soon as I did it I just knew that was me gone. There was a debate going on in my head at half-time, ‘do we make a substitution here or do we take the risk?’ We just took the risk and we thought [we'd] maybe get away with it but as soon as… I know the ref and the ref was actually on the flight over to New York which is funny.

As soon as I looked at him I knew he was going to do it. In fairness to him, he had no choice and that was one of the things I said to him after the game. I said he had a good game and not to worry about it, I left him with no choice.”

There’s two sides to McGee; his on-field persona and his off-field persona.

Earlier that day, McGee delivered a talk about LGBTQ awareness in the workplace. He says he told the audience that the person standing in front of them differed from the character he assumed whenever he took to the field.

The on-field persona. That’s the Eamon who straddles disciplinary lines and takes his game to the edge.

“On the football field, I have to hold my hand up and say I’m not a nice guy at all,” says McGee when summarising his game-face character.

Reconciling those opposing personas is something McGee has made peace with. They are two separate parts of his identity that he happily lives with.

Getting sent off in a game doesn’t compromise his ability as a public speaker or social activist, but some people have questioned his integrity in the past.

eamonn-mcgee-with-kieran-donaghy Playing on the edge. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“People have said to me before, ‘you’ve done this and you’ve done that and then you go out and preach about x,y and z.’ I’ve made peace with that and people should make peace with it. There’s two personas.

“Away from the field I’d like to think I’m a good enough guy. People have to realise that that persona that comes out in me during the game or whatever. I actually mentioned in the talk.

I says ‘listen, I’m talking to you about love and acceptance and making it easier on your work colleagues. In four or five hours, I’m gonna be a horrible bastard,’ he laughs.”

McGee was in low form for a while after the county final. Losing their title, coupled with the sending off, left him struggling.

He obsessed over the result. That was a reaction he had not experienced since his inter-county days, but the heavy mix of emotions brought him back to that head space.

The title was up for grabs three times and Gaoth Dobhair failed to clinch it. It was tough for McGee to stomach.

That period of grief didn’t last long however, as the needs of McGee’s young children came quickly into view. His eldest is three-year-old Daisy who is at an age where she knows about Santa and is getting impatient about waiting to open her Christmas presents. 

Plans to become a politician have been put to McGee in the past. He admits that he might consider it in the future but it doesn’t appeal to him at the moment.

For now, he’s happy to split his time between playing for the club, raising a family and lending his voice to causes that matter to him.

“It’s the people who you make feel better and wanted,” says McGee. “They’re the people that matter.”

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