'Being there on that pitch helped me to not think about cancer for those few hours'

Leitrim great Martin McHugh reflects on his two battles with cancer, Connacht success in 1994 and his lengthy playing career which is still ongoing.

Martin McHugh.
Martin McHugh.

WHEN OISIN KIERNAN stood up in the Castlerahan dressing room in September 2018 and informed his team-mates he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer, Martin McHugh knew exactly what he was going through.

The former Leitrim goalkeeper had recovered from two bouts of cancer by the time he was involved as goalkeeping coach with the Cavan outfit.

Kiernan went on to make a full recovery and returned to inter-county football with Cavan where he won an Ulster title in 2020.

But in the early days after his diagnosis, McHugh was happy to give him some pointers of what to expect as he faced an uncertain journey.

“I remember that evening well,” McHugh tells The42. “We were training somewhere in Meath. I was with Castlerahan at the time as a goalkeeping coach. And that evening we had a meeting in the dressing room.

“We were told there’s some news. I was thinking, ‘What’s gonna happen here?’ Oisin stands up and says he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Straight away there was a hush in the dressing room.

“I was in that position in 2009 and I knew exactly what Oisin was going through. I knew exactly what the players are going through. And we were all numb for a while but the manager Donal Keogan said, ‘We’re all here for you, we’re all here to help you, if you need anything, let us know.’ 

“Sure enough we went out onto the pitch anyway and Oisin didn’t train. We walked and talked for a while. I said, ‘Ask any question you want.’”

“So we talked for a good while and I know it helped him a bit I know the doctors are the specialists but it’s nice to hear from somebody that actually went through it to know exactly what’s going to happen and what’s ahead of him.”

McHugh recalls the experience in his recently published autobiography ‘Born to Save’, co-written by journalist Jason Byrne.

The starting goalkeeper for Leitrim’s famous Connacht title win in 1994, he endured testicular and prostate cancer battles over the last 13 years.

When a lump in his groin was confirmed as testicular cancer in 2009, three courses of chemotherapy left McHugh hanging on by a thread. 

Through his darkest days, the GAA served as a beacon of light. 

“My whole world fell apart because being diagnosed with cancer – and I don’t drink or smoke – really knocked the stuffing out of me. It was a hard road between operations first and then very tough sessions of chemo. You’re talking about 21 sessions of very, very intense treatment and all that.

“Some people asked me still to this day, how did you do it? It’s something I ask myself where would I be if I didn’t have GAA in my life? And I really think I would probably be pushing up the daisies.

“Because even when I was very sick the first couple of weeks doing chemo and all that, I wasn’t too bad. But my third round of chemo really pushed me over the edge. I was so sick, so tired, I had diarrhoea and was puking all the time. 

“It was my lowest point in the whole process. And I was that low I was looking for the keys to the pearly gates of heaven because I just wanted to go.”

It was then when a phone call arrived from a club in Cavan, Crosserlough, who he’d coached the year before. McHugh’s spirits were low.

“He was just checking up how I was doing and all that. I asked him, ‘What are you ringing for?’ And he said, ‘No, it’s okay.’ And I asked him back properly, ‘Really what are you looking? What do you want?’ 

“Oh we’ve training tonight? What time is training at? 8pm. That’s grand I’ll go to bed for a few hours kip and I’ll be there at 7.30pm to give ye a session.

“He said, ‘Are you sure?’

“”100% sure. You’ve just got me off my ass to do something.’

“I drove down to Cavan and it was a great session, even though I might have overdone it because I had to go behind the bushes to get sick. The lads asked me was I alright. I didn’t want to tell them I got sick so I said I had stuff in my eye.  

“But it’s where I wanted to be. Because you’re at home getting sick into a bucket, having diarrhoea, no, no light at the end of the tunnel. You’re sick every day.

“And being there on that pitch helped me to not think about cancer for those few hours. Think about what kind of training I’m going to give these lads, we had a great session and a great laugh as well.”

leitrim-fans-1994 Leitrim fans in 1994. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Boosted by the surge of energy the coaching session gave him, McHugh ventured down to the Clonguish club in Longford, where he transferred to in 2002 after moving to the area.

Arriving before a training session, he appreciated how his team-mates didn’t tip-toe around his illness and proceeded to give him some good natured ribbing. 

“I was there early and the lads come over great to see me, hugging me. I had a bald head at the time and one of the lads came over and gave my head shine, ‘Look at McHugh with the fat arse.’

“And everybody started laughing, so there was a real good feel factor about it. A real family atmosphere about it. 

“Then one of the lads found a sliotar and shouted over from the middle of the field to me, “McHugh is that your ball?’ Everybody thought I was going to be offended. And I started laughing and said, ‘No I lost mine humping the missus last night.’ And everybody started bursting their arse laughing.  

“Cancer is serious and all that but there’s no point tiptoeing around it. For me personally, I use the GAA, the humour, the wit and the talking… ask any question lads and ask away and I will give ye answers. Nobody was shying away from me so I found that very, very good.”

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He gave the players a pep talk that night and remained part of the set-up for the rest of the championship, where they went on to lift the Longford senior football crown.

He managed to resume playing and was sub goalkeeper for the final victory – even delivering an inspiring half-time speech in the final – after which Clonguish skipper Paul Barden insisted that McHugh join him to lift the cup.

After being diagnosed with cancer a second time in 2015, he knew the long road that lay ahead of him. Thankfully, catching it early was critical. Once again, he made a return to the football field.

Two years later, he was between the sticks as a 47-year-old as his home club Aughnasheelin won the Leitrim intermediate title. Now into his 50s, he continues to line out with them, wearing the number 16 jersey in their championship defeat to Allen Gaels last weekend. 

“I enjoy doing it,” he says. “Driving from the house to the pitch you may say, ‘Jesus what am I doing? We’re going doing a few runs and all that, I want to go home’ but halfway through the session you’re feeling good.

“When the session is finished and you’re having your ice baths or shower you feel great and say God that was a great session. I still have that feeling.”

Leitrim’s heroes from 1994 had their 25-year reunion recently. Their Connacht success bridged a 67-year gap and that team is remembered fondly. 

“John O’Mahony always said a long time ago that there’s going to be one thing that will unite us forever, that’s your medal in your back pocket and no truer statement to make,” he says. “Because every so often you might have a text messages from some of the lads, I still ring one or two of them down the line. There’s a great bond there.”

Through his work at Sligo University Hospital, he sometimes meets elderly patients from Leitrim. 

When GAA comes up in conversation, Leitrim’s 1994 success is frequently mentioned. 

When McHugh informs them he was goalkeeper on that team, the patients often respond: ‘Oh Jesus let me shake the hand of a legend.’

“It’s nice in a way to be remembered,” he laughs.

‘Martin McHugh: Born to Save’ by Jason Byrne is published by Hero Books and is available in all good bookstores (and also on Amazon as an ebook €9.99, paperback €20 and hardback €25)

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