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'It was definitely about personal growth' - the Roscommon footballer who joined the circus

Ronan Brady took the road less travelled.

THREE YEARS AGO Ronan Brady was in Azerbaijan when he received a phone call from his girlfriend. It was bad news.

His father, Justin, was dead at the age of 50. 

pjimage-2 Worlds Apart: Roscommon GAA and the circus.

Ronan, a former Roscommon footballer, was performing as a circus artist at the Islamic Games in Baku that summer. 

“I was in Azerbaijan and we’d just done that closing ceremony, so I flew home,” he tells The42.

“Since this day three years ago, I’ve buried my father and two uncles I was very close to. I’ve created a series of shows, done world tours and sold out shows on Vicar Street.

“It feels like a lifetime ago but it still only feels like yesterday. So much has changed.”

Brady, who was part of Roscommon’s Connacht-title winning squad in 2010, made headlines in 2017 as the ‘GAA star who ran away and joined the circus’. The story practically wrote itself. 

But there’s a whole lot more to it than that. 

In an upcoming memoir, ‘Worlds Apart: An Alternative Journey to Becoming a Modern Man’, he charts his journey from an obsessive inter-county footballer and secondary school teacher, to a new life in the arts where he excelled as a cyr wheel performer.

In a deeply personal story, he opens up about his parents’ fractured relationship, his father’s infidelity and the eventual break-up of their marriage that led to his own anger issues on and off the football field.

It was, he explains, almost theraputic to put it all down on paper. 

“Absolutely,” he says. “It definitely was a cathartic experience.”

Source: Ronan Brady - Anomaly Performance/YouTube

He believes his father battled depression and his life spiralled before he died of a blood clot.

“Back then, in rural Ireland, we were still a long way off from having the vocabulary to identify it as (depression),” he writes in the book.

But Ronan and his siblings knew he wasn’t well long before he passed.

He ran the family-related chapters by them before they made the final draft of the book.

“We didn’t have a whole pile of conversations,” he explains. “It’s so strange because often when we get together, we’ve such a large family, it’s almost just catching up as opposed to really digging in and talking about something.

“There’s so many elements of broken families that it’s just better that you just not mention it and everybody should get on. But then time passes and nothing is ever spoken about. I just went ahead and wrote this.

“Then I sent the two chapters that were family-related to them and I asked, ‘Is there anything in here that anybody would like to veto?’ 

“And I wanted the reason as to why. If the only reason was, ‘What would the neighbours think?’ Then I said that won’t be a legitimate one. I think that whole idea about what the neighbours would think is pretending that everything in our household is okay, it actually ruins everything.

“We have all these protective conversations with everybody. If you ask me how I am, I’ll say, ‘I’m fine and how are you?’ We’re conditioned to say that. A friend of mine just wrote a poem there and she said in it, ‘If you ask what’s breaking my heart I’ll invite you into the house, make you a cup of tea and tell you everything.’

“It’s a more real question. I feel we can’t ever have truly deep, meaningful conversations with people unless we’ve kind of revealed ourselves a little bit to them or they’ve revealed themselves a little bit to us.

“It’s only when someone has been somewhat vulnerable that we relax and go, ‘Well I can be vulnerable with this person too.’ I didn’t know I had something to say but it just same out.

“We’re all going around pretending that everything is grand. The gas thing is you’re trying to hide stuff from the neighbours, but the neighbours know. Everyone knows what’s going on. They mightn’t know the details but they’ve a fair idea. 

“Even when my parents broke up you’d be out in the local area in your early 20s and other fellas would slide up to you and whisper in your ear, ‘You know what, I think it’s really shit your parents have broken up but mine are still together and they probably should have done it years ago.’

“And that would be it. Then you can see that’s been bugging them and they almost wish for your scenario even though it might be crap. Those things never end up being full-conversations.

“A little whisper after three or four pints and then you kind of forget about it. But there’s great moments of healing there and I just think it’s an opportunity for everyone to be a little bit more open and have actual conversations. 

“You’ll meet somebody now and you’ll go, ‘Any craic?’ Nobody has any craic because nothing is happening. But we still have fears, concerns, worries, ideas and regrets. We have all these other things we can speak about but it’s almost like, ‘Let’s just not touch that.’ Those are where the real conversations are for me.”

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27907739_10212670788497926_44245650590772628_o Ronan Brady during a show.

In many ways it’s a tale of personal growth, one where Brady realises that expression is an important form of self-development. As a talented player growing up in a rural community in Roscommon, making it onto the county panel was about the height of his ambitions. 

The majority of his life decisions were made with football in mind. He studied to be an engineering teacher to fit around his playing career, which saw him called up to the Rossies’ panel under Fergal O’Donnell in 2009. 

But somewhere along the way he started to feel unfillfulled.

The constant grind of training and games wore him down. An osteo pubis injury forced him to take a year out of the game and he never wore the Roscommon jersey again, instead discovering a new, unique path. What started out as a hobby transformed his life.

Many people couldn’t understand why he would give up an inter-county career and club football with Elphin, where he was captain.

“Some people might say, ‘Sure what would you want to be at that for?’ And sometimes it just takes legitimising it with a response by going, ‘I think it might be interesting’ and just backing your own judgement and feeling and people will be okay with it.  

“We’ve a funny thing in Ireland where we never truly appreciate our own people until they kind of go away from wherever they are and be successful so then we can reclaim them.  

“It’s not begrudgery but I think it might be people’s own disappointment in themselves that they didn’t take a punt on something as well. And they can nearly sit easier with their decision if someone else doesn’t highlight that for them. I think it should be encouraged. 

“There were decisions which made me pursue uncomfortable situations that channelled my belief systems. Or the things I grew up with which would make me go, ‘Why are you so strange about being in a room full of gay people?’

“If you’re not comfortable in yourself and other people there’s a bigger question to be asked about yourself when you’re in those places. 

“So it was definitely about personal growth. And I actively did and still do try put myself into situations which I can’t back out so I can challenge myself and grow a little bit from it.

david-bray-and-ronan-brady Roscommon's Brady tackles Meath's David Brady during an All-Ireland qualifier clash in 2009. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“We need to understand our beliefs and convictions but we should also question and challenge them on a regular basis. Otherwise it will lead to quite a closed a segregated society.”

The past few years have involved a worldwide tour and the creation of his own award-winning show alongside performing partner Aisling Ní Cheallaigh.

He has no regrets over leaving his GAA career behind, which he admits engulfed his life from his mid-teens to late-20s.

“Michael Jordan is like the 1%, there are so many people who will adopt his approach and never win anything. It will be, ‘What was this for?’ You can just be blinded by your own focus. It’s like the horse getting ready for the race and you put the blinkers on it, because you’re telling it, ‘Nothing else matters.’  

“For some of us there’s something in us that we need to sink our teeth into something and it’s good for us to get obsessed with something. But it’s not okay to get obsessed with something at the cost of somebody else.

“It’s only when you’re doing that and people are you are being left behind, misused, discarded or trampled upon then that’s when things aren’t cool. There’s a danger of that happening, even of good people doing things like that. I’m guilty of it myself. We just get so focused on something that’s giving us so much life. It’s a dangerous but wonderful thing.  

“It’s a losing battle, you’re always giving something to it. You’re always playing through an injury, playing through a knock – your body is diminishing. It’s being used up by the sport that you’re playing.

“When I dabbled in circus a little bit, you see that all the good professional circus artists work on well into their 40s even into a high level of physicality.

“It’s because even though you’re doing things that are difficult and sometimes impactful on the body, you’re looking after it because it’s a tool. You make decisions based upon the body as opposed to based upon, ‘I’ve a training session on Tuesday.’ 

“Which is ridiculous because a circus performer might give up a gig for the long-term longevity of their career which is money paying.

“And here we are in Gaelic football and it’s an amateur thing, you’ll get your few expenses and those little perks where everyone in the locality thinks you’re a great fella, but you’re paying for it with knocks and bruises and things that never recover.

“Even, I have an ankle injury from mid-20s and you’re like, ‘At what point is this a knock or is it something I have to deal with for the rest of my life?’ 

“The fun is gone out of the game a little bit.”

*****

You can pre-order a hard copy of Ronan Brady’s memoir Worlds Apart here

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Kevin O'Brien

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