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Dublin: 17°C Sunday 13 June 2021

'I learned more in the prison about people than I did in any f*cking school I was in'

We caught up with Shane McNaughton to discuss his journey from Croke Park to Broadway.

SHANE MCNAUGHTON ANSWERS the phone as he settles into a New York cafe, shortly after he finished reading for a potential part in an upcoming Broadway play.

In a previous life, McNaughton was an Antrim star and chasing All-Ireland glory with his club Ruairí Óg, Cushendall. Nowadays, the 30-year-old is firmly embedded in the Big Apple acting scene.

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Two weeks after Ruairi Óg’s All-Ireland hurling final loss to Na Piarsaigh on St Patrick’s Day in 2016, McNaughton hopped on a plane bound for the States to give acting his full attention for the first time in his life.

The progress since has been steady for McNaughton, who spent three years studying in the Maggie Flanigan Studio and since 2016 has been enrolled at the famed Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

He’ll appear in the lead role in Insurrection, an upcoming short Irish feature film about Roger Casement, while he recently finished filming another movie in Memphis.

In other words, his decision to swap the hurley for the stage has been a positive move.

“I did feel a little bit restricted throughout it all because it was, ‘Be there at this time, do your training at seven, it finishes at nine,’” he tells The42.

“I felt really restricted by the whole county set-up and creatively as a person, it didn’t allow for any creative growth for me.

“It sounds a bit f*cking pretentious and I don’t mean it to sound like that. I just had enough of it, of being told where to be at this time.

“Once I made the decision, it kind of was an all or nothing with acting, either go to school here (in New York) and do it or I don’t. It was very freeing.”

[image alt="Shane McNaughton is challenged by Mark McFadden" src="" width="630" height="472" title="" class="aligncenter" /end]

McNaughton was the first of a few ex-county players to set sail for New York to pursue their passion in recent years.

Former Roscommon defender Neil Collins moved to the city to follow a career in the fashion industry, while ex-Armagh star Jamie Clarke is another New York-based free spirit with a grá for fashion, coffee and culture. Clarke will line out for the New York footballers in the Connacht SFC against Leitrim next month.

Despite his love for the GAA, McNaughton wanted to ensure he wasn’t left with a void once his playing days ended. He feels his father, legendary Antrim hurling figure Terence ’Sambo’ McNaughton, never replaced the buzz of hurling once he retired from playing.

“I was saying to my Da the other day,” McNaughton begins, “sport is that ruthless – he still hasn’t found a way to fill the void that not (playing) hurling has left.

“He’s tried to fill it through managing and things like that, but he still hasn’t if he’s honest with himself. But no-one’s going to tell me when to stop doing this.”

Like Collins and Clarke, McNaughton was always an independent thinker and didn’t come across as your typical inter-county player.

Terence Sambo McNaughton picture with his two sons Shane and Christy Terence Sambo McNaughton pictured with his two sons Shane and Christy Source: Presseye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

He wrote a weekly column for Ulster GAA newspaper Gaelic Life while playing with Antrim in 2013, a rarity in the modern game where most players see the media as an unnecessary distraction.

“I liked writing and stuff, but the part I didn’t enjoy was putting your opinion out there while you were still playing,” he says.

“I didn’t like the idea of that at the time. I was studying at college and to be honest with you they were paying me to do it so it was helping with things.

“I didn’t enjoy writing about matches and sharing my opinion on different players and managers, I didn’t like that at all. There were a few columns which I enjoyed doing, things that were a bit more personal.”

It took time for McNaughton to find his voice and purpose. He recalls leaving school at 16 and drifting from job to job in search of something more. It’s been an interesting journey.

“There was no long-term plan at that age. I was kind of bouncing around, kind of confused like a lot of ones at that age about what they want to do. I went brick-laying when I left school, I did that for about a year.

“Then I went and I did tiling for about six months. I worked making hurls with my Da, I headed off to Australia for 10 months, I came back and worked in the butchers. I was f*cking at every job under the sun. I did a bit of farming as well around home.

“I was taking drama classes as well but I suppose that kind of came later. I think the mindset because I was playing hurling and going into them auditions in theatres and stuff, you kind of always felt a little bit out of place.

“Because you’re coming from a hurling background, a working-class kind of background and going into those situations. I was confused a lot of the time.”

[image alt="Shane McNaughton and Conor Carson dejected after the game" src="" width="630" height="374" class="aligncenter" /end]

When he was 18, his father was fed-up with his lack of focus and called him out in front of the entire Cushendall senior team at a training session.

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“You’re like a fireman,” Sambo told his son. “One week you’re on and one week you’re off.’”

He wasn’t far from the truth, admits McNaughton. “That’s kind of the way it was,” he says. “Because I’d start doing something and then something else would interest me. It was kind of my curiosity leading me.

“I learned probably more life lessons in the changing room with my Dad talking to us than I did in any school. I was just confused a lot of the time to be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

His curiosity and interest in people drew him to study counselling. When his acting career later began to take flight, he would find his time working with young offenders in Hydebank Prison as a useful experience to draw upon.

“I was always interested in working with young and old people. I worked in an elderly home when I was in college and then I worked looking after a Down syndrome man, John, who I’m still in contact with today. It was one of my favourite jobs. Then I went to work with young offenders.”

Why young offenders?

“I don’t know why,” he answers. “I’ve no family that were in jail but I just found it really interesting. I read so many self-help books about your sub-conscious mind and it just really interested me.

“I just wanted to study more about psychology and then that led into the counselling. I got the job in the prison with the young offenders and the women, which was interesting in itself.

[image alt="Brian Geary and Niall Moran with Shane McNaughton" src="" width="630" height="406" title="" class="aligncenter" /end]

“I’ve been in drama school now for a couple of years and I learned more in the prison about people than I did in any f*cking school I was in.

“It was brilliant for that because there were so many different personalities and it definitely changes your perception, your outlook on life. You can sit and look at it very black and white: ‘He’s a bad person or he’s a good person.’

“I think we’ve all got good qualities and bad qualities in us and that’s a very important thing to realise, especially for acting to try and draw on them. You’re not just good or bad. Some people are in situations that make them bad, there’s a certain set of circumstances that make them bad or make them good.

“That was a real learning for acting. It’s just very interesting because you wouldn’t be in rooms like that with people normally, so the learning in there of how the lads deal with what they’ve been given and how they all deal with it differently. It does give you a great outlook on your own life and you can use that and steal little things from them if needed for whatever you’re doing.”

Eventually, the time came to throw his lot in the acting basket and give it his full attention. “There was great freedom in that,” he says. “I did run about for loads of time in my 20s confused and wondering did I want to do this. These are the years I should be…You know, I don’t have a family, I don’t have any kids – I’ve no real responsibilities as such.

“Once I made the decision, it kind of was an all or nothing decision with acting, either go to school here (in New York) and do it or I don’t. It was very freeing.”

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While his work now involves playing other characters, McNaughton says much of his acting training forced him to undergo an intense period of self-examination.

“That’s the part of acting that actually really appealed to me at the start. Just getting to know more of yourself. The thing I found out a lot is I’m very inclined to self-sabotage. I think as Irish people, in general, we hide a lot of feelings, which is brilliant for what I’m doing, but we hide a lot of things.

“We’re like, ‘Sure it’s grand.’ I’m not speaking for everyone but I don’t normally let myself feel what I’m feeling, or say what you’re saying. That was very freeing. It was almost like therapy, going into a drama school, you know?

“At the start there were times I was nervous before I went on stage. I mean, I’m still nervous but I know I’m prepared because of school. Through a bit more experience I’ve learned to deal with that a little bit better through my preparation. That’s what being in school has really taught.

[image alt="a93f6387-d70c-4665-87e3-de1a0392a38d (1)" src="" width="630" height="471" title="" class="aligncenter" /end]

“It’s the exact same as hurling. I used to always say I did my best hurling whenever I was in the right mind frame and when I knew I’d done the training and put in the work and put in more work than whoever I was going to mark. It just comes through your preparation and the work beforehand.”

But his favourite part of acting is the research it involves. He fondly recalls the countless hours he spent investigating Roger Casement before he played the Easter Rising leader recently.

“That’s the other thing (about acting), you get chances just to study people. I would have never studied Roger Casement or looked into his life. It’s just so interesting because you get to do that for your job. Especially heroes like that.

“I love it. You’re like a little detective. That’s the kind of way they described it in drama school. You’re just like a detective running around trying to get wee pieces and put them together.

“That’s the part I enjoy the most.”

And with that, he finishes his coffee and slips back out into the concrete jungle.

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Kevin O'Brien

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