In a hyper-macho Irish sport, a coming out

The handshake says it all: powerful, determined, tight enough to make you wince. It’s the grip of a man who stands his ground, and who challenges you for some of yours.

That defiance has served Donal Og Cusack well in his career as one of Ireland’s top athletes, a star goalie in the beloved Irish sport of hurling, sort of a hybrid of field hockey and lacrosse, only faster.

But his steeliness is also being put to use these days for a role that he never foresaw as a kid growing up on the village hurling pitch: the most talked-about gay man in Ireland.

Cusack assumed the part in October when he came out in a memoir titled “Come What May.” Like the man himself, the revelation was matter-of-fact and unapologetic. But it was a double whammy here in a Roman Catholic country that worships God on Sundays and its sportsmen the rest of the week.

This is, after all, the last country in Western Europe to decriminalize homosexuality, just 17 years ago. And by going public, Cusack, who plays for the storied Cork County hurling team, found himself in extremely select company, a minority within a minority within a minority.

Openly gay male athletes are a scarce enough breed. Even fewer have been competitors in the macho, buddy-buddy world of team sports. Those who have divulged their homosexuality while still active players are the rarest of all, hardly to be counted on more than one hand. (Try naming one.)

Cusack says he wanted his book to have maximum effect, especially on young people who might be struggling with their own identities.

“I was never going to write a book and not write about my personal situation. . . . I had a duty to speak about that,” he said, sipping a soft drink at a hotel here in Cork, in southern Ireland. But “it would’ve had less of an impact if I retired and spoke about it than if I wrote about it when I was still a player.”

After his announcement, Cusack, 32, woke up to discover his sexuality plastered on the front page of every national newspaper. Messages started pouring in from as far afield as Asia, many of them encouraging and grateful but others describing the torments that awaited him in hell.

That Cusack felt he could come out now reflects the remarkable changes underway in Irish society, which for decades, if not centuries, seemed an impregnable bastion of conservative Catholic values. Those who didn’t fit prevailing sexual norms often found life hard, even intolerable.

“Many gay and lesbian people emigrated to America, to England and so on. It was very, very difficult to be openly gay,” said Brian Sheehan, director of Ireland’s Gay and Lesbian Equality Network. “There was no protection in the workplace, no protection for goods and services.”

But then the economy started to boom. As multinational companies, foreign visitors and purveyors of pop culture flocked to the “Celtic Tiger,” society grew more cosmopolitan and more open.

Over the last 12 years, lawmakers enacted antidiscrimination legislation covering employment and housing. Every police division in the country now has a liaison to the gay community. The Dail Eireann, the lower house of parliament, is considering a bill to establish civil partnerships with nearly all the rights of marriage; virtually all political parties support the measure, which could pass this summer.

Political opposition to the bill has been relatively muted. Ireland’s bishops have spoken out against the measure, but the authority and influence of the Catholic Church have been weakened here by the shocking revelations of widespread abuse of minors by priests and in religious institutions.

As in other countries, however, the insular world of sport hasn’t kept pace with all the changes in general society. Homosexuality largely remains a taboo subject, or one fit only for derogatory treatment in the locker room, which is why Cusack’s coming out was greeted by a media storm, unlike such revelations in, say, entertainment circles.

“Another gay boy-band member? Oh, please,” Sheehan said, whereas Cusack’s announcement “really is extraordinary. You couldn’t overestimate the importance of Donal Og’s coming out. . . . It was a watershed moment.”

For Cusack himself, there was never one blinding flash of epiphany about being gay, or years of agonizing about it. From his teenage years on, he knew what he was, and that was that.

“This wasn’t a big deal for me. This was something I accepted early,” he said. “There were some things in life that were more important.”

“Some things” basically meant hurling, sometimes called the world’s fastest field game. (Can’t picture it? Try YouTube.) Promoted by the Gaelic Athletic Assn., a cultural institution almost as omnipresent as the church, hurling inspires fanatical devotion in many parts of Ireland, including Cloyne, the village where Cusack grew up.

“It’s in your blood. It’s part of your culture. You wouldn’t have a choice,” Cusack said.

Soccer, seen as a distasteful English import, was a non-starter. Cusack’s father, a onetime goalkeeper, was so passionate about the game that he fed his son steak for breakfast on school tournament days.

Cusack, highly motivated and disciplined even as a boy, earned fame as one of several precocious young players on the Cork County team that captured three All-Ireland championships between 1999 and 2005.

At the same time, he was pursuing a secret private life. Although he says he felt no guilt or shame about being gay, he also felt no desire or need to tell many of the people he was close to, including his family.

“I was doing my own thing, and it was a complication I didn’t need,” he said. “Anyone who needed to know about it knew about it.”

That changed in 2005.

On a team holiday in South Africa, Cusack got an anxious phone call from his sister, Treasa, back in Ireland.

“Donal Og? Are you gay?” she asked.

A newspaper had heard gossip about Cusack’s sexuality and sent reporters to Cloyne to snoop around. Cusack quickly flew home, assembled his family and confirmed the rumors. (His father promptly suggested that Cusack “get fixed.”)

Cusack also came out to his teammates, who were all fairly supportive. The newspaper, leaned on by the Gaelic Athletic Assn., never published its story, he said.

He felt no need to unburden himself to the general public. By then, Cusack had become a somewhat controversial figure in Ireland as one of several players pushing for better conditions, a contentious, often bitter campaign that has seen the Cork County team go on strike more than once.

Partly to give his side of the story on those issues, he decided early last year to write his autobiography. Acknowledging his sexuality was unavoidable.

Since then, he’s had to endure homophobic slurs shouted from the stands, some of it venomous enough to reduce his sister to tears. Despite the abuse, his father still attends his games, even though Cusack says he’s not “jumping up and down with joy” about his son’s sexuality.

“Like everything, you just move on,” Cusack said. “I don’t think my relationship has changed one bit with my father. When I go home, I go home, I eat my dinner.”

Although he’s glad to have touched people with his story, and maybe smashed some stereotypes along the way, Cusack is not interested in becoming a symbol or advocate for gay rights.

Instead, he’s back to living and breathing hurling, “the one true religion,” and wearing Cork’s red and white colors with pride. He trains obsessively, practices yoga, bawls after losses and posts motivational notes around the house to remind him of his goals: to be the best goalie in the sport, to own a house by the beach, to have friends whom he loves and, hopefully, a partner too.

He dismisses talk that he’s a hero, or that what he did required courage.

“Courage is being afraid of something and having the strength to take it on,” he said. “I’m not afraid of it.”