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'When The Underdogs Opportunity Came Up, I Just Changed My Life'

'When The Underdogs Opportunity Came Up, I Just Changed My Life'
By PJ Browne Updated
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10 minutes before taking the call for this interview, someone stopped Seamus Barry to thank him. The Passage hurler is one of over 30 club players appearing on the new season of TG4's Underdogs series. In the first episode, Barry speaks openly about his mental health problems, abusing alcohol and drugs, and planning his suicide five years ago.

"They were like, 'I just want to say what you're doing is very brave. I have a daughter that's been in that position before, and I just I want to thank you for speaking'," Barry tells Balls.

"The reaction has been phenomenal online and in person, and it kind of makes your day.

"I do struggle. This morning, wasn't one of my best mornings, but when I heard that it definitely made me six feet tall."

Barry, now 30, won a Waterford Senior Hurling Championship title with Passage in 2013, the club's first and only top tier title. It was also the last time Ballygunner - who have since won nine consecutive championships along with an All-Ireland title - were beaten in a county final. "Some people say we created a monster," says Barry with a smile.

13 October 2013; Passage players and supporters celebrate with the cup following Waterford County Senior Club Hurling Championship Final match between Ballygunner and Passage at Walsh Park in Waterford. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Most in the club didn't know of his struggles until his appearance on Underdogs. "Everyone perceives me to be jolly and outgoing, and that's a facade that I have developed for years," he says, "and I'm constantly lying to people because if I said what I think truthfully, I'd be locked up in a mental institution because there's days where I just don't want to live. It's a chemical imbalance. I have medication for it.

"With the club, because I suppose I wasn't open, or the environment wasn't inclusive when I was younger, they didn't really know.

"My family have known for a long time, just not the severity. My mam said in one of the interviews with the Underdogs that she knew since I was a child that I was struggling. That's kind of interesting to hear that. My brother Nicky is an inter-county referee. He knows that I struggle big time. He's always known I struggle.

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"I suppose it would have maybe become apparent to some coaches, when I couldn't perform. For example, you'd be playing senior, you'd be named [on the team]. They wouldn't tell me I'd be starting in the team until the Sunday of the match because I'd have a breakdown for the week.

"Mentally I always crumbled; the skill, pace, none of that was ever a worry. I mentally always crumbled and that's why I didn't go on and fulfil my potential."

Barry believes his mental struggles partially stem from never fully dealing with the death of his grandmother - with whom he was extremely close - in 2008, when he was 16.

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"When she passed away, I kind of lost my identity for a couple of years," he says.

"My grandmother's house is only down the road from my mom's. Even though the house was being sold at the time, I remember nights where I'd just go down and sit on the roof of my grandmother's house and just cry for hours.

"I just couldn't understand how my whole world could be just taken upside down in the space of a day or two. When she passed away, it just destroyed me. I suppose I never dealt with it."

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He turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain.

"I would have started taking cocaine around the age of 19 or 20," he explains during the first episode of Underdogs.

Cocaine was becoming more and more accessible locally - there was no getting away from it. At the time, I didn't want to get away from it.

Then I unfortunately did all my ligaments in my right knee in a game, had to get two surgeries, six grafts from my left hamstring - I was 14 months in a brace learning how to walk again. I was told I'd never play again. I couldn't go upstairs, I was sleeping on a couch. Everything has to be done for you - you have to be helped to the toilet, the shower.

Barry's darkest days were in 2017, when, under the weight of depression exasperated by the injury, he seriously contemplated suicide.

"It was always in the back of my mind," he says.

"I had everything premeditated, I was going to write my note out. It was just a matter of what day I was going to [take my own life]."

Fortunately, one evening after work, his sister Sarah came to speak with him. "It was at that stage where I just broke down and said to her that I want to die," he says. "I said 'I'm done, I'm finished'. She just said, 'You can't, you can't'. The main reason why I've never gone through with it is because of my family."

Barry has been completely off alcohol and drugs since November 2020. It's part of a health regime made up of small percentage points, like members of an All-Ireland winning backroom, which give him the chance to get better every day.

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"It's a constant battle," he says.

"I haven't taken a magic pill. I haven't done 40 minutes of yoga every day and all of a sudden I'm cured. But I've grown more resilient in that battle, and I've learned key skills." He speaks with family and friends about his struggles, regularly gets into the sea for a swim, and uses the facilities at Elite Recovery in Waterford.

"I work out as much as I can. That's when I get my anger out, not even anger - that's when I get my inner darkness out," he says.

I did avail of counselling. I used the EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) service here in my workplace (Sun Life). I've also done Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I take antidepressants every day.

The thing I really want to focus on is I was in a very dark place in 2017. I am still in dark places day to day, but that that's a part of life, and I have to accept that's a part of who I am.

Whether you believe in God or Allah or Buddha, or you don't, you have to believe in yourself that there's something bigger waiting for you, that the days will get better.

It's a hope. I can't guarantee that I'm going to feel okay tomorrow, but I have an opportunity to. That's the other thing, suicide is sudden. Suicide is, that's it, it's done. You cannot go back, there is no erase button.

The thing that I'm grateful for is I woke up this morning with a chance to have a good day by me doing all the things that I know I need to do right.

Like anyone who truly loves something, Barry wants to see the GAA grow and improve. Hurling he feels, as a sport, is fine, the rules don't require adjusting. It's off the field where he thinks the association needs attention. Just as his workplace provides services to aid his wellness, he'd like GAA clubs to do similar for members dealing with personal issues.

In the second episode of Underdogs, players head to the pub to celebrate a teammate's birthday on the evening before a game. One of their coaches, Jamie Wall, is not pleased with the behaviour. Some suggest he may have overestimated the extent of the celebrations.

Though, he no longer drinks, Barry says he is not against players having a few pints. What does irritate him is alcohol often being the first option when it comes to players bonding.

Seamus Barry during Underdogs filming

"It really bugs me when everyone believes alcohol is the only tool to bring a team together," he says.

"That is not a true reflection of someone's self. It's a substance that's basically given someone confidence, or it's given someone the ability to talk to people when they usually wouldn't be able to. We need to embrace and encourage people to be able to do that sober.

"One of the great things I've done with a team a couple of years ago was we got taken up the Comeragh Mountains. We got to the top of the mountain and the manager talked about life. He didn't talk hurling, he just talked about life.

"It's things like that I'll always look back on. The year we won [the Waterford title] was great in 2013. Did we go to the pub? We did for about a week after we won it That was the norm then. Looking back, I remember two or three things that we've done that didn't involve alcohol.

"What would be wrong with a bunch of lads going off doing maybe an assault course and then doing a day or two yoga, reflexology and learning a bit more about their bodies or a bit of meditation or a group going off and doing a tour somewhere. You know, get a little bit of history.

"Helping out the community. A thing that brings people together is volunteering, why not get your lads to go off together or girls off together and get them to do something collectively, whether it's a rubbish pickup, feeding the homeless or helping a charity?

"These are things that bring people together. Alcohol doesn't bring people together. It drives people away because the following day you wake up and go, 'Oh no, the lads know I said all this. Jesus, I can't go to training on Tuesday'."

Last year, in what was his first back playing hurling in a while, Barry damaged ligaments in his right knee, and broke his right shoulder. This year, he ended up playing junior C hurling with Passage.

He's also started his own podcast, I Loves Me Club, Boi, covering games and players in Waterford, and this season has commentated on matches for Clubber TV.

11 May 2022; Referee Nicky Barry during the Electric Ireland Munster GAA Minor Hurling Championship Final match between Tipperary and Clare at TUS Gaelic Grounds in Limerick. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

"The body wasn't able [for senior hurling], but when the Underdogs opportunity came up, I just changed my life," he says.

"I changed my diet, my sleep, just to give it a crack because I'm 30 years of age, I'm no spring chicken. The first trial I went to, there were 19-year-olds there with inter-county experience.

"I think [being on Underdogs has] brought me closer to my family. Myself and my brother (Nicky) had a discussion for about 40 - 50 minutes last week, and he was just giving me some really good advice to look after myself. That was a nice moment. He said it himself, it wouldn't have arisen only for I was on the Underdogs. My sister, my mam, my dad, my partner, my younger brother in France, it's brought us a bit closer.

"It's interesting because I was asked recently 'Why are you so hard on yourself?' I don't know why I am. I just demand high standards when it comes to sports, if I'm playing or coaching, but I have grown physically and mentally.

"I've lost a stone and six pounds in the space of three months. Resilience wise, I think maybe I have grown as well because there'll be days where things just don't go your way out of the field and you can't control that.

"Things are going the right way off the field. We'll have to wait and see how they get to go on the field with the Underdogs now, because someone said to me recently, 'You must have the fittest mouth in Ireland because you haven't pucked a ball yet in the episodes!'"

See Also: Wexford Camogie Legend Loving Underdogs Journey

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