WHEN Tony Griffin decided to write Screaming at the Sky, which chronicles his life from ’06 to ’09, he knew that his most discerning editors would be his family. How much detail could he go into about his personal life, the effect of his father Jerome’s death and the slings and arrows of his hurling career, without getting the go-ahead from his family?
“I’ve six brothers and sisters and every one of them got the drafts as they were ready. Things they weren’t happy with, they got the red pen across them. Things that needed to be kept at home got the red pen but in fairness to them, they were few and far between,” Griffin told The Clare Champion in Killaloe, where he now lives.
Things hit an early snag when TJ Flynn, who ghost wrote the book, heard about Donal Óg Cusack’s revelations in his autobiography Come What May. Flynn, though, had a cunning plan. “TJ rang me and said ‘you’ll have to be a transvestite or something’,” Griffin recalls.
So any skeletons bursting forth from between the Screaming at the Sky covers?
“Ah sure look it, we’ve all worn a pair of frilly knickers. Anyone that tells you they haven’t, they’re lying,” the Ballyea man maintains. “That was a joke,” he added with some haste when silence descended upon the café in Killaloe and several pairs of eyes lingered on the now-retired Clare hurler.
The book deals with Griffin’s personal life, while it deciphers hurling for an international audience.
“I’m so proud of the book. I think it’s really going to help other people and they won’t have to go through what I went through,” he says.
Screaming at the Sky’s starting point is in West Clare on a beach populated by a gaggle of Clare hurlers. Griffin was home from his studies in Canada and his grief was still raw.
“I was on the beach in Spanish Point training on New Year’s Day 2006. My father had passed away on December 5, three weeks before. Brian Lohan said to me ‘why don’t you just throw in the studying for a year and come with us for the year?’ That’s how the book starts,” Griffin explains.
The following winter he won his only All-Star but while the hurling was going fairly well, there was no escaping the memory of his late father. “I was taking care of my father’s cattle on the farm, I’d be using the same fork he used. Everywhere I went, he was still there. Except he wasn’t. It took me several months to even admit that it had happened,” he reflects.
“I can distinctly remember we were arguing over something on the farm. Tensions were heightened. I f***ed him out of it and walked away. That gnawed at me for months. But I learned through the cycle that where he is now, he doesn’t give two damns about that conversation. It’s for me to learn not to be so hard on myself about that one,” Griffin says.
The cycle he refers to is his epic 7,500km charity spin across Canada in 2007. He is certain that he had to act rather than dwell on what had been troubling him.
“I won an All-Star and went back to Canada to finish off college. But it hadn’t gone away, this want to do something. And that’s what the cycle grew out of. One of the main reasons for the cycle was I wanted to funnel this grief that I wasn’t willing to even look at. People that have lost someone very, very close, they’ll understand this. Those that haven’t, I hope they don’t need to go through it one day,” he says.
Griffin doesn’t deny that he might have been running from his feelings and trying to fill the hours with a focus.
“I was trying to escape and I was trying to do something to make sense of it. The only way I knew how to make sense of it was to act. The cycle for me was a knee-jerk reaction. Say, for example, you play poorly in a game; the next night in training, you train harder. For me, when my father died, I wasn’t able to face it so I just did something. I sat down, looked at a map and said ‘what’s the biggest challenge I could take on?’ And that was it.”
Griffin’s last game for Clare was when Mike McNamara substituted him against Galway in an All-Ireland qualifier in Cusack Park last summer. “First of all, I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked and thinking ‘maybe I’ve got this wrong’. But no, John Conlon came on and what a good guy to come on for you. I remember thinking, ‘there’s something going on here. There’s something not right here.’ I went from being very angry about it on the sideline to saying ‘what can I do about it?’ It was as if it was a watershed moment,” he believes.
Griffin’s anger didn’t subside immediately, though. In the short term, it even clouded his memory.
“After the game I was in such a rage that I walked up to the Temple Gate to get my car, only to remember that I had parked back in Cusack Park. So I had to turn around with my gear bag and hurleys and walk against the crowd that were coming out. Oh Jesus, I’ll never forget it. Talk about being fed humble pie. A few years earlier, that would have absolutely crushed me. I don’t know would I have played again but I was able to put that in perspective,” he feels.
When John Lee beat him for a high ball, Griffin expected the worst.
“I was midfield in the first half and John Lee caught three or four balls. I remember at the time Mike saying, ‘whoever John Lee catches the next ball off is coming off’. I don’t know who had the ball but I came running forward to go short for it but they hit it long. John Lee was two steps behind me and caught it. I remember straight away; then afterwards I was taken off,” he recalls.
Griffin denies though that his retirement was as a direct result of Mike McNamara’s management techniques.
“Things are never usually as simple as they seem. That wasn’t the case. But I did feel strongly that we needed to change things. I liked Mike as a person but without a doubt, having been involved with Loughnane first, then Cyril Lyons and then Dalo, I had this gut feeling that we weren’t going in the right direction at all,” he said but acknowledges that he and his team-mates must take some responsibility for 2009.
“We, as players, have to take a certain amount of responsibility because there was times towards the end of the season where I was late to a session or two and that was very rare in years previous to that. Other guys were late. Guys played Clare Cup games when they were asked not to,” he recalls.
A sufficient amount of players didn’t make their misgivings known in time, though. “Gilly did it once and he was kind of ostracised for a few weeks. By not addressing that, we were culpable in letting it breathe. Then, down the line, it had gone so far that as players we didn’t really stand up and demand better. I felt strongly that there needed to be a change. But it honestly wasn’t the main motivator for retiring. If it was, I’d have been back in January training with the rest of them.”
Griffin has mixed views on making a possible comeback and moving to Dublin late this year won’t help.
“At the moment, I know too much about what I need to get right. If I went back now, I’d just be way off the pace. Even next year with me moving to Dublin towards the end of the year I can’t see myself coming back,” he predicts.
However, if his hurling career was to start over again, Griffin says he would be less uptight. “One of the main things I’d do differently is I’d enjoy it more rather than taking it so seriously to the point where I couldn’t separate the guy that played hurling from the me. If I played poorly I’d beat myself up, rather than saying ‘right Tony, that’s the hurling part of you and there’s a way we can improve that part of you’. I’d definitely enjoy it more,” he says.
So surely if he relaxed a bit, Griffin might come back and play more freely for Clare? “That is a good point. And who knows? Say for example I was to go back next year and train away in Dublin and come down one night a week, maybe the form would be good. One thing I’ve learned is never to say never because you just don’t know. As Bob Dylan said, he loved the fact that he could wake up any day and be who he wanted to be,” he laughs.
As for Screaming at the Sky, Griffin hopes that it’s not seen as an exclusively hurling-based book. “I would be so disappointed if people said ‘that was just a hurling book’. We tried to create something that could be every man’s story,” he notes.
Griffin suggests that the book might appeal to people on the margins of society, struggling to survive. “It might help them to say “do you know what, I can do what I’m trying to do. I can get through today.’ That, for me, is what I’m hoping the book gives people,” the Ballyea man in Killaloe mused.
Screaming at the Sky by Tony Griffin with TJ Flynn will be available in bookshops from this Thursday. Tony will be signing copies on Saturday, June 5 at the Ennis Book Shop at 1pm.