At training, many of Ciarán Murtagh’s teammates are the butt of his child-like humour, something he seems to pride himself on. When the 25-year-old lifted the senior Connacht football title in July, his name entered his county’s proverbial GAA folklore.
Media interviews after such wins often repeat themselves, leaving much to the imagination, interviewees can appear superficially delighted and reserved. Behind closed doors, he says, it’s entirely organic.
“People probably think I love training when they see me laughing and joking but this is far from truth,” he blurts out laughing. “I probably shouldn’t admit it but I am not a big fan of training so I’d have to put that up there with what agitates me.”
Any of the other issues I have, I will say in another interview with you when I retire, I could get into trouble.”
Modest in stature and warm in conversation, his bone-dry wit and bare-faced honesty give his answers an understated truthfulness that say as much about him as his outlook on life. At times, it’s difficult to pinpoint when he’s being serious.
An endearingly playful nature is saddled by an ability to communicate his thoughts clearly; later on in the interview, he wrestles his greatest fears with added severity.
“Death definitely. Fecking hate the thoughts of it,” he shakes his head. “I also don’t like the thoughts of getting a long-term injury or anything like that, touch wood, because I would go mental if I wasn’t able to play football to be honest.”
In the GAA, players are immortalised in glory like in any sport. Gaelic football is as much as staple of everyday life in Roscommon as fresh-air. Leading your county to a provincial title is by no means a simple feat, particularly at the tender age of 25.
Celebrations in Roscommon were raucous, it was only Roscommon’s third provincial success in 25 years.
Murtagh grew up in rural Roscommon in Ballyleague – a typically quiet, middle-class, GAA obsessed village – and this is where he first learned and honed his talents, but also where he developed his relentless determination to win. His local club St. Faithleachs is ingrained in his footballing and social identity.
He recalls his earliest childhood memories fondly, playing games with his brothers and neighbours in the back-garden of their modest countryside bungalow. His eyes shift as he reimagines the innocent chaos.
“They usually ended in fights between us all but they were enjoyable and that’s probably where my competitiveness came from,” he then pauses, glances away, sets his eyes back firmly on mine and proudly says “I hate losing.”
When asked what motivates him to get up every morning, his response is shrouded in characteristic wit: “My fucking alarm clock. It’s hard to know because when I wake up, I always just think about how I need more sleep,” he laughs, then changes tone.
“The fact that I want to be successful on and off the pitch motivates me. I like to be the best at whatever I’m doing,” he says. “I’m nearly too competitive at times.”
Murtagh is dressed head-to-toe in ‘sport casual’ – navy club zip-up jacket, white-striped Adidas tracksuit bottoms and tattered navy-blue Puma trainers – as he coasts around his modest college house located five minutes from Marino Institute of Education. Here, he’s in his final year of a four-year undergraduate programme in Primary Education.
Teaching, a profession many within the GAA fall into, has not always been his career focus. He envisioned himself in a nine-to-five during school and decided Corporate Law in NUIG was to be his first-round CAO choice. He dived into college life aged 17 but gradually became unenthused by the course, particularly during his final year.
After graduation, he knew that the legal profession was not for him. His change-of-heart can largely be explained by his interactions with kids at an annual GAA summer camp that took place at his hometown club’s grounds.
“To be honest I didn’t see myself sitting in an office all day every day. I prefer to be active and chatting to people. It was probably from doing the Cul Camps that I realised that I would like to become a teacher.
“I probably should have considered the wage difference prior to changing career,” he chirps after a brief comically timed pause.
Ciarán is the middle child in the Murtagh family that has become synonymous with Roscommon football in the last five years, at one point he laughs off the mention of a sporting dynasty.
All three brothers – himself, Brian and Diarmuid – have been staples in Roscommon underage sides and have made the transition to senior-level seamlessly. Diarmuid was tapped early as being the most mercurial of the talents, breaking into the Roscommon senior team in late 2012 at age of 17. They all remain vital components of a young and dynamic senior team continuing to make strides.
Their relationships are strong, admits Murtagh, even pointing towards a kind of three-way telepathic relationship on the pitch. “We would be on the same wave-length a lot of the time, so it works out well.”
Not all relationships are rosy, however. Their competitive streaks shine through, particularly during club games where Ciarán explains Brian “tends to tear the head off me”. This is expected, he says, and mutual feedback is something they all endeavour to provide to one another.
“I would never not tell them something in fear that they got playing ahead of me or that might result in them playing better than me. We would always try and improve one another,” he says with conviction.
He begins smiling, “Now that’s not always positive feedback and Diarmuid always reckons we never give him positive feedback.”
On the training pitch, he makes clear, brotherhood vanishes.
With many underage medals and awards under his belt, he doesn’t hesitate in choosing his career pinnacle so far. His eyes light up immediately as reflects on this year’s Connacht title:
“It was just an unbelievable experience and to be captain put the cherry on top. I suppose the fact we were underdogs made it that bit nicer,” he says, gleefully adding that the “few days of celebrations were decent enough as well.”
Named captain when he was just 23-years-old over two years ago, his remarkable rise from a talented young corner-forward to senior talisman and captain is difficult to explain, he says. He seems to lead by example through persistence and a ruthless attacking intuition. He feels his personal development was key in his ascendancy.
“I suppose my general belief in my own ability has definitely improved. I have the confidence now to be the best that I can be and that I’m a valuable asset to the team,” he says, adding that some invaluable advice he got is “to never get sick of putting the ball over the crossbar or into the net, keep practicing and it will become a habit.”
He is open-eyed when asked about his role-models. Sportstars such as Messi and Dan Carter spring to mind. The latter’s attention-to-detail and practicing habits are something he admires greatly. He attributes much of the family successes to his parents, Breda and Andy, who are his biggest fans.
“I think of it sometimes that I’ll probably never be able to thank them enough for bringing me to training and matches. It can be nice winning games and trophies as they are kind of a thank you for the hard work they did with us when we were younger,” he says with an alluring sincerity.
He plans to quickly abandon the college lifestyle upon graduating and hopes for secure, long-term employment to settle down, otherwise he quips, “mammy will kill me.” His answers become less droll with each question as the conversation flows.
Murtagh is self-aware of the dangers of becoming too bogged down in sport saying “As I’m getting older I realise the importance of getting away from football and not talking or thinking about it 24/7.” Self-improvement is something, I gather, that he takes as seriously as winning.
“I just keep trying to make myself a better footballer and person in whatever way I can. I’ve dreamt of winning big games and big competitions so the desire to actually achieve this makes me keep going,” he continues “I like to look back on games and footballing years and see aspects of my game that I can improve on.
“No matter what I do in life I like to dedicate myself to it. I don’t like to half do something, I always give it my all and then you have no regrets.”