Kevin McGeeney - a life less ordinary
By John Harrington
A chat with Roscommon referee Kevin McGeeney about his life has a way of making your own seem a little bit bland.
He’s won an All-Ireland medal, survived a kidnapping in South Africa, beaten cancer, and is now happily married after previously being a priest for 15 years.
Where do you start with all of that? Hurling is probably as good a thread as any to pick up first because it’s woven a way through his life from a young age right up to the present day.
Now a member of the GAA’s National Hurling Referees panel, McGeeney took charge of this year’s All-Ireland Minor ‘B’ Final between Meath and Down.
But before he took up the whistle, the Fuerty-man was a handy hurler himself with Athleague and Roscommon.
“I hurled for Roscommon for three or four years,” McGeeney told GAA.ie.
“We won an All-Ireland 'B in 1994, which was great. That was when an All-Ireland 'B' meant something. I don't think it even exists anymore.
“Then I went to South Africa, and there wasn't much hurling over there!”
McGeeney was 27 when his vocation as a priest brought him all the way to Johannesburgh where he would spend 10 years.
My house was robbed and I was kidnapped and put in a car
His time there was bookended by tragedy when his good friend Father Declan Collins was murdered by house-burglars.
Three days before that, McGeeney had a close escape himself when his house was also broken into and he was taken hostage before being eventually released.
“My house was robbed and I was kidnapped and put in a car,” says McGeeney. “They let me out a couple of miles away from the house. They were looking for credit cards and thought I had them on me.
“They let me out and didn't do anything to me thankfully. “I'll be honest with you, at the time it happened I didn't think much of my own incident. I just thought, 'God, I was lucky to get away with that'.
“It only hit me then when Declan died that I actually could have been in his situation. Then it really hit me.
“I came back with Declan's body and family for his funeral. It was very sad, it took me a few months to get over it. I had a bit of counselling and all of that.”
On his return to Ireland, McGeeney worked in a parish in Athlone for four years before he decided to review his life and sought dispensation from Rome to leave the priesthood.
Not surprisingly, it was a decision that he wrestled with for some time.
“It was,” says McGeeney. “From when I formally left the ministry in 2005 until I received the dispensation in early 2010, all that time was spent reflecting and wondering.
“I did go on spiritual direction courses where you get people who can advise you on these things. I didn't just make a decision overnight. I sought spiritual advice and counselling so that I could make a proper decision, a holistic decision really on it.
“I suppose at the end of the day I'd be still in ministry if celibacy wasn't mandatory for catholic priests. I just felt the need in myself to share the journey of life with another person. I felt that was important.
“I was lucky enough to meet my wife Teresa and we're very happy together now and are seven years married. Once you're positive about things, they work out.
“Obviously, it was traumatic at the time for family and friends, it was a big decision, but people come around. I'm very thankful to my family for all the support they gave me down through the years.
“Without them, nothing is possible. Your family are central to the whole thing, your family and friends.
“And, to be fair, that's one element why I am passionate about the GAA, is because it has helped me to find support in those times as well, the GAA family gave me that support.
“So I'd be very thankful of the GAA community for all it has done for me down through the years.
“While I got great enjoyment out of it, I'd like to think I'm giving it back some service as well in terms of the refereeing.”
His own faith remains as strong as ever, and he’s still spreading the word as a religious education teacher in St. Cuan’s College in Castleblakeney, Galway.
His personal experience has convinced him that the best way forward for the Catholic church is not just to allow priests to marry, but to also allow women join the priesthood.
“I just feel that having a partner and having a family would support you in the role of being a priest, because sometimes it can be very lonely,” says McGeeney.
“You're dealing with a lot of challenges and people's problems and those things, and then you go back to your house on your own.
“It's amazing when you have someone there you can talk it out with, have a chat with, and get you over the bad days. I don't think there is currently a structure in the church for that.
“I think it would be far healthier and I think you'd have far more people wanting to join the Priesthood (if they could be allowed to marry).
“Since I left I would also be of the belief that women should be priests. I'm very strong on that.
“I feel you cannot discount half the world's population just because of a belief that Jesus didn't have women at the last supper.
“It wasn't part of the value system of Jesus that he would have excluded women, no way.”
He’s no longer a priest, but he’s still wearing black as a referee, and his faith also impacts on how he likes to carry out that role.
Before every game he says a prayer, and he tries to show a bit of compassion where possible in his interaction with the players.
“I really have a great belief that god is with me in the journey of what I'm doing and also in the journey of refereeing,” says McGeeney.
“I do try to bring some of that spirituality into refereeing. I try to be understanding of players and try to communicate with them and try to be compassionate as much as you can, as well as obviously try to control the game.”
His refereeing career had to go on temporary hiatus when a family holiday to the USA in 2012 took his life down an unexpected path.
While he was in America he had to get his appendix taken out, and the CT scan that was part of that process showed up a large lump on one of his kidneys.
It was a malignant tumour, and when he returned to Ireland he underwent a five-hour operation in December 2012 to have part of his kidney and his 12th rib removed.
“It was an awful shock at the time, but, really, I was fortunate,” says McGeeney. “It was a real miracle to find the cancerous growth like that, and it was only starting at that stage so it was caught early.
“It took me about two months to recover and I went back to work in the middle of February, 2013. And I didn't referee then or do much sports for the year.
“I lost a lot of weight with the operation but then I put a lot of weight on. I was up around 15 stone because you're not doing too much exercise.
“I really had to work hard to get back into shape. There was a field out the back of my house and I made a bit of a path or circuit around it and most evenings I'd be out there doing my exercises, the sprinting and the long runs.
“I started going back getting fit again and in September 2014 I got the call to go on the National Panel so it was great. I didn't think I'd have any chance, really.”
In the past two years McGeeney has refereed four national finals. The U-21 and Minor ‘C’ All-Ireland Finals and Allianz Hurling League Division 3B Finals in 2016, and this year’s All-Ireland Minor ‘B’ Final.
Next year will be his last year on the National Panel has he’s hitting the retirement age of 50, and he’ll most definitely miss it.
“I must be honest, there's a great old buzz among the lads on the inter-county referee panel,” says McGeeney.
“There's a great old community there and lads really support each other and I've really enjoyed that over the last three years. There's a great bond amongst the lads.
“Just as you'd have it among players, it's probably obvious you'd have it among the referees too because we do a job that probably no-one wants to do. And we have to support each other.
“You go to a venue and you have your umpires and they're great as well. Lads that are really committed coming to matches with you week in, week out.
“Then you meet the linesmen and the fourth official and you really do hard to do the best job that you can on the day and you really support each other so I really enjoy it.
“It's just a pity that I have to retire next year at 50. Next year is my last year.
“I’ll miss it, yeah, but it will be nice to spend some time doing other activities.”
It’s hardly a surprise to hear that McGeeney is taking a ‘what will be, will be’ approach to the future.
His life has taken many twists and turns and he’s survived some scrapes, so he feels like he’s being guided by a steady, unseen hand along the way.
“I do feel like there's been an angel on my shoulder,” says McGeeney. “And I really feel that I trust that angel. In faith, I would trust that God is with me on my journey.
“I suppose if you remain faithful to that belief then you'll believe that God is with you in every element of life."