Michael Darragh MacAuley still dancing to his own beat
By John Harrington
You might have spotted Dublin footballer Michael Darragh MacAuley in Croke Park at half-time of Sunday’s TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Senior Football semi-final between Dublin and Cork.
In fairness, he was hard to miss in all his day-glo basketball-shorts glory as he strolled around with a smile on his face giving encouragement to the players who took part in the Gaelic4Mothers and Others half-time game.
The Gaelic4Mothers and Others initiative is just one of many that MacAuley has helped develop in his role as sports and engagement manager with the North East Inner City Initiative.
It’s a part of Dublin with a lot of social problems so it’s just as well that MacAuley is a solutions focused sort of guy. There are challenges to be sure, but that makes the little victories all the more rewarding.
“It's been a brilliant experience for me,” MacAuley told GAA.ie “I've left teaching and I'm being seconded at the moment and I'm taking up that role.
“It's great, subsequently I've realised how many role models I had growing up and there's a lot of people that are lacking role models in certain areas around town.
“We're just trying to give people as many opportunities through sport and different projects to get involved and stay on the straight and narrow. And just to give them as many opportunities as we can.
“I took for granted that I had role models, with my football team we had different people, I had a good family structure around me.
“When people don't have those things, don't have the family structure I had or don't have the support from different clubs it's easy for them to stray off the path and go down a more dangerous route.
“You see it all along. What we're trying to do is give them sport as an opportunity just to stay on that path. There's obviously physical and mental health benefits but also there's social as well.
“Particularly I'd love to see more people get involved in team sports as well. It's benefited me so much, I'd still have that circles of friends that I was playing with in school when I was eight or nine years old and a lot of them are still around today and I've been to war and back with them.
“That's the nature of what we're at at the moment.”
You could see by the way he interacted with the Gaelic4Mothers and Others players just how popular a figure MacAuley is among them.
The Blackrock College alumnus might come from a very different world, but he’s a very down to earth and personable sort of character.
Always quick with a quip or a joke, you tend to come away from a conversation with MacAuley with a smile on your face.
You can see how he would be a big hit with the children he works with in Dublin’s north inner-city, and the fact that he’s a Dublin footballer surely gives him the sort of credibility in their eyes others might struggle to win.
“Sometimes it can help getting a foot in the door with someone that they might listen to you,” admits MacAuley.
“But I suppose if you're talking nonsense to them they'll quickly be able to brush you aside.
“The Dublin thing probably has given me an in to talk to a lot of them. But it's what you do with it then.
“We're just trying to create opportunities for them, help them grow and life as purposeful a life as possible.”
MacAuley isn’t the only member of this Dublin panel who in his day to day life works for the betterment of those who may be socially disadvantaged in some ways.
Philly McMahon has set up the charity HalfTimeTalk which engages, educates and empowers young people, while Dean Rock works with the disability charity, Stewarts Care.
Many other Dublin players are also doing charity work in their spare time and MacAuley believes it’s important they do as much good as they can with the platform they have.
“I think that's really important and a lot of us have a platform to be more socially conscious,” he said.
“I'd love to see the lads doing even more so because some of the Dublin lads mightn't even know how much of a role model they are to some of the kids in and around town and elsewhere.
“In fairness, lads do a lot but we try and encourage them to be as much of a role model and positive influence in their areas as they can be. I think some people even coming onto the team mightn't realise how powerful their voice is.
“We're trying to definitely get that point across. It was definitely sold to me how socially conscious a lot of the Dublin team of the 70s were and even from speaking to them they were aware of that higher purpose with the Dublin team and that there was more to life than football. That kind of stuck with me as well.”
MacAuley wouldn’t be trying to win his seventh All-Ireland medal on Sunday were he not a hugely dedicated Gaelic Footballer, but he’s always been keenly aware too that there’s more to life than football.
If you’re a regular on the live music scene in Dublin you’ll have spotted him here there and everywhere, and he likes to move in circles where Gaelic Football isn’t top of the conversational agenda.
“It's really important to get away from football,” says MacAuley. “If you're eating Mars bars in the Carribean every single day, at some stage you'll get sick of eating Mars bars.
“Is that the world's worst metaphor? (laughs) It's important to go and eat Galaxy bars every now and again!
“I've a good crew of friends who wouldn't be involved in Gaelic football clubs but they're still big Dublin fans and would go to all the matches but that wouldn't be their first grá at all. It wouldn't be the topic of conversation and that helps me.”
He’s loved being a key cog in what may well be remembered as the finest Gaelic Football team of all time.
But what energises him most is not playing alongside great footballers, but what he reckons are great people first and foremost.
“The group is an impressive group of human beings in that I think people are aware that there's a higher purpose than themselves or the team,” he said.
“If individuals come into the team and thought they were bigger for any reason than the team, they'd be quickly weeded out.
“So, I think that's definitely been the crux that we fall on, that we all know that we're doing for something bigger than us.
“We self-police that at this stage and that creates a humility around the squad that's badly needed in any team.”
That’s the sort of statement that might make some GAA supporters throw their eyes up to heaven or cringe.
But those watching from the sidelines see the footballer rather the person and tend not put too much store into what drives a team emotionally behind the scenes.
There’s a reason anyone involved in team sport at a high level is a firm believer in the All Blacks maxim that good people make good All Blacks.
“Yeah it's huge, huge,” said MacAuley. “I think it's massive personally. I don't know how teams can function if they have someone who's maybe too egotistical or looking out for their own interests.
“Sometimes I wonder how the dressing rooms look in the Premier League with all the ego that's involved over there.
“It must be a strange atmosphere so I think there's good group involved here with the Dublin dressing room at the moment so long may it continue.
“I suppose there's lots of lessons you're picking up from lads on the team. It's an extremely cultured and diverse group of people.
“I think just being in the presence of most of those guys, you're definitely going to learn something, you're definitely going to grow.
“They're an impressive bunch on and off the field, very high achieving humans so I've probably picked up a few tips off them along the way.”
When you see MacAuley up close he looks bigger and stronger now than he ever has since making his Dublin Championship debut back in 2010.
He’s 33 and in the twilight of his career, and like most sportspeople of that age he’s pushing himself harder than ever to maximise his time left in the game.
He’s won six All-Ireland titles, two All-Stars, and one Footballer of the Year award, but as he prepares himself for Sunday’s All-Ireland Final against Kerry he’s just as driven now to succeed as he’s ever been.
“I'm pretty grateful for what's gone on,” he says. “I've had a very good run at it. I've had different goals, coming into the team straight away when I was just a fan on Hill 16 I was like, 'It would be great just to get on the pitch, even if I could come on as a sub and tick that box that'd be great to say I played in Croke Park.'
“Then I suppose we moved the goalposts out and that became a reality. I was like, 'It would be nice to start a game.' Then it was, 'It would be nice to win a Leinster.' Then, 'It'd be nice to win an All-Ireland.'
“And here we are going for number seven. So in that respect, the goalposts keep changing and we just keep growing as we go along.
“I'm not stupid, I know we've had a very successful run at it so far and we're just trying to squeeze the last bit out of it now.”
MacAuley’s attitude to Gaelic Football has always given him a healthy perspective on the game, but even he knows that the opportunity to create history by becoming the first team to win five senior football All-Irelands in a row is a pretty big deal.
Typical of the man though too, when you raise the topic he has a disarming way of admitting it.
“Are we going for the five-in-a-row?,” says MacAuley with a smile.
“I was walking down Baggot Street the other day and there was a flower salesman and he said, 'There's Michael Darragh.'
I was with a friend and he (the flower salesman) said, 'You know if I ask Michael Darragh a question now, he'll tell me two answers.'
“I didn't even talk and my friend didn't talk. And he said, 'If I ask Michael Darragh what would it mean to win Sam Maguire this year, he'd tell me it means everything and it means nothing.'
“And so I gave a smile and went on my way, I wasn't even chatting to him. So I suppose that sums it up!”