Page last updated at 19:52 GMT, Saturday, 24 October 2009 20:52 UK

Irish sports star says he is gay

By Mark Simpson
BBC Ireland correspondent

Dónal Óg Cusack - picture from cover of his autobiography
Dónal Óg Cusack, pictured on the cover of his autobiography

One of Ireland's best-known sports stars has announced that he is gay, sparking widespread debate and comment across the country.

Donal Og Cusack, the goalkeeper of the Cork hurling team, is on the front page of most Irish newspapers, and every radio phone-in programme has been dominated by discussions about the player.

It is rare for elite sportsmen in any country to talk so openly about their homosexuality. This is particularly true in Ireland - and especially in the macho field of hurling, one of the world's oldest sports.

In spite of all the changes in recent years, Ireland is still a largely conservative country, hence the sport star's reluctance to come out as gay until now.

Not easily intimidated

When he told his father that he was gay, his dad told him he would get him "fixed".

Cusack, who is 32, has won three all-Ireland hurling titles with Cork, the same county where the former Manchester United footballer Roy Keane was brought up.

Like Keane, Cusack is strong-willed and not a man who is easily intimidated.

In an interview on Ireland's prime-time entertainment programme, The Late Late Show, he gave his first live TV interview about the recent revelations.

The team-mates are good. I think I'm very fortunate in that I've got a very mature team in Cork
Hurling star Donal Og Cusack

He admitted he was taken aback by the media frenzy his announcement had created.

"The scale of it has surprised me. It's hard to believe really", he said.

Although he has waited until now to speak publicly about being gay, he told his family four years ago.

He said: "I went home. As usual, my mam had my dinner ready. I just said [to myself] 'this is something I have to do'.

"I asked them to come down to the sitting room and said that we needed to talk.

"I told them that I wasn't into labels, but that this is the way I had been living my life. That was it. I was as up front as I could be.

"My dad obviously was in shock and the first thing he said was 'we need to get you fixed'."

At the end of the family meeting, Cusack's brother, Conor, put his hand on his father's shoulder and said "that'll broaden your mind now, dad".

Cusack comes from a small village, Cloyne, where hurling is part of the fabric of life.

Shane McGrath, who writes about Gaelic Games for the Irish Daily Mail, said: "In national terms this is huge. Hurling is bigger than politics, music, everything. Its hold on rural Ireland is supreme.

Team support

"The GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association] has been the greatest cultural force in Ireland since the state's foundation. While it was incredibly brave of Donal Og to do this, it also reinforces the GAA's ability to move with the times."

His fellow players on the Cork team have been supportive, said Cusack.

"The team-mates are good. I think I'm very fortunate in that I've got a very mature team in Cork. We've got a great loyalty towards each other", he said.

Cusack has written an autobiography called Come What May.

He said: "I want to go back playing for Cork. Hopefully this book will bring closure to a certain amount of things."

Apart from some homophobic text messages sent to radio stations, the overwhelming reaction to Cusack's announcement has been positive.

However, in some ways, the biggest test could be the opposition crowd's reaction the next time he runs out on the pitch for Cork.

In most sports across the world, rival fans are not renowned for their open-mindedness.

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