November 3, 2009 / 2:45 PM / in 8 years

Hurler's gay admission spurs Irish lifestyle debate

DUBLIN (Reuters Life!) - One of Ireland’s most loved sporting heroes has moved the goalposts on the debate about public attitudes toward homosexuality in the traditionally Catholic country by revealing he is gay.

Irish hurling star Donal Og Cusack’s revelation in an autobiography released last month is still reverberating across a country which only legalized homosexuality in 1993 and still outlaws abortion.

The 32-year-old, brought up in a village in the southern county of Cork -- known as Ireland’s “rebel” county --- publicly came out in his autobiography “Come What May,” which hit the shelves at the end of October.

“I think that his case will make it easier for other young gay people to do the same,” said Tom Humphries, a sportswriter for the Irish Times newspaper who assisted Cusack in writing the book published by Penguin Ireland.

Admissions of homosexuality are rare enough in most European team sports, yet the statement by Cusack -- a triple All-Ireland hurler -- was even more shocking for one of the world’s oldest field games.

As Cusack remarked, Gaelic sports and the Catholic church have been two of the main bastions of conservative views in Ireland.

“The pecking order has moved around down the years, but they and the government here are all among the most conservative institutions in the world,” Cusack told the Sunday Times newspaper.

The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) organizes competitions of Ireland’s national sports: hurling -- similar to hockey and played with a small ball and a curved wooden stick -- and Gaelic football, a mixture of soccer and rugby.

The GAA also looks after less popular “rounders,” which is similar to baseball, and “handball,” which unlike the Olympic sport of the same name is “like squash without the rackets.”

The Irish sport association on Sunday celebrated the 125th anniversary of its foundation to counteract the influence of “effeminate follies” played by Ireland’s then English rulers such as cricket, polo, tennis and other “alien” sports.

“I always would have felt a duty that, before I finished my playing career, I would speak about it,” Cusack said. “Because I knew it would have a bigger impact while I was still playing and potentially help guys who are maybe not able to deal with the situation.”

The GAA declined to comment on Cusack’s book.

“It is difficult to think of a similar large sports organization that could exist without some of its membership being gay,” Joe Bradley, a lecturer in sport studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland, told Reuters.

“What the GAA requires to do is to ensure that such players as the Cork goalkeeper are not subjected to abuse or negative discrimination, even though most of its membership might morally disapprove and ethically disagree with such lifestyles and practices,” Bradley added.

Ireland recognized the legal rights of same-sex couples for the first time in June in a civil partnership bill that gave people in long-term relationships many of the statutory rights of married couples.

According to a survey conducted last year by MarriageQuality, an organization for civil marriage for gay and lesbian people in Ireland, 61 percent of the Irish people believed denying same-sex marriage was a form of discrimination.

“The traditional image of Ireland is that of a conservative country, but Irish people are changing,” said David Carroll at BeLongTo, an Irish organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered young people. “Irish people have become very tolerant.”

Editing by Andras Gergely and Paul Casciato

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