Interview: Paddy Stapleton — writing children's fiction, self-doubt, Eamon O'Shea's influence & more
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
Former Tipperary hurler Paddy Stapleton speaks about his foray into children’s fiction, and other matters of young people, such as mental health, growing their confidence, and the pressures of social media.
Paddy also speaks in detail about hurling, including the challenges of marking John Mullane, the importance of positioning for a corner-back, and feeling empowered by Eamon O’Shea's coaching.
Paddy with his book, Up In The Air.
The Match On Sunday: Your book of fiction for children, Up In The Air, has been a great success. What was its genesis?
Paddy: It came from my own background. I found school work and reading difficult—there was a barrier between me and education. I struggled to concentrate, especially in primary school.
I thought that a GAA book might speak to children's interests, and therefore to allow them to discover they enjoy reading. Many children understand the GAA world from playing the games, so I thought they might connect with the topic. I wanted to explore this idea.
I had massive self-doubt about writing a book. I’m writing a second book at the moment and I still face those doubts, but you just have to push past that.
"You are going to encounter negative experiences in life. You have to develop your coping mechanisms, process those experiences, leave them behind you, and move on"
It’s interesting that you faced your own doubts. Did you want to communicate some of that to young people?
Definitely. I wanted to address topics such as mental toughness and having a positive attitude. The main character in the book experiences self-doubt, and other people doubt him too—I wanted to show that it’s normal to experience doubt. You see some GAA players rise to the top quickly, but, for most of them, they met huge challenges along the way. You have to meet those challenges head on, and move beyond them.
You are going to encounter negative experiences in life. You have to develop your coping mechanisms, process those experiences, leave them behind you, and move on.
How did you integrate these elements into the characters in the book?
I wanted the main character to have a pursuit that he was obsessed with – in a positive sense – but to struggle with that pursuit. The rest of the characters needed to contrast with him. I tried to make every character defined and interesting, so that people would respond to them. The way they speak is very important to me.
In each chapter, the main character has experiences and conversations that shape him. Writing the story was like thinking your way through a maze: you look at where you want the character to be in a few pages’ time, and then find a way of getting him there.
Was there a bit of yourself in the characters?
Definitely. I've experienced a lot of failure – in school, in work, in sport – and I wanted to reflect that. By getting good advice here and there, you navigate things, you find more balance in your approach to life.
The story could have been told for a farmer, a musician, a dancer—anyone really. The GAA player was my medium as I knew it deeply. To write about a topic, in order to be authentic, you have to know it deeply.
If you’re writing a story, you have to be very interested in people. For example, a person who you might consider to be bad in some way – for example, egotistical – I wouldn’t necessarily see them that way. Instead, I would tend to see them as very different and interesting.
Paddy and Eoin Larkin collide in the drawn All-Ireland Final in 2014.
As your first foray into fiction, was it an intimidating project?
Initially I kept the fact that I was writing a book very quiet as I wasn’t sure if it would be any good. I got some kids to review it, and they gave me confidence that it might work—I needed that confidence.
It was like a lot of things in life, be it hurling for Tipperary or doing your Leaving Cert, there are always people who will tell you that you can’t do it, but you have to push past that and make it happen. You won’t achieve anything if you care too much about what others think.
The book addresses themes such as young people’s struggles, their emotional wellbeing and maturity. What brought these themes to your attention?
As a secondary school teacher, I see these issues everyday. I act as the Home, School and Community Liaison Coordinator in Coláiste Mhuire Co-Ed (in Thurles), so I interface a lot with the parents.
Children are growing up in difficult times. The advent of social media has given them a lot to live up to. It brings extra pressure. On Instagram, everyone is cool, everything in their life is perfect, but that’s not reality.
I think Snapchat is extremely damaging. The messages disappear after a few seconds, so it’s allowing children to bully, and to be bullied, in an anonymous fashion. It’s causing a lot of issues in schools. I intentionally made no reference to mobile phones in the book as I wanted to harken back to simpler times.
Personally, I studied PE and English in UL as a mature student. I wasn’t mature enough to go to college just after finishing school. People mature at different rates, it suited me better to go back to college at 24. And, in teaching, I found a job that I love.
"You have to keep changing, if you stay the same person then you’re missing out on a lot in life"
Would you say you were a late bloomer?
I was. I matured and my interests changed over time. You have to keep changing, if you stay the same person then you’re missing out on a lot in life. Even in the last ten years, my beliefs and goals have changed so much.
Playing senior hurling for Tipperary was a huge achievement. Did you face challenges along the way?
It wasn’t all smooth. I started out playing conservatively. Liam Sheedy and the management team were skilled man-managers. I met with them and said “I’m not playing well, I’m not playing the way I play for my club.” They said “you have to play the way you play for your club, we need to see the best of you.” They backed me and gave me great confidence. Essentially, my strengths got me onto the senior panel, so they told me that I had to express them.
I was lucky to enjoy some success, but the best part was playing with some of the best players to ever play for Tipperary. In 50 years' time, kids will still be asking me about those guys. I took it seriously at the time, but I don’t miss it.
Did you enjoy playing at the top level?
I loved it. My attitude was: I’ve prepared well and I’ll attack the ball, and if my man gets the better of me, that’s just the way it goes.
If you make your 100% effort, there’s nothing else you can do. You have to back yourself.
Paddy scores a point in the drawn All-Ireland Hurling Final in 2014.
The Tipperary players often speak glowingly of Eamon O'Shea's influence as a coach and mentor. What was it about Eamon that got the best out of individuals?
Eamon could identify with the players. He was ahead of his time and had a great imagination. Eamon was a forward when he played, so he could identify with a guy like Lar Corbett and get the best out of him.
I was a corner-back, but Eamon made me feel like I played an important role in how we attacked. He appreciated economy with the ball, which was part of how I operated, ensuring I'd get the ball to a player in a better position.
Eamon made things light. He took the pressure away. You could try something, take a chance, and there'd be no repercussions. He’d encourage you to try a pass that involved putting the ball through the eye of a needle. There’s freedom in that.
What is your top tip for a corner-back?
Before the ball comes, get your positioning right. A lot of corner-backs make the mistake of thinking they just have to mark tightly, but I think you should be more focused on where the ball is going, and moving in that direction.
Getting this right achieves two things: (i) you can get to the ball first if it’s played in, and (ii) if you’re ahead of the forward, he might decide not to make the run, so you prevent that play entirely. You can achieve it by standing just slightly on the side where you think the ball might go. Positioning is huge.
As a corner-back, I liked when the ball was coming in fast – even though that’s generally what forwards like too – because I wanted to read the play and get out in front of my man.
Were there any forwards you found particularly difficult to mark?
John Mullane was difficult. Waterford would deliver measured ball to him. In that situation, you try to contain the forward, to push him out towards the sideline. But Mullane, he had a freakish ability to sprint flat out, control the ball and strike it over the bar with his back to goal. He was the kind of forward that you'd be thinking about on the night before the game.
Richie Power was top class. He would just attack you. He was lethal. And Johnny Glynn was a massive man, very hard to handle.
Paddy fielding with Richie Power in the drawn All-Ireland Final in 2014.
In the modern game, how would you setup your team tactically?
The tactics you employ should allow your team to outwork the opposition. You should be setup in a way that suits your players. For example, with Limerick, their forwards work hard to ensure that the opposition backs can't deliver good quality ball. As a result, the Limerick backs often defend against high, looping ball that's easy to handle. They are setup correctly to work hard, and they reap the benefits.
Good on-field decision-making is a critical aspect in the modern game too. I wouldn’t over emphasise statistics. You can generally tell how a game is going without looking deeply into the stats.
Can you see anyone beating Limerick this year?
They have the best set of players, arguably the best coach, and the right mindset. But things can change. The management keeps them grounded, but it’s hard to dominate year-on-year. In hurling, you have to keep your hunger and precision, and they are hard to maintain at that level.
Finally, The Match On Sunday will make a donation to a cause of your choice. What would you like to support?
Jigsaw is a brilliant cause that works on children’s mental health. There’s a revolution needed in Ireland in this area.
In my job, I often talk to people who are struggling. There are significant levels of anxiety and depression amongst young people. There should be a centre in every town in Ireland to address it. We need to work with children to build-up their mental strength, and Jigsaw does amazing work in this area.
For more on Paddy and Up In The Air, see https://paddystapleton.ie/