‘You can hit people,” says Timmy Creed, reassuringly, as he swings his hurling stick inches from my head. “As long as you’re going for the ball, you can do what you want.” Creed is teaching me how to use a “hurley” properly. Not because I’m considering a switch into the world of gaelic sports (my inability to hold the stick correctly put paid to that idea, along with the fact that I’m a total wimp who hates getting hurt) but because he’s promoting his new play, Spliced. It’s about hurling, the Irish sport Creed spent much of his teens and 20s playing to an impressively high club level. But it’s also about more than that – masculinity, peer pressure, body image, conformity, feminism and self-discovery.
Creed thinks it will help the interview if we knock a hurling ball around to get a feel for the game. (The play is normally staged outdoors, in one of Ireland’s numerous handball alleys, although for its run in Edinburgh a squash court will suffice.) Mercifully, he plays gentle with me as he explains his love-hate relationship with the sport that moulded him. “It gave me an identity,” he says. “But that identity shapes the way you are with men, with women, with how you see the world. A whole other side to you gets missed.”
Creed was a shy, skinny boy growing up – and not very good at hurling. But the sport helped him connect with other boys so he stuck at it, practising alone until he’d gained the respect of his manager and teammates. His club, Bishopstown in Cork, became highly successful for their age group, winning the county championship every year, turning the players into local celebrities.
“You get a swagger,” says Creed. “You are the chosen ones of the area and you can behave how you want. In school, we were given special treatment because we were the stars. You could see how other guys were like, ‘Why does he not have to do his homework?’”
Yet success came with huge pressure to remain committed. Weekends away from training, or even just an interest in other pastimes, was deemed to be letting the team down. He couldn’t even turn up for training on his skateboard. The camaraderie had an unpleasant side, too. Was his own behaviour regrettable?
“Yeah,” he says, pausing to reflect. “The way I used to pursue women, or the way I thought was the way to do it. It was never anything too offensive, but it was never about finding an emotional connection, which is what I strive for most now.”
While playing, Creed started to realise that the male behaviour we often hear about as “toxic” was a mindset drilled into boys across Ireland from a terrifyingly young age. “We were being educated, within this group, that this was how you behaved. Nobody taught us otherwise. So if someone is talking about a woman in a derogatory way and you’re the person who calls them out, it would have been, ‘Who are you of a sudden, undermining the way we’ve been?’ The behaviour comes from a conditioning that the boy won’t even be aware of. It takes a lot of time to unpack that and say, ‘What was I doing at this age?’”
It’s behaviour he doesn’t shy away from in the play, and the honesty can be bracing. As one line about the macho mindset goes: “Get her home, get her showered, get her fingered, get her bucked. Send her packing. Walk of shame. Fuck the name. Tell the tale. Make em laugh. Have the craic. GO ON THE LADS!!”
Creed struggled mentally after quitting the sport, and says he had to piece himself back together. The way forward came via a lucky break – he put himself up for a role in the Irish film My Brothers and ended up getting the lead. “They wanted an ‘introspective, troubled-looking newcomer’,” he says, laughing at the perfection of the fit. The experience showed him another life was possible and, when the time came to write his own play, he knew what it had to be about.
Spliced – named after the metal band that holds a hurley together – tells his own story, with the first half dedicated to the thrill of the sport, and the second his disillusionment, self-discovery and redemption. To write it, Creed went method, re-enrolling at his old hurling team after a seven-year hiatus. “I felt like I was a spy infiltrating the IRA,” he says. “I was seeing the culture that moulded me from a new perspective.”
His return aroused many negative feelings: on his first night of training, the coach sized up his puny calf muscles and prescribed a weights and protein programme. But more complicated was the fact that he found himself falling in love with the game again. “It’s so beautiful to play,” he says. “There’s this deep connection to the ground and ancient Ireland.”
Creed found himself slowly being sucked back into his previous way of life. “I remember thinking, ‘Jesus, you do all this work on yourself to unpack these things – but you can just as easily slip back into them.’” Then he broke his hand and was forced to retire for good.
It’s Creed’s insider position, and genuine love of the sport, that gives him a credibility when discussing how we can tackle some of masculinity’s less appealing aspects. “A lot of people say to me you have to call out toxic masculinity. But ‘toxic’ is such a strong word. People hear it and their initial response is ‘That’s not me’ or ‘I don’t even want the conversation if you’re calling me that.’ It excludes men from this big conversation of openness and respect for women. Can’t we bring them in to share their experience?”
One of the most important moments in Creed’s life came when he took the play to the club to perform it in front of the players. “I was bricking myself,” he says, “because I was using some of the material I’d got from going back.” But the reaction astounded him. “Some of the guys – big, strong-on-the-outside players who dedicated their lives to this sport – came up to me with tears in their eyes, saying thank you so much for articulating something we all struggle with but have never said. They weren’t used to watching theatre and not so versed in how to respond – instead their responses were so honest and simple, cutting through to the core. It was really beautiful.”
Were people not angry that he had been acting undercover? “Some people were, like, ‘Who does he think he is?’ But we can’t hide away from these things. I wanted to crack it open and see how people react.”
Creed is thankful for many things hurling has given him. After he performed, the club chairman said to him: “If this game gave you nothing else, it’s helped you stand up in front of your teammates and tell your own story.”
“And it did,” says Creed. “It taught me courage.”
• Spliced is at Edinburgh Sports Club until 25 August.