'I don't look to make smalltalk. I don't need new friends. Strangers are strangers to me'
Paul Galvin arranges the meeting place. He has booked a room for our interview at the Dunnes Stores HQ on George’s Street and organised coffee and biscuits. This is his life now and this is his world. Or one of them.
His third collection of menswear came out this year. People call it fashion and some people spit the word out. He doesn’t know why, but he isn’t sure he knows what the word means either. People overthink things he says, they analyse and they parse. He likes to say people mistake interest for knowledge and vice versa.
“I’ve never really understood the word fashion and what it means. If I said to you ‘fashion’, what would you say? What would you say it means? I don’t know.”
He thinks it’s about more than that - whatever it is - anyway. His next collection, inspired by Patrick O’Connell the Irishman who managed Barcelona in the 1930s, appears in January. For him, this work is about stories and culture and things that interest him - "without wanting to sound like Kanye now, I know that sounds arsey." But there is something else as well.
He knows how clothes can make you feel and if they make you feel good about yourself, is there anything more important than that?
“They can elevate you, you know what I mean? I was always aware of being well presented and that being well dressed could elevate you. I think that is powerful. That can be powerful for men, especially for younger men.”
His wife Louise Duffy can’t believe he was a teacher for ten years. He feels he can be more of an influence on the lives of young people in this field. “I think people have a problem identifying what they’re supposed to be doing in the world,” he says and he has identified what he wants to do. For now.
He talks about the influence in fashion of designers like Virgil Abloh, a man I had never heard of before I read Michael Chabon’s beautiful essay in GQ, ‘My Son, the Prince of Fashion’.
Galvin has read Chabon’s piece too and it confirms what he feels about fashion, even if he is not sure he feels the same about fashion as Chabon’s son Abe.
But Galvin isn’t sure how he feels about plenty of things or, more precisely, isn't sure if he wants an interviewer to know how he feels about plenty of things. It makes a meeting an interesting experience. He shuffles on his seat and is reluctant to commit to an answer. He stares at the ground, stops and starts sentences and lets the silences drag out.
He is a man conscious of how he is perceived, an awareness shaped in part by his shyness, he says, which became more acute during those years when everything became a headline. He was a marked man, primarily he admits because of his own actions, but the reputation didn’t help when he was trying to be something other than the marked man.
His interest in clothes has been enough to make him stand out, but he hasn't always felt apart. He grew up feeling connected not apart but, as his reputation as a player grew, he began to notice he could change the atmosphere in a room, and not always for the better.
“I’m not as moody as I was probably one time, but I’d certainly be aware that I make people uncomfortable. I’d be aware of that, like. I get that sense all right sometimes that people don’t know what to make of me. That’s uncomfortable for me then at times.”
Galvin is comfortable with who he is, but what he does might change. "It's important you have something that invigorates you when you stop playing and I love what I'm doing. It's different in terms of passion to football but I'm really interested in it, I really enjoy it and in a funny way, I think I can teach young people, young men especially, more doing this than I ever could have done teaching."
He has noticed the reaction from people to what he does. Men, he says, "need a reference point" so his clothing collections fulfill him. But there is one passion he may return to again.
“You are born into a family and those are your people, “ Chabon wrote in GQ about his son's obsession with fashion. “And they know you and they love you and if you are lucky they even, on occasion, manage to understand you. And that ought to be enough. But it is never enough. Abe had not been dressing up, styling himself, for all these years because he was trying to prove how different he was from everyone else. He did it in the hope of attracting the attention of somebody else—somewhere, someday—who was the same. He was not flying his freak flag; he was sending up a flare, hoping for rescue, for company in the solitude of his passion.”
Galvin looks back and looks forward, but wherever he looks his passion is always football. His days with Kerry were intense and demanding, but he had set out for them to be that way as he waited for his chance. He may have had the solitude of his passion while he waited, but then he found a fellowship among men he remains intensely loyal to.
“I spent three years looking at Kerry in ’01, 02 and ’03 on the sideline and at home and Kerry were just getting battered from pillar to post. Meath in ’01 hammered them, physically, on the scoreboard, every kind of a way. Armagh in ’02, every kind of a way, mostly physically. And mentally. Tyrone in ’03, just dismantled them physically, mentally, on the scoreboard. And at that point, I said, ‘Right, if I get a look in here, that’s what I’m going to do’. So that’s what I did. And then I just reached a point where I kind of hit the wall or something.”
Those were the years when he felt it was kill or be killed. Contact equals conflict, he says. His game was based on contact and soon it would be based on conflict.
“In 2009, I said ‘I can’t keep going like this’. Ah, it was trouble, like. I was getting suspended, partly then it was being fed by the thing with the referee and I think that affected everything then. And that infected everybody, that infected all the other officials, it infected the powers-that-be upstairs in Croke Park. So I needed to change tack a little bit.”
Change came slow, but it did come. Some described him as a ‘gunslinger’ and Galvin’s reputation was set, but the template was never adequate to describe him.
“I think there was a caricature, for sure. I think there was a certain caricature there, like. But…I never read a whole lot of it, to be quite honest. I think it had an effect. I think it did have an effect, but also my actions had a bigger effect. I gave fellas plenty of fodder to write.”
This was the mood of the time. Playing for Kerry was never easy, he says, but there were times when the years on the sideline waiting for the battle informed everything he did when he joined the fray. He looks back at his four All-Ireland medals and the rest, and wonders how good it really was.
He is judging by the highest standards, the standards around Kerry of men with seven or eight All-Irelands, who feel they might have had a few more.
“I don’t even know what to make of my career when I look back at it. I don’t know what to say about it. It was OK. I wouldn’t say…” and he trails off, looks at the ground and tries to sum it up, without giving too much away.
The thing is, he would still like more. He thinks he’d like to be involved in management, to do something in the game that remains his passion. Anyone who has read his book can see he's a natural writer, but he’s not sure if he wants to write about the game.
“I try and avoid the Kerry thing to be honest with you. The thing about it is the writing comes easily enough to me so I feel like I kind of have to do it. if you can write a bit, why wouldn’t you do it? But the aspect of being involved as a pundit and a talking head, that doesn’t really appeal to me. I don’t intend in having a career in writing about the game, simply because I’d rather be in the game.”
You name a few he would have a loyalty to and he fires out a few more names and they keep coming. Players he admired. Players who backed him when he fought and fought alongside him.
The game was the thing. Hurling came first, a grounding and its own force of nature where he grew up. There were times in North Kerry, he says, when the best option was to hold on to the sliotar, because you wouldn’t know what would be happening anywhere else on the field.
“The safest thing you could have would be the ball and be gone with it, because if you didn’t, anything could happen, anything could happen around you, but I don’t mean to be disrespectful to Kerry people.”
A few days after the interview he texts with a couple of other observations, qualifications to the original recollections, but memories too of his more recent game when a drunk on the sideline walked on the field and drew a hurley across Galvin’s back.
His career took him beyond that even if he’s not sure what to think of it.
“It wasn’t only average, it was obviously a good career, but, you know, I feel, it was a bit messy, it was a bit broken up. It wasn’t that smooth. I was 24 when I started. Obviously in the middle of it, there were ups and downs. It wasn’t that smooth a career, if I look back on it. I think that probably affected how much I won. I think I could have won a bit more. We got beaten once or twice, I didn’t start three of those finals. I just think it was a bit topsy-turvy. Four All-Irelands, it’s not bad going, but if you could have your time again, I think I’d do a bit more.”
The men who went before him may have provided impossible targets, but he believes they were worth striving for, even if there were things that prevented him achieving all that he might.
“We did well. That Kerry team, we were heavy metal enough now when I think back on it. We were a bit wild…I shouldn’t speak for the rest of the boys, but, you know, I was a bit wild for a while.”
The wildness marked him. On the field was one thing - “I always felt I was going into battle” - but off the field, it was different. Naturally shy, he became wary too, wary of strangers, wary of places and what could be around the corner.
“I would have that in me too, quite a strong shyness at times. That’s probably evident to people then at times and they probably feel uncomfortable then, you know what I mean?
“A few experiences as well then socially put me off, changed me, changed how I would behave socially and where I would go. I’d be wary enough about going out and about.”
He still gravitates towards those who provide an unvarnished version of events. The Ó Sé brothers were great men for the truth, he says, and one of the things which drew him to Samuel Beckett, who was an inspiration for his Born Mad collection, was his mordant outlook.
You tell him the story of a day Beckett spent at the cricket with some friends. The sun shone, a batsman scored a century and one of Beckett’s party announced that it was the kind of day that would make you “happy to be alive”. Beckett considered this, “I wouldn’t go that far,” he replied.
“The Ó Sé lads are very like that,” he says. “A shit situation is a shit situation, no matter what way you look at it. But if you call it that, you can actually make some fun out if it. That’s my favourite thing about them. They’ll never give you a spiel. Darragh used to say, ‘Jesus, If I’d ducks they’d drown’. If something goes wrong, they do accept it. They won’t try and wrap it up in something else, that’s how it is and it’s fairly bad at the moment, it couldn’t really get much worse at the minute, but we’ll deal with it.”
He has encountered enough positive thinkers to be sceptical of the enterprise.
“Pragmatism is the way to go. Pragmatism is the way forward in life. You have to be 90 per cent positive in life and you have to be ten per cent pragmatic. Or maybe you have to be 75 per cent positive and 25 per cent pragmatic. What bugs me sometimes is this whole jargon around positive thinking. Everything is positive. ‘Oh my God, you’ve had a setback, but isn’t it a fantastic setback and Jesus Christ, what a setback this is for you’. Come on, don’t be wasting my time with that shit.
“It’s a setback, where am I now? What do I need to do to start moving forward again? It might be a positive thing in 12 or 18 months or two years, but right now it isn’t a positive thing. And don’t be trying to wrap it up in positivity please. That’s my thinking on life.”
Life is great, he says, but it’s also about finding out what you’re good at. He knows he has a talent for clothes and he has learned a lot about business from Margaret Heffernan at Dunnes, but there might have to be more.
“It’s my thing, it’s what I’m doing. I had nearly ten years of teaching and I said, this isn’t for me. And I said, ‘What is my thing?’ And I figured this is my thing.”
When he started, people thought he was looking for attention, but he feels comfortable in this world.
“I think it threw people for a while and they were kind of looking at me going, what’s he doing? But now I’m doing it and I’m going to keep doing it. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone either, but, ah do you know what, I think it’s…pfff…I don’t know…people overthink these things, anyway. It’s just business to me.”
One thing wasn’t business, one thing was his passion and it might be again.
Maybe one day he will manage in Gaelic football. It’s his passion and gave him the reputation he has to live with. Marriage has made him more responsible, he says, but he’s even reluctant to say too much.
“Marriage makes you a bit more responsible. My wife actually likes the fact that I was a bit bold, and I’m still maybe a bit bold, but do you know, I think it makes you just a bit more responsible. Famous last words. I’m always slow to make statements like that because I’ve had the experience in the past that around the corner there’s some fucking bump and I go, ‘Jesus Christ, why did I say that?’”
He gravitates towards the iconoclasts, the people who weren’t afraid to stand out. He watched Supersonic, the film about Oasis and loved the reaction of their manager Alan McGee when they were deported from Holland after fighting on a ferry. “Brilliant,” he said, thinking that there was more to be gained in publicity from not playing the gigs than playing them.
But he never has felt like running from his obligations.
“In life the only thing you have to do is try and answer the bit of talent and develop the bit of talent you have. Be it in football, be it in clothing or be it in writing, they’re the only duties you have. After that, you’re letting yourself down if you don’t do those things. I write because I think I can write a bit. It isn’t because I feel my opinions need to be heard, it’s just because of the fact that I can do it, so you have to do those things.”
The rest he might leave to others, while those who feel uncomfortable around him or who want something he doesn’t want to give will be waiting some time to be put at ease.
Those things aren't important to Paul Galvin. He has found a thing, even if his passion remains for football and those who walked beside him in the band.
“I tell you what, Dion. I’m very comfortable in my skin. I’m comfortable with who I am, I really like who I am. Socially, going to events and that kind of stuff, I don’t need new friends. I wouldn’t be someone now who makes small talk as such. I don’t look to make new friends, I don’t look to make smalltalk. Strangers are strangers to me."