Alan Quinlan – How I Tackled My Depression

Oct 22, 13 Alan Quinlan – How I Tackled My Depression

“Life was good for rugby star Alan Quinlan as he prepared to set out on a Lions tour, but then he was guilty of a headline-grabbing eye-gouging incident, after which he went into a downward spiral and his marriage ended. Here he tells Donal Lynch how he has been battling back”

THE semi-final of the Heineken Cup in 2009 was one of the biggest games of Alan Quinlan’s life. It was one of the first rugby games to be played in Croke Park, and there was a cauldron-like atmosphere in the stadium, which was bursting at the seams. There was a world record crowd (for a club game) of just over 82,000. Quinlan was riding high: his beautiful model wife, Ruth Griffin, had recently given birth to their son AJ, and Alan’s career was soaring. He had recently been selected for the Lions tour and Munster had already beaten Leinster twice earlier in the season. He was determined that they would repeat the feat. In a fleeting moment the dream died – both for Quinlan and Munster. They were hammered by their arch-rivals and during the game Quinlan was cited for eye-gouging Leinster player Leo Cullen. Despite Cullen bearing Quinlan no ill will and even writing to the sport’s disciplinary body in support of him, the Munster legend still received a 12-week playing ban.
In retrospect, the ban seemed like the catalyst for a couple of rough years for the Tipperary man. He self-flagellated constantly about the Cullen incident, furious at himself for having thrown away the chance of a lifetime – representing Ireland in the Lions.

He would become mired in a deep depression, something he struggled to speak about because of the “macho image” that rugby players tend to have. The following year his marriage to Griffin ended, prompting a feeding frenzy of tabloid speculation.

By that time, his playing days were effectively over – he retired in 2011.


“Alan Quinlan became mired in a deep depression, something he struggled to speak about because of the “macho image” that rugby players tend to have” – Picture by


Before our very eyes Quinlan had seemed to have gone from what Shakespeare described as ‘youth like summer fruit to age like winter bare’. His future, which had seemed so bright now appeared like a long dark tunnel with no light at the end.

“It was a bad time,” he tells me. “Every day seemed to go on and on. I lost a lot of motivation for things that would have excited me before. In my playing days, I had this intense desire to achieve. They say anxious, nervous people get a buzz out of being under pressure. It’s like there is a washing machine going around in my head and it’s very hard to switch that off.

“When I was playing rugby, I used to sit there in the dressing room, so nervous, so anxious. If I got a place on a team I would worry that I’d mess up. If I didn’t get my place on the team that would be a source of anxiety too.”

He constantly relived the Cullen incident – and does even today, it being a Lions year.

“My temperament was always something I had to work to control,” he tells me. “Someone once called it my ‘red mist’. I was very committed. If I was in an individual sport I would have broke myself down with worry and fear.”

As a player, Quinlan’s life had always been regimented. It took immense personal sacrifice. He trained, he ate, he rested. Top-flight rugby required an intense focus – training on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day would not have been unusual. He was always a subject of scrutiny for the sports media but marriage to Griffin brought a new kind of limelight. They were a golden couple and a subject of intense fascination. The break-up, he tells me, “was a difficult time for both of us”.

In the aftermath of the Cullen incident, Quinlan’s depression worsened to the point where he considered ending his own life (although he points out that this was only something he fleetingly considered: “It went through my mind – but it was something I never acted on.”)

He knew something had to change. He spoke to his GP and to members of Munster’s backroom team and the following September he began a series of sessions with psychotherapist Dr Michael Horgan.

He also began taking medication, which he says he believes can be useful in the short term if someone is feeling very low and needs help coming out of a “rut or a slump”.

It was the counselling sessions and the support of his family and friends that provided the biggest support, he says, and helped him slowly come out of the period of depression.

“For me that was the biggest key – being open about the problem. Awareness is all about giving your mental health some time. I never did that and not doing it got me in the place I found myself in. As a professional athlete, you put a plan in place to train the body. But your mind needs a plan too. My mum and dad were wonderful, they’ve always given me enormous support throughout my career and my life.”

In hindsight, he sees some of the signs of his future mental health problems as far back as his teenage years.

He grew up in Limerick Junction; his father was a farmer and his mother worked as a chef for three decades for the health board. As a youngster, Alan was always a prodigiously talented sportsman – he was a decent club hurler and just missed out on making the Tipperary under-14 team, no small feat in a county where the sport is cult. Despite attending a non-rugby school – Abbey CBS in Tipperary – he came up through the club system and soon revealed himself to be a rare talent. He captained the national youth team against Scotland in 1993 and within three years was a regular in Munster’s first team. For all his prowess on the pitch he was not an academic youngster, however, and he says the guilt at this fact prompted him to take jobs throughout his teenage years.

“There was anxiety even then. I would have worried about what I was going to do when I left school, or how I would buy a house – just silly stuff like that.”

Often, he says, he wouldn’t even have spent the money he earned because of anxiety about where his next job would come from. “The pressure was always there.”

When he was 24 he did confide in a doctor that he was feeling down, but was told that everyone had their troubles and to buck up, basically.

The flip side of this gnawing worry was that he was tremendously motivated to succeed and make a living for himself.

“Anxiety can also drive you. It makes sure that you don’t rest on your laurels. You put a lot of pressure on yourself. I did that, and to be honest, it probably helped me to a point. The key is knowing when to give yourself a break. You have to see the positives around you.”

One of the biggest positives in recent years has been the arrival of his son AJ, who was born in January 2009.

“When he was born he gave me a sense of responsibility to take care of myself and stop being so anxious,” Alan tells me. “I had always been such a pessimist but he gave me a great optimism. It’s a goal of mine to be a really good dad to him. I’ve experienced a lot in life and I hope I can pass some of that learning on to him. He has a great mum too, so he’s lucky there.” He tells me that he doesn’t want him to feel under pressure to play rugby although he will almost certainly play some sport.

In recent years he has forged new careers as a TV analyst, newspaper columnist and a brand ambassador for Ulster Bank and Topaz.

In person, he is open, warm, and articulate. He no longer takes medication for depression. He remains on very good terms with Griffin.

Since his recovery he has thrown himself into supporting mental health causes. As part of the Lean On Me anti-depression initiative he has spoken to groups around the country.

“There’s still a kind of stigma here in talking about mental health issues. Especially amongst young men who might be the ones who need it the most. I wouldn’t like anyone to go through what I went through. We have a huge problem with suicide in this country; it’s an issue we need to give a bigger priority to. John Kirwan (the All Black rugby player, who has had his own battles with depression) is a good friend and he told me that one of the keys to happiness is trying to enjoy the simple things in life. I try my hardest to do that and to stay in the moment. But it’s a daily struggle.”

He will be 40 next year and he tells me that only now has he has learned to lean on himself.

“What I tell people is to not be so hard on themselves. That’s what I try to do now – finally, after all these years: give Alan a break.”

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