Echo Sport Replay: Tyrrell reflects on her trophy-laden career so far and surviving dark days
By Stephen Leonard
WHEREVER Hannah Tyrrell's much-varied sporting career has taken her, success has not been long in following.
The former Dublin goalkeeper played a huge part in several successful All-Ireland Championship campaigns as she progressed through the ranks of Dublin underage football all the way up to the senior set-up, while, in soccer, she raised the 2011 Women's FAI Cup with St Catherine's.
Clondalkin woman Hannah Tyrrell looks back on a career that has seen her lift titles in GAA, soccer and rugby and reflects on how sport and her team mates helped see her through turbulent teenage years when she struggled with her mental health
Photo by Paddy Barrett
But it was in rugby that the Clondalkin woman’s exploits have garnered the greatest attention as she became a regular for Ireland in the World Sevens Series, played in both Sevens and 15s World Cups and helped see her country to Six Nations glory in 2015.
Yet for Tyrrell, sport has provided her with so much more than titles and silverware.
Far more important to her are the friendships she has made and the support she received, particularly through GAA and her local club Round Tower, when she endured the darkest moments of her teenage years.
Indeed, behind the joy and laughter that came with playing a sport she loved and the success it brought, lurked a growing lack of personal confidence and self-worth that soon left Tyrrell desperately struggling with self harm and the eating disorder bulimia.
Time on the pitch afforded her a temporary reprieve from her hidden mental struggles, but it was the support of her club and inter-county team mates, among others, that really helped haul her through the most distressing days.
Today an advocate for mental health as ambassador for the Tackle Your Feelings campaign, Tyrrell took some time out to look back on a tremendous career that is entering its next chapter with upcoming Six Nations games later this month and a possible return to the Rugby World Cup stage in 2022.
“I started playing soccer with Monksfield United and I was soccer mad right up until about 12 years of age when I was introduced to GAA” recalled Tyrrell. “I only got to start playing GAA when I went to secondary school in Coláiste Bríde.
“After starting GAA in school they were like ‘Why don’t go down and play for the local club Round Towers?’ So I started playing there for their Under 14 team.
“I was lucky in that my coach in Towers, Jimmy Graham, also happened to be the Dublin coach that year and he selected me for the Dublin Under 14 team.
“I ended up playing for Round Towers for the next ten years or longer and we won the Intermediate Championship in 2011. We beat Clontarf in the final.
“It was the first time we had ever reached the final. We had lost a couple of quarter finals and semi finals in the year previous and thankfully 2011 was our year.
“It was brilliant. I’ve been lucky enough to win a lot of medals in my time. I’ve won All-Irelands, I’ve won a Six Nations medal, played in World Cups, but winning the Intermediate Championship with Round Towers is one of my most treasured memories.
Former Dublin goalkeeper Hannah Tyrrell battles for the ball with Mairead McCormick
“It was with girls I had grown up with and who had helped me through my struggles with mental health.
“For me I struggled with an eating disorder and self-harm from my early teenage years. I suppose it was from a lack of self-belief and confidence and self-worth. I never felt like I was good enough at anything that I did.
“I kind of cut all ties with a lot of my friends and started to hide away from my family and put all my energy into this eating disorder because I felt that if I changed how I looked then I might change and people might actually like me better.
“There were a whole host of reasons which, looking back now, they don’t even make sense, but at the time it was just something that consumed me, and outside of my eating disorder and my self-harm, the only thing I really cared about anymore was sport and GAA in particular.
“While I was really struggling on the inside and feeling really depressed, on the outside I put on a brave face for the world and pretended to be happy and chatty, full of jokes and laughter, because I was afraid of people seeing how I really felt and the stigma that came with it.
Clondalkin’s Hannah Tyrrell has lined out on the World Cup stage for both the Ireland 15s and Sevens and enjoyed Six Nations Championship success with the former back in 2015
“I hadn’t really asked for help and people didn’t really start to find out about my struggles with mental health until my late teenage years around 18, 19, 20.
“GAA was the one good thing I saw in my life at the time. It was the friends who I had met through GAA who were the ones who really pulled me through recovery years later when I started to reach out and ask for help.
“It was really then when my friends were there for me and showed me that they cared and they supported me and I started to believe that I deserved to have a better life, a better way of living.
“I was able to turn to them and have confidence and trust then that they only wanted to help me and they weren’t going to shame me or turn away from me because of my struggles.
“When people began to realise that I was really unwell with my mental health, I was actually in St Patrick’s Mental Hospital getting treatment such were the struggles I was going through.
Hannah Tyrrell in action for Round Towers with whom she won the 2011 Dublin Ladies Intermediate Championship Photo by GAApics.com
“A couple of the Towers girls actually came in to visit me. I hadn’t told them I was struggling. They’d obviously actually heard it from other people and they came in to visit me.
“Just seeing my team mates give up their free time to come in and see me when I was at my lowest, it was a real boost to me.
“And it wasn’t until a few years later again when I reached out and asked for help, that these same friends, my Towers team mates, my Dublin teams, were the ones answering my calls, hanging out with me to ensure I was safe and I was looking after myself.
“At times, they literally dragged me through recovery. I had really good days when I was happy to try and there were other days when I just wanted to leave it all behind again and they were the ones who were there for me and wouldn’t let me go.
“And I’m so, so grateful. I’m sure if I asked them, they’d say of course they’d do it all again, because they cared and loved me, but at the time I didn’t really think I deserved any of that help and support and that people would have been better off without me, but my friends weren’t letting go of me.
“I loved playing GAA, I loved playing soccer. There was just that craic and there was just that peace, that calmness. That was the one part of my day that I enjoyed. I really, really loved it” she said.
All-Ireland honours rolled in for Tyrrell and her Dublin team mates at Under 14 (2004), Under 16 (2006), Under 18 (2008) and twice at Senior B degree in 2010 and 2012.
“Everyone saw us as the team they were trying to beat and we did kind of expect to get to an All-Ireland every year because nothing else was good enough in our opinion” continued Tyrrell.
“Some of the players we had right the way through on that team were the likes of Niamh McEvoy and Sinéad Goldrick who have been over playing AFL, Natalia Hyland and Orla Egan who have represented Dublin for years, Amy Connolly and Noelle Healy, the same.
“In 2009 when the majority of that squad ended up hitting the senior age grade, a lot of us went on to play senior, but we kind of had that bit part role where we were mostly subs.
“So in 2010 a few of us decided to play in the Aisling McGing Championship, which was basically Senior B at the time and we were lucky enough to go and win the All-Ireland that year too.
“That was amazing and it was great because there was also another Towers girl on that team, Suzie Murray.
“When I was about 15 or 16 there was a girl, Charlene McKenna playing on the Dublin team who was playing soccer with St Catherine’s.
“She also played in goal and she was like ‘I’m going on my holidays for a few weeks and we’re looking for a goalkeeper to fill in. Would you mind coming to play for St Catherine’s?’
“So I went and played with St Catherine’s and when she came back from her holidays I stayed with the team and played outfield.
“In 2009 we lost 1-0 to St Francis in the FAI Cup Final in Richmond Park, but we got back to the final in 2011 and we won 3-1 against Wilton United in Turners Cross.
“The guy who managed and coached us was a guy called Brother Bernard and it was just so nice to win it for him, with a group of girls, a lot of whom came from difficult backgrounds.
“I played with some amazingly talented players. Caroline Thorpe was one of those who really took me under her wing, she was an amazing player, Susan Heapes, former Ireland international was there as well, Noelle Murray, probably one of the most talented players I’ve ever seen with a football.
“Mary Waldron was the same. She came over to us from St Francis and she brought a new level of professionalism with her.
“The creation of the Women’s National League came about and St Catherine’s applied to be a part of that, but were refused on the basis that they didn’t have the proper ground and structures that you needed to have.
“So unfortunately a few of the players all went off and found a Women’s National League team to go and play with.
“I joined Shamrock Rovers and I was left back in that first season. It was a pretty tough season for the team.
“We were one of the newly-created teams, so I think we were probably nearer the bottom of the table than the top, but it was quite enjoyable and it was some experience to play in that team.
“But I got injured towards the end of that season. Nothing against Shamrock Rovers, but they didn’t have the supports in place to help me with my knee.
“So I only played the one season with them and then went back to GAA and Dublin.
“In 2013 I joined back up with the Dublin Senior Ladies Football team and played outfield for them. It was that year when rugby came knocking.
“When I had been playing gaelic football with the Dublin Senior B team, there was a woman there, Sharon Lynch or ‘Chopper’ as she was known.
“She was playing rugby with Old Belvedere and she asked me had I ever thought about playing rugby and said I should give it go, so in September of 2013 I joined Old Belvedere.
“I thought it was going to be more of a hobby for me. I thought I’d be able to go back to GAA and that’s what I did in March of 2014.
“I went back into the Dublin senior set-up. I was convinced to go back into goal and that year I was the starting goalkeeper for Dublin in the league and we reached the League Final, but by this time I had been called up to the Irish Sevens squad to train and see what it was like and whether I was interested.
“Basically I was offered a contract with Sevens and I was selected for my first tournament in May of 2014 at the Amsterdam Sevens.
“That clashed with the Dublin League Final. If I accepted that contract for rugby, I had to leave GAA behind. And as much as I loved Dublin GAA, I just couldn’t turn down that opportunity and the career that I’ve had so far has been phenomenal.
“With rugby, there was such a learning curve, but I had foot work and kicking from years of playing GAA and soccer.
“It took me a long time to get used to the tackling element of it, but I threw myself into it.
“The girls in Old Belvedere are some of the nicest and most welcoming people and it became a real social thing for me, and I hadn’t experienced that too much myself. It was brilliant.
“So we won the league that season and then March of that year I got a phone call from Stan McDowell who was the Irish Sevens Talent ID guy and he invited me into the Sevens programme.
“I started training with them and started to learn the game of Sevens and I got my Sevens contract and managed to keep that until I retired last year in August 2020.
“I got my first cap in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, by the time I had joined the programme, Ireland has been relegated, so the next season we had no World Series or official competition to play in.
“But in December and January of that 2014/15 year, before the Six Nations, a lot of Sevens players were released to go into selection camps for Six Nations to try and make the squad and I was one of those and I was lucky enough to make the squad.
“I was selected to start in every single game of that Six Nations that we went on to win in 2015, so I was very lucky to get that opportunity.
“I got my first 15s cap there against Italy. I played on the wing. On the other wing was Ali Miller and the full back was Niamh Briggs so I was in very good company at the time.
“We beat Wales and then we lost to France in Ashbourne. I was ruled out of that with concussion as a last-minute thing, so I didn’t play against France.
“We played England at home and we beat them. I played on the wing. That was the first time an Irish women’s side had beaten them at home and then we played Scotland over there to win it.
“We had to win by about 26 points in order to win the title. It was tough going, but we ended up winning 73-3. It was a massive score.
“For me, that was my debut year. I hadn’t really got to grips with international rugby yet. I was barely playing rugby a year and already I was capped in Sevens and 15s and to go and win a Six Nations was an amazing achievement.
“But in that Scotland game I ended up dislocating my shoulder, so I was out for the next four or five months or so rehabbing.
“That year we had to try and qualify to get back on to the World Series. Those qualifiers were actually in UCD in Dublin in 2015.
“The top two qualified for the World Series and thankfully ourselves and Japan got to the Final of that tournament. We lost to Japan 10-7, but we had both qualified.
“But in the Final against Japan I dislocated my shoulder again which meant I was going down the route of surgery and I ended up missing the start of the 2015/16 season of the World Series and the 2016 Six Nations completely due to injury.
“I played in the 2017 Six Nations and I was selected for the 2017 World Cup.
“Playing in that very first game in the tournament when we beat Australia is definitely among my top three moments.
“Singing the national anthem on home soil in my first World Cup was amazing and it was the first time that Irish rugby had sold out tickets for a women’s game, so the atmosphere was crazy and just to have that support and get the win was a phenomenal achievement.
“Now the rest of the World Cup didn’t go as well as we would have hoped, but just that moment was immense for me.
“Then in the summer of 2018 was the Sevens Rugby World Cup in San Francisco.
“We played in the home of the San Francisco Giants Baseball Club and they had managed to fill the stadium.
“Again the Irish women’s team managed to get their best ever finish in a World Cup of sixth place and it was the first time the men’s team had made a major tournament as well, so it was great to have two teams there representing the country.
“In 2019 in Sydney we came fourth in that Sevens tournament which was the highest any Irish women’s team finished. It was a phenomenal achievement.
“At the start of the 2019/2020 season it was a big year for us because it was Olympic qualification year for Sevens.
“I had it in my head that if we qualified for the Olympics that I’d do one more year of Sevens and that if we didn’t, I’d retire and really focus on moving across to 15s, and hopefully qualify for the World Cup with them.
“So I played the whole of the 2019/2020 season with Sevens until it was cut short because of Coronavirus and then I came home and went straight in to play the Six Nations game against England which was, again, the last game before the rest were cancelled.
“As the summer went on, we had failed to qualify for the Olympics and so I knew that was going to be my last year of Sevens and, with Coronavirus postponing everything else, my Sevens career came to an abrupt end.
“It was only when you look back on it, you can say ‘I left this [Sevens] jersey and this programme in a better place than when I started and hasn’t it been great just to have been a part of it.’
“A lot of funding has been put into Sevens by the IRFU over those years. Us being on the World Series really helped grow the game and get it more publicity. People were starting to realise that we actually had a Sevens team and we started to get results and it grew massively.
“I managed to get in a Six Nations game against Italy there at the end of 2020 and I’ve been training with the 15’s the whole time. We’re looking forward to getting a few games under our belt when the Six Nations gets going for 2021.
“So I’ve been able to move on to a new period in my life. I’ve started a new job in St Patrick’s Cathedral Grammer School, and I’ve been able to play 15’s and start a new position. I now play out-half or fly-half.
“I’m still learning, but I am enjoying it and I’ve had plenty of time in training to be able to get used to that role and to know what’s expected of me so that I can help the team.
“We play Wales away on the 10th of April and then we have France the following week in Dublin. We will have one more game, but it’s to be confirmed who we’ll play depending on other results.”
Tyrrell is relishing this latest challenge on, what has been, an amazing sporting journey that has helped shape her, not only as an athlete, but as a person.
Buoyed by the support of those closest to her that she now knows she can call on, Tyrrell believes she is in a far better place today than where she was as a teenager.
“Today, I’m much better equipped to deal with problems I face in my life.
“I suppose I use my past experiences as a way to help me through anything that I end up going through today.
“I’m a normal human being. I go through good days and bad days like everybody else, but I know how to cope a little bit better now than maybe I did as a young teenager.
“I know I’m not the only person who struggles with this and has bad days, I know I’ve people out there who I can turn to and who will support me if I really need them.
“So I’m well able to deal with any bad days that come my way because I do know that there is a better day coming.”