Hurling hunk: Mr Ireland on overcoming grief and anxiety

September, 2018. It’s the night of the Mr Ireland competition in Dublin, and Galway man Wayne Walsh has just been crowned the fairest of them all.

He aced the formal, casual and sportswear (essentially, the male equivalent of the bikini round; the shirt came off) and had a show-stopping answer about his personal struggles in case the judges, who included So Sue Me founder Suzanne Jackson, thought he was just a very pretty face. The crowd also obviously appreciated the pitch-perfect blend of old and new Ireland that’s embodied in a champion hurler who looks like he travels with his own lighting expert. Or, at least, some of them do.

“Yeah, it was a certain demographic who wanted all the selfies,” he recalls sheepishly. “On the night itself, it was mainly older women. I must have been called to get in selfies with at least 40 of the mothers, but none of the Miss Ireland contestants.”

Maybe younger women fear losing the fight for the mirror. Or maybe, with some justification, the Miss Ireland contestants think of themselves as the stars of the show. From Michelle Rocca to Rosanna Davison, Ireland has serious beauty-queen pedigree, but has never produced a comparably successful male model. We can do the handsome, interesting faces that make for good actors. We can do sexy. But that precision-crafted, high-cheekbone androgynous thing that you see on the catwalk? Not so much.

Wayne is probably a smidge too manly to make any major inroads into the willowy-waif market. He’s too buff to fit the androgynous mould, and, while he can blue-steel with the best of them, his handsomeness, while striking, is friendly and accessible. And his body has an actual practical purpose beyond merely looking good. The day before the Mr Ireland win, he helped his hurling club, Gort, secure a vital championship victory over a resilient Mullagh in the county hurling championship, and it was his biggest thrill of the weekend. Hurling is a lifetime passion, whereas being gorgeous is a relatively new thing. He couldn’t risk losing his muscles just to make it in modelling, he says. There are limits to ambition and vanity.

Attention to detail

Not that many, however. His interview clothes are what the Italians call sprezzatura – studied nonchalance. The hair is blow-dried – he almost can’t believe I asked. He has an “eyebrow girl” who takes care of him. And, of course, he uses tanning beds, because you can’t be standing beside female models looking like the ghost from The Ring. “I do most of the stuff myself,” he explains. “It’s all about confidence. If I haven’t had a haircut in two weeks and my eyebrows are a big mad bush, I’m not going to be confident.”

The attention to detail is paying off. He’s been signed by the Catwalk Modelling Agency in Galway, and he models full time now. And perhaps his timing is right. Hurling has also recently been met with a fashion nod of approval. Last year, the Paris edition of Vogue featured Oisin Murphy, who plays for Birr, in his full team kit, with the internationally famous model Adwoa Aboah draped on his arm. It was a dramatic image, and a fashion awakening to a particularly Irish brand of male beauty.

Wayne is 27, part of the Instagram generation, and he knows how to play its self-promotional game: from a distance, his life looks like a fairly ideal mix of sporting success, interspersed with making money from looking good. The mother of a boy in the hurling club recently told Wayne that her son thought Walsh was “living the dream”. In fact, while life is going well now, Wayne had, at times, a rough enough adolescence. He was an ugly duckling, he says. He was scrawny, and suffered acne badly enough that at one point he took three weeks off school.

He also dealt with grief and loss. When he was 16, a tragedy in the family left a lasting impact on him. “My uncle took his own life when I was nearly 16, and that was devastating. He was my dad’s youngest brother, so he would have been more like a brother to me. You’re left with so many questions and what-ifs. For any lad that age, there’s quite a lot of anxiety, and you’re worried about college and what the future holds, and that just made it worse.”

He began suffering from anxiety and depression. “I had the mindset that I’d snap out of it. Anxiety was probably my biggest ‘failure’ but I was able to turn it around to a strength – eventually. Looking back, I had fear, fear of the future. It was mental, but physical as well, and progressed to full-on panic attacks where I’d be bawling crying.”

Three years ago, he went to Chicago for three months to play hurling there – players get all of their expenses covered and get to see America. When he came home, he felt very down. “I was a bit down and trying to figure out stuff. It felt like life was moving on without me. I had friends who were a couple of years older, who were getting married and engaged. Hurling has always been an escape, and that was what got me through it.”

Perhaps for that very reason, it was on the hurling pitch that Wayne reached his nadir. He was so consumed by anxiety that he reached breaking point after a training session one night.

“The session passed me by. I did all the drills, but as I was walking off the pitch, I realised the whole thing was a blur. I couldn’t tell you who was in the drill with me, or who I hit the ball at. I was physically there, but my head was somewhere else. And after everyone was leaving, I just sat by myself out on the pitch and started bawling crying. One of the lads asked me if I had twisted my ankle or something, but I just felt so terrible.”

Bottling things up

He confided in a couple of his friends, went to a few doctors, and, most importantly, saw a few counsellors.

“The death of my uncle had stunted my growth emotionally,” he says. “And my coping skills weren’t where they should have been, and I’d got into the habit of bottling everything up.”

Did he ever consider medication? “To be totally honest, I’d be quite against medication generally – I’m not saying it doesn’t work. It obviously has a place in treating mental-health issues, but for me, it was never an option. I felt like most of the time I was fine, which made me think it couldn’t be chemical, in a way.”

His counsellors taught him coping skills. “Anxiety is really your brain being pulled between the past and the future. And what I had to do is sit with myself and ask, ‘At this moment in time, is there anything wrong?’ – 99pc of time there won’t be anything, but I have to work on that perspective. I’m still working on it. There’s no such thing as ‘fixed’ for any of us. We are constantly being given different issues to work through. Talking about things is so important; that’s why I’m talking about it now – to help any other young lad or girl going through something similar.”

The recovery from his mental-health issues seemed to coincide with an overall improvement in Wayne’s life. His hurling went from strength to strength, and he had begun modelling by the time he was crowned Mr Ireland. There was a fashion show in Galway, and Mandy Maher, who owns the aforementioned Catwalk agency, had brought in some female models. Wayne and a couple of the hurlers helped “fill the gap” for male models that night, and afterwards he asked Mandy if she had a job for him. “She asked me was I serious, and I said, ‘Dead serious’. That started the ball rolling.”

He’s a qualified personal trainer, and worked at that up until a couple of months ago – he says that exercise has been one of the key factors in him learning how to cope better with life. “For me, it’s about having a simple routine. Exercise is a great release. I’ve seen it with clients, when they come in and they’re focused on their physical changes, but the mental transformation from hard exercise is huge.” The gym can be a bit compulsive, he concedes. “I was very light and undeveloped muscularly when I was younger. When I first started lifting, it was for performance on the pitch, but once you start filling out your T-shirts a bit better, it becomes more addictive. Somewhere along the line, the whole gym thing took off, even in rural Ireland.”

He guards against things slipping a little too far towards Made in Chelsea levels of maintenance. “I think those guys look very feminine,” he tells me. “I like to look as good as I can, but also as natural as I can. I think a lot of guys are the same now. The girl who does my eyebrows was talking to me the other day, and she said she was booked out with male clients. No way would that have been the case five years ago. And that’s in Galway!”

He lives at home and says he has his “mother’s heart broke – she gets all sorts of jobs, from ironing shirts to helping with meal prep. She’s happy I’m in a different place than I was a few years ago, though. She’s very proud of me. Dad is really proud of it behind it all as well. I think he doesn’t quite get some of the modelling stuff.”

Does Wayne worry about damaging his now most precious asset – his face – on the hurling pitch? “Not at all. The day when I’m walking on the pitch thinking about my face is the day I’ll have to give up, because that would mean I wouldn’t be in the game. I would be letting someone down. Of course I could also get injured, and then I wouldn’t be able to keep in the same shape, but if you thought about all that stuff, you’d never get out of bed. I’ve been hurling since I could walk. It’s the people’s pride and joy in south Galway.”

Kind of oblivious

He’s single at the moment, but has had two serious relationships in the past, both for about three years. He says his looks don’t elicit any special attention from young women, and he tends not to clock when he’s getting checked out. “[The awareness] happens more through other people. A friend might tell me, ‘Oh, did you see such-and-such nearly fell over herself there’, but I’d be kind of oblivious to it. With younger women, I feel I’m doing more or less the same work that any young guy would have to do, but older women love the old flirty banter – ‘Jesus, you’re a fine-looking lad, aren’t you?’ – that’s the type of thing I hear.”

He’s already parlayed the Mr Ireland success into a number of side projects, including acting in a video for up-and-coming country-music sensation, Clodagh Lawlor, in which he plays her boyfriend “who has a blazing row with her”. The reception in Galway generally has been amazing, he says, and the slagging from his teammates has been bearable. “It’s all been surreal. When I started [modelling] there would be a good bit of slagging, people calling me One Direction, etcetera. Modelling itself is a type of acting. I’ve had to practice my walk a bit – the thing with men on a catwalk is you have to walk on your heel, but I’ve a natural habit of walking on my toes with a spring. As regards posing, I just look at the guys doing really well and try to do what they do.”

Wayne will represent Ireland at the Mr World competition to be held in the Philippines in June – the preparations have already begun in earnest for that. In the end, it’s his personality as much as his looks that will probably set him apart. Presenting and media work would seem like natural progressions. “I think you’ve got to have something to say as well, looking well is only part of it,” he says. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. And if talking about mental health helps one young lad out there, it’s well worth it.”

Photography by Kip Carroll

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