KIERAN SHANNON: THE KIERAN SHANNON INTERVIEW: Larry O’Gorman - O Brother, where art thou now?

Twenty-one years ago Larry O’Gorman was Hurler of the Year. Now, he reflects on a life in the game, how precious his All-Ireland medal is, the second father Liam Griffin became, how hard it was to finally put down his hurley, and his central role in Wexford’s band of brothers

You may not have thought of Larry O’Gorman for the longest time until he popped up on The Toughest Trade last month and stole the show, but in case you were wondering what becomes of a hero of a certain year, long after that year has passed, the answer is this particular hero of ’96 never really handed the cape back in.

On Stephen’s Day a couple of years ago O’Gorman was driving through the town centre of Wexford at about seven in the evening when he spotted a man in a laneway with a cement block over his head. O’Gorman pulled his car over, then watched the man stride across the street, heading towards a boutique shop.

We’ll let O’Gorman take over at this point, because that evening he pretty much assumed control of matters as well.

“I said, ‘Hey, brother, what are you at?’ He just ignored me and continued on and smashed the shop window and tried to treat himself to a fur jacket and some jewellery. But I didn’t think they were really meant for him, so I just held him. ‘No, you can’t do that, you’re not getting it! It’s not your property! Leave it alone!’”

Someone else came along then and called the Gardaí while O’Gorman held the offender up against a van. “The poor divil, he was probably going through a tough time in life, but why should you break into your neighbour’s house? What for?”

After the story made the local papers, O’Gorman would receive Photoshop images from friends with him wearing Superman boxer shorts. In a way though, a reference to your neighbourhood-friendly Spiderman may have been more appropriate.

The day I interview him, we’re driving through the estate where O’Gorman’s mother-in-law lives, dropping his five-year-old daughter off from school, when he points to a random house.

“Last Monday, an old woman was out, power-washing that drive[way],” he explains in that distinctive Wexford lilt of his. “I said, ‘Go in and sit down and have yourself a cup of tea! I have my wellies in the back!’”

So that’s what Larry O’Gorman has been at. Ridding the streets of crime and helping old ladies power-wash their driveways, for starters. Even as a stay-at-home dad in the supposed mundane everyday, he continues to be extraordinary, continues to be Larry O, still looking out for his fellow brothers and sisters of Wexford.

O BROTHER – WHERE DID IT START?

A few days after Offaly dumped Wexford out of the 1995 championship at the Leinster semi-final stage, Larry O’Gorman flew out to Majorca to join his brother Matty and some friends on holidays. His first morning on the sands of Santa Ponsa, they were all suffering in one way or another: the boys from hangovers, O’Gorman from the indignity of a seven-point loss, the fourth consecutive year Wexford had exited the championship by that margin or more.

O’Gorman was well accustomed to putdowns through the years.

It was the worst part of being an inter-county player; for every person who told him to stick at it, there’d be two who’d tell him he was wasting his time. “People couldn’t wait to give you a good kick in the backside. Couldn’t wait to tell you how poor you were, how poor your team was. I used to work as a windows fabricator in a factory and when you’d go back every Monday morning fellas would tell you, ‘Why don’t you take up something else?’”

O’Gorman had a stock response to zealously protect his dreams. I’ll prove you wrong. We’ll prove you wrong.

Larry O’Gorman tries to evade Limerick’s Barry Foley during the 1996 All-Ireland SHC final at Croke Park. Picture: Ray McManus

“When I was a young lad, I used to love going shooting with my father. We might not catch anything and I’d be saying, ‘Dad, we’re not bringing anything home.’ He’d say, ‘We’ll get something tomorrow. There’s always another day. Never give up. We’ll be back.’ And we’d go back the next day and we might catch two rabbits and two pheasants. And he’d say, ‘There you are. You never gave up. There’s always something there.’”

In Santa Ponsa, that was his still his mindset. It was one his companions did not share.

“Kenneth ‘Stock’ Walsh would be a good friend of mine, a good friend of Liam Griffin’s. And even he was saying, ‘Youse’ll never win nawthin’!’ ‘I tell you now,’ I says, ‘we’re going to win the All-Ireland next year! Griffin’s building something special!’ Stock Walsh said, ‘Will you dream on?!’

“Well, I jumped off the sunbed and I ran to the sea as fast as I could. It was as if there were lads from Offaly and Kilkenny in my way and I was charging through them. And I tell ya, I was so livid, I thought the water was going to open up for me, like the Red Sea.

“A little later, things returned to normal: we went back to watching the talent on the beach, relaxing, going for a swim. But when I came back to my bed that time, my friend Dessie said to me, ‘Stock Walsh says you’re mad!’ And I said, ‘Dessie, I’m telling you now, we’re going to win the All-Ireland. And I am the greatest!’ That’s what I said. He just laughed at me.”

It was about then that they spotted a black vendor coming towards them, completely unaware how he was to play a small but significant part in changing hurling history. Being of African origin, he was the first man Larry O’Gorman called ‘Brother’.

“He had a big bowl up on his shoulder and he was shouting, ‘Apples, bananas! Apples, bananas, grapes, oranges! Apples, bananas!’

“I shouted over, ‘Hey Brother, over here!’ “And he said, ‘How are you, my Brother?!’ And I said, ‘Okay my Brother!’ And I stood up and I gave him a high five. He put the basket down on the ground and he gave me a hug and he said, ‘You’re like my brother!’ I said, ‘How am I like your brother?! You’re black, I’m white!’ He says, ‘No! The way you greet me, that’s good! That’s kind!’

“So we sat down and we chatted. He was telling me he had three or four wives and I said, ‘That’s great: I have none at the moment, I’m still looking for one!’ So we just had a bit of fun, that bit of connection. And when he walked off again up the beach he put up his hand and said ‘See you, my brother!’ And I just said ‘See you, Brother!’

“It was like that for the rest of the week. He’d come over to us every day and sit down with us. He might have a can of beer or we might buy him an ice cream and we’d tell each other yarns.”

So that’s how it started, the most wonderful salutation Gaelic games has known. That evening he’d call Matty by that, being his actual brother. Then it was Dessie or Stock. “Come on, Brother! Are we going out or what?!”

By the time he resumed training with Wexford for the 1995-96 national league, it had become something of a reflex. Someone mentioned for him to put out a few sliotars and O’Gorman found himself saying, “Okay, Brother.” When they went into a game, he was the same. Over here, Brother! That’s it, Brother!

Soon it became contagious within the setup, especially as no one was more enthusiastic about its circulation than Liam Griffin. He wasn’t just moulding a team. Thanks to little things like O’Gorman’s convivial expression, his team were becoming a band of brothers.

The following September, a whistle was blown in Croke Park.

Larry O’Gorman was the man left holding the ball when the music stopped and the dancing at the crossroads was about to begin.

O’Gorman had dreamt about that scenario as a kid and, only seconds earlier, as Mike Houlihan stood over a free in midfield, he’d envisaged it as well, telling Liam Dunne that it was okay: wherever the ball landed in around their goalmouth, he had it.

All these years later, he still has that ball at home where he and his wife Dara and their three kids live.

More, he has the memory of that moment. Running to the Hill where most of his family were and jumping on the wire to salute them; then making his way back towards the Hogan Stand, weaving through thousands of his own people until one of them halted him by putting his arm around him and grabbing him by the head.

It was Brother Stock Walsh, the same man who over a year earlier had declared that O’Gorman was mad. There was only one thing Stock could say now.

“You were right! What you said in Santa Ponsa, you were right!

“You are the f****n’ greatest!”

A FATHER’S LOVE – TOUGH AND TENDER

“Larry O’Gorman ended 1996 with two of the three Hurler of the Year awards on offer but he was one of the players Griffin needed to reform. Because he was so talented and because his talent was so misdirected he was a vivid metaphor for Wexford’s flaws... You never knew if he was just suddenly overcome with adrenaline or consciously playing to the galleries. Either way, such behaviour had no place in Griffin’s game plan. In a league match against Meath he was taken off at half-time for “messing with the ball”, and for the league quarter-final against Offaly he was dropped. For O’Gorman, nothing exceeded the terror of not being on the team. It was the most brutal and direct route to his senses.” Denis Walsh, Hurling: The Revolution Years

KS: Were there nights coming home from training when you cursed Liam Griffin out?

LO’G: Well, definitely the night he dropped me [for that league quarter-final]. He actually came up to me at training that evening and said, ‘Larry, you’re not playing on Sunday.’ I said, ‘Seriously?’ He said, ‘Yeah. We’re going with Damien Fitzhenry [the team’s regular goalkeeper] at wing back and Seamus Kavanagh is going in goal.’ I said, ‘Jeez, Griffin, you really frightened me that time! I thought you were serious for a minute there!’ He said, ‘Larry, we are serious. You’re dropped for Sunday.’ What I said under my breath was incredible. How?! Why?!! What?!! I was saying, ‘I’ll prove this bollix wrong.’ When he picked 15-on-15 that night and I ended up on the B team, I walked past Griffin and said, ‘You’ll never give me a subs jersey again.’

KS: What way did you process it?

LO’G: I tell you, it was a kick in the arse for me. And he actually said that night [he dropped O’Gorman], ‘Larry, you’ll come back stronger and better for this.’

KS: Tell me about the 27-year-old Larry O’Gorman that Liam Griffin would have inherited. How would you have been perceived and how now would you look back on yourself?

LO’G: Raw. Raw and wild and wicked. I could do things great and I could do things stupid. I always wanted to be the best. I always wanted to give a man of the match performance every time I went out. I’d nearly kick myself if I didn’t get it. But I was trying to do everything.

Whenever there was a free or a lineball I’d nearly always run over and pick up the ball. ‘Please let me take it!’ Maybe that came from underage, with the club, but after a while, Liam Griffin said, ‘No, Larry.’ He took away some things from my game to make me a better hurler.

KS: So how did you change?

LO’G: My attitude. I listened exactly to what was being said to me. Because when you know someone who has a real love and passion for hurling and he comes up and puts his arm around you, you’re inclined to stick with his plan. Liam would say, ‘Right, Larry you’re wing back. You’re the best wing back we have. I’m going to make you the best wing back in the country. But you’re not corner back. You’re not centre back. You’re not playing midfield. I want you to play this position. Liam Dunne has there covered. Adrian Fenlon has there covered. All you have to do is do your job.’

KS: How did he relate to you?

LO’G: I knew he loved me. He was the closest thing you could get to another father. I was living on my own at the time. A couple of years earlier I had a partner and we had a child and we were together but then we separated and although Griffin knew I was still a sociable lad and had good friends, he knew there was a loneliness hiding in me. Sometimes I’d never go out of the flat. Sometimes I’d go straight home after work at five o’clock and just get into bed. My partner had moved out of my life and I did my best to win her back but it just didn’t happen. And he was aware of that so he’d often come over and put his arm around me. ‘How’s your family? Your mum and dad? Are you able to pay your rent? Are you okay with feeding yourself?’ I’d often get into the car after training and get quite emotional, thinking, ‘Isn’t it great that here’s a man who’s just after running the bollix off us and then he can have those kind words for you?’ Here was a man trying to guide me in the right direction and lead me to the glory that I had always been looking for.

Liam Griffin, Wexford’s manager in 1996

KS: He was definitely ahead of his time. We hear a lot about the mental health of the player now but few inter-county managers back then would have mindful of it. But what answers did you give when he’d ask those questions? Were you able to feed yourself, pay the rent?

LO’G: Yeah. I was paying rent on the premises. I remember eating salmon and tins of sardines; I’d eat fish all the time, along with brown bread. But I was going back to a flat on my own. I hadn’t fallen out with Mum or Dad but I was ashamed of what was after happening and wondering how I’d patch it all up. There’d be times when you’d be in that flat, looking at a programme on television and there’d be something about family and that bit of sadness would hit you. You’d be there, ‘I’d love that. I’d love that responsibility, I’d love to have that chance again in life.’ That’s the good thing about sport: if you lose, there’s always another chance to come back and win the next day or the next year.

KS: How is your relationship with that child now?

LO’G: It’s grand. No problems, no issues. I’d be fine with her mother as well. But you would like to have been there a lot more. I think hurling helped replace that loss for me. Just to get out training, to be playing matches. You were going into a happy family again, with the bond that Liam had created.

‘THE KING HAS LEFT THE BUILDING’

‘Larry’s great. He’s got lots of pointers, lots of passion. You can tell he’s in love with the game, which is great.’ — Former NHL, and Faythe Harrier player, Alex Auld. The Toughest Trade, March 2017

Larry O’Gorman has always had a fertile imagination and from the start it was hurling that took root and blossomed there, leaving little room for anything else.

“I went to bed with a hurl. Even if we didn’t have a hurling ball, we’d make one out of a sock full of cloths sellotaped up. There was a golf course up the road from me and I’d puck my way around it. They’d shout at me to get off the course. ‘This is for golf! That’s for Croke Park!’ I’d say to them, ‘I’ll be there some day!’”

At weekends he’d head in to Wexford Park to see his heroes: Tony Doran, Ned Buggy, Willie Murphy. Buggy and Murphy were from his own club, Faythe Harriers. He wanted to play senior for the Harriers like them. He wanted to hurl with Wexford like them. Right there and then, if he could.

“I’d be behind the goal and the ball would go over the net and I’d run and get it and try to drive it back over the bar instead of giving it to the umpires. They’d turn around. ‘Don’t be hitting the ball back onto the field!’ But I’d be there, ‘Yeah!’, jumping up and down after getting my point.” He’d retain that childish imagination even when he would emulate Doran, Buggy and Murphy as a senior Wexford hurler, though by then it would be cloaked by the more adult, sophisticated term, ‘visualisation’.

“I’d go into a handball alley in the lead-up to a big game and get my head right. I’d go through what opposition players I’d be marking and I’d be talking in the alley to myself. I’d puck a ball against the wall, catch it, turn, and in my head, Johnny Dooley would be facing me and I’d push him out of the way and I’d drive the ball 90 yards down the field. ‘C’mon, Larry! Drive it on, Larry! You need to lift it! Lift it!’”

After Dooley scored a devastating last-minute goal against Wexford in 1998 though, things changed. “Every year after that, it felt like as if some more fizz had gone out of the Coke bottle. We were going that bit more backwards.”

They’d rage against the dying of the light. In 2000, a 32-year-old O’Gorman, marginalised by management and plagued with a bone ankle injury, watched helplessly as Wexford were destroyed by Offaly in their only championship outing of the summer. The following year he’d bounce back from surgery to strike for two goals from full-forward in a drawn All-Ireland semi-final and win an All Star nomination. But there was only so long he could go on.

“In 2002 and 2003, there were times my head would be up at one end of the field, wanting to do something, but I’d look and my legs would still be at the other end of the field.”

He was still there for the start of 2004; neither he nor management had the heart to confront and admit the inevitable.

O’Gorman though could tell from the body language of the selectors that he was no longer wanted. One night after a game among themselves up in St Patrick’s in Camolin, he put it to them. They told him, yeah, he didn’t need to be there anymore, he wasn’t in their plans, but it was up to him what he wanted to do next.

“It was the hardest thing ever in my life. I came out of the dressing room and sat into the car. Barry Gough, a clubmate of mine, was with me. I didn’t want to explain to him what had really happened but he knew there was something wrong because before he got out of the car, he said, ‘Are you okay, Brother?’ I said, ‘I’m finished.’ He said, ‘What?!’ I said, ‘That’s it. I’m not part of the setup anymore.’”

Shortly after Gough got out, O’Gorman found himself having to pull over again, overwhelmed by his grief.

“My whole life had been crushed by a decision that I had to give it all up. There was nothing else in the world. Winning the lotto wouldn’t have made me any happier. I’d rather be a hurler than a millionaire. I’d rather be a hurler than a porn star. I’d rather be a hurler than the most famous man in the world. I loved it more than anything else.”

In his time of need, he phoned a friend. He’d just passed Liam Griffin’s Ferrycarrig Hotel on the road and knew if Griffin wasn’t there, he’d at least be there for him.

“It was half-ten at night and the way I was going on, he thought there was something seriously wrong with me. ‘What’s wrong, Larry?! What’s wrong?!’ I told him what was after happening.

“And to be honest, he put tears back into my eyes, the way he spoke to me.”

Griffin reminded him he owed Wexford nothing; in many ways he was Wexford. He’d given so much joy to the county, he’d gotten so much joy from the county. Don’t cry that it was over; rejoice that it ever happened.

Shortly after they finished their call, O’Gorman’s phone kept ringing. Tom Dempsey called. Then Martin Storey. Then George O’Connor. Griffin had called them to check in on their brother to see if he was okay. “And I was perfect. They gave me such a lift.”

George O’Connor gives thanks after winning the 1996 All-Ireland SHC final. Picture: Kieran Clancy

Later that night he called home. Mum was still up. Like Griffin, like all his brothers of ’96, her tone was pitch perfect too. He’d brought such pride and joy into their house. He was still their pride and joy.

When O’Gorman eventually arrived back in his own house, he broke open a box of cigars that he had bought back in ’95 on that seminal holiday in Santa Ponsa. For nine years they had been merely for display, waiting for the suitable occasion. This was it.

And so there, sitting in front of the telly, “watching Starsky and Hutch or something”, he treated himself to one and a glass of Jameson, savouring their taste and the words and wisdom of family and friends, at ease with the decision, himself and the world.

What also helped was that he still had the game. He’d play on with the club for years. Senior, then junior A, then junior B. The standard may have diminished over time but never his love of the game. “Playing junior was the greatest thing ever. It was like going to the bar every time and getting free beer off the barman.”

The last game was a league final, against Crossabeg Ballymurn. O’Gorman would have been 42, 43, by then, but still like a big child, having fun and games.

“I went into the dressing room before the game and there was a great clubman, Kevin Murphy, there, carrying the gearbag. I said to Kevin, ‘Hey, Brother, is there any sandwiches in the bag? I haven’t eaten for a couple of hours!’ He said, ‘No problem, Brother, do you want ham and cheese or do you want salad?’ The rest of the boys were looking around, like, ‘Are these guys for real?!’

“We got through the game all right. Won well. Went back into the dressing room. Didn’t get changed this time. Just picked up my gearbag and said, ‘See you, lads. The king has left the building!’

“Went out to the car where Dara was. Had a little cry. She said, ‘What’s wrong? Did you have a row with someone?’ I said, ‘I’m fine. But that’s it. My hurling career is now over.’”

And then off they drove, into the sunset and out for a lovely meal that night, where again he had another little toast to the career and legend of Larry O.

THE LEGEND LIVES ON

‘Hook it, block it, pick it, roll it, kick it and flick it!’

— Larry O’Gorman, March 2017, on national television

From the time he was 14 years of age, selling newspapers and groceries and installing petrol in a local garage, Larry O’Gorman had been part of the workforce. Then three years ago the washroom services company he’d worked for as a salesman made some cutbacks and he was one of the casualties.

It hit him hard. He’d never even taken as much as a sick day in all his years working for them or anyone else. “I was very down on myself. I couldn’t sleep. At first I thought I was to blame. But when I sat back and looked at it, I said, ‘No, I didn’t

fail, they just failed to keep me.”

He’d take a case to an industrial relations court and win enough compensation to satisfy him. Now he couldn’t be happier.

Recently Dara went back to train as a school teacher and now she’s working away at that. He stays at home with the kids. “It’s great. When our first two came along (seven-year-old Kate and five-year-old Hannah) I was away repping all the time. Now they love me. And as for the little one (18-month old Ella), sure she thinks I’m Barney with all the hugs and kisses.”

And of course, the arrangement frees up lots of time for coaching.

He’s part of the Wexford academy. Last year he was involved with the Tony Forristal team that reached the final. This year he has gone up with them to U15.

With the club he’s something of a freelance coach, maybe giving a hand out with the U8s one night, a prospective full-forward with the seniors for a reality TV show the next, then maybe the U14s the next night again. Only for the glasses you’d never know he’s 50 in October. Out there with the kids, he’s like a big child himself.

“I just want a young lad to get the same feeling and enjoyment as I got out of it growing up. When a young lad is going off with his father or mother, I’ll say to the parent, ‘Thank you for coming. We’ll see him again next week. Jeez, he’s a topper! He’s a right one! He’s going to be a champion!’

“That way the mother or father goes away proud and the young fella goes away delighted. At home they might be giving out to him about drawing on the wall. He needs to feel proud about himself and where he’s from.”

The love affair continues. That relationship between him and the game, and him and his people. Just as Larry Bird will always be Larry Legend to Boston and beyond, O’Gorman will always be the same to Wexford, something which he’ll sometimes playfully ham up.

He often runs into John O’Connor at matches; Johnno might be on the sideline for St Martin’s, Larry giving a hand out with the Harriers. A little while ago they were both down by the field during a championship game when a few people in the crowd waved over to O’Gorman and asked if he’d stand in with them for a photograph.

“Jeez, Larry, I think you’re famous, are you?” said O’Connor.

“I am, Johnno,” said O’Gorman. “Do you not remember me winning you the All-Ireland back in ’96?!”

“You never lost it! You never lost it!”

No one would want him to. Not even the Kilkenny lads. A couple of years ago about 10 of them were in Wexford for a stag and O’Gorman happened to walk into the same pub as them. Henry Shefflin, Jackie Tyrell, Tommy Walsh.

“I went in and they all started shouting, ‘Larry O! Larry O!’ and came over, grabbed me, put me up on a barstool, gathered around me and started asking questions.

“‘Larry, tell us a few things. Who was the best hurler in the country that you saw?’ I said, ‘Larry O was!’

“‘And if you needed a fella to go on the beer with, who you would ring?’ ‘Larry O!’

“Before the end of the night they had lifted me up and ran around with me on their shoulders.

“The next day a friend of mine passed me on the road. He said he had been in the pub and that he’d found it quite emotional. I said, ‘Why?’

He said, ‘Larry, did you see the respect they showed to you last night? There were 44 All-Ireland medals last night carrying the one around the pub!’”

But not just any one.


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