When he emerged from the Aghada GAA clubhouse yesterday afternoon, Kieran O’Connor was immediately swamped by well-wishers.
Hundreds of people were present for the walk in support of O’Connor, who is battling a rare form of cancer, but those closest to him in the crush of bodies were familiar faces.
Many of them were from the Cork football team he soldiered on, the side which won an All-Ireland in 2010. Some are greyer, a few are heavier, and many were pushing prams, but their affection for an old teammate hadn’t changed. The strength of the bond was immediately visible.
The man who managed that team was struck by the positivity on show.
“Obviously people have come from far and wide for the event,” said Conor Counihan, himself an Aghada clubman.
“I’ve seen this very few times in my lifetime, this kind of support, or emotion, or whatever you want to call it. I’m around a while but I haven’t seen anything like this in my time.
“It would certainly give you renewed faith in people if you had any doubts, you’d like to see more of it.”
Members of most of the clubs of east Cork were in attendance if the fleeces and hoodies in the club car park were admissible in evidence, and city clubs were represented also.
It’s not clear if the man with the Boston Bruins hat was there on behalf of the ice hockey side — ditto for the chap in the Singapore Lions GAA top — but Counihan wasn’t surprised by the support of so many of Aghada’s rivals: “It’s great but you wouldn’t find it unexpected either.
There’s intense rivalry, obviously, but everyone realises what’s going on, the seriousness of the situation, and it’s only natural that they’d wonder if they were in that position themselves.
“You’d like to think they’d do the same for yourself.”
An opponent from further away was also present to lend his support.
“You can see so many of the lads Kieran would have played with for Cork,” said Tomás Ó Sé of Kerry.
“They’re all here today and with something like this you’ll always have lads rallying round to offer support and it’s great to see.
“There are no barriers, really. Fellas growing up supposedly hate Cork or hate Kerry, all that stuff, but we’re all the one. That’s what the GAA is.
“Kieran was an outstanding player for Cork but outside of that, what he’s given to Aghada, what they’ve given to him — they gathered nearly five thousand at Kerry-Mayo the other night and that’s not out of ‘look at us’, it’s because people want to do it.
“We’re all here because we want to be here. There might not be much else we can do for Kieran but we can offer him support and solidarity and the same to the family. Hopefully it’ll give them a boost.”
Counihan paid tribute to the strength of O’Connor’s character: “He’s always been strong.
The challenges put before him over the last 12 months or so have been massive, but he’s risen to them every time.
“You don’t know a fella maybe until he faces something like this and he’s shown all the right signs, certainly.
“He’s fortunate with his wife and family, to have that kind of support, and he has a lot of good friends as well — I think he’ll reflect on today and what’s happened over the last few weeks and take a lot of positivity from it. It’s hard to believe that so many people would care about you.”
One of those family members, Kieran’s brother Patrick, was loud in his praise for the support.
“Long may it come in because it’ll be needed by Kieran in his battle.
The financial support has been unbelievable — humbling, really — and we couldn’t be more appreciative of that.
“The messages of support have been fantastic, we’ve had messages from people all over, all of them hugely appreciated. They’ve come from all over east Cork, but from beyond as well, from all over the county and outside the county.
“The positivity generated by all of those will be needed, Kieran has a long road ahead but we’re adamant that there’ll be a positive outcome so that positivity will be needed.
Patrick O’Connor then had to dash off. Aghada GAA club members were busy. Organising parking, shuttle buses, portable toilets, music, MCs (Paschal Sheehy of RTÉ), tea, coffee, cakes and the basic nutritional unit of the GAA, ham sandwiches in their thousands.
It was an awesome display of commitment and support in itself, Tomás Ó Sé pointed out: “It’s massive, we do a lot of complaining in the GAA about rules and fixtures and calendars, but when something like this happens it’s phenomenal the way the family of the GAA works.
“I don’t think you’d see the support anywhere that you see here today — you come in and absolutely everything has been organised. That sounds like it’s ordinary stuff but it’s huge.”
When the crowd finally cleared around the man himself, he thanked everyone for coming.
“It’s been a huge support and help to the whole family,” said Kieran O’Connor.
“These days more and more people get cancer and deal with cancer. Everyone’s different, everyone deals with it in a different way, but I’m fighting this thing all the way.
“I have good doctors in CUH and in Cappagh, the likes of Dr Deirdre O’Mahony and Dr Gary O’Toole. They’ve been a big support, I’m listening to them and doing what they’re telling me.
“Obviously you have your bad days but you try to keep it positive.
“Down here today, this is a big help — look at all the people who are around. Cancer affects more than me in the parish, too.
“The response from the GAA has been incredible. Obviously we all have our own communities, our own teams, but everyone seems to have gathered around today, and it’s incredible.”
The crowd was so big, it was beginning to spill out of the car park, which meant it was time for the off. Kieran himself went to the car park, and his brother Patrick looked at the clouds overhead. The rain had cleared.
“All we wanted was for it to keep dry for the hour or so of the walk itself, it’s not so much the event as people coming together to show support for him.
“Every day he’s been positive. He’s always been strong mentally but he has been so strong now. And if he’s strong, then by God we’ll be strong behind him too.”
A murmur rippled through the crowd as the walk started. Kieran O’Connor was leading the way.
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