Páidí lived hard and played hard

HE was known as “Pio”.

A man of unequalled passion for Gaelic football, he was reputed to have slept at times in his beloved green and gold Kerry jersey.

He overcame most obstacles along the road and still had much more to do. His death has evoked genuine shock and a huge sense of loss.

Páidí Ó Sé, who won eight All-Irelands with Kerry, could well have ended up playing soccer with Chelsea or Arsenal if a shop had not come up for sale opposite the church in Ventry.

His father, Tommy, a native of the West Kerry Gaeltacht, and his mother, Beatrice Lavin, from Ballymoate, Co Sligo, had been running a guesthouse in London in the early 1950s.

One day while cycling, Tommy was knocked down by a lorry and seriously injured.

However, in keeping with a classic Ó Sé characteristic of being able to turn even the worst of circumstances to advantage, the accident provided an opportunity.

The insurance claim that followed was a ticket home and the money helped to buy a shop which sold almost everything, at Ard a’ Bhothair, in 1952. The couple had a family of three — Mícheál, Tom, and Páidí, who was born on May 16, 1955, and named after a Kerry footballer of the era, Paudie Sheehy, from Tralee.

The family made a comfortable living from the shop and Beatrice was the driving force, Tommy being a quiet type of man. Clearly a matriarchal figure, she was a dominant figure in Páidí’s life, something he always acknowledged.

In his book, titled Páidí, he said it was Beatrice, more than anyone else, who recognised his “raw talent” and nurtured it. “She also turned a blind eye to my many weaknesses, which came to light later in my life, and was a constant, positive force behind my career as a footballer.”

He went to St Brendan’s College, Killarney, with the aim of furthering his football career — the academic side of life there coming a poor second. He excelled at football but failed the Inter Cert and was expelled after a number of breaches of discipline.

He later admitted being a “tearaway” and had started drinking, all of which led to his departure from the renowned football nursery. He completed his education in St Michael’s College, Listowel, and joined the gardaí in 1975.

Stationed in Limerick, he found it hard to marry his football with the strictures of the job. He had to be accommodated by his superiors to attend training in Killarney and go to matches and eventually, in his own words, “ran out of favours”.

A refusal of permission to attend a training session led to what many believed was an inevitable decision to hang up the uniform. Football won again, though he insisted he had no confrontation with any of his superiors, or had stepped out of line in any way — apart from turning up occasionally a little under the weather following post-match celebrations.

In 1979, aged 25, he entered the licensed trade by leasing Kruger Kavanagh’s famous pub in Dunquin, over the mountain from Ventry, where he prospered. Among the customers was then taoiseach Charles Haughey.

After a long legal battle and objections from a local publican, he got a licence from the courts to open his own pub in Ventry in 1985. He was determined to use his reputation as a multiple All-Ireland winning footballer to promote the business, which he did successfully.

He knew well GAA folk visiting the Dingle Peninsula would call to the premises on the road to Slea Head. This they have been doing in their hundreds of thousands. And they all wanted a word with the man himself, a handshake, and a photograph taken with him.

The bar became a veritable shine to Pio. The walls are cluttered with his pictures and the images of the rich and famous, including actor Martin Sheen (whom Páidí failed to recognise when he walked in), as well some local characters. Country music legend Dolly Parton paid a memorable visit about 20 years ago and is on the wall, as are numerous politicians.

Though unquestionably a Fianna Fáil man, Páidí had a knack of forming friendships with top people in all parties. As well as Haughey, he also counted Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen among his friends.

However, Páidí himself was always the centre of attention, no matter who else was in the room. People were drawn to him and he, in turn, felt the need to entertain. A natural raconteur, he loved to tell and embellish stories and liked to let people go feeling good.

Those who knew him are also quick to point out that he was a “bit of a rogue” who had a way of getting things done. The term, “larger than life”, is often misapplied, but certainly not in the case of Páidí. Nothing fazed him and he had the confidence to take on any task. He was an enthusiast of The Gathering long before the concept, which aims to get people of Irish descent to holiday here next year, was invented. He spoke recently of his plans to get football teams from as far away as Dubai and Hong Kong to play in his tournament.

As a footballer, he relished the Kerry/Dublin rivalry in the 1970s and ’80s. Over the years, he maintained his friendship with many Dublin players who always called to his pub on trips to Kerry. At the weekend, two former Dublin footballers, Keith Barr and Eamon Heery, were among the many callers to the Ó Sé home.

Never afraid of controversy, some of the more notable incidents and exchanges in which was involved arose during his time as manager of Kerry team. He was boss when they won All-Irelands in 1997 and 2000.

However, the slide began with when Armagh won the 2002 final and was accelerated when Tyrone humiliated Kerry in the 2003 semi-final. However,, it was comments made by him earlier, in Jan 2003, that sowed the seeds of his sacking as Kerry manager.

In a newspaper interview, he described Kerry football supporters as “the worst kind of fucking animals you could ever deal with”.

Anyone who knew Páidí would not have interpreted his remark literally, but it looked dreadful in cold print. Some of his detractors seized on it and the uproar continued in the print and broadcast media for several months.

He went on television some time afterwards to explain what he really meant and said he regretted the embarrassment and hurt it caused.

He also turned things around and said the remark was meant to be a compliment, stating Kerry supporters demanded success and expected to be winning all the time. “If you don’t deliver, you’re considered by them as a failure,” he remarked, with a high degree of truthfulness. He never fully repented what he said, always insisting it was not understood in the proper context.

After the defeat to Tyrone in the summer of 2003, the knives were sharpened and his dismissal was announced by Kerry GAA board on Aug 26. He then went on manage Westmeath and Clare.

Nothing went his way in 2003. He was even struck by a Kerry supporter, who managed to get onto the sideline, during the Tyrone game. But typically, he brushed off the incident.

Pio lived hard and played hard and knocked the very most out of his 57 years. His immense spirit succumbed to a heart attack, from which his father Tommy and brother Mícheál also died. Micheál was the father of the footballing brothers Darragh, Tomás, and Marc.

Páidí’s will be one of the biggest funerals in Kerry for many a day.

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