A few years ago when I was asked to speak at a GAA coaching conference in Croke Park on the theme of mental toughness in hurling and football, one of the first slides I showed featured a picture of DJ Carey, Henry Shefflin, Brian Corcoran and Ó hAilpín. That quartet between them has won all but two of the last 14 hurling All-Irelands on offer. They had all won several All-Irelands, All Stars and at one point been Hurler of the Year. The other thing they all shared was that they had never been sent off. In fact, I pointed out, Shefflin was the only one of them who was ever booked in his inter-county career.
At a time when the public perception was that Roy Keane was the personification of mental toughness, that it involved being cold and callous, four of the biggest stars in hurling illustrated that was a myth. As Carey pointed out in the DVD The Passion Plays: Munster hurling 1994-2004, there was no one tougher than Seán Óg Ó hAilpín. Physically, or mentally. He controlled his emotions instead of letting his emotions control him and it was that capacity that allowed him to be both a supreme competitor and sportsman.
There has actually been quite an understated reaction to Ó hAilpín’s retirement decision in recent days but that word ‘sportsman’ keeps cropping up in the commentary it has received. It’s a word that can be bandied about liberally although it was telling that for all the plaudits that rightly came Ryan McMenamin’s way last week, ‘sportsman’ was one term the Tyrone terrier wasn’t afforded. With Ó hAilpín it was rightly synonymous.
When Eddie Brennan and Dan Shanahan reflected on their battles against the Corkman over the years, they both observed that in all that time Ó hAilpín never pulled a foul stroke on them. Like his old teammate Brian Corcoran, he seemed to believe that to resort to darker arts would be an admission of defeat. “If I can’t beat a guy playing the game,” Corcoran said in his autobiography, “then I don’t want to beat him.” Ó hAilpín followed a similar code.
Even when he was suspended over Semplegate, there was something gallant about his actions that day, dropping his hurley and never throwing a fist during his tussle with Fergal Lynch.
The cynics and his critics will say he was a bit too fond of the limelight but character is what you do when no one is watching and there was no media waiting outside the Clare dressing room after their epic 2005 All-Ireland semi-final with Cork. Ó hAilpín was though, something which was noticed by Liam Moggan of Coaching Ireland. Moggan was doing some performance coaching work with Clare that year as well with the then world snooker number one, Ken Doherty, and it struck him as he as observed Ó hAilpín, one hand shaking his opponent’s, the other on that opponent’s shoulder, the Cork captain could have been in his own dressing room, savouring such a glorious win with his colleagues.
Instead he had the presence and compassion to be with the losing team, because in his eyes, Clare had won so much that day, including his total respect.
Reading Dan Shanahan’s tribute to Ó hAilpín, we couldn’t help but smile and recall some of their exchanges through the years. Towards the end of the classic and frantic 2004 Munster final, Shanahan has admitted that he had trouble telling what the score was. So he asked the man beside him for clarification. Were the sides level? A more cunning player would have told him that they were. But Ó hAilpín couldn’t bring himself to be economical with the truth. “No, ye’re a point up, Dan.”
That’s how it would finish that day as well, with Dan the winner, but you could never describe Ó hAilpín as being anything less either.
“More than winning, I think it’s important that you’re a good sportsman,” Ó hAilpín would say in an interview he gave me in 2007. “Because long after you leave the game, how you played outweighs what you’ve won.
“Like, sport is not all about winning. To some people it is; to me, it’s not, really.
“Other people tell me I’m stupid for thinking like that but that’s just the way I am. How you conduct yourself on the field reveals a lot about your character.”
All these years on and he’s been proved right. He won three All-Irelands but how he won those All-Ireland titles and how he played the game will be valued and remembered so much more.