KIERAN SHANNON: Not from Cork but of Cork

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín

By his own reckoning, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín was probably the least skilful hurler to ever put on a Cork jersey — but has there been a more dedicated person to wear it? “That’s what made me survive,” he suggests. Now with his life thoughts put to paper, he’s ready to reflect, without bitterness, without rancour. Anyone looking for sly digs won’t find them here.

Yes, he’s still glad he did the book.

If he knew at the start how much time and editing it would involve, he’d have thought twice about it, but ultimately he doesn’t regret doing it.

What he said about Dad, he had to say. What Mum endured and achieved needed to be put on the record. The kindness of neighbours in the early days had to be acknowledged. And the good days, the glory years, it did Seán Óg Ó hAilpín’s heart and soul good to recount them. Not so much the big battles fought and won but reminiscing about the men he fought alongside.

He’s thinking of someone like Diarmuid O’Sullivan. Sully. The Rock. The man made you feel so confident: “What I loved about him was that he walked the ground as if he owned it — in the dressing room, in the parade, even out there on the street”. And he also made you laugh, even when he didn’t intend to.

In the book, Ó hAilpín recalls the eve of one All-Ireland final when they were having a team quiz on the train up. John Allen was the quizmaster, Sully one of Seán Óg’s three team-mates. The questions were tough, required some teamwork.

Ó hAilpín turned to his left: “Do you know any of these answers, Sully?”

The Rock was as immobile as ever. “Are we here to win All-Irelands or fucking quizzes?”

That was basically the last question and answer for that team.

There were strong characters everywhere. “[Brian] Corcoran is my Christy Ring, boy, and always will be. Corcoran was special but he never saw himself as special.”

Donal Óg Cusack was their Roy Keane — if something or someone needed confronting, no better boy; a leader of leaders. Joe Deane. Ben and Jerry O’Connor. Curran and Gardiner in the complete half-back line he himself completed. He could go on. The book allowed him to do that. To record and recall what they did and what they were like.

There was something poignant in the recalling, though. There is any time that he thinks of them. They’re still too young for the reunion and anniversary circuit but they’re too old now to walk into Páirc Uí Chaoimh together, hurley in hand.

“I haven’t seen Sully in God knows when. The same with Joe, Donal Óg. For 10 years more, they were my best friends. And then all of a sudden like that, it’s gone, they’re gone...

“During the summer I was working up in Limerick and a fella got on to me to get a Cork jersey signed. I said, ‘No bother, I’ll get on to [Na Piarsaigh club-mate and current Cork half-back] Christopher Joyce and he’ll get the Cork lads to sign.’ But your man said to me, ‘No, I want the players you played with.’

“I was thinking, God, how am I going to organise this? So on my way down I gave Ben a call and he said he’d meet me in Charleville.

“He happened to be with his wife Niamh and their newborn baby daughter. And we were chatting away, as freely as ever, but the conversation was different now. Before, it would be ‘Christ, we have Limerick coming up, tough game up there, I wonder will they start that fella they say is injured?’ Now it’s about family, our work, our future. I said to Ben it was great to see him still looking well and Niamh looking great and their newborn kid healthy, I was delighted for them. But as I drove back, I was nearly depressed.

“Like, when’s the next time you’re going to meet him again? “It’s only now you really realise those guys were rare men. Real, quality individuals. When people talk about those players they tend to refer to them first as hurlers. ‘Such and such was lightning quick, great first touch.’ But for me I look through the hurling. It’s the human being I see. I don’t think I’ll ever be involved again with such a special group of people. We were so close.”

He has no doubt how. The strikes. He touches upon them in the book, doesn’t evade them, but he doesn’t rake over them either. It was tough enough living them without reliving them, at least in minute detail.

So there is no missive on the flaws of Frank Murphy. No diatribe on the workings of Páirc Uí Chaoimh. No new pops at Gerald McCarthy.

He says if he met Gerald on the street — which he has yet to do over the last four years — he’d salute him, even ask how he is. He was the same with Frank between and after strikes, just like Frank was with him whenever their paths crossed in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Their battle was strictly business, nothing personal. In the book, he fondly recalls the former referee revealing over dinner some of the tricks of the trade he and former players had back in the day.

No. There is no easy target in this book. It isn’t Gerald or Frank or the county board that are the subject of newspaper extracts and headlines or the object of his ire: instead it is someone we didn’t see coming or have hardly seen at all.

*********

Gerry Conlon: Why do you always follow me? Huh? I mean, why do you always follow me when I do something wrong? Why can’t you follow me when I do something right?!

Giuseppe Conlon: What are you talking about?

Gerry: Huh? What am I talking about?! I’m talking about the medal!

Giuseppe: What medal?

Gerry: The medal I won at football! And you sat on the sidelines shouting instructions like you could only see what I was doing wrong. I could never do anything good enough for you! And after the game, you came up to me and you said, “Gerry, did you foul the ball?” And I walked away from you, do you remember now?.. Yes, I fouled the ball! What did it matter?! We won! For once in our lives, we won! You ruined that medal for me.

In the Name of the Father (1993)

*********

They brought more than one medal into the Ó hAilpín household, but otherwise it was a lot like the Conlons.

“I didn’t get to enjoy my underage playing years,” says Seán Óg wistfully. “I wish I could revisit them.”

He had to talk about Dad once he committed to telling his story. To avoid or fudge it would be to cheat the reader. He wouldn’t have been true to himself either.

Seán Óg had his life all planned out at just 10 years of age. He was going to live in Sydney for the rest of his life. He was going to attend a certain local high school where top rugby league players had attended. He was going to play rugby league for his childhood heroes, the all-conquering Canterbury Bulldogs.

But Seán Senior had a different life plan for him. He was going to be parachuted into this strange small city in Ireland called Cork, learn and speak the Irish language, play the Irish games; in fact excel in them.

To paraphrase Malcolm X, the Ó hAilpín children didn’t land in Cork; Cork landed on them. Seán Óg will never forget that wet, overcast February Saturday in 1988. His father in an old phone booth, with his copy of this paper, looking for work and a roof for the night, along with his Fijian wife and a group of children looking like the Jackson Five. “Only,” Seán Óg adds, “we couldn’t sing or dance.”

They could hurl and kick a ball though, at least later on, even if they had no choice in the matter.

Looking back, that’s what made them accepted among the locals. There were a couple of neighbours who welcomed them from the start — Seán Óg, to this day, is grateful to Maureen O’Brien and Jim McAllister who invited them into their house for some good old northside chestnut cake — but others didn’t accept them.

Until Gary and Barry Sheehan brought them up to Na Piarsaigh hurling and football club.

“If we didn’t play sport,” says Seán Óg, “we’d have really struggled to get accepted.”

That still didn’t make them feel accepted by their Dad, at least for who they were outside the games.

“Dad got to get his dream. We all got to play for Cork at some level. But if I came here, lived my life happy ever after, never picked up a hurl, kicked a football, Mum would have loved me just as much.

“If I didn’t do all that, Dad would have seen us as a huge failure, like.”

He admits he resents that. And that his father, the one member of the family who was from Ireland, left it to Emeli to front up to all the parent-teacher meetings.

“With all due respect, Dad would have had much better English than Mum at the time but she fronted up because she loved us to bits. And not only does he bring us here, but he makes us play a game that he likes, not that we like.

“I’d come to like it in the end but only because the likes of [Donal] O’Grady and Nicky Barry and Gerry Kelly in The Mon were telling me I was doing a really good job. I rarely heard that from Dad. It’s no big deal now, not between us anyhow, it’s in the past, but God, he drove us so hard.”

He warned his mother she might not like everything in the book. Contrary to what people have speculated in trying to read between the lines, Mum and Dad still live together out in Blarney. Emeli Ó hAilpín still loves and likes Seán Ó hAilpín. But Seán Óg Ó hAilpín merely loves Seán Ó hAilpín. He doesn’t like him. He can’t hide that.

In the book he makes it clear he appreciates Denis Walsh still playing him in Championship 2010 after he’d been scorched by Damien Hayes in the league final; he talks about how charming and witty Frank Murphy could be; how Gerald stood up for him after Semplegate in 2007.

Those three — especially Walsh — are shipped a few elbows by Ó hAilpín in his autobiography but they’re given due credit too. What about his father’s redeeming side? A son pauses. “Okay... I firmly believe Dad meant well. I’m very proud that he gave us the chance to inherit the Irish culture. He went from one job to another for three years before he got a solid job here and yet in all that time he managed to get food on the table. He brought me up to Na Piarsaigh.

“He brought me and Teu [pronounced Dayo) on his bike to games, got us in for the 1988 Munster football final: gave us a taste for all that. He got us through secondary school and third level. I now work in the financial services and assess applications and people’s means and that and I don’t know how he managed it. Nearly all the money he had, he put into us. That’s love too.

“But it’s just all that good work was overdone by how he’d mentally exhaust us. If I was coaching a team or a son in the morning, the last thing I’d tell them is they’re a disgrace to me.”

He’s fine with being a former county player. You’d think he might be one of those guys who’d struggle with what the former Senator and NBA star Bill Bradley terms the downside of the Faustian bargain of being an elite athlete: “to live all one’s days never able to recapture the feeling of those few years of intensified youth.”

But Seán Óg Ó hAilpín swears he’s comfortable with it.

“Of course a big part of me would love to be continuing playing. Even if you interviewed me in 20 years time, I’d still love to be playing. What competitor or sportsperson wouldn’t? But unfortunately it takes someone to tell you that it’s over and it turns out that person was right.”

You ask if he’s only being diplomatic there. In his book he recalls 12 months ago Jimmy Barry Murphy telling him in a hotel car park that his services are no longer required by Cork. Ó hAilpín told JBM that was fair enough but rhetorically asked if he could name a better half-back still in Cork.

There would still be a school of thought that it was a valid retort, that there weren’t three better than him anyway.

Ó hAilpín shakes his head. Jimmy got that one right, in fairness.

“That was a year ago. The game has moved on since then. And so have I. The biggest fear that people who retire have is what are they going to do next? I can tell you I haven’t been stuck for things to do.

“I didn’t miss pre-season training. I thought that I would, but now having experienced the other side, I didn’t miss it.

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m still training with the club and I still do my own stuff. Tomorrow night I’ll have a weights session and I’ll bang on myself, no problem. But if you do a weights session with three other guys on a county team, that’s competition. He does 15 chin-ups, you want to do 16, 17. Then out on the pitch all that fartlek training and shuttle runs.

“It’s you against Curran, Ben O’Connor, Jerry. We’d be going, ‘Who’s going to win it tonight, lads?’ Basically vying for supremacy, like. And that’s what made us. But it was 15 years of that. I think I can now put up my hand and say ‘You know what, you deserve a break from that.’”

He has no interest in any more comebacks, one last squeeze, any more false dawns. Because there’s more to life than hurling. There always has been, he’s just had to remind himself of it. Lately his old teammate Conor Cusack spoke about the danger of your whole self-identity being consumed by hurling. So what else do you do? What else are you, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, former county hurler?

He points to his job in Ulster Bank as a business development manager. At times it’s been more stressful than the three strikes. Every Monday morning he wakes up and there’s a blank sheet on his desk. His boss expects him to have a certain number of names and clients on it and brought in by the end of the week.

“But I still like going in there. Because they don’t see me as Seán Óg Ó hAilpín the hurler. A woman calls me from George’s Quay, she doesn’t have a clue or interest in hurling; she wants X, Y, Z. It’s a safe haven for me.”

And what else do you do? Who else are you? “I tell you what, I’m a guy that has good relationships with his brothers and sisters, that I hadn’t spent enough time with, but am now. There was definitely a time I’d be ‘Don’t be bothering me, lads, I’m training.’ I’m really enjoying my time with [partner] Siobhan now. I’m starting to see ‘What the hell was I at for all those years?”

He’ll coach some day. He can’t say he has ambitions to coach Cork; he’ll just see where it goes, starting at the club.

“I feel that I owe it to give something back. It’s like the salmon. He leaves Gougane Barra, he goes out to wherever and he ends up back in Gougane Barra. That to me is the club.”

He’ll hurl away with them for at least another year too.

“It was great to play a hurling game this year and if you made a mistake, so what? I don’t think I enjoyed my Cork years. Like, people go to work pissed off if Cork don’t win. Now there’s not that level of scrutiny or responsibility. So I’ll play for another year and enjoy it.

“But the bottom line is if I puck another ball or not, I can have no regrets. I’m a big fan of Hawthorn [AFL club]. They had a great coach in the 80s, Allan Jeans who’d say that if you didn’t give 100% in your career you’d be a frustrated person in retirement.

“I can tell you now, when I brush my teeth at night and wake up in the morning, I have that peace of mind. I was probably the least skilful hurler to ever put on a Cork jersey but I don’t think there was a more dedicated person to wear it, and that’s what made me survive.

“Hawthorn have a song. ‘We’re a happy club at Hawthorn.’ Well, Seán Óg is a very happy man.”

He doesn’t walk the ground like he owns it as Sully would but he walks it comfortable in his own skin and surroundings. He used hate Cork 25 years ago. Now he loves it. Wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

“Because of the people, boy.”

They regularly stop him, to just have a quick word. “Thank you for the years.” That means a lot.

He didn’t go to Cork games this year because he didn’t want to be stopped on the Ennis Road and hear he should have been out there. He wanted a year away from it all. But next year he’ll return.

“Me and Teu, up in the Blackrock End [of Páirc Uí Chaoimh], at some Munster final or big championship game. Just like we did when we first came to Cork.”

Only now it’s home.

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín: The Autobiography (with Michael Moynihan), published by Penguin Ireland


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