Turlough O’Brien wants to transform more than just the fortunes of the Carlow footballers — he wants to change the mindset of an entire county and how it views itself. And thanks to their onfield success, he is already making progress.
When You Know It’s Not Jim Gavin You’re Interviewing Here: Part One
A couple of weeks ago there, ahead of Carlow’s almost-annual scrape with
Wicklow, the call is put into Turlough O’Brien. His county are closing in on promotion from the basement division for the first time in 35 years and supposedly he’s a journalist’s dream: cooperative, cordial, candid, chatty, witty, great copy.
He answers. Yeah, that’s not a problem, he’ll meet you. Where are you coming from? You say Clare. “I could meet you in Portlaoise, so,” he suggests.
You weren’t expecting that. Portlaoise is a good 45 minutes away from Carlow town.
“But sure, what are you going to do, drive from Clare to my house in Carlow? Sure that’s ridiculous!”
And so it’s set: the meeting point is in the suitably-named Midway; though it isn’t quite equidistant, it cuts your trip by a third.
But as it turns out, there’s another reason why O’Brien is willing to drive to Portlaoise.
“I come over here every week to buy the provincial papers,” he divulges when you finally meet. See, a lot of the Division Four counties are in close proximity. Wicklow. Waterford. Limerick’s just an hour down the motorway.
This season, even Laois have found themselves in the basement division. And so he’ll pop into Paddy’s News Express where he can get his hands on copies of the Wicklow People, the Limerick Leader, the Waterford News And Star, the Laois Nationalist, even the Leitrim Observer.
The national papers barely give a couple of pars to a lower division game but the locals will give it a couple of pages.
Manna for a manager, at least one in Division Four.
“You can track teams, track players, get a feel for how things are really going within a county,” he explains.
It’s not so much ammo he’s seeking, but info; not a bulletin-board headline, but a line, a sentence, an insight about a corner-back that could be potentially targeted or some speedy wing-back that came on the last day and you might have to watch the next.
And again, it strikes you how this is a world away from the big boys playing under the bright lights of Croker; Jim Gavin, you would guess, for all his Schmidt-like attention to detail, is hardly leafing and scouring the Northern Standard or the Leinster Leader in putting together his scouting report and game plan for a game against Monaghan or Kildare.
Yet O’Brien’s weekly visit to Paddy’s suggests the two of them are not that unalike either. O’Brien may be effusive while a Gavin is reticent, but just like his Dublin counterpart, the Carlow manager is seeking every edge too, in his own meticulous way.
The same way that the location of our sitdown is telling. He’s meeting you in Portlaoise not only because he’s accommodating but also astute. It’s a chance to get the papers as much as talk to one of them.
And why not sell Carlow some more while learning about Wicklow some more?
“Clonegal has been described as ‘the Switzerland of Ireland’ because of the surrounding mountains, valleys, and rivers. The village has twice been awarded the accolade of Ireland’s tidiest village, in 2014 and 2015.
The displays of flowers every summer are lovely to behold and a great indication of community pride.’
— Turlough O’Brien, Cycling South Leinster: Great Road Routes (Collins Press, 2017)
It doesn’t take long with Turlough O’Brien to realise that his willingness to engage with the media isn’t driven by a hint of narcissism. It’s Carlow, not himself, he’s out to promote, in more ways than one.
While his day job is as chief executive of a local voluntary housing body that
provides social housing for families, the elderly, and people with special needs, he could double up as one-man tourism board for Carlow.
Like John Mullane, he loves his county, and speaks about it with the passion and eloquence that Liam Griffin famously did about Wexford across the county bounds two decades ago.
Yet if his attitude is evocative of anyone, it’s of someone else from the south-east. To paraphrase what a certain Jimmy Brown urged another downtrodden, bashful people to affirm, O’Brien’s creed is: Say it loud — I’m from Carlow and I’m proud.
“Even back in the ‘90s, when the club was going well [O’Brien was part of the Éire Óg panel that contested two All Ireland finals], I found if you were somewhere like Kerry, Mayo, or Galway for a weekend and you said you were from Carlow, they’d laugh at you. Yet if you mentioned you were from Éire Óg, they’d talk football away to you! Suddenly you had a bit of respect.
“I’ve always stuck my chest out as a Carlow man and I wouldn’t make any apologies for it. But as a people, not just as GAA people, we have a terribly low opinion of ourselves in Carlow. It’s almost as if it’s just a place to drive through to get to somewhere else.
“I’ve always been annoyed by that. Because I’ve always felt that we’ve as much to offer as most counties. It’s a beautiful county we have. Now, no one knows about it, but it is.”
He’s trying to change that, which is partly why he wrote that cycling book last year. Although six counties featured in it, the Carlow routes were especially personal and vivid.
For a county you haven’t seen, there’s so much to see, he implores. Huntington Castle near Clonegal is “a must”; three years ago The Guardian considered it one of the top 20 hidden gems in all of Ireland.
The Barrow Way was described by the late great Dick Warner as the most glorious riverside walk in Ireland or Britain. And there’s so many wondrous ecclesiastical sites: Clonmore, where St Mogue built a church back in the sixth century; St Mullins, whose status back in the day matched Clonmacnoise and Glendalough’s, and spawned the Book of Molling, which like its cousin from Kells, resides in Trinity College.
And of course there’s the main man himself, Columbanus, whom Mary McAleese reminded everyone only a few years ago in a television documentary, was the first European.
“It’s been recognised that he was born on the Carlow-Wexford border,” O’Brien informs you. “So I’m claiming him for Carlow anyhow! We copped onto it first!”
If there’s one thing O’Brien has more enthusiasm for than his county’s saints and ecclesiastical sites, it’s Carlow GAA people and Carlow GAA. His grandfather Bill was one of the founders of Éire Óg.
His father Jim was county secretary for 10 years. O’Brien didn’t just see them head out the door for meetings, he’d often head out the door with them.
By his early teens they’d enlisted him; his father and a couple of the other officers got him an old woman’s bike which he’d use during the summer to deliver post to club secretaries all over the county, from Rathvilly to Tullow, and Ballinabranna to Bagenalstown.
Child labour? More like total freedom. A love of cycling and a county had been born.
He’d play a bit himself; was on the county panel in ’82-83 when the county won promotion from Division Four down in Clonmel only for the GAA to rejig the whole format again and lock them in the dungeon division again. But by his own admission, he was “a very average footballer”.
When Éire Óg reached All-Ireland finals in 1993 and 1996, he was a non-playing sub. He still won about five county medals on the field of play, scored two goals in a county final against Kildavin one year, but his real calling was coaching.
With the club minors, he must have helped them win over a dozen county titles. In the autumn of 2004 he was asked to take the seniors who had been through a few barren years by their standards, with rivals O’Hanrahan’s having usurped them as the men around town winning counties and Leinster championships.
In O’Brien’s first season, the old order was restored: Éire Óg were back as kings of the town and county. For the next decade or so, he took the team on and off, winning another handful of county medals.
All the while though, he remained an avid follower of the county team, travelling everywhere from Ballybofey to Carrick-on-Shannon to see them. Being an avid follower though meant also being a frustrated one.
“I always felt the footballers here were as good as a lot of counties. People seem to be shocked that Carlow are going well at the moment but it doesn’t surprise me. I look at Clare, Tipperary, Limerick, who have all been competitive the last decade or so. But I remember a time when we’d play those counties and we were always able to beat them one year and lose the next.
“I knew the players were better than the results showed. But the stuff around them just wasn’t in place and as a result, other players that should have come in with them didn’t come in with them.”
Again, it came down to a lack of self-respect. They’d settle for challenge games against the Kildare juniors. What impression as that giving senior county players, especially when they could be meeting the Kildare seniors in the championship?
“I just felt looking at it from the outside, there was no real game plan, no tactics; they were just playing off the cuff, more or less. Leitrim would come down and destroy us with a game plan that was so obvious and we’d do nothing to counteract it. You’d often hear of players going back to their club and not being fit.”
Anthony Rainbow, as a graduate from the Mick O’Dwyer and Kieran McGeeney school of hard training, tried to change that in his stint but didn’t get the buy in, and towards the end of the 2014 league, asked O’Brien to come in with him. O’Brien agreed, on condition that he’d be allowed to train the team.
He duly did and the team won a qualifier down in Waterford between a heavy defeat to Meath and a narrow enough one to a rejuvenated Clare. When Rainbow stepped aside that summer, O’Brien was the obvious man to fill the vacancy. He had the necessary credibility with the players as a tactician and a winner and he knew them and the lay of the land.
It wasn’t like there was a queue for the job either. Only Kilkenny, who didn’t even field a team, would have been ranked lower. And the way things were going, Carlow could have followed suit. “I’d often hear people say it couldn’t get any worse.
Well, it could. We could have ended up with no team. But I just knew there were players in Carlow.
I always felt that we’d players as good as the footballers in Laois, Wicklow, Wexford. It was a case of transmitting that belief I had in them to them and putting the right structures in place.” They have now.
The Carlow County Board has been maligned in the past but O’Brien now sees them as one of the most progressive units in Leinster. They’re one of the few counties that treat football and hurling equally, one of the first to establish a centre of excellence and they’ve linked up with Carlow IT who now sponsor the senior teams.
O’Brien’s setup has equally tapped into the expertise and facilities in the college. Damien Sheehan, the college’s head of strength and conditioning, has been part of his backroom team from day one while students studying sports science serve internships with the team.
Everyone benefits from the arrangement; the students get the experience of working with a county team, the county team gain the benefit of their findings.
It has all radiated a message to the players: you’re worth this. These days Carlow no longer play junior or intermediate squads from other counties in challenge games. A couple of years ago Galway agreed to play them.
Wasn’t Kevin Walsh’s strongest team but it was no junior team; another mark of progress and growing respect. This past winter they played Monaghan, Malachy O’Rourke learning last summer in the qualifiers just how much of a challenge Carlow can present.
Tyrone even invited them into Garvaghey one night. Wasn’t a challenge match per se — Tyrone don’t do challenge matches, don’t you know — more an experimental conditioned game, but something that would have been unthinkable for a Carlow team a few years ago.
And of course, they’ve played Dublin. Though that was no challenge game last summer down in Portlaoise — for either party. While everyone else braced themselves for that collision, O’Brien and his merry men embraced it.
“We’d got great momentum out of the league. We should have been promoted. Drew with Westmeath, hammered Wexford, so we got great confidence out of that. And the carrot playing Wexford in the championship was a shot at Dublin. I mean, what a fantastic opportunity! To play the All-Ireland champions!”
For all the resistance they showed that night, Carlow still drew some criticism for their supposedly negative football on the night.
It didn’t bother O’Brien. Were their tactics that night representative of the football they normally play? No; this spring they’ve scored more goals than any other side across the divisions, bar Tipperary, while they didn’t threaten Stephen Cluxton that night.
But was that night representative of their spirit? Absolutely.
“It wasn’t about damage limitation for us. We weren’t just going out not to be beaten by 20 points. We were going out to make it as hard as possible for Dublin. And that’s what we did. Our performance against Dublin was fantastic.
"It was only in the last 10 minutes they put us away. If Diarmuid Connolly had been sent off — though I thought he was harshly treated afterwards — and Brendan Murphy hadn’t been sent off, it could have been much closer again. But we managed that game very well. Dublin did not dictate that game in any shape or form until the last 15 minutes.
“And that’s what annoys me about some media commentators and some counties. And some players. They’ve given up! They’ve decided that Dublin are going to be Leinster champions this year.
"I read [now former Meath player] Paddy O’Rourke’s interview the other week and it was the most depressing thing I’ve ever read. I was fierce disappointed with him. A Meath man to say what he said! That they have no hope! I couldn’t believe it. I cannot believe that.”
There’s another narrative that he rails against; this notion that playing and training with an inter-county team is a form of slavery.
That’s not how it works since he took over Carlow. Close your eyes and you’ll hear no sound of whiplash or bollicking. Instead you’ll hear laughter, encouragement, fun, the craic.
“The first guy at training is Daniel St Ledger. He comes down from Dublin yet he’ll be there an hour before training. Kieran Nolan and Darragh Foley as well. They’re the first three every night. They love coming to training. They absolutely adore it: playing ball, preparing like an elite athlete, and the craic then when [coach Steven] Poacher comes in and starts winding them up.
“The core of this team have been playing with the county since 2010. Back when Carlow were at nothing. But they stuck at it. Because they love it. To me, they’re model footballers. Because they’ve been there through thick and thin. Never got any of the plaudits the top teams get but they never wavered.
"You talk about commitment. It’s easy to come in when you’re playing with Dublin or Kerry. But when you’re playing for Carlow, bottom of Division Four, it’s another thing. And that’s why I want those lads to achieve something with Carlow.”
O’Brien himself is a bit of a nut when it comes to this game. When he started out taking Éire Óg teams, he headed up one day to Armagh to find John Morrison, having read an article about him.
Didn’t have or know the man’s phone number, or even address, just knew it was somewhere in the cathedral city.
Turned out it was on Cathedral Terrace. Next thing, he’s knocking on the door. John Morrison? Yes? Turlough O’Brien, Éire Óg, Carlow. Strangers then, best friends now.
He’s prone to such acts of spontaneity. Back in the ‘80s one time, he met an old school friend at a Saturday night disco and mentioned to him that he was thinking of heading to Castlegar the next day for John Connolly’s last game.
Was he on for it? Right so, he was. And so they headed off. When they got there, they discovered the game had been called off.
So they went from Castlegar to Castlebar to take in a Connacht football game. What year was it? He’s not sure. Who won? He’s not sure either. Wait, playing that day was Willie Joe, so Galway mustn’t have beaten Mayo.
Another time they headed to a Cork-Kerry game in Killarney and gate-crashed the Kerry dressing room. “We were there when Billy Morgan came in to say thanks for the game, the two of us sitting between the Kerry lads!”
He cackles again. That school friend, Tommy Wogan, is now a selector with him with Carlow, the two of them having hardly stopped laughing since.
He’s had the kids do the same. He and Mary brought them down to Ventry on summer holidays when they were young and the three boys would go around knocking on the doors of the likes of Dara Ó Cinnéide and Tomás Ó Sé who’d oblige the boys all the way from Carlow with a chat, autograph, and even the odd kickaround.
He’d take them beyond these shores too. Every summer when each of them turned 12, he’d cycle the Camino de Santiago with them.
Now it’s Carlow he’s taking places. God knows where they could end up.
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