The retirement of Ronan O’Gara ends a career that long ago edged from impressive to incredible.
The Corkman’s string of records makes for a stunning read.
What has always made all that success the more remarkable, to this writer, is O’Gara’s physical presence.
If you were in a queue for coffee and the out-half were in front of you, it wouldn’t be apparent that you were waiting for a professional rugby player to order his non-fat latte.
That is not a mistake you would make with man-mountains like Paul O’Connell or Cian Healy, or any of a host of players whose t-shirt sleeves are under constant stress.
Even Brian O’Driscoll recalls a great description by David Halberstam of the baseball great Mickey Mantle: Halberstam said Mantle generated such huge power that it sometimes seemed as if he had the strength and brawn of a much bigger man — a giant who had been somehow squeezed down to under six feet without sacrificing any of that strength.
Not O’Gara. In a time when one of rugby’s proudest boasts — that it’s a game for all shapes and sizes — is under some pressure, the fact that such a successful player doesn’t need to get his shirts with extra-extra-extra large necks should be an encouragement to kids interested in the game.
That’s not to say he didn’t try to add some bulk. This columnist chatted to his wife Jessica during last week, an interview which you can read elsewhere in the paper today, and she pointed out that her husband worked hard to put on weight, even if he didn’t really succeed (she pointed out that he was trying to put on muscle not fat, which seemed a pretty pointed comment to a sportswriter, given our tendency as a breed to generosity in the waistband).
There’s one slight adjustment necessary for the foregoing, of course; O’Gara’s departure from the playing field means that for a while references will carry a prefix.
The good news is that there’s another qualifier that’ll come into play as a result: new columnist.
You probably read his debut last Saturday, the kind of opening that promises plenty of quality in the future as well.
Welcome aboard. Mine’s an Americano with plenty of milk.
Fitting tribute to a hero out of the ordinary
Na Piarsaigh remembered one of their favourite sons last Friday.
Paul O’Connor passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in January. He was a fine hurler for his club, his college and his county, but he was also a teacher, so it made sense to have an underage blitz in his memory.
It also made sense to hold that blitz in Gaelcholaiste Muire of the North Monastery, where O’Connor came to attention in the Harty Cup as a star on a team of stars.
He might have been one of the players his club mate, poet Theo Dorgan, was thinking of in his fine poem, A Nocturne for Blackpool:
The young sunburned hurlers flex in their beds, dreaming of glory,
Great deeds on the playing-fields, half-days from school.
O’Connor was one of those who afforded us some of the half-days mentioned.
The day after they’d won the Harty, the team would gather with the principal on a platform outside the main school and be introduced, one by one, to the crowd.
One of the players, the full-back, never went up to be introduced but stood with his pals a little way from us, the fresh-faced first years.
I never understood why you wouldn’t want that glory for yourself, and his detachment seemed to me then the very definition of maturity.
Eventually we were given the half-day, and we could stroll away down the ramp to freedom.
We were a bit young to be debating the theses Dorgan mentions in his poem — “As Mon boys go by, arguing about first pints of stout and Che Guevara,” (I think it was more whether Ponch or Jon was the cooler one in CHiPS) but we appreciated the half-day, certainly.
You’re so young that the players on the Harty team seem indistinguishable from grown men, and to an extent you never make up the difference. With work I’ve had occasion to speak to some of those who figured in those blue and white hooped jerseys of over 30 years ago, and the sense of being an anonymous first year never really leaves you.
That was part of the reason it was such a shock to hear that Paul O’Connor passed away a few months ago. And it’s part of the reason I was delighted to hear that he was remembered in such an appropriate way last Friday. A last borrowing from Theo Dorgan:
We are who we are and what we do. We study indifference in a hard school
And in a hard time, but we keep the skill to make legend of the ordinary.
Goalkeeping legend Reddin still fighting fit
Talking of legendary figures, Tony Reddin was on The Late Late Show on Friday night.
Tony Reddin! On television? It’s like Achilles calling a radio phone-in show with his views on the Greek austerity programme.
Tony Reddin was winning All-Irelands 63 years ago; someone old enough to have seen him win that All-Ireland would now be past retirement age themselves.
The man played minor in 1937. You know, before World War II even began.
Lest I be accused of overemphasising his age, let us move on to the basis of his fame, his uncanny goalkeeping. In Val Dorgan’s Christy Ring there’s an interesting aside: Reddin used a hurley with a slightly smaller bas than normal, never mind slightly smaller than the modern frying pan size, in order to get the hurley through the air quicker.
Dorgan also drew a confession from the keeper about his old adversaries: “When Ring came through like that, you had to be nervous.” I didn’t see all of The Late Late Show, or the GAA segment in its entirety but I couldn’t be too critical of any show which featured Tony Reddin. In the week another all-time great in another sport stepped behind the line, it was good to see a man still thriving six decades after he first became famous.
Honouring Castleconnell master Mick Mackey
Of course, the (virtual) ink had (virtually) dried on the Tony Reddin portion of the column elsewhere on the page when I learned that another giant of the past was to be honoured.
Yesterday Mick Mackey of Ahane and Limerick was recalled with a statue in his home place of Castleconnell.
One of my favourite Mackey stories relates to his passing. When the news broke in RTÉ, a Limerick hurling fan had a sudden light bulb moment: would the man reading the news headlines, who was, to put it delicately, from a culture not too familiar with hurling greats, be able to pronounce the name of Mackey’s beloved club properly? The Limerick man coached his colleague over and over on the niceties. Ahane. Ahaaane. Ah haaane. When the newsreader went on air, he began well.
“News has broken of the passing of Ahane’s most famous son,” — nod to the tutor, sitting in the control booth — “the noted hurler, Mick McKay...”
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