An especially dark night in Árd a’ Bhothair

It was the renowned sportswriter Hugh McIlvanny who spoke of the the larcenous nature of death, its habit of breaking in on us when we are least prepared for it and stealing the irreplaceable. He was speaking of Jock Stein, but the feeling can seldom have been more painfully experienced than on the roads and boithríns around West Kerry last night.

Among the gathering of family and friends - including visits from Mickey Harte and Peter Quinn - the outpouring of yarns and tales would have thrilled Páidí Ó Sé, who died unexpectedly at 57 early Saturday, but the void he has left behind elicits darker emotions.

Yesterday came up dank and dark on the peninsula, darker than I have seen it, perhaps because a star had been removed without warning from its peaks and valleys.

You didn’t always agree with Páidí Ó Sé, and he occasionally riled us. But if he was a rogue for sure, he was our rogue and woe betide anyone who spoke caustically of him west of Blennerville Bridge.

No-one was ever likely to mistake him for a saint, and he could look after himself and his own, on the pitch or in the marketplace.

To observe him in action outside the counter of his public house was to see a chameleon who could float comfortably between conversations, from last night’s disco conquests to matters of politics and high finance. But there was never the remotest danger he would be contaminated by the noxious whiff of stardom that seems to infiltrate so many who have a fleeting embrace with sporting success these days.

One wonders what they’d be like after eight All-Ireland victories.

In his iconic 1985 Observer tribute to Stein, McIlvanny wrote of the highly-developed Scottish capacity for the elegiac mood, not least when there is a bottle or two about. But the tall and true stories last night about an unique GAA legend indicated that West Kerry could accommodate such idiosyncrasies too.

As Dara Ó Cinnéide said on Saturday, PO was an exception to every rule.

Many of his life sketches will spill out in the coming days but the one concerning Dublin’s hardboy corner forward Joe McNally — who learned young how to leave the boot in when required — always makes me smile.

Hardly two minutes had elapsed in the centenary All-Ireland of 1984 when McNally lifted his nose behind Ó Sé and wondered where the smell of cowshit was coming from. A few moments later as the Cusack Stand spun around from his horizontal vantage point, Páidí apologised for the tractor and trailer that had capsized him.

Towering ability and desire as a footballer and too-quickly underplayed achievement as a manager represent only part of Páidí Ó Sé’s value to football, to Kerry, to the GAA and the Irish culture — though not necessarily in that order.

As often as it’s been quoted this weekend, it’s worth repeating that Ó Sé conceded one single point from play to the forwards he marked in September finals. If ever the cliche ‘die for the cause’ had a ring of realism to it, it was for Páidí Ó Sé. Since his low-key departure from his last managerial post in Clare, Ó Sé has been more about business than dressing rooms, and his Páidí Ó Sé tournament next spring, on the back of The Gathering 2013, was occupying most of his walking and waking thoughts. However the loss of Tim Kennelly, then John Egan and now Ó Sé robs the GAA firmament of knowledge and know-how it can ill-afford to be without, especially in the home of football.

Those who bluff their way through a career talking about the warriors of Gaelic football would be best advised to keep walking if they saw that Kingdom triumvirate approach.

Marc Ó Sé remembers being hoisted onto the back of a hardware truck when PO brought The Cannister back west after the 1985 final in Croke Park. Bonfires burning, proud West Kerry hearts bursting.

Together with the division’s county success of the previous year, it threw a blanket over the proudest period of his playing career. His passion for West Kerry was about him in everything he did and said, everywhere he walked and ran.

He had one favourite run of punishment over the road from his home and shop, a 16 mile route to self-cleansing that brought with it a sense of appreciable self-worth and achievement.

Was anyone of a mind to assassinate Páidí Ó Sé, they wouldn’t have much trouble finding him any morning — reading the papers, supping tea in the shop.

But he was aware too of the dangers of cliques.

When he came down the hotel stairs the morning of a final to find Tomás, Darragh, Marc, Ó Cinnéide and Aodhan McGearailt in deep conversation, he lost the canopy. ‘Fuck it, would ye scatter around the place at least.’

There was a mischievous, combative quality to most of his conversations — certainly the many I shared with him since I first thrust a notebook in his face, almost 30 years ago — but when the topic was Kerry football, as it invariably was, he was seldom less than deadly serious and respectful.

I’d love to claim I won his trust early and often, but I didn’t.

There was always a healthy distance between us when he was Kerry manager, though it dissipated once he controversially relinquished the post after the 2003 Championship semi-final loss to Tyrone. He rang me early one Sunday morning that year, urging me to drive back west for an interview. Sensing he wished to unburden himself of a substantial truth, I hopped into the car.

By the time I arrived back, he had changed his mind. I wondered again about the trust between us and accepted I wasn’t his lucky writer, something which was an integral part of his passion for piseogs.

What he didn’t know was that many years earlier in his formative period as a member of Garda Síochána he would frequent the Garda Club on Harrington Street in Dublin where the manager would often dry his soaking tunic, coat and shirt while he refreshed downstairs after a day on the beat. The manager was Con Leen, my father. Not that I ever told him.

But while in charge of Kerry, Páidí would stop short of nothing to protect his players. He was in every sense of the word, a players’ man.

I wasn’t the only journalist who found Paidi’s reaction to searching questions less than forthcoming. Reporters who took liberties with stories about his players and his county were not always guaranteed a polite response.

It was probably only with the help of his nephew Tomás that I grew to greater understand what playing and managing Kerry meant to the Lord of Árd a’ Bhothair.

I had experienced the passion many times, I just hadn’t properly understood it. As a player he would take himself to places of mental and physical pain and anguish that only prisoners of war understand. Running along Ventry Strand with a cement block under each arm might not find its way into the modern day coaching bible, but it made him into a 5ft10ins block of whipcord, guts and strength.

His nephews, the sons of Micheal, also taken prematurely by sudden heart failure a decade ago, found themselves on an intravenous drip of their uncle’s insatiable appetite for self-improvement as a player. After tearing up the sand on the strand, he would then repair to a warm bath with a glass of port.

Though they are true Kerry greats in their own right, Darragh, Tomás and Marc were shaped by Páidí, if not in their own innate skill, certainly in their approach and aptitude.

Not that it requires a family link to preserve his legacy around the environs of Jones Road in Dublin.

Though he had an outward gruffness to some, he was a doting father and uncle.

In their worst years of form, Darragh, Tomás and Marc always found their way onto his end of season All Star selection, and he brooked no debate on possible reasons for their exclusion.

But the shock and pain of his death has dug deepest into his wife Máire, and his children of whom he was so proud — his daughters Neasa and Siún and his son Pádraig Óg, who is already showing facsimile evidence of his father’s tenacity and focus on the playing field.

But as Mcilvanny might say, there were many others in all corners of Ireland yesterday who didn’t have to witness an especially black night in Ventry to know the meaning of real darkness.


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