Colm O'Neill: ‘That moment was the difference between being loved and having a lynch mob on your trail’

This is how it was for Colm O’Neill when he first went to America, over 20 years ago
Colm O'Neill: ‘That moment was the difference between being loved and having a lynch mob on your trail’
Colm O’Neill makes the lonely walk too the touchline after being sent off in 1990 All-Ireland SFC final against Meath. ‘Being involved in All-Ireland football finals with Cork, then, I’d be very aware of the element of luck involved. At one stage in the second half Brian Stafford got through for a goal chance and John Kerins pulled off a vital save.' Picture: Des Barry

This is how it was for Colm O’Neill when he first went to America, over 20 years ago.

“My mother would buy the Examiner every Monday morning,” he says.

“All the match reports, all the results, everything from the previous weekend. She’d post that out to me here, scrunched up into a ball with a rake of stamps across it, and I’d settle down to go through that when it landed. A great treat.”

Nowadays?

“Thank God for the internet. I read the Examiner now all the time, for instance, but a few years ago I was able to get the commentary from the Kerry county football final through the Radio Kerry website or something, and I was at home here in Boulder enjoying it.

“I rang my late father in law Ned, but as a good Cahirsiveen man he had no interest in a county final with no South Kerry involvement.

“Which meant I was in Boulder telling him in Cahirsiveen how a game in Killarney was going. Change? I can remember the days of going to a coin box on a street corner out here with five dollars in quarters to ring home — and if you pressed the wrong button the call dropped and you had to start all over again.”

O’Neill, full-forward on Cork’s All-Ireland football-winning side of 1990, is well settled in Colorado now.

Five kids launched into American life, leaving just one high schooler at home.

Until the lockdown, that is.

“Of the six, apart from the one in high school, two are in university around Denver, one in Philadelphia, another working in Chicago and one in Seattle.

“But now we have five at home. The youngest lad’s high school is closed, he’s at home studying online. The two girls in college, their college closed a month ago so they’re studying online as well.

“The lad working in Chicago with Ernst and Young hasn’t been in the office for a month. So he’s at home. The one we had in Philadelphia came home as well, so just when we thought we were out of the woods they’re all back.

“I’m kidding, of course. It’s great to have them at home.”

The exception is the professional athlete. Shane plays for the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer: he’s still in the Pacific Northwest.

“The only reason he’s not at home is that the coach above told them not to leave Seattle. He didn’t want them spreading or catching the virus, so Shane is staying there.

“When I get up in the morning I’d be able to put on RTÉ, so I’d be listening to Joe Duffy or whoever, and I’d say a lot of the issues around lockdown here would be recognisable to people at home as well. Isolation, staying at home.”

The images of armed Americans protesting to associate freely may dominate your perception of the lockdown in the US, but O’Neill says the truth is more nuanced.

“The one thing they strongly recommend here — without making it compulsory — is that you wear a facemask when you go out, but I’d say only half the people you see are doing that.

“There’s a main road from Denver to Boulder not far from our house and it’s still busy. The 2 km radius of your home isn’t nearly as stringent as it is in Ireland; the stay at home order is very much up to yourself.

“People might have a perception that Americans act by the book, but sometimes that depends on what book you’re talking about.”

The Midleton native’s clear-eyed appraisal of attitudes in the States extends to sports: “To me, if you boil it down to brass tacks, there’s so much money involved in American sports that they’re going to find a way to get them up and running again.

“Money is a huge factor, obviously. For example, there were reports during the week that the first phase of the relaxation of the lockdown here will begin soon — various stores would open again but the list included, bizarrely, health clubs and gyms.

“Now the obvious question is how gyms, full of people sweating and breathing hard, all of them together in a relatively small space, could be safe to open, but people have pointed out that the likes of Rudy Giuliani’s son, who’s close to Trump, have strong ties to the gym and health club industry. So then you understand how they can open.

“I know there’d be a focus back home on how the finish of the Premier League would play out, and the money that’d be lost if that has to be cancelled.

Imagine the money involved if the NFL were to be cancelled, or the NBA season. There are billions of dollars at stake.

“Which is something to remember if you’re looking at the news and you see State Governors here vying to reopen their states for business as soon as possible.

“In Colorado there’s quite a few Republicans, and I’d be slagging them saying ‘if only ye had voted for Hillary, none of this would have happened.’ You can imagine the response.”

O’Neill was on a lot of GAA hacks’ call lists for this year. Not only did he feature in Cork’s historic year, his intervention before half-time in that year’s football final is still vividly remembered, but we’ll come to that.

“The thing about the GAA is the friendships and the relationships you make. Only a month ago I had three lads from Clonakilty staying with me — Tom Mannix, Mick O’Neill and a pal of theirs — while they were out skiing here.

“The flip side of the GAA — and the predominant reason I ended up out here — is that you can be winning county medals and so on but back then in particular it wasn’t all that great for putting food on the table, to be honest.

There’s a solid Irish community here, it’s not on the scale of what you’d find in Chicago or New York, but there’s still a few, and the ball-hopping about the games goes on all the time.

“I only got a WhatsApp last week from a fella about an RTÉ podcast talking about hard men in Gaelic football — and for God’s sake, a clip in the middle of it of me and Mick Lyons.”

O’Neill was sent off, of course, for striking the Meath full-back in the first half of the 1990 All-Ireland final. Is that ever irritating, to have an entire career shrunk down to a brief memory?

“Not for a nanosecond. Seriously.

“A couple of things: Niall Cahalane is very funny about it, and often said I’d be remembered long after the rest of them are forgotten because of it.

“What’s funny is that when I was in secondary school in Midleton I already had a sister married up in Meath, and she’s still there. So I had a handle on Meath from a young age. I knew about Mick and his club, Summerhill.

“There are great trails and hikes around us in Boulder, and if I take one of them and head up past our house, I land up at a new housing development that’s being built.

“What’s it called? Summerhill. So this thing is still following me around.”

The other point O’Neill makes is how the result that day dictated the context.

“Growing up in a place like Midleton, the aim was to play for Midleton.

"When we won the county senior championship in 1983 no country team place had won it in decades, so it was a big deal; we had been thinking ‘it would be great to win a county, but let’s be serious, we’re not going to do that’.

“It was the same with the Cork footballers: fellas would think if you weren’t from west Cork or Nemo how would you even get on the team?

Examiner

“I’d always say that in a career a bit of luck isn’t necessary; a number of bits of luck are necessary.

"My comparison would always be the lads you’d meet in UCC from Waterford or Tipperary, footballers who’d have walked on the Cork team, but they were from the ‘wrong’ county.

“Similarly, what Dublin have done in the last five or six years is incredible, but how much of it is down to the luck of having the right lads in the right place at the right time?

“Being involved in All-Ireland football finals with Cork, then, I’d be very aware of the element of luck involved.”

And O’Neill can offer a clear example of that in 1990.

“At one stage in the second half of the All-Ireland Brian Stafford got through for a goal chance and John Kerins pulled off a great save.

“It was at a stage in the game where a goal for Meath would have given them a great chance of winning, so Kerins’s save was absolutely vital.

“After the game Dr Con (Murphy) came over to me and said, ‘You know, you stood up to Mick Lyons and people will love you now — because Cork won. If John hadn’t saved that shot, though, you’d be heading to Argentina to hide out with the Nazis’.

“That’s how close it was. That’s the difference between being loved and having a lynch mob on your trail.”

America’s been good to O’Neill. He’s even branched out from the pub business into making products for the pub business.

“We had this idea for a drink, an Irish whiskey cream drink, having been involved in the Irish pub business for years.

"A buddy of Niall Cahalane, John O’Connell of the West Cork Distillery, was very helpful and gave us great guidance — he directed us to Sean McKevitt up in Cavan and we got this product made in Ireland.

“It’s made in Ireland and has an Irish label — we test marketed it in Colorado and we’ve been selling it since December but the feedback has been great and we’re kicking the idea around of maybe hooking up with someone in Boston or New York this coming October or November.”

The drink is called Hard Chaw.

“People have been asking us what a hard chaw is, exactly.” Well, it’s hardly a common term in the States.

“I don’t know how common it is in Ireland either, I’ve had to explain what a hard chaw is to quite a few Irish people.”

He’s identified as an All-Ireland winner in the product’s publicity material, naturally enough.

That doesn’t mean the old jerseys are part of the marketing strategy.

“My mother has all the gear at home.

“Almost all the gear, that is. There’s definitely a Midleton GAA jersey floating around the house here somewhere. I’ve seen that on someone.

“And back when I played, if you got to an All-Ireland final you’d get a tie with the date of the game printed on it. I’d have ties from the four finals between 1987 and 1990, and I saw the 1987 tie going out the door one night as well.

“One of the lads dug up the gear bag from the 1987 final, though I’m not sure if that sees much daylight.”

The anniversary of the double makes his head spin, he admits: “The fact that it’s thirty years . ..

“Mind you, there’s a guy out here, Alan Murphy, a hard-core Barrs man. We’re good friends, but even now Alan would often bring up the 1983 county final with me when I meet him.

“And when I say ‘bring up’ I mean he says, ‘Jesus you’d have no county medal if not for (referee) Frank Murphy in that final, Jimmy Barry-Murphy should have gotten a free at the end, the Barrs were robbed’, all that.

“That’s nearly forty years ago, never mind thirty.” Forget time, forget distance. A GAA grudge is one of life’s great constants.

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