'The craic just seemed to follow him around' - Tomás Ó Sé on his uncle Páidí

I wouldn’t have boasted about him in school or anything, but I was hugely proud of him. His greatest lesson to us was to win with grace and to lose with grace, and not to be blowing your own trumpet.
'The craic just seemed to follow him around' - Tomás Ó Sé on his uncle Páidí
28 September 1997; Kerry manager Páidí Ó Sé celebrates following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final at Croke Park, Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
28 September 1997; Kerry manager Páidí Ó Sé celebrates following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final at Croke Park, Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

In this week's Friday Book club, we publish an extract from The White Heat where Tomás Ó Sé recalls the reputation, and roguery, of his famous uncle Páidí.

I wouldn’t have boasted about him in school or anything, but I was hugely proud of him. His greatest lesson to us was to win with grace and to lose with grace, and not to be blowing your own trumpet.

But Páidí had an ego. Of course he did. During the season, he hated dealing with the media, because he always wanted Kerry coming in under the radar, with as little fanfare as possible. But during the winter, or in retirement, he’d spend plenty of time in the media. Blackguarding.

Adventure followed us. Everywhere. Before one Munster final in Páirc Uí Chaoimh we met up in the Rochestown Park Hotel in Cork for our lunch and team meeting. Spilled out afterwards, ready for the warm-up.

‘Where are we warming up, PO?’ Disaster. Nothing booked. The crowd of us looking at each other in a hotel car park.

Fair dues to PO, he improvised. He drove a car through a partition fence and we were liberated, running onto a green space in the middle of a housing estate. Top preparation, the thirty of us flinging handpasses around as people came out of their houses for the Sunday papers, looking over at us.

One of the suburbanites didn’t appreciate the skills on show:

‘Hey, clear off out of that!’ One of his neighbours was obviously from down our way, and weighed into the debate: ‘F**k off out of that, they can warm up there, and they’ll put manners on ye later down the Park too!’

He was on the board of Bord Fáilte as well, and I met one member recently who said there was no craic at the meetings without Páidí; but he added that Páidí’s ability to talk to people, and his knowledge of the tourism industry, were huge assets to the board.

Take the time he met Gregory Peck as an example of that ability.

Peck was related to Thomas Ashe, the famous republican from Lispole who died on hunger strike in 1917. Fintan Ashe, who was on the Kerry selection in 1997, was another relation, so when the team went to America with the cup, Peck, who was very strong on ancestry and so on, invited them over to the house in Beverly Hills – massive mansion, beautiful furnishings, the whole lot. Darragh and Páidí went along with Fintan at about ten in the morning.

Peck made them welcome, showed them around, and asked if they’d like a coffee. Peck had an Academy Award, for To Kill a Mockingbird, and plenty of other statuettes with it, Golden Globes and so on. There’s a great photograph of Darragh and Fintan holding up awards on either side of Peck. Páidí was asked if he wanted to stand in for the photo, and he said, ‘Sure haven’t I five All-Stars at home?’

Everywhere he went stories sprouted. The craic just seemed to follow him around.

As kids, after coming home from school we’d often go over to the pub to play a game of pool. During the winter it’d be empty, practically, and Páidí would play against us, or else he’d be just reading the paper by the fire. Not a sinner in the place. One cold, wet winter afternoon a man strolled into the pub. I looked out the window and saw a huge black Mercedes parked outside, an uncommon sight at the time. I recognised the man who came in: Martin Sheen.

Down to Páidí at the end of the bar to tell him. Martin Sheen.

Here. In the pub.

‘Who’s Martin Sheen?’ says Páidí.

We told him, ‘A big American actor.’

And out with Páidí, ‘Martin, how are you? Welcome,’ like they were old friends.

The background was that Páidí had had Tom Cruise in the pub when Far and Away was being filmed nearby, and he’d kept Cruise’s security going with drink while the filming was going on.

Ever since then he’d tell people in the pub that he’d been on the phone to Cruise about this and that: ‘We keep in contact,’ that kind of blackguarding.

So when Sheen came into the pub Páidí – though he’d never heard of him five minutes beforehand – was right at home with yet another movie star.

We got a weakness laughing when he offered Sheen a drink, only for the actor to reply that he was an alcoholic and, you know, didn’t drink any more.

‘That’s all right,’ says Páidí.

‘You’ll have one?’

Comedy.

Sheen was interested in the football, though. He spent about an hour and a half there, chatting away, and he looked at the photo- graphs. Good company.

Eventually he said good luck and headed off out to his car.

For blackguarding we said to Páidí, ‘Hey, tell him to say hi to Cruise for you,’ as if Hollywood were just one street on which all the actors lived.

Páidí tore out the door and roared, ‘Martin! Martin! Martin!

Martin!’ across the road until Sheen rolled down the window. ‘Say hello to Tom for me, will you!’

Páidí liked to bring visitors to see my grandmother, something he always did when Charlie Haughey landed in. Charlie is a hero in Dingle and still is: he did a lot for the area, and even now if you ask about him there wouldn’t be a bad word said against him. He developed the harbour and a lot more. Páidí got to know him early on and would visit him out on Inishvickillane, and Charlie would call in to the pub to see him. He had opened the pub in Ventry officially for Páidí.

The evening I remember him calling in was one of my many shifts behind the counter. I was so young working there that the American tourists would take photographs of me lifting pints up over my head onto the counter. I could barely see what I was doing, and I’d hear, ‘Aw, take a picture of him.’ Snap!

Anyway, Charlie came in and bought a round for a few lads but had nothing for himself. He asked Páidí if it would be all right if he brought in his own wine, which was out in the car, and that was fine: in it came. So the wine was poured out and Charlie asked Páidí if he’d join him.

The two of them had their glasses of wine, but while Charlie was sniffing his and rolling it around and tasting it, Páidí had already swallowed his. Straight down. Charlie was saying, ‘Oh, savour it, this is a lovely wine,’ but then he looked over, and Páidí’s glass was on the counter, empty. He said nothing, in fairness, though I could only imagine what he was thinking.

That wasn’t our only encounter with Charlie. We went to Dublin one time to present medals at a function, and the highlight was Páidí getting on stage to sing his particular version of ‘An Poc ar Buile’, with names changed to suit the occasion.

After the function we headed into town – myself, Marc, Páidí and a few more – and we were dropped across the road from Renard’s, which was the nightspot in Dublin at the time. There was a vip entrance and an ordinary entrance, and I nudged Marc as we headed across the road: would Páidí be able to pull this one off and get in the vip door?

The bouncers said, ‘Howaya, Páidí! How’s it going? How many?’

‘Seven,’ says he.

‘No problem. Head in.’

Of course he was preening that he pulled it off, and as we were heading up the stairs he turned to myself and Marc. ‘Ye think I’m an awful eejit, don’t ye?’ Anyway, the place was all mirrors inside, floor to ceiling – very confusing, particularly after a few drinks.

We’d had a long spin into town, so we all wanted the toilets, and Marc led the way. He thought he was leading us into the gents, but he brought us down a dead end because of the mirrors, to a table where there were people staring at this crowd of six or seven big men advancing on them. Marc slammed into the mirror, I slammed into Marc, and Páidí slammed into me.

It looked desperate. The people at the table were laughing, and Páidí didn’t like people laughing at him, so he says, ‘Marc, get a taxi there, and go away home like a good man. You’ve had too much.’ The day after, Marc and I were booked on a flight back to Kerry, but Páidí had some business to do in Dublin, so he was down in himself, because he wanted to be on the road home too.

We were killing a couple of hours when Páidí suddenly says, ‘I know: we’ll call out to Kinsealy.’ He made a call and off we went. Charlie Haughey was an old man at this stage. He made us welcome, and so did his wife, Maureen.

What I recall were the pictures, floor to ceiling, everywhere, of Charlie with various people. I’d have liked to have spent some time looking at those, but we went off to the bar in the house, the lot of us.

It was awkward enough. Páidí was in bad form, head in his hands, and he was the only man who knew Charlie, really. Marc and I were making small talk about the weather. After ten minutes Páidí lifted his head and said, ‘Charlie, will we have a glass of wine?’ Charlie got out a bottle and they had a glass or two. Saved the visit.

There was huge respect there. I’d say Páidí’s insecurities as a manager, fellas giving out about him, might have held him back Ó Sé from entering politics, though he had a huge interest in politics always. It was one of his great loves.

He loved his family. If you were going through a bad time he’d help you out any way he could, and he was always generous, with his own kids and with us. He’d always back you.

He loved music – traditional music, of all kinds – and he loved politics. I often meet politicians who’d say to me they loved to meet him, because they could sit down and talk politics to him, all the cloak-and-dagger stuff.

But football was top of the pile.

It all came unstuck against Tyrone in 2003, and Páidí took it worse than anyone.

It’s hard to explain how hard that time would have been for him if you’re not from Kerry. I’ve seen other counties come down hard on managers and players; I’ve lived in Cork long enough to see that happen. But there’s nothing like the knives that come out in Kerry.

It’s vicious.

I’d say there was a drive from a certain crew to get him out, which I certainly didn’t like. That saying ‘Tadhg an dá thaobh’ summed it up. Some former teammates of Páidí’s were saying one thing in public about him and another thing altogether behind his back. I’d hate to think I’d be like that myself.

In 2003 we’d met a team that had introduced a new style of football, and we’d been caught – and caught by a great, great team. I think a lot of teams would have been caught by Tyrone that time, but the problem for Páidí was that his team had then lost in 2001, 2002 and 2003 – a team that was perceived as having talent enough to win more.

He wasn’t going to go easily, so he was going to have to be pushed, and he was.

The White Heat by Tomás Ó Sé

Available online and from easons.com, check with your local bookshop to see if they have stock.

It is published by gillbooks.ie - an Irish publisher which has been in operation since 1968 and which carries a wide range of books catering to the Irish market, from biography to cookbooks, history and children's books, true crime, nature and sport.

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