In a battle of wills between the British Army and Fr Michael O'Brien there could only be one winner

Tadhg Coakley's personal tribute to the man who coached him on six teams in the late 1970s and early 1980s
In a battle of wills between the British Army and Fr Michael O'Brien there could only be one winner

Fr Michael was mercurial, he was irascible, he was stentorian. Gifted with boundless energy, boundless willpower, boundless intellectual and emotional intelligence, and a boundless ability to inspire. Burdened with a huge sense of duty and responsibility, though he appeared to carry it lightly.

Tonight I hope to be in the Mardyke again for the annual Canon O’Brien Cup match between the hurlers of UCC and Cork.

I’ll be thinking of Father Michael O’Brien, after whom this match is called. Of course, I will.

And I’ll be giving thanks for him. And I’ll be smiling. I often smile when I think of Michael. A lot of people do. He casts a long and happy shadow.

Ah, Michael. Such a complex and a multifaceted man. Such a great man. So great and complex you have to delve into the dictionary to find words to describe him. He was mercurial, he was irascible, he was stentorian. Gifted with boundless energy, boundless willpower, boundless intellectual and emotional intelligence, and a boundless ability to inspire. Burdened with a huge sense of duty and responsibility, though he appeared to carry it lightly. He could be tough — to some he may have appeared severe — (this was in a hurling context, remember) and he could be kindness personified.

And it’s into his kindness I’ll be leaning tonight.

My early UCC student years were not a good time for me. I was studying the wrong course (electrical engineering) when I should have been studying literature and starting out on a life of writing. And while I knew the wrongness of this, I couldn’t manage to right it. I was stuck. I was lost, really, and not in a good place.

How did I deal with this situation? I denied it. I pretended it wasn’t happening. I put on a mask that everything was fine, everything was grand, and that — in fact — I couldn’t care less about anything: myself, my course, or what was happening to me. When in reality, I cared too much, altogether.

Of course, Michael saw through my façade. Which is why he called me aside after training in the Mardyke one day in 1983.

“Tadhg,” he said. “A quick word there.”

Now, his use of my first name and not my surname alerted me: this wasn’t good. Father O’Brien used to refer to us by our surnames mostly, it was an old-time quirk of his. He pulled me aside. He fixed me with his steely blue eyes. When Michael looked at you, you knew you were being looked at.

“You know you’re doing a good job of being captain, don’t you? You’re doing fine, you know that, right?”

“Yes, father,” I lied. Which wasn’t something you did lightly with Father O’Brien.

“And the other thing you have to remember is that it’s only hurling. It’s only a game, you know that, right? Are you with me?”

“Yes, father,” I said, utterly shocked.

Anybody who knew Father O’Brien reading this must be shocked, too.

For that man to use the term “only” — twice — in relation to either hurling or a championship game, was an extraordinary thing to do. It went against everything he stood for. But he did do that. And he did it for me: for a young man in his charge, whom he could see was struggling.

Tadhg Coakley (second from right) signing the visitor’s book in Cork City Hall. Fr Michael O'Brien is sitting alongside the Lord Mayor, Liam Burke.
Tadhg Coakley (second from right) signing the visitor’s book in Cork City Hall. Fr Michael O'Brien is sitting alongside the Lord Mayor, Liam Burke.

That was Michael.

We won the Fitzgibbon Cup a few weeks after Father O’Brien’s act of kindness to me in 1983. We beat UCG in Bellaghy with a British army helicopter hovering above us and my old pal Mick Quaid of Limerick scoring a stunning 3-2. On the following morning, the Monday, in our rambling hotel on the beachfront in Portstewart, I got word that Father O’Brien was looking for me. I was busy at the time, trying to get the usual suspects out of the bar (Ed: no names please) and to get the bus going on the long journey south to Cork. As captain, those kinds of tasks fell to me.

Michael was in the restaurant having a leisurely late breakfast. He looked as fresh as if he’d just finished a weekend retreat and not after a late-night banquet celebrating a three-in-a-row win. He had probably said Mass in some local church that morning already.

“Ah, the man himself,” he said in that unique voice of his.

I’ve heard many people try to imitate him (behind his back) but he was, of course, inimitable.

“Is your bag on the bus?” he said.

“Yes, father, we’re nearly ready to go.”

“Well, take it off it, you’re not going to Cork. You’re coming with me to Belfast.”

“Yes, father.”

He explained the purpose of the trip to Belfast. On the previous day one of our players, John O’Connell from Blackrock, had received a bad eye injury. In my memory he went to block down one of the UCG players and got the ball into his eye from close range. He had been immediately rushed from Bellaghy to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast by ambulance, such was the severity of the injury.

And Michael told me that he was ringing John’s family later and he wanted to have first-hand knowledge of how he was before making the call. Of course he did.

That was Michael.

Now, this was not the first summoning I’d had from Father O’Brien that weekend. On the Saturday night, after we’d beaten UCD in the semi-final, with the final to follow the next day, I got word that he wanted to see me in his room. I climbed the huge staircase up to the room where I found Michael packing his bags. Literally packing his bags. He was going home to Cork, he told me. Immediately. His mind was made up.


You can imagine my reaction. Shock. Horror. The works. Whatever hope we had in the final the following day with Michael on the sideline, our hopes without him were infinitesimal. And whatever else I wanted from that weekend, I didn’t want to be remembered as the captain who had blown the three-in-a-row, or worse, been the cause of Father O’Brien’s departure back to Cork.

What did I do? What do you think I did?

I pleaded. I cajoled. I stammered. I don’t think I cried, but I would have if I’d thought it might have worked — I probably wasn’t far off crying. I had the brainwave to involve the silver-tongued Professor of Geography, Willie Smyth, who calmly talked Father O’Brien down and before long we were planning our team for the following day and how best to deal with the wind in both halves — that usually involved playing Nicky English in the forwards with the wind and in the backs against it.

I won’t go into the reasons for his putative departure — they are irrelevant, anyway; Father O’Brien was never going to desert us in our moment of need, it was just Michael being Michael.

I hesitated before including this incident at all in such a (long overdue) piece of writing. But I feel that Father O’Brien deserves better than the usual platitudes or being portrayed as perfect, saintly, or worse: a legend. He was none of those. He was a man (a great man, but still a man) and I think that such moments showed Michael’s humanity. I think they also gave us a glimpse of the heavy toll the weight of responsibility and duty sometimes took on him. As Leonard Cohen said:

“Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”

That was Michael.

So, off we set on our quest to The Royal Victoria Hospital in February 1983. This was less than three months after the INLA bombing of the Droppin Well Bar disco near Limavady, when 17 people were killed, including 11 British soldiers – only over the road from where we’d been hurling and staying for three days.

There were four of us.

Michael (without his clerical collar) was driving and Willie Smyth was in the front with him. Myself and Richie Cronin (the club chairman, a Kenmare man and fellow-student) were in the back. I suspect myself and Richie were quiet on the journey.

There were checkpoints. There were Union Jacks and the red, white, and blue. There were tricolours. How we found the hospital in the belly of Belfast those pre-Satnav and Google Map days, I’m not sure. Having one of the great Irish geographers of his time with us probably helped. Asking directions in a southern reg car in the North was a bit of a no-no those days.

But with Father O’Brien there was always a way.

Now, to describe the red bricked hospital as a fortress would be something of an understatement. There was a high turret with guns pointing out of it. Barbed wire everywhere. There were RUC and army patrols. Armoured vehicles. There was a huge, metal, fortified gate at the front and a wall all around it. The sense of tension in the air was tangible.

At the gate the posh sounding British army officer in a beret informed us that under no circumstances would we be entering the hospital. Michael took the news calmly and went to work on the Englishman’s resolve. I don’t know what kind of training the officer had received at Sandhurst, and I don’t know what he had learned from whatever British conflicts he had been part of. But in opposition to the man from Innishannon on a mission to ensure that one of his charges was being well-looked after, he didn’t have a hope. I almost felt sorry for him. In a battle of wills between the British army and Father Michael O’Brien, there could only be one winner.

Before long, Michael was purposefully striding into the hospital. After an hour or so, when he returned, the news was good. John was responding well to his treatments and would, after all, retain the sight of his eye. The doctors also told Father O’Brien that if the injury occurred anywhere else in Ireland, he would probably have lost the use his eye,
but the medics in Belfast were so proficient in dealing with eye trauma from the effects of rubber bullets and bomb blasts, that they were able to treat John successfully.

There’s a picture taken a few weeks later with me (is that really me?) signing the visitors’ book in the City Hall, Cork. There’s Willie Smyth and Dan Beechinor and the Lord Mayor, Liam Burke. There’s the cup and the bould Michael behind it. There’s Richie Cronin behind Dan.

And, in the middle, at the back, there’s John O’Connell among his teammates, sporting not one, but two, impressive shiners.

I’m not sure when it struck me, probably years later. Father Michael O’Brien on the Saturday night before a Fitzgibbon final talking about going home to Cork and on the day after the win, when he could return home victorious, refusing to do so before checking on his injured player’s wellbeing.

That was Michael.

In 2013, after the inaugural Canon O’Brien Cup, there was a gathering in UCC to honour the Canon (by then Archdeacon O’Brien).

A couple of hundred former hurlers whom he had coached and colleagues of Father O’Brien dutifully attended it. Some of his family were there.

After a meal there was a forum discussion about him and what had made him such a great coach.

People like Dr Con Murphy, John Grainger, Donie Collins, Billy Morgan, and others spoke movingly about him. Mark Foley spoke about his sense of gratitude toward Father O’Brien and that resonated with me most.

There was a lot of talk about his prowess as a motivator and the amazing success he’d had over the years winning dozens of county, provincial, and All-Ireland championships for the teams he’d looked after. But I do remember thinking that day, and I do still believe, that his greatest achievements — most of which will never be known — were off the pitch, in his life as a priest, a caregiver, as the good shepherd carefully tending his flocks.

While walking home from that event, I remember thinking: had I ever said thanks to Michael for all the opportunities he’d granted me?

For all the experiences I’d had because of him and the kindness he’d shown me in 1983? Or the duty of care he’d shown to John O’Connell and his family that year?

Or had I ever expressed to him my admiration for everything he’d done for all the young hurlers in Farranferris or the young camogie players in the North Presentation, all those years ago?

Or all he’d done for the generation of young hurlers in his care in UCC and the hundreds of hurlers and camogie players in the many clubs he had coached down the years?

Or all he’d done for young Cork hurlers, many of whom (including me) were lucky enough to have won an All-Ireland medal because of him?

To my shame, I realised that I hadn’t.

But it’s never too late to make amends.

Thank you, Michael.

- The Game: A Lifetime Inside and Outside the White Lines by Tadhg Coakley will be published by Merrion Press in May 2022.

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