He gave rise to one of the great Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh legendary live commentary pieces – “His father is from Fermanagh, his mother from Fiji, neither a hurling stronghold”; yesterday Seán Óg Ó hAilpín formally announced his retirement from inter-county fare, thus ending what is surely the most unique story in top-class hurling.
This time too it’s official, his own decision, unlike in 2010 when his ‘retirement’ turned out to have been enforced by the then Cork management team led by Denis Walsh, a fact noted in the statement issued yesterday. “I always felt it was premature to end my career in 2010,” he said; “It was great to get the opportunity this year to re-establish myself in the team and contribute in a meaningful way to Cork.”
It would have been a real pity if it had in fact ended like that. Born in Fiji, raised in Australia, Seán Óg was introduced to hurling only after his family moved to Cork from Down Under in 1988, when he was already 11 years of age.
That he went on to become one of the biggest stars in what is a very technical game is testament not just to his undoubted athletic ability but much more to his determination and single-mindedness. Further testimony – Seán Óg went on to become more fluent in his new language (Irish) than most of his new compatriots.
The man who gave him the opportunity to prove himself again this year was current Cork manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy, the man who also gave Seán Óg his first opportunity with the Cork senior team, back in 1996. It turned out to be a sterling honour-laden career for a man who would become a star in two codes (see panel).
Hurling, however, became his first love, and as Cork went on to win All-Ireland titles in 1999, 2003 and 2004, the man from Fiji became one of the most feared defenders in the game. He was a hurler par excellence, a clean but hard-as-nails wing-back who won the respect and admiration of team-mates and opponents alike.
Dan Shanahan of Waterford – a side with whom Cork established a fantastic rivalry in the last decade — was one such opponent. “We had some great battles. He was one of the most consistent defenders of the last 15 years and more. People are on about JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh from Kilkenny – Seán Óg was as good as anyone, on his day. A fantastic athlete to this day, that didn’t happen overnight – he worked very hard on his physique and fitness, always.
“He was a tough opponent but as clean as you’d get. I don’t think I ever saw him pull a dirty stroke and when the game was over, it was over, just shake hands and move on. I was lucky enough to play with him as well, on a few Railway Cup teams – an absolute gentleman, in every respect. I have total respect for the man, he was a credit to Cork and to hurling. I wish him well in his retirement.”
Great as was the Cork/Waterford rivalry during Seán Óg’s career, however, the Cork/Kilkenny battles are what defined that entire era. On the Kilkenny side, eight-times All-Ireland medal winner Eddie Brennan was one who crossed swords with Seán Óg.
“He’s a national icon for a lot of reasons, his background alone setting him apart. He’s an honest-to-God sportsman, a tough competitor. I locked horns with him on a few occasions, was on him in the 2006 All-Ireland final and couldn’t get the better of him. He was hard and tough but never dirty, a pure hurler. 2004 was his pinnacle, he more than deserved to be Hurler of the Year that year.
He was a very intelligent hurler, very cute and clever. He wasn’t rash or brash in any way, hurled with his brain, everything calculated, and I think that’s what marks out the great players, they think on their feet.
“He carried himself fierce well on and off the field, never let himself, his family or his team down, one of the great role models in the GAA and always will be. I was surprised though that Cork didn’t try him at full-back for the last few years, after Diarmuid O’Sullivan went. To me he was a natural for the role – the first time I saw him was in the All-Ireland minor final of 1995 and that’s where he played. With a couple of fast players alongside him he’d have been ideal for Cork in that position.”
One who knew Seán Óg better than either Dan or Eddie is John Gardiner, teammate and linemate on the half-back line with club (Na Piarsaigh) and county for over a decade. For John, Seán Óg’s influence wasn’t confined to hurling. “Sean Óg was a model to any sportsman across all sports, his preparation was at all times immaculate and it paid off with his achievements on the field. He’s a great guy to have in the dressing room and would do anything for his team-mates. He is a true inspiration and I want to wish him well with his club hurling and thank him for all the great days he gave Cork hurling and Cork supporters.”
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