Ten years ago he worked security for Bono. Now he's a world champion and makes millions. By Ed Power
A fluent Irish speaker, former choir-boy and one-time bodyguard to Bono, Stephen Farrelly doesn't quite fit the stereotype of the major-league wrestling star. But that's what the Cabra native has become, having won the World Wrestling Entertainment world championship in Florida a fortnight ago.
Fighting under the stage name Sheamus O'Shaunessy, the victory confirms Farrelly's standing as one of the biggest names in the hokey, but extremely lucrative, universe of WWE wrestling. With his distinctive red shock of hair and pasty complexion, such is the popularity of WWE he sometimes has difficulty venturing out in public without being mobbed by fans.
It's a long way from the northside of Dublin and his previous life as an IT worker and security guard.
"I've walked out in front of Madison Square Garden to 20,000 people," he says. "Which is amazing as I can remember working in the O2 arena in Dublin as security for wrestling events. Today I'm on the other side of the fence. It's hard to take in."
Surreally, Farrelly's first taste of showbusiness was an appearance on the Late Late Toy Show as a 13-year-old member of the Palestrina Choir (by way of encore the choir subsequently graced Live at Three).
He went on to line out for his local GAA team, Erin's Isle, and played rugby while studying computing at the National College of Ireland. At the time his main source of income was as a bodyguard at Lille's Bordello, where he watched over some of the world's biggest celebrities.
"Bono would be in all the time," he says. "I'd be standing there, making sure nobody spiked his drink, or try to steal his pint. It was a handy way to make a bit of wedge."
As entertainment goes, WWE -- previously known as WWF -- isn't renowned for its subtlety. In such a context Farrelly's 'Irish' image is relatively sophisticated. Disdaining the 'Lucky Charms' schtick beloved of Americans, he styles himself as a Celtic warrior in the tradition of Cúchulainn and Finn MacCool.
"With the Celtic Warrior thing, I wanted to convey a positive sense of Ireland," he says. "The Celts were great fighters."
He had other reasons for staying clear of Irish-American Leprechaun schtick. A wrestler with an over-the-top persona receives lots of early attention. However, the novelty tends to wear off.
"With a gimmick, there isn't much substance. If you play to the crowd too much, it can go bad."
While it hasn't regained the profile it enjoyed in the late '80s and '90s, when the musclebound likes of Hulk Hogan were world famous, WWE remains a money-spinner.
Last year, the parent company which runs the sport brought in nearly half a billion dollars, the majority accounted for television deals and merchandising tie-ins. Top wrestlers are well paid, earning between half a million to a million dollars per season.
Farrelly fell in love with wrestling watching WWF on television as a teenager. In pursuit of his dream in 2002 he went to New Jersey to attend the Monster Factory, a famous pro-wrestling school run by former champion Larry Sharpe. Initially trading as the Irish Curse he impressed in some lower tier bouts. Unfortunately he landed badly and sustained serious neck injuries, sidelining him for two years.
Back in Ireland, he took the stage name Sheamus O'Shaunessy and participated in bouts in Rathdowney, Co Laois, and Mount Temple, Co Westmeath.
Eventually he came to the attention of the British Heavyweight Championship. His major break arrived in 2006 when he appeared at a WWE event in Manchester, ostensibly as the member of a security team ejecting a misbehaving combatant from the ring. Shortly afterwards he was offered a WWE development contract.
As Sheamus, Farrelly has waged ill-tempered 'feuds' with a number of rival wrestlers. How much is play-acting for the gallery?
"Every time I get into the ring, my perspective is that the other guy is standing between me and a victory. As soon as the bell rings it's 'go' time. If you are in my way -- no hard feelings but I'm going to go through you to get where I need to go."
He is quick to dismiss the charge that everything that goes on in WWE is scripted. A typical pro fights several times a week, he says.
"It happens in the moment. I laugh when I'm asked, 'so, did you rehearse for this match?' We're on the road four, five days out of every seven. We're up there knocking lumps out of each other. If the crowd isn't buying it, it doesn't work. You make things happen on the fly. That's what results in a great match.
"If someone cracks a chair over your back -- that's a real chair. You can't train for that. You need a strong backbone. I'm lucky in that I've played a bit of rugby and GAA. So I've been through the rough and tumble."
Sheamus appears in the WWE Revenge tour at The O2, Dublin, Thursday, April 12