independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Man-marker was often hard to pin down

Visitors to his Ventry stronghold always got a warm welcome, writes Dermot Crowe

AROUND the autumn of 2001, I was sent to Ventry to interview Páidí ó Sé which I knew to be a challenge. If you leaned on the bar counter and talked to him across that boundary, he could be effusive and carefree. Place a taping device on the counter and it was another matter entirely.

The trip followed the release of his autobiography, in communion with ghostwriter Seán Potts, who recorded a long and varied career featuring some of the most epochal moments in the history of Gaelic football. He was part of the greatest ever team and while he could look raw and ungainly there was no disputing the abundance of natural footballing talent. Then there was the fun side, the devilment that carried on after retirement.

I had been a little unfortunate in my timing. An Ghaeltacht happened to win their first ever Kerry senior championship on the preceding Sunday so stock needed to be taken of the inevitable celebrations. How many days was it reasonable to allow? But I managed to catch him on the Tuesday night on the phone and we agreed to meet on Wednesday at his pub in Ventry at lunchtime.

I couldn't be sure I'd see him until I actually did the next day. Moments after stopping the car in the pub car park, I heard a tap on the driver's window. It was a misty drizzling day and there was Páidí squinting in at me, rain-beaten, sodden, in a tracksuit and runners. He had been running, burning off the previous night's excesses.

"I must go and get a shower, Dermot, why don't you go on into the bar there. Darragh [his nephew] and all the boys are inside."

To be honest, I didn't really want to be interrupting Darragh and the boys and I was sure that Darragh and the boys didn't particularly need my sober reflections. But in I went. Páidí soon appeared, still in his tracksuit, unshowered. "What'll you have to drink."

"Ah I'm okay Páidí thanks, I have to drive back. A coke is fine."

"Did you read the book?"

"I did."

"What did you think of it?"

"Well, I enjoyed it. There were some good yarns in there."

And then he leaned closer and said: "Sure, I left the best of them out."

There followed protracted spells of casual negotiations and no sign of the interview getting any closer. I had a few pints to pass the time. Páidí was in and out, here and there, giving me off nods and winks, keeping me sweet.

I figured it would be a late return home, if I returned at all. One of his minders was concerned about having Páidí right for the Late Late Show appearance on the following Friday night. It was an ideal platform to publicise the book and he needed to be in top form. Right now he needed to get him back down and settled.

Eventually, he did take that shower but then there was a further delay. We had to go into Dingle to get something to eat and then we would do the interview. His driver, Páidí and I got into a car and drove the road to Dingle. Stories from the book were happily relived, everlasting moments from his past in the company of the men with whom he formed an unbreakable bond. Most of these stories had nothing, in the pure sense, to do with football. They were from trips away. Pulling pranks. Late nights. Laughs. In many ways he was still living in that paradise.

We found a pub in Dingle where he was hailed like a king on entry and out came three chowders. He took the liberty of ordering for all. Now showered and chowdered, he was ready to return to Ventry for the main business at hand.

We went across the road to his home place and sat down at a table. I could sense he was uneasy; he began visibly tensing up. So I asked a few harmless questions to put him at ease – then the next one or two might have been fractionally more searching and I could see him tightening and sweat glistening on his brow.

Clearly, this was going to be torturous for both of us. We laboured through it without anything particularly insightful revealed about Páidí that we didn't know already or that he didn't want the world to find out.

Later in the afternoon, I headed back to Dublin with nothing much on the relationship between Páidí and Maurice Fitzgerald or what lay

behind the public persona which you wondered did he ever tire of or simply tire having to constantly play. I know he'd rather not have done

that interview but the hospitality was unfailingly warm and genuine. His door would always be open.

I looked out for him on the Late Late on the Friday night and he made it, though there were stories of him getting waylaid in Kinsealy earlier in the day and being plied with some of Charles Haughey's fine brandy.

On the show that night Haughey phoned in and they spoke in Irish for a while, paying little heed to the live audience and the idle host. Beyond all this Páidí celebrity and industry there was once a truly great footballer. I think many Kerry footballers, understandably, found their football lives hard to leave behind. I think Páidí maybe found it hardest of all.

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