Farm Ireland

Wednesday 17 January 2018

I wouldn't be alive today if I drank and smoked - GAA legend Mick O'Dwyer

'The GAA is holding rural Ireland together'

Mick O'Dwyer
Mick O'Dwyer
Mick on the touchline with Kildare in 2002
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

‘The GAA tends to be the only thing that holds rural Ireland together.” These were the first words spoken by Gaelic football dynamo Mick O’Dwyer, when he sat down with the Farming Independent at his family’s hotel in Waterville on the Iveragh Peninsula.

The Kingdom’s sporting hero, who turned 81 on June 9, was directly involved in 21 senior All-Ireland football finals as a player and manager, and has been immersed in GAA over 60 years.

Looking back over the decades, Micko says he has never been more convinced of the GAA’s power to help communities fight back against economic decline.

Born and reared in the village of Waterville, he spent a lot of time as a child on his uncle’s farm in nearby Bunavalla,

Derrynane, a place where he says he developed much of his physical skills through manual labour.

“They had four cows and 20 sheep and they combined that with fishing and lobster pods, I’d be out on the boats with them every day during holidays and we’d be kicking ball in the evenings.

“The way of life was based on fishing and farming and butter was a big product for market from Kerry cows. The road from south Kerry to Cork was known as butter road,” says Micko, whose mother, Mary Galvin, hailed from fishing and farming stock on Scariff Island off the coast near Derrynane.

“The best cattle in south Kerry came out of Scariff, they would have to tie their legs and bring them onto the boat when they were bringing them out to the mainland. There were 365 acres of marvellous grass, an acre for every day of the year.”

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His father, John, was a sheep farmer with a passion for fishing and hunting with the beagles in the mountains.

Although five of his uncles  played football for Derrynane and South Kerry in the 1930s, 40s and 50s — his uncle Jim, a boat builder, also played a central role in the founding of Ballyboden St Endas GAA club in Dublin) — none held a candle to Mick’s talent.

“We developed a lot of our skills by going to the field every evening, there was nothing else to do.

“You’d be lucky if you had two footballs and 30 young fellas trying to win possession of that ball. You had to be good at catching and intercepting and kicking. The rule at the time was you got it and you kicked it.

“If you picked potatoes or did stuff manually, it would help your body growth, manual work you couldn’t beat it. We don’t have that anymore, all the guys now are behind computers,” he said.

Although he was hooked on football from a young age, his teacher Dan Kennedy and GAA man John Casey and “the man above all men John McCarthy”, really pushed the youngster.

“I didn’t know I was any good, I remember I went into Tralee for trial games and most of the players would hardly speak to me because I’d have been unknown at the time. Most fellas would be north of the line — Tralee, Killarney, Castleisland, upwards. Very few from south Kerry got recognition then, they thought we were no good down here,” he laughed.

At 17, he made his Kerry minor debut scoring a goal and six points against Waterford. He was the first ever Waterville player to make any county team. The entire village (the population was then around 500) travelled to watch their boy. 

From then on, he knew he always wanted to give something back to the community which he says shaped his personality as a player and manager.

During his golden years as a manager, leading Kerry to eight All Ireland titles between 1975-1989, Micko was also creating employment in Waterville.

“There was plenty of football but emigration was taking its toll around that period, a lot of fellas were leaving the county.

“I was always a Waterville man out and out. I didn’t catch the (emigration) bug. Football kept me here more than anything. I’d say only for football a lot more fellas would have left. That’s what Gaelic Games means to rural areas. It is the only thing that matters in this county if you ask me,” he said.

It was a trend he witnessed throughout his career, particularly during his tenure in Kildare between 1998 and 2002. “I saw a big surge in interest in GAA clubs in Kildare during my time, they were coming out of junior and intermediate clubs that players never came out of before, they all wanted to play for the county.

“It motivated them to stay in the area, anyone who got on the Kildare team remained there.

It was the same in Wicklow, where he managed the county team from 2006-2011.

Although Mick had an “inland home” in the midlands, he regularly clocked up 70,000 miles a year travelling to and from Waterville between his work and GAA commitments.

Driving and cars have always been another passion of his. “I was going to go into rallying at the start and I had the cars ready to go to the Lakes of Killarney. Word came out from the Kerry selectors that I was to play for Kerry the same weekend. My father said: ‘You’ll get one chance at playing for Kerry but you can always get a car together to go rallying’ and he was right.  I went and played the football and I never bothered with rallying anymore.

“I had plenty of cars all my life, I trained as a mechanic here in Waterville in the garage at the bottom of the village and after seven years I bought it.

“I had four businesses in the village — two hotels, the garage and an undertaking service. I employed about 30 people. I wanted to keep them going and get some more going too,” he said praising the work of his late wife Mary Carmel, who ran the businesses while he was away.

Waterville was also a place  where the greatest manager in the history of the GAA could escape the spotlight.

“Here I’m just another Waterville man, I’m no bigger or smaller than anybody else. ­Waterville shaped the person I am, I never drank or smoked in my life, I had a pub in Newbridge in Kildare and I had fast food places, one in Kilorglin and one in Tralee, but I never touched a drop of alcohol. I wouldn’t be alive today if I drank and smoked, I’m okay apart from the vocal chords but I’m managing,” he said.


“I had some of the biggest bands in the country down here in the hotel, Joe Dolan, Daniel O’Donnell, you name it — Nathan Carter was here of late. There was a big dancing scene here, Sunday nights you couldn’t get in, people came from Sneem, the Skelligs, Cahersiveen, all around south Kerry — marvellous times”.

Looking ahead, he says “amalgamation is a big worry for the GAA — the employment just isn’t there in rural areas anymore and that must change. The Government has been putting all their eggs in one basket, Dublin, Dublin, Dublin.

“They’re setting up all these places in cities and they are sucking all the  young people from rural Ireland. Now Brexit is another threat.

“If you haven’t youth in rural Ireland you have no chance,” he said.

Last March, the O’Dwyers revamped part of their family run business, The Villa, on main street Waterville into a GAA hotel dedicated to Micko’s exploits. The 12 bedrooms are individually themed on an All-Ireland title that Mick won with Kerry — four as a player, eight as a manager.

With walls covered with iconic images, quotes from the man himself, and newspaper reports, it is hoped that the museum style hotel and a new golf course will entice people to the area. 

“We are hoping people come to get married and produce more young people for us to play games, that’s the only hope for this place.

“It was Gaelic football or the church one time. The church has gone down but the GAA is as strong as ever but in some parts the clubs are amalgamating which is sad,” he said.

His last managerial hurrah was claiming the county league title with U14 Waterville boys in 2014.

“I got unbelievable satisfaction and enjoyment out of it because when you are coaching young fellas they will do as you tell them whereas a lot of the seniors they have their set ideas and it’s hard to change them.

“After the U14s, I said that’s it — we’ve gone all the ways around,” he concluded.

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