Tuesday 23 January 2018

'Go home and wash yourself' - Sean Og O hAilpin reveals struggle against racism

In exclusive extracts from his autobiography the hurling legend tackles the issue of racism in Ireland.

Sean Og lifts the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2005.
Sean Og lifts the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2005.

Sean Og O hAilpin

NO sooner were we in Ireland than Dad said, 'There are going to be people here who don't like the look of ye, so expect some remarks.'

That was our preparation for getting integrated into what was one of the whitest societies in Europe.

I don't recall there being anything racial in Australia. That's not to say there's no racism there, but the neighbourhood we grew up in was a melting pot of various ethnic groups. I'd never experienced racial abuse in Sydney.

When Dad said that, it surprised me. It's hard enough to settle into a new place anyway, and it doesn't help when you're wondering if you'll be hearing racial abuse. We didn't have to wonder for too long.

I'm talking about 25 years ago, so it wasn't yesterday or the day before; but in fairness I don't remember anything bad from the neighbours in Parklands (the housing estate in Cork where they lived). It was only when we got into Cork city that there was anything said.

Early on we didn't have a car so we'd stroll into town with Mum, a couple of miles, to help her with the shopping. We might be at the stop for the No 3 bus in front of Eason's in Patrick Street and we'd hear it.

'Black f**king c**t.'


'Go home and wash yourself.'

We were raw, new to the country. We kept our heads down and didn't engage. Mum and Dad would have told us not to get involved.

I didn't go into town on my own that often, and that certainly wasn't an incentive to head in there.

Sarote, Setanta and Aisake, who took the bus into the Modh Scoil in the middle of town, got abuse from the same kids over and over, and it got physical the odd time. Eventually it got so bad that they took a stand and confronted the kids who were abusing them, and that put a stop to it.

It was usually kids our own age, rather than grown ups. It was ignorance, pure and simple. Cork was an overwhelmingly white society at that time; the only dark-skinned people you'd see might be African doctors in the hospital.

I didn't feel hurt when I heard it. I felt like I didn't belong anyway and I wanted to get out of the place -- away from the bus stop, away from Ireland full stop. I'd think, 'I wish I was back in Sydney,' and I'd look at Dad and blame him for it. I'd think, 'You put us here.'

We'd never say anything to Dad. Sometimes we'd tell Mum, but not every time. We just got on with it.

What could we have done, anyway? Complain to the gardaí? I'm sure they would have added that to their list of things to do: 'I must head off to wag the finger at a 10-year-old calling someone names.'

We went along with it. We didn't want confrontation.

You had to use your head. If, for example, there were three or four fellas taunting you, then you knew well what was going to happen if you got physical. You got yourself out of the situation as fast as you could.

I don't remember ever getting into a fight, because I never replied to the abuse. I knew well that there were fellas waiting to say, 'What did you say there?' and happy to carry on from there with a fight. You're talking about bored teenagers, young fellas that would take the chance to throw a few digs into you and feel that as a result it was a good trip to town. I put the head down and pretended they weren't talking to me. They'd walk on, laughing, and that would be it.

I'm delighted that there are now anti racism programmes in Ireland, but at times it can be uncomfortable for me to be involved with them. The first thing these programmes always advocate is reporting incidents of racial abuse, and that's something we never did. That goes against the message these groups emphasise all the time, and, while I'm happy to row in with them, because obviously there are a lot more kids now in the situation that we were in all those years ago, there's an obvious contradiction between what I'm encouraging people to do and what we did ourselves back then.

I hope the country's moved on and that kids today don't have it as bad as we did, but I've never been asked if I reported those incidents. We didn't.

We weren't prepared for Ireland and Ireland wasn't prepared for us. The racism is still around, too. If everyone in the country was happy with the different races here, there wouldn't be a need for these anti racism campaigns, obviously.

I'm lucky that I had sport, and that eventually I had a high profile through it, because people knew who you were and would -- possibly -- be slower to abuse you.

Though it wasn't always easy on the playing field, either.

It didn't happen every time I played a game. Not as often as it happened on the street in Cork when I was 11 or 12.

Obviously, though, when you have aggressive kids clashing with each other in a physical game, then the easiest thing for some of them is to throw out 'go 'way, you black c**t' if there is a confrontation, however brief.

Reflecting on it later, I was convinced it was just something they heard at home. That they didn't know what they were saying and were just lashing out. Thinking about it at the time, though, I saw it as a sure sign they were cooked. They had no answers to my on field dominance and their last resort was to attack me verbally. I drew strength from this and used the abuse to my advantage.

Obviously that's not how you should deal with it -- accepting racial abuse as evidence you're doing well in a sporting situation isn't a workable solution -- but it was the best I could do for myself at 12, 13, 14 years of age.

I was on my own, after all. A referee might be on the other side of the field when it occurred; what was he going to do, run back over and take some fella's name?

Even now, high profile intercounty players like Lee Chin in Wexford are finding that racism still exists on Ireland's sports fields, and a lot of the action is retrospective. If a referee's attention is called to racial abuse in a game, he'd probably be wondering what action to take -- black card, booking, what?

Now go back 25 years to the Ireland of the late '80s and ask what a referee would do. Or what an 11 year-old child was supposed to do when another kid called him a nigger in the middle of a game.

Then there was the way I played. Once I settled into the backline with Na Piarsaigh, I was told to mark tight, not allow daylight between us, and I did that; I was athletic, I was quick enough and I was hard to get away from. And if a player couldn't get any freedom they'd get frustrated, and sometimes they lashed out verbally.

I kept the head down on the street when it happened, but I responded verbally in games now and again: 'Look at you, you f**king white ass,' or something along those lines. I'm not proud of that either, but sometimes it was a matter of standing up for yourself. I'd have responded only when it was particularly bad.

A lot of the lads I played with stuck up for me. There were plenty of occasions when I'd get abused and one of the Na Piarsaigh players chipped in with, 'What the f**k did you call him?' and they'd get stuck into the guy on the other team.

It's natural for sportspeople to be aggressive. I understand that people reach for the most obvious stick to beat an opponent with. It's unfortunate that there was racism on the field of play but, as I say, there was less of it than was on offer on the street.

I certainly wouldn't have heard anything from opposition coaches and managers. You might think that not being abused by adults on the sideline would be little consolation, but in the context of the times it was something to be grateful for.

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