Wednesday 21 February 2018

I still get the shivers when I meet my childhood Kerry GAA heroes

Graham Clifford

In West Kerry on Tuesday afternoon time stood still as a county stopped to bid farewell to a colossus. More than 2,000 people travelled to Ventry to say goodbye to the late, great Páidí Ó Sé and sympathise with his young family.

Were Kerry its own Republic, and there are many who say that it is, then this would have been a State funeral.

In this corner of Ireland the men who toil for the green and gold are revered as Gods. Their names are spoken in respectful tones, songs are written in their honour and when they walk into a room there's still a collective intake of breath.

The worship goes far beyond admiration for their Gaelic footballing skills. These men, both those who lifted Sam Maguire in yesteryear and those now striving to do it in 2013, encapsulate in their bodies the unique culture of the Kingdom.

I still get butterflies in my stomach when I converse with one of the Kerry greats. Indeed a number of years back, when I worked with Radio Kerry, I stumbled through a piece with the legendary Ger Power because I was undeniably star-struck.

The week before I'd grilled the then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern on air and grabbed a few words with Tiger Woods on a golf course in the county – without a trace of anxiety in my voice.

Put a Kerry footballer from up the road in front of me though and I melted like a 99 on All-Ireland final Sunday!

But what is it about these mere mortals that make us Kerry folk view them in an altogether more celestial light? Why do we love them so?

"They are the personification of our tribe, the personification of our county," says Gabriel Fitzmaurice, a poet, author and close friend to Páidí.

"These players are our own flesh and blood but they are Gods to us at the same time. There are notions of duty and truth in the mix as well. It's not just about the football, there is another dimension and that's what sets Kerry apart from the rest of the country in terms of our love for the game."

Gabriel worked as a primary school teacher in the small village of Moyvane for over three decades and explains that the same hero-devotion which was in his bones as a child exists in the young generation of today.

"When Sam Maguire comes around the children are fixated with the likes of Colm Gooch Cooper; they all want to be him. An ordinary looking man with an extraordinary talent."

Not for them the dreams of being the next Lionel Messi or Brian O'Driscoll.

Weeshie Fogarty, author of My Beautiful Obsession – Chasing the Kerry Dream explains the grip Gaelic football has on him and his beloved county.

"I was speaking to a man recently who told me that every night his young son goes to sleep he puts a Gaelic football under his pillow so that when the little lad wakes up in the morning the football is the first thing he smells."

The former Kerry player and broadcaster says that even though times have changed the players who don the green and gold jersey are still held in the highest of esteem.

"They are Gods but in a different vein to years ago. Now they are more accessible because of the media but even though everything else has changed the love affair between Kerry and football is as strong as ever.

"Even though you have a lot of soccer and rugby clubs in the county now football will always be the official sport of Kerry. Back in 1984 Jerry Kiernan from Listowel came ninth in the marathon at the Los Angeles OIympics – a massive achievement. But when the award was handed out for Kerry sports person of the year it went to a footballer."

As the waves dance in and out at Ventry this weekend those closest to Páidí Ó Sé will try to come to terms with their terrible loss.

But in death the greatest attacking defender to have ever taken to the GAA field will inspire future generations of Kerry players, insists Weeshie Fogarty.

"Sure that's part of the secret. When icons like Páidí or John Egan or Tim Kennelly pass to the other side the assessment of their lives drives on others to emulate them. They are such huge figures in Kerry, such icons, that when they die the county goes into serious mourning. When we emerge through the other side though we can be stronger because of it."

This week a people wept for the passing of a King amongst kings, but in the weeks, month and years ahead the insatiable desire to win often and well will see more Kerry men take on the mantle of royalty.

Indo Review

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