Tuesday 20 March 2018

Sean Og stands out as a beacon for Rotuman and Irish culture

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín signs a hurley for Mary Lou McDonald as a present for her
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín signs a hurley for Mary Lou McDonald as a present for her


It's our duty to keep the Irish language alive and pass it on to the next generation, according to hurling legend Seán Óg Ó hAilpín.

The Cork sports star was one of the guest-speakers who addressed the Sinn Féin Summer School in Baile Bhúirne last weekend, in a talk entitled 'Culture, Language and Identity'.

Seán Óg explained to an attentive audience of 150 people in the Mills Inn, which included senior Sinn Féin members, about his cultural journey, from the time he was born in 1977 on the remote Pacific island of Rotuma in the Fijian islands, to that famous Croke Park acceptance speech in Irish as captain of the Cork hurling team that won the Liam McCarthy Cup in 2005.

His father, Seán Ó hAilpín, a native of Rossleigh in south Fermanagh, initially emigrated as a young man to England, then later to Australia, and met his mother Emile in mainland Fiji where she was a hotel-worker.

"My mum went back to the island to have me, as it was tradition that her eldest would be born in the home place," Seán Óg explained

He was brought up in suburban Sydney, having left Rotuma when he was three months old. "You ask anyone who grew up in Sydney in the 1980s - I had a crush on Kylie Minogue; I played a lot of rugby league and ran cross-country; I don't remember wearing shoes much - life was great."

And then came "the bombshell" in 1987 when his father came home from work one day and announced: "we're going to Ireland."

Seán Óg was the eldest of five children at the time (his sister Etaoin was born in Cork) - "we didn't really believe him because we never thought a place like Ireland existed."

Their experience of Irish culture was to dress up "like leprechauns" on St Patrick's Day and fall in behind the Fermanagh band marching in Sydney.

His dad had given him a present of a hurley when he returned from his sister's funeral in Ireland in 1983 - "I pretended to play tennis with it for a while and just threw it in a corner."

His father was determined that his children would speak Irish, as he himself felt at a loss without the language when listening to various languages from fellow workers of various nationalities in Sydney.

"His biggest problem was trying to convince them he wasn't English."

Having landed in Cork in 1988, their first house was in Fair Hill on Cork's north side, and Seán Óg attended school in the North Mon.

"I couldn't have gone to a better place to pursue my hurling career," he said, and he also described joining Na Piarsaigh GAA club as "a significant event" in his life.

Seán Óg got huge applause from the audience when he related to them a story that had a profound influence on him - about an Aboriginal Australian Rules footballer who was racially abused by a section of the opposing team's supporters during a match warm-up.

Seán Óg acted out the Aboriginal player pointing to his breast after he had been awarded Man of the Match with five goals that day.

"What he was saying was 'I'm Aborigine, and I'm proud of it'."

Laws were then introduced to protect Aborigines in the game, and it's since a "major felony" to racially abuse players.

"That is why culture should be so important to all of us," said Seán Óg.

He still speaks Rotuman to his mother when he goes home for the Sunday dinner - "to keep that culture alive" - and he speaks Irish and Rotuman to his brothers and sisters.

Seán told the audience he was proud to be a member of the GAA - "an organisation that revived Irish culture", and he described captaining Cork in that All Ireland win in 2005 as one of the proudest moments in his life.

The audience cheered and applauded as Seán Óg said: "There was no dispute in my mind, I was going to give my speech totally in Irish ... end of."

In the present day, Seán Óg said he gets a great kick when people come up to him speaking Irish - "that brings a smile to my face".

He quoted an old Irish saying he heard from one of his former teachers at North Mon - 'Is fearr Gaeilge briste ná Bearla cliste' - as he encouraged people who may think they are not fluent to speak the language as much as possible.