Sunday 19 May 2019

Billy Keane: Men like Micko can help keep the rest of us going

Mick O’Dwyer with his wife Mary Carmel at their filling station in Waterville 50 years ago. Mary Carmel facilitated greatness and kept her man grounded, occasionally. Photo: Jerry Kennelly
Mick O’Dwyer with his wife Mary Carmel at their filling station in Waterville 50 years ago. Mary Carmel facilitated greatness and kept her man grounded, occasionally. Photo: Jerry Kennelly
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Mick O'Dwyer had us dreaming of glory days. Players have their day, managers come and managers go, but Mick O'Dwyer went on forever.

The documentary on the great man this week brought us to where he is now. The old man by the sea won the love and respect of the new nation. Youngsters may have never even heard of the man who was involved in more All-Ireland finals than any other person in the history of the GAA.

The rest of us always loved him. Mick O'Dwyer's golden years lasted from the Fifties to beyond the Noughties. He was hopelessly in thrall to the ebb and flow, the talking and the laughing, the skills and the scores, the planning and the winning.

Micko was known in Kerry as Dwyer to avoid confusion with his near neighbour the great Mick O'Connell. He was always addressed as Micko and was Dwyer when spoken about.

The voice is as hoarse as the smoker of a couple of packs a day, but Dwyer was always a non-smoker and he was never a drinker. Football was his fix. At 82 he will never play football again, but he would if he could.

His wife Mary Carmel passed away a few years ago. She reminded me of my mother in so many ways. Like my mam, Mary Carmel facilitated greatness and kept her man grounded. But only occasionally.

Mary Carmel looked after the business and the family when Micko was on the road, and man was he mad for the road, and Kildare, his second home.

There is no more beautiful place than Waterville. He dearly loves that village nearly in the sea. You can hear the swoosh of the waves on Main Street and the great and grand skies of South Kerry are heaven's curtilage.

Small places can mind you, but they can close you in too. Dwyer drove a million miles and he always came back home to Waterville and his family.

But then he would be on the road again, always seeking to prove himself, even when there was nothing left to prove.

He jumped up for every ball and reacted to every call. But referees liked him. He never used bad language and he took his beating - publicly anyway.

Mad for the game he was, and dying to be still playing.

The talking did for his voice as much as the shouting. It didn't matter who you were, he gave those who spoke to him the most valuable gift of all, his undivided attention.

Dwyer was at his best in the front lounge of The Burlington. It was an audience with Dwyer: the most famous man in all of the GAA.

He would be there to meet us when we came home after a night on the town and would keep us up even later. That man cast a spell over the clock. An hour went by in a minute. I never saw him turn anyone away. For Dwyer, the small man and the big man were always the same size.

And there, on the eve of big games, his old players came up to see him. He had them all laughing and they spoke of the glory days, of four in a row and nearly five, of trips to all over the world and of those among the band of brothers who had passed away.

He never left them, you know. One of his team was in all kinds of trouble. Dwyer was asked to help. He did so, but only if his contribution was kept secret. Mick O'Dwyer didn't want to embarrass his player.

The dad loved his own sons, and rightly so. They are good lads, well able to make their way in the world, fine footballers and they laugh. 'Briseann an dúchas' from their mam and their dad. But Micko had 30 more sons and these were his players.

There was a sadness at the end of the television programme and it made me sad too.

So I called Dwyer. He was at home. I asked a leading question. "Tell me Micko that you're in great form?" And he got a fit of laughing.

"You may say I am Billy. I have a great life. Yes I am in good form. I have a lot to be thankful for. I still follow the football, you know. There's life in the old dog yet."

And as his voice rose like an exclamation mark, so too did my heart. You see, men like Mick O'Dwyer keep the rest of us going.

"Are you spiritual?" I ask.

"All I can say is I'm the kind of a Catholic who only says his prayers when he's in trouble." More laughing. We talked a while longer and a while longer after that.

"And are you still mad for football Mick?"

"I am addicted to football. I go to the games and I follow the teams. I have a great life."

And he's upbeat and unbeatable again.

The manager speaks passionately of his most recent success, when his team won an U-14 title. I thought of the song 'The Bard of Armagh' and the words "merry-hearted boys make the best of old men".


I take the liberty of thanking him on behalf of all of you from every county he touched.

"Good luck to you Micko and thanks so much for giving us the best days of our sporting lives."

"They were great footballers, you know," he says about his Kerry team. "The best ever."

Micko misses the training sessions in Fitzgerald Stadium most of all.

And I sense he sees them there running out on to the field in the forever of a recollection he will never forget.

Ernest Hemingway's 'The Old Man and the Sea' is the story of a fisherman who was written off, but he caught the biggest marlin ever in his old age. There's a line in it that could have been about Micko: "Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated."

Maybe there's one last win in him. Maybe there is.

I wouldn't put it past that man Dwyer.

Irish Independent

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