Thursday 17 October 2019

Billy Keane: 'Noel keeps the green and gold flag flying in word and in deed'


Noel O’Connell with Kerry selector Maurice Fitzgerald, midfielder David Moran and Peter Crowley in the tunnel at Austin Stack Park back in February. Photo: Sportsfile
Noel O’Connell with Kerry selector Maurice Fitzgerald, midfielder David Moran and Peter Crowley in the tunnel at Austin Stack Park back in February. Photo: Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Noel O'Connell is a talker but his voice is too weak for the phone. He speaks in writing now. This is a talking column.

Noel has been sending us some of his life story over this past few weeks. His life's tenet is "I am a lucky man".

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The people who are suffering from serious illness seem to find a special grace and gratitude.

Noel O'Connell was born in Cahersiveen, the town that hugs the mountain. There are few more beautiful places. His family left for New York in 1959 when Noel was five. There was no work at home, and no prospect of work. The boat was the only option.

The O'Connells made their American home in The Bronx , a thriving Irish neighbourhood, where there was back-up for the newly-arrived. Jobs would be found and a place to stay until the emigrants found their feet.

I'm reading Noel now - live. The words rush like the tide travelling up the Carhan River. He writes for the record and for the retention of the memory.

Noel can make that keyboard talk. I can hear the lilting cadences of his soft South Kerry accent as I read. He writes of his friends in America and in Kerry.

Memories "I grew up with these people, laughed and learned with them, cried occasionally and then we smiled and laughed again. All the time the growing continued, and the friends increased, all the time memories were created, mostly delightful, yet some were the painful sides of life that we all must face. And face them we did, knowing friends were in our corner when needed."

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Noel's words are a homily for the Irish in America. This is how they survived and then thrived.

Even though Noel left home as a small boy, there is a loyalty to Kerry that transcends distance and time.

It is part of his growing up, the grown man, and part of his winding down. The strongest love of home is kept by those who have left home. Noel's people had to leave an Ireland that let them down, but there is no bitterness in him. Noel came to see us a few months ago. He was able to talk then.

I found it hard to believe that a man who left Cahersiveen as a small boy still had a strong South Kerry accent. It was the contact with the GAA that kept him Irish.

Here's Noel again.

"I had five older brothers who not only played football in NY, but hurled as well. I so enjoyed those days in Gaelic Park, meeting people from home and making new friends. Many of whom are still my closest friends to this day. The strongest bonds in my life outside of my family are my GAA companions. I relished those Sundays and my thoughts would always be centred on the men wearing the green and gold of Kerry. My family home oozed of green and gold, so my loyalties were fed to me from my infancy."

For Noel and many more, Gaelic Park was a few acres of home, an employment exchange and a dating agency. We were boys at the same time. Pat Griffin was our favourite, along with the two Mick O's. That's O'Connell, and O'Dwyer. Noel's eyes were boy bright when he recalled the day Teddy Bowler gave him the Kerry jersey he wore against New York in the league final in Gaelic Park.

The Irish still come to New York without a job, or a place to stay. Noel helped solve both problems over a good many years. He trained the GAA teams in Rockland County.

My cousin Denis and his wife Anne told me Noel was always there for them in New York. Denis said: "Noel knew exactly what to do if there was a crisis. He knew where the cracks were and he knew how to fill them in. But most of all he was always in good form, no matter what."

There were times lately when I wondered if I had invested too much of my life in the love of my team and my place. Sports writers can turn cynical. We know too much about the bad goings on and maybe we fail to see good goings on right there before us.

When last we met, Noel whispered the stories of the big games, of the day he cheered for Kerry against New York when he was a kid in Gaelic Park. He told of 1975 when young Kerry played Dublin and had no chance of winning, but win we did. Noel was there. And he was there as we spoke. "This was the team of our times," he said.

My dad, who also emigrated, managed to make enough in England to get back home to Listowel. Noel's dad worked day and night to bring up his family in The Bronx. But here was a man who was more Kerry than I ever was and me only a few cic fadas from the football field.

"We were reared to be Kerry," he said in that last speech. Noel, you were so right. Kerry we will always be. The soft fading voice there in the kitchen in the late evening renewed my vows. And I thought to myself that sport is valid and sport is worthwhile.

Noel moved to Pearl River in the 1990s. It's not that far from the Bronx. Pearl River is an Irish city, and the GAA is very strong there. The local Rockland County GAA club paid tribute to Noel last week. The hall was packed by his friends, and he has many. Noel was honoured by his own for all he did for his own, and for those he made his own. Every county was represented. His good works were universal and without frontiers.

Noel so loves his wife Eileen and their daughter Maeve. His girl competed in the World Irish dancing Championships only a few days ago. Maeve also played in goal for New York in the Féile. Noel was coach. Maeve and Eileen of the lovely smile mind Noel, enjoy him, and love him very, very much.

Every year, in the week before the Munster football final, Noel sends out all the news. He pledged today "to fight ALS to the fullest of my capabilities and then some." ALS is short for Motor Neurone Disease.

Noel's goal is to make it home to Croke Park in September "to see Kerry win the All-Ireland final".

I wouldn't put it past him one bit.

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