Speculation surrounding the footballing star’s on-off move to AFL side Geelong had a big effect on the people of Kilmaine and his county Mayo
The night Kilmaine lost the Mayo intermediate semi-final last November, the post-mortem moved on to Murphy’s bar, one of just three remaining in the village. For almost two years, Kilmaine has been no different to everywhere else, often preoccupied with Covid and its implications. But that evening, the football defeat was foremost in local minds, the mood leadened by a compounding loss that people tried not to dwell on: the impending move of Oisín Mullin to the AFL.
It would have crossed the minds of the local people who watched Mayo Gaels get the upper hand in Ballinrobe earlier that Saturday afternoon that this could well have been Mullin’s last day in the jersey. Certainly, it looked like it could be his last for a while. Kilmaine is a small rural club and its football team has spent many years in the lower echelons. It has produced good players and some very good ones, such as Joe McGrath, an All-Star in 1979.
Mullin, though, even at 21, is already seen as the best they’ve ever produced. When the news linking him to Geelong in Australia broke two days before the intermediate semi-final, hearts sank and panic naturally set in. How could a club that size manage to get over the loss of a player of that stature? If Mayo, still feeling the hangover of losing the All-Ireland final to Tyrone, had cause to fret, the loss to Kilmaine would be incalculable.
In the local Centra, where Mullin once worked part-time, the owner, Ernestine Walsh, speaks glowingly of her former employee. “He had a great way with customers. He always had a big beaming smile. You never saw Oisín without a smile.”
The ripples of anxiety that spread through Kilmaine in November have eased now and made way for enormous relief, with confirmation that he will be staying at home. During those two months, while the matter seemed in the balance, the supermarket in Kilmaine became a filter of public mood and opinion like all local assembly points.
“A lot of people were extremely disappointed because they weren’t thinking of Oisín, they were thinking of the club and the county,” says Ernestine. “Himself and his brother Jarlath play for the club here. They’re part of the backbone of the club.
“Every time it appeared in the media, it was the conversation in the shop for the day. They’d be asking you questions because he worked here formerly, do you know? But we weren’t going to do that; we weren’t going to interfere. I’d say there was elation when people heard he wasn’t going.”
The roots of Australian interest in Mullin go back to December 2019, before he became more nationally recognised. He left a deep impression at an AFL trial in Dublin. On the strength of that, he was invited to go to Australia to familiarise himself with the game the following April, but the pandemic jettisoned those plans.
That year, his Gaelic football career took off. In his first season as a Mayo senior player in 2020, he made a remarkable impact, winning an All-Star and finishing Young Footballer of the Year. Despite serious injury disruption in 2021, he again ended up Young Footballer of the Year.
But the AFL never relinquished its pursuit of Mullin and Geelong persuaded him to sign a rookie contract. “Oisín is a very athletic and talented prospect, and we are thrilled he has chosen to join the Cats as he transitions to AFL,” Geelong’s recruiting and list manager Stephen Wells said in November.
Doubts soon started to emerge. On its All-Stars programme on December 10, RTÉ broadcast an interview with Mullin conducted by Des Cahill where it was disclosed that they had agreed not to talk about the Australian move. People read this as a sign that it was not a done deal.
“Everyone was down, but still nobody was going to stand in his way or do anything, he was popular with everybody,” says Gerry Macken, who runs Murphy’s with his wife, Helen. “Nobody was going to wish him only well wherever he went. It dragged on a long time with the Covid thing. Sure the first talk of that was a year and a half ago and then it was sort of forgotten about when it came to light again last November. Thank God it didn’t happen.
“I didn’t ask him, I wouldn’t ask him. Everybody makes up their own mind. I think it’s a great relief that he is here for the club and the county. They both need him.
“There were awful emigration problems here down through the years with no workaround. They’d all be off to England and America and then to lose a player like that. It knocks the heart out of the other young lads as well.”
But that appeared the way it was headed. Kilmaine prepared for a wake. In December, he was declared part of the Geelong squad for 2022 and given a jersey, number 34. Ollie Walsh is a former player and club officer, who also represented the county. In the kitchen of his home just outside the village, he talks of the dizzy emotions of the last few months. He’s joined by Michael John Mullin, an All-Ireland minor medal winner with Mayo in 1985. Both men are relations of Oisín.
They speak of a player from a family of eight who did not grow up in a dyed-in-the-wool GAA home. “Nobody gets special treatment in that house,” says Walsh. “Around that time (2019), he just went to the gym and developed himself. It was phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal [the physical transformation]. And then the speed came. The riding the tackles. But the decision-making was always there.”
Michael John: “Ah yeah, he was always special. There is a picture taken of him with Aidan O’Shea when he was under-eight or under-ten and he went out on the field looking for his autograph. Now he’s bigger probably than Aidan O’Shea. And the transformation from the gym work, and we always say that. This is the result. If you conduct yourself right, do your programme, look after yourself. He was only a small light young lad.”
For Ollie Walsh, there has been no better player to come out of the parish. “This is the best young footballer in the country. And I think he is awful close to being the best footballer in the country at the moment. He is not a drinker, he is just totally dedicated. This was a big decision for him not to go to Australia, but he’s a home-bird, do you know what I mean? But as far as talent goes, I have no doubt that he’d have made it in Australia. I know it’s a strong thing to say.”
That night in Murphy’s might have been the toughest one then, or when they all awoke the next morning, their heads filled with regret and uncertainty. “There was absolutely nobody pointing the finger at Oisín, that’s for sure,” Walsh says. But that night, they were suffering loss on the double. “We had lost the match. Now we were going to lose Oisín. That was definitely in it. That was there.”
Kilmaine’s football manager for the last three years, also a former club chairman, was David O’Loughlin. When the story broke that Mullin was Australia-bound, through Maurice Brosnan in The 42.ie, it was only two days before the semi-final.
“The timing for us, I suppose, was a bit off,” says O’Loughlin. “There was nothing we could do about it. It did take people aback. Even at that stage, we didn’t know, was he 100pc committed. I am sure he was getting it from both sides. He had to make a decision on what was best for Oisín, not for the rest of us. If he stayed, which he has, from a Kilmaine point of view, it’s very good. But you’d have to wish him well if he did go. It’s a great opportunity. That decision didn’t come easy. I am sure he put a lot of thought into it.”
The two spoke, of course. “I said whatever is best for Oisín Mullin is the important thing. It is not for us here. It is not for Geelong. He is still young, he’s only coming on 22. I’d say he was happy with the decision he made because he’s a very level-headed, relaxed type of fella. I’d say, when he came to a decision, he was content with that decision.
“We had training the following night, it didn’t come up. It wasn’t discussed.”
They’d have wished him well but cursed their luck. As Gerry Macken says: “No nicer man could you meet in a day’s walk. You would wish every young lad to do the best for himself, as a footballer. Football doesn’t last forever. In saying that, he would be an awful loss to the club and the county.”
After ongoing speculation that he was having second thoughts, the news came through in mid-January that he was staying in Ireland. Ollie Walsh talks of Mullin making an “incredibly brave decision” not to go “with all the opportunities perceived to be with it”.
It is felt that the Mayo movers and shakers got to work on him too once the news emerged of a contract being signed. He was back in training with the county before Christmas. If he started wavering, if there was some residual doubt, then Mayo had an advantage, in being in his company, that Geelong did not possess. Despite a desperately disappointing All-Ireland final loss to Tyrone, Mullin’s graph is firmly in the ascendancy. There was so much more he could achieve staying at home.
The news is a massive shot in the arm for James Horan’s side. Mullin isn’t named on the panel that starts the National League campaign today. It doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t be involved, but even if he doesn’t feature, Mayo are greatly relieved that he has committed to another season.
“Devastation — is that too strong a word?” says Ollie Walsh, asked to assess the parish reaction to earlier news of Mullin leaving. After a while, he amends that. “Don’t use the word devastation. I was thinking again about that word. It’s too strong.”
But from being realistic intermediate title contenders with Mullin, Kilamine are clear outsiders in his absence. He was their star player when they won the junior championship in 2020. His value goes beyond that. Michael John Mullin talks of his vast importance as a role model for younger players. The void it would leave doesn’t bear thinking about.
“The doubt was always there when he did not come out and make it clear,” says Michael John Mullin. “He had a deadline date to be on a plane, I think in the first week of January. When that passed for me, I knew he wasn’t going.”
Ollie Walsh has tried to place himself in the player’s shoes. “It was a huge opportunity. If things didn’t work out, he’d still be young coming back.”
Will Mullin feel different after two months of solid rain in Kilmaine? They laugh. “He’s got the dome,” says Ollie, referring to the indoor centre of excellence in Bekan.
“He probably rushed the [first] decision. Now, and I don’t know this, to be fair, I never talked to him about making the decision, I talked to him around that time alight but never said anything to him. He probably rushed the decision in signing the rookie contract and all that snowballed for a bit.”
On St Stephen’s Day, a group of players, Mullin included, went back to David O’Loughlin’s house. There was a kind of understanding that you steered clear of the topic. “I said we won’t talk about it,” says O’Loughlin. “And he just said, ‘thanks’. I wouldn’t do that to him. It wouldn’t be fair.”
Over the three years from the initial trial, the reasons to stay multiplied. His younger brother, Kevin, will be on the club team this year, just out of minor. The family representation on the Kilmaine team will then be three. But there is only one Oisín Mullin.
“Oisín loves playing football. That was the one thing I always thought might sway him,” says O’Loughlin. “That was the thing I thought might keep him here.” Maybe he realised when all was said and done that there is no place like home.