Tuesday 15 January 2019

'Micko' review: This film is a feast of memories, a profile of the godfather, man and boy, told in his own words

The Couch: Tommy Conlon

Kerry football icon Mick O’Dwyer
Kerry football icon Mick O’Dwyer

Never knew Mick O'Dwyer could play the accordion, or that he's a long-time fan of that great accordion wrestler from the midlands, Brendan Shine. But a new documentary going out on RTE tomorrow night has the footage to prove both of these startling facts.

Sadly, Micko also tells us that he can no longer squeeze the squeeze box because his left hand doesn't work so well anymore. His vocal cords are pretty much shot too, presumably due to the wear and tear from 40 years of sideline roaring. "But I could still catch a high ball if it was coming," he adds, the defiance palpable in his hoarse whisper.

So here he is, at 81: the lion in winter, after a lifetime of golden summers. This film is a feast of memories, a voyage around our childhood for those of a certain generation. It is a profile of the godfather, man and boy, told in his own words, with a fabulous tapestry of archive images woven through them.

And watching it brings the realisation that O'Dwyer, unbeknownst to him or us, became a pioneering presence of the television age in this country. As a player he won the first of his four All-Ireland medals in 1959. In January 1962 Telefís Éireann began broadcasting. One indigenous channel with a modest daily output: very few people, therefore, could ever be seen on Irish television back then.

Mick O'Dwyer playing for Kerry in 1964. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile
Mick O'Dwyer playing for Kerry in 1964. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile

But in this documentary there is sooty 1960s action footage of O'Dwyer in Croke Park. Narrow at the waist, but packing a disproportionately heavy pair of thighs for power, he is clearly a dynamic footballer. In 1968 he is interviewed for a sports magazine programme outside his garage in Waterville. In this clip, again shot in black and white, he is a strikingly handsome man: sharp haircut, chiselled bone structure, the epitome of streamlined fitness. In 1974, aged 37, he retires from the Kerry senior team. In '75 he takes over as manager and remains on our screens for pretty much the next 30 years.

His epic story ran in tandem with the growth and expansion of Irish television. It was the Cork journalist and broadcaster, the late Val Dorgan, who interviewed him that day in Waterville. Other figures from RTE's past also re-surface here, having at one stage intersected with a chapter from his life: Mick Dunne, Derek Davis, Bill O'Herlihy, Bibi Baskin and of course Michael O'Hehir are among them.

No Irish sportsperson has lived such a prolonged public life. And because of this, Micko can be seen not just as the story of one unique man, but the universal story of the seven ages of Man. It is all there, from carefree childhood to the full athletic splendour of his 20s; from the fierce career ambition of his 30s and 40s to the long middle age of success and consolidation; from the twilight years of his coaching life to finally the shuffling grandfather, crumpled by age, echoing through the rooms of his empty home.

In that clip from '68 he is a god, immortal, impervious to time, oblivious to its ravages. And now, 50 years later? "It's a curse, old age," he says. His wife Mary Carmel died in September 2012. He lives alone. "All alone, yeah. The four lads are gone. So people build big houses and at the end of the day they don't need them."

At some point in such a span of time, the sporting story crosses over into social history. His mother was born on Scariff Island, off the Kerry coast, a childbirth that became a medical emergency. There was no boat available. So her father, Micko's grandfather, swam the three miles to the mainland to fetch a doctor. "I'd say he'd swim the English channel if he had to, the same man."

His father fought in "the Tan war", then on the Republican side in the Civil War. Never talked about it to Mick; never; maybe it was too dark to talk about. When the boy was seven, the father bought him what was a rare and precious commodity back then - a football. It became an obsession with the young lad. It became currency too: he charged all the local boys a penny to play in their games. That way, he was able to buy a second ball.

And that way, many years later, came the infamous adidas and Bendix deals that caused so many palpitations in Croke Park at the time. O'Dwyer, naturally, "didn't give a damn" about that. What was controversy then is comedy gold now. And what was outlawed then is conventional commercial practice now. And here was the entrepreneurial spirit that was a hidden part of the Kerry football story.

Micko had the team of the century on his hands back then, the lads who threw their adidas jerseys into the Bendix washing machine and took the money. They represented the Kingdom but they were the people's champions, beloved all over Ireland for their style and charisma and glamour. They packed the hall wherever they went, the last great showband at the end of the showband era.

The footage of Mickey Ned O'Sullivan getting assaulted by the Dubs in '75 is a reminder that there was badness in the good old days. The story of that rivalry has long since been treacled in sentiment and romance. But at the time it was a case of the good guys beating the hatchet men.

It's old hat now. The scenes from his Kildare odyssey have survived fresher. The sight of Hill 16 flooded in an ocean of white and black remains a visual marvel. In the 1990s he mobilised a huge Kildare population behind their team. This was a movement, and these were monster meetings, reminiscent of another south Kerry man who 200 years earlier galvanised tens of thousands to rally behind him. Mick O'Dwyer was an heir of sorts to the Liberator, Daniel O'Connell.

"I've no more to do," he says near the end, "I did it all."

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