Tuesday 20 March 2018

Páidí ó Sé – outstanding in all his fields

As anniversary of Kerry legend's passing approaches, Liam Kelly picks six highlights from a life less ordinary

Paidi O Se, captain of Kerry All-Ireland winning team in 1985 with the Sam Maguire cup
Paidi O Se, captain of Kerry All-Ireland winning team in 1985 with the Sam Maguire cup
Paidi calling the shots from the sideline with Westmeath on their way to a historic Leinster SFC title in 2004
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

PÁIDÍ. Gone, but never to be forgotten as long as Gaelic football is played in the Kingdom of Kerry. Next Sunday, December 15, is the first anniversary of his sudden passing at the all-too-young age of 57.

The year has flown. The seasons have tumbled one after the other through 2013 until we now arrive at the end of the first year in which Páidí Ó Sé was marked 'as láthair' from the county and national football scene for the first time in four decades.

Tears were shed, but laughter rang out as well at his funeral and, in the days and months that followed, whenever conversation among Gaels turned to memories of his impish roguery and the scrapes and foibles from which he inevitably emerged unscathed, that same laughter was always in evidence.

I cannot claim to have known Páidí well. I did, however, take notice when I saw him for the first time when the Kerry team of 1975 arrived at the Grand Hotel, Malahide, on the Saturday before they annihilated Sligo in the All-Ireland semi-finals.

Fresh-faced kids, most of them, and Páidí stood out with his pudding-bowl haircut and his stocky build.

By the third week in September that year, with the Dubs beaten and Sam back on his holidays in Kerry, that group of footballers and their manager Mick O'Dwyer, had announced themselves as the new force in football.

A few years later, down in Dunquin for a weekend, at a time when the whole of the GAA knew who Páidí was, I saw him in action as host of Kruger's pub, which he had leased after leaving the gardaí.

It was interesting to watch. Head down, polite, but saying very little, indeed shy in demeanour, Páidí pulled pints.

A group from the North were present and they were watching him, wide-eyed, clearly dying to engage him in conversation.

He wasn't rude at all, but at the time, he hadn't developed the flamboyant, entertaining personality that is expected of 'mine host' when the publican is also a famous sportsman.

So, they stood there and watched him.

Eventually, prodded by his brother Tom, Páidí engaged them in chat, and they were charmed.

It was a skill he went on to master proficiently when welcoming the likes of Dolly Parton, Michael Douglas and hosts of personalities much later in life at his own licensed premises at Ard a' Bhóthair, nine kilometres west of Dingle.

On another occasion, in 1981, again down in Kruger's, Páidí surprised me by asking if I would I like to go with him the next day to Listowel where Kerry were playing Tipperary in, as far as I recall, a challenge match.

At the time I was GAA correspondent of the Sunday Independent. I wasn't sure exactly why he asked. With Páidí, you'd wonder what was his angle, but I said 'yes.'

Maybe it was a bit of a PR investment on his part for the pub. Perhaps it was because I was an All Star selector and he hadn't won one at that time. Who knows?

For me, it was a chance to maybe get to know him better and see Kerry's early season form.

Next day we set off. First stop was at Lispole to collect selector Liam Higgins and then on to Listowel.

As we drew near the ground, Páidí says to me: "Now Liam, boy, I'll drop you here and you can make your own way into the ground. Probably better that I'm not seen with you!"

I smiled to myself. The unexpected. You wouldn't want to be sensitive.

I reckoned Páidí wanted to avoid being accused by his team-mates of currying favour with the dreaded media. Maybe O'Dwyer would think he was revealing secrets.

Anyway, that was it. I watched the match from the terraces. Kerry won. Páidí had arranged to meet me down the town on the way out – again, well out of sight of O'Dwyer and the Kerry squad.

He duly collected me and we went 'straight back wesht' as he put it. No dallying in Listowel.

Out in Ard a' Bhóthair, his mother Beatrice put on a fine big steak meal. We dined handsomely and went back to Dunquin, where Páidí got back to work behind the bar.

Did I glean any secrets that day? Not one. Did I get exclusive comments? Nope. And did I ever find out why Páidí invited me to make the trip with him? Not a bit of it.

But that was Páidí. Unique. His own man.

A man who grabbed life by the ears, shook it hard, kicked it around and up and down the highways and byways, and extracted the most he could from it.

There were so many aspects to Páidí and so many achievements they cannot be all highlighted in one article.

However, I have chosen my personal Top Six of Páidí's landmark achievements.

The criterion was that in my view, they represented his biggest challenges and brought success, not only for himself, but for wider communities in and outside of the GAA.

Managing Westmeath to victory in the 2004 Leinster championship

In this reporter's humble opinion, Westmeath '04 was arguably his greatest feat and I'm not alone in thinking that.

Former Westmeath goalkeeper Gary Connaughton went through that amazing journey and says: "That was the first time in Westmeath's history that we won the Leinster championship.

"For me, it was one of his greatest achievements.

"Down in Kerry you have the tradition, you have the players. There's nothing really matters only gaelic football.

"In Westmeath, there's a big part of the county that's hurling. In Athlone there's soccer and rugby.

"For us to come and win a Leinster was unreal. And we haven't won one since.

"I know that before Páidí there was great work done by Luke Dempsey and Brendan Lowry and Mattie Kerrigan and all those managers before him, but Páidí got us over the line."

To put it in perspective, Páidí knew next to nothing about Westmeath or its football, yet he brought them to unimagined heights in his first season with the squad.

Tomás ó Flatharta, recently appointed as manager of Laois, recalls a pivotal conversation with Páidí just over 10 years ago.

"Páidí was never afraid to step into the unknown or into any challenges," he remembers.

"He went into that with a lot of courage. When you think about it, Westmeath was the unknown, and was it a challenge? By God, it was a huge, huge, challenge.

"He asked me to go with him – he said 'come down with me and pick selectors with me.'

"I said 'Páidí, I don't know anybody in Westmeath. I don't know anyone involved. Do you know anybody there?

"And he said, 'f**k it, I don't. I've heard of Dessie Dolan, but if I met him on the street, I wouldn't know him.'

"So, we knew absolutely nothing about it. But he had the hallmarks of a great leader and he had the capacity to get to know people, motivate them, and get the best out of them."

The two Kerrymen met the Westmeath players for the first time at the Citywest Hotel one afternoon in November 2003.

Later that evening, the Lake County men played Dublin in a challenge match at St Jude's ground in Templeogue.

It was an eye-opener.

"Westmeath were useless, absolutely terrible," says O Flatharta

"Páidí turns to me and says, 'what the f**k have we let ourselves in for?'

"And I said to him, 'Páidí – we?' It's you that got us into this!'"

Fast-forward to mid-November 2012. Though neither of them could possibly have known, it was to be the last meeting between ó Flatharta and Páidí.

"I went down to Dingle and the two of us went out for a meal. We had a great night together," says ó Flatharta

"He wasn't drinking or anything. He was in one of those rare forms you'd get him in. He was full of stories.

"I felt all along that he never kind of understood the significance of the success he achieved with Westmeath.

"He was saying to me, 'how did we manage it? How did we get it out of them that year?' It was only then he was beginning to realise that he had done this big thing in Westmeath."

Kerry v Dublin, 1975

Páidí played in 10 All-Ireland finals, and featured on the winning team on eight occasions between 1975 and 1986.

How to pick the best of those performances? No better man to ask than the great Mick O'Dwyer, who guided the green and gold through those 10 deciders?

"The one that would really stand out for me would be 1975. He was practically a young kid, coming from nowhere. He gave an outstanding display of football that day. We had him in midfield. He wasn't the biggest of men, but he had a wonderful leap off the ground," recalls O'Dwyer.

"Size didn't matter. He had wonderful positional sense – he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

"Wing half-back would turn out to be his best position, but he had wonderful games in the back-line as well.

"It would be very hard to pick out any one performance, to be honest, because he never played badly in an All-Ireland final.

"Even when we were beaten by Offaly in '82, he gave a great exhibition that day as well.

"He had a great record, too. In 10 All-Ireland finals only one point was scored off him in general play, and that was a fair achievement for any player.

"He was exceptional, one of the best we've had."

Lifting the Sam Maguire Cup in 1985

Was there ever a prouder All-Ireland winning captain than Páidí when he stepped up to raise the Sam Maguire Cup aloft after victory over the Dubs in 1985?

The winning speech, conducted in Irish, is still remembered by all who heard and watched it live, but viewing it again on YouTube now, one is struck by the absolute fervour and pride of the man as he took centre stage on the podium.

'An-áthas' doesn't adequately describe the emotional intensity he brought to the occasion. Another of his boyhood dreams had come true.

The Kingdom's first All-Ireland in 11 years

Donal Keenan, author of the impressive, newly published authorised biography titled 'Páidí – A Big Life' (HeroBooks €15.99) relates the background to the eventual success.

Appointed in September 1995, Páidí mentored the Kingdom to a Munster final victory in 1996.

It was Kerry's first defeat of Cork in a the provincial decider since 1986 – the Rebels had won seven titles in the previous nine campaigns.

But when Mayo stunned Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final, there was hell to pay in the Kingdom.

Keenan writes: "A six-point defeat was greeted with shock and awe. The reaction was swift and sour. The manager was derided for what was considered a lack of control, a failure to maintain discipline ... "

Stung by the criticism, particularly by allegations of excessive celebrations after the '96 Munster final, Páidí put the pedal to the metal in 1997.

The National League title was won; the Munster championship was retained and the All-Ireland title success that was craved by everyone in Kerry was delivered.

Páidí 10 out of 10; Critics 0 – and they were lucky to get nil!

The 1984 Kerry County Championship

One of his many dreams was to captain Kerry. To do that, you needed to be nominated by the county champions. One problem remained – Páidí needed to actually play on a county championship-winning team.

What to do? Typical Páidí – he got stuck in and got the job done as player-manager.

ó Flatharta, who was a team-mate of Páidí's with the An Ghaeltacht club at the time, puts it in context.

"In 1984, Páidí had won six all- Ireland medals, so his next challenge – and he was always up for a challenge – was to become captain of Kerry and bring Sam Maguire back to Ventry. He wanted to do that.

"West Kerry was a team of five separate clubs (An Ghaeltacht, Dingle, Lispole, Annascaul and Castlegregory). They could never get on and they could never put a team properly together.

"Páidí got them together, got to know them all and was able to motivate them to get the best out of them.

"He brought West Kerry from nothing to being county champions – and he got to be captain of Kerry," says ó Flatharta.

Bringing the tourists 'back Wesht'

From 1985 when the doors opened on 'Tigh Páidí ó Sé,' the owner was relentless in driving business for the pub and for the wider area around Dingle-Ventry-Dunquin.

Many and varied were his initiatives to attract visitors to the area, but one of the best was the Comórtas Peile tournament, which began in 1989. It was, and is, played annually in February.

From humble beginnings, the tournament grew to the extent of 1,300 people representing GAA clubs from home and abroad, participating in the 2013 event as part of 'The Gathering'.

Páidí, sadly was not there to see it, nor will he be there for the 25th anniversary staging in 2014, but his legacy is proud and enduring.

Irish Independent

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