Wednesday 25 April 2018

Seán Potts: A passionate friend who loved a little 'black magic'

Seán Potts

In many ways the transience of life itself is personified by sport – passionate, physical, beautiful, irresistible, tragic and, above all, fleeting. Páidí Ó Sé's legacy as a player and manager may be unique and enduring, but the personal tragedy of his loss at 57 only serves to remind us of the stark momentary nature of glory and life.

It is, ironically for those of us who shared his extraordinary company, a most sobering thought.

His absence will be felt sharply within the GAA and, indeed, throughout the various worlds he inhabited since he moved away from county football; the extensive tributes testify to that.

However, the loss for his beautiful family, wonderful nephews, extended family and community is immense.

Páidí loved notoriety; loved the social life in Dublin ("I love the buzz in Dublin," his nephew Marc was fond of recounting with frighteningly adept mimicry), the politicians, successful business people, writers, musicians.

His respect and admiration for people who pushed boundaries and lived life to the full was as genuine as it was reciprocated. Behind the bon viveur and raconteur, however, was a man anchored, if at times persecuted, by football and place.

It might not be as fashionable today to quote Seán Ó Riordáin's patriotic invocation, but pulling away last Sunday night as darkness descended over Cnoc an Iolair having looked on Páidí's face for the last time, it was Ó Riordáin's words about the importance of place and language that resonated...

. . . Sin é do dhoras,

Dún Chaoin fé sholas an tráthnóna,

Buail is osclófar

D'intinn féin is do chló cheart

For all Páidí's frequent forays into the 'other' world of celebrity and power, he never abandoned the 'house' or 'tribe' at Ard an Bhóthair. He was a Kerry warrior. The county is synonymous with football; he, the embodiment of that bond. Eloquent testimony was paid to this bond by, above all, his neighbours in Ventry.

Páidí often spoke about the profound effect his friendship with singer and journalist Diarmuidín Maidhcí Ó Súilleabháin had on him. Diarmuidín, from Cúil Aodh in West Cork originally but living in West Kerry where he worked for Raidio na Gaeltachta, died tragically travelling home from Páidí's this month 21 years ago after celebrating the Gaeltacht's victory in the West Kerry Championship. The 'house and tribe' were close to Diarmuidín's heart; mórtas cine. "I told things to Diarmuidín that I wouldn't say to anyone else," Páidí recalled.

When Páidí delivered his famous speech after lifting the Sam Maguire in 1985, Diarmuidín had helped him prepare it. When the final whistle sounded, Páidí turned to find Diarmuidín on his shoulder reminding him of his duty to his language and to Corca Dhuibhne.

Páidí spoke a lot to me about Diarmuidín; he understood the connection. Diarmuidín's brothers Eoghainí and Danny sang with Peadar Ó Riada and the Cúil Aodh choir at Tuesday's funeral.

It was through music, not sport, I came to know Páidí Ó Sé. Playing the pipes (not Páidí's favourite instrument, I might add) one epic night in the pub at Ard an Bhóthair alongside James Begley and Steve Cooney, I got talking to him after the session and the conversation endured until the following morning. I was quite literally spellbound by the man.

Some years later, when I had started working as a journalist, we travelled the roads of Ireland watching games together for the Irish Independent with John Martin's steady hands on the wheel. Every journey with Páidí was an odyssey, nothing was conventional.

With a particular pressing deadline looming one evening I was in a mad hurry to get out of Clones after an Ulster final and back to Dublin to work. Faced with a five-mile tailback, Páidí instructed John to activate the hazard lights and drive as fast as possible in the opposite lane; "they'll think there's an emergency, no one will stop us." Oncoming traffic diverted into ditches and driveways; I was back in the capital in time for a bag of chips before work.

When the press box in Navan was full for a Leinster championship clash between Meath and Laois, we walked straight through the gate (the steward opened it for him) on to the sideline and watched from there. Half-way through a testing afternoon for Meath, Sean Boylan hunkered down and discussed the situation with Páidí. Orthodox journalism it wasn't.

Objectivity wasn't a particularly strong point in the partnership either. When Dublin won the All-Ireland in 1995, Páidí placed me on his shoulders for the presentation (ostensibly we were working). He remarked that though I mightn't have had the liathróidí to be much of a footballer, I was welcome to wrap them around his neck for this privilege of watching my county lift the Sam Maguire. Later that night, he stood beside me in Jurys Hotel as I proposed to my girlfriend; he counselled me quietly to make sure I knew what I was doing, All-Irelands were emotive times...

Public opinion, of course, was considerably harder to extract from him as soon as he was tasked with shaping a new future for football in Kerry. Nothing was more important and as Dara Ó Cinnéide and Darragh Ó Sé emerged from Páidí's U-21 All-Ireland-winning side in 1995, a new and glorious period in his already decorated life was about to commence.

The intensity of his commitment to the game and his county was a privilege to behold and he defied his critics by ending Kerry's famine in 1997. I mention critics because Páidí had his detractors; there were many who were uncomfortable because he didn't fit the mould, but, as one of his most gifted protégés Ó Cinnéide remarked so eloquently last weekend: "As a manager he looked after us, he looked out for us, he shaped the way we played and thought about football. He was an amazing, amazing manager."

Páidí's understanding of football was innate and it was an understanding naturally embellished by his phenomenal playing career.

His ability to lead and inspire was proven in the hard and often unpopular decisions he made as a manager. Yet he would never break ranks to justify his decisions. He despised losing, but did so with a magnanimity that was inspirational. When Dublin defeated Kerry to win last year's All-Ireland, the first person on the phone was Páidí. It didn't have to be.

After his second All-Ireland success as a manager in 2000, he asked me to write his biography. When it was published, one very prominent Kerry person commented that he had not enjoyed the book, that the language in the book was very rough, and that the man who wrote it shouldn't have written it. Páidí took great delight in telling me this.

Inferred in this delight and in a lot of the 'black magic' he was so fond of was a friendship; deep, passionate, enduring and, after the shock of last Saturday morning, profoundly humbling. It was a privilege to have written his book.

Needless to say, that task was anything but straightforward and included some very engaging if largely unproductive nights at our halfway point in Limerick or in the 'lab' with his old friend John Costello; listening to cassettes of the interviews on the train home and trying to determine the conversation from the constant laughter.

It was no ordinary biographical project; one 'review' session ended with the pair of us being choppered to Inis Mhicileáin for lunch with the Haughey family. The review session ended with the draft of the book being surrendered to Charlie. Choppers will always be part of our Páidí memories.

The fracture with Kerry in 2003 was extremely painful for Páidí and while his subsequent achievement with Westmeath was extraordinary – it was wonderful to see the respect paid to him this week by the Westmeath players and former chairman Seamus Ó Faoláin – he never fully came to terms with the transition from direct involvement with the green and gold.

He was immensely proud of Darragh, Tomás and Marc and outstanding individual displays by any one of the three were always followed by a phone call – I received many phone calls.

He quietly spoke about Pádraig Óg's development every step of the way; his understated and respectful accounts could not conceal his pride or his love. He adored his family.

Páidí's respect and love for my own family underpinned our friendship and he never spoke to me without asking for them. Our culture was planted, as Diarmuidín would have said, in the pit of his stomach. He was incredibly loyal to those who mattered to him.

From the birth of my son he counted the days with me until he could take him 'back west' to spend time with him, work in the bar, play football, speak our language and learn why football means what it does for him and his county.

Typical of the extraordinary people of Ventry, his lifelong friend Muiris Fenton consoled me last weekend that it can still happen.

Sadly, it won't happen the way we'd intended. Páidí Ó Sé is irreplaceable; he was unlike any other person I've ever encountered.

His legacy has been incredibly well documented over the past week by the practitioners who matter, those who soldiered with him, against him and for him. All I can add is the deep love I held for the man. He was difficult, I disagreed with him a lot and Jesus did you need to toughen at times in his company. In the 23 years I knew him we fell out of a lot of places, but never with each other.

However, away from the glory that marked his incredible achievements as a player, manager and iconic GAA man and the notoriety which his heroic personality attracted, it is the personal that will endure.

I've often fretted about the saying that one day your life will flash before you so make sure it's worth watching. Páidí needn't have worried on this account.

To Máire, Neasa, Siún, Pádraig Óg, Tom, Joan, Feargal, Darragh, Tomás and Marc, the people of Ventry and his extended family and friends, I offer my deepest, deepest sympathies.

Fill arís ar do chuid... Ní dual do neach a thigh ná a threabh a thréigean.

Irish Independent

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