Saturday 17 March 2018

'I'd do anything for Diarmuid'

Speaking on the week of his 80th birthday, Kerry legend Mick O’Connell tells Tadhg Evans that family trumps football ... everytime

Legendary Kerry footballer Mick O'Connell with son Diarmuid on his 80th birthday on Valentia Island on Wednesday. Photo by Don MacMonagle
Legendary Kerry footballer Mick O'Connell with son Diarmuid on his 80th birthday on Valentia Island on Wednesday. Photo by Don MacMonagle

"That's right, I allowed Kerry Parents and Friends to use my land for Tigh an Oileáin, but I thought nothing of it; my son Diarmuid is the greatest gift I ever received, and to see him enjoying himself over there is priceless to me."

Mick O'Connell saves his strongest words for what matters. The acclaimed Valentian has been called the greatest ever Gaelic footballer more than once, but while such praise would go straight to most men's heads, O'Connell swats it away like a tennis player serving at match point.

"They're only opinions," he states plainly. "One man might like my style, but another fella might think it all wrong. I take no notice either way."

O'Connell and commotion don't associate. Kerry stopped this week to congratulate one of its greatest footballers on his 80th birthday, but the man himself didn't budge from his routine; he walked his dog, stopped at the lighthouse, gazed across at the vacant islands of Beginish and the Blaskets, and reflected. "Same as I do a lot of days," he says.

It's not false modesty; O'Connell genuinely doesn't think people should idolise him for perfecting a sport he never thought of as more than a pastime.

The mention of family, however, prompts a different tone. O'Connell married Rosaleen in 1972, and the couple have three children: Máire, Micheál and Diarmuid. Diarmuid, who has Down Syndrome, turned 40 last November, and his father describes him as 'the greatest gift God ever gave me.'

"I would do anything for that boy," he states. "He means way more than my All-Ireland medals."

"People with Down Syndrome have lovely, warm personalities. In other parts of the world they are treated poorly, and it fills me with sadness. But here in Valentia, we have Tigh an Oileáin, which provides great care to Diarmuid and others, and that makes me happy."

"It reminds us how unimportant football is. I learned that while I was growing up. I never treated a win on the football field as a triumph, nor a defeat as a disaster."

O'Connell's name might be linked to Gaelic football forever more, but the old game hasn't defined him. Today, he doesn't even watch county games; the sport is unrecognisable from the game that charmed him in the '40s.

"I call it Gaelic, not Gaelic football. You're only 24 so you wouldn't know anything about the old 'catch and kick' style - but it has died out," he explains. "I go to watch Valentia playing, and that's about it. I don't bother with Kerry games anymore.

"I don't blame the players; the game adapted to the rules that are there. But while I still enjoy watching sport, 'Gaelic' does not hold any appeal to me. It's totally different to the game I used to know."

And home has changed too. O'Connell grew up in a different Valentia; he recalls learning to play soccer from Spanish boatmen at a time when the island welcomed cable ships from all over the planet.

"Valentia was thriving; our harbour was going non-stop, and we had every service: schools, a post office, a Garda station - the whole lot."

"But the cable company closed and everything changed. Like all places on the west, jobs ebbed away, and people moved with them," he reminisces.

"But we're not the only place facing that; things change over time. Valentia's different, but that's the way things go."


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