In the name of the father: an interview with Seán Óg Ó hAilpín
The train from Dublin to Cork. A cliché full of green fields. January weather. Odd sights and strange things.
What are they Dad?
What are cows Dad?
The first thing he remembers about Cork is rain. A colourless Sunday afternoon. Cork playing Dublin on the wireless.
Outside the rain. Soft and never ending. The sheer insistent grey drizzle of it. In Sydney when nature provided rain it put on a show. Hard rain. Half an hour of it. Storm rain. The curtain up and the resumption of sunshine. Normal service.
Leaving had been hard. They took off on a Saturday, friends and relatives crowding them at the airport with hugs and tears. Seán óg was 10. He knew Dad was Irish but never understood what that meant. Irish. Ireland. Words.
Tom Humphries, The Irish Times
A great storyteller meets a great story; his first major interview on the eve of the Munster hurling final in July, 1999. What does it tell us about Seán óg ó hAilpín? What do we learn?
The talent of the writer clearly shines – what a magnificent portrait he has painted in just 132 words. The tears at the airport, the harshness of the rain, the odd sounds on the wireless . . . there's a clear sense of the journey and how far the family have travelled. And there's no mistaking the boy's sense of wonder and the bond with his father as he gazes from the train.
What are they Dad?
What are cows Dad?
The well is the clincher; the well brings it home; the well conveys peace and affection and love. We can see the picture clearly, the little boy listening to his father on the train and learning about cows.
But there were other lessons.
It's a Friday evening at the RTE studios of the Late Late Show. A floor manager leads him around the back of the audience and parks him at the edge of the set. His heart is pounding. The crisp white shirt, not long out of its wrapper, is saturated with sweat. He can hear Ryan Tubridy clearly from the edge of the curtain . . .
"My first guest is one of the most outstanding hurlers of his generation, securing five Munster and three All-Ireland titles. Have a look at him in action."
The videotape starts running. The floor manager leans forward: "When I tap you on the shoulder, you go on."
He drops his head and takes a breath and notices that his shoelace is undone. He considers leaving it at first . . . 'You don't have time' . . . but is worried that he'll trip. He bends down and tries to tie the lace but his hands are trembling with nerves. The floor manager is looking at him. They have 30 seconds to run. He attacks the lace again but can't control his hands ...
'Calm down boy!'
'Calm down boy.'
He tucks the two loose strands down the side of his shoe, stands-up and gets the signal to go on.
He steps from the curtain and salutes the audience. Tubridy greets him with an outstretched hand and leads him to a chair. He sits down and tries to compose himself. He knows how he wants to start.
Ryan Tubridy: It's good to see you Seán óg.
Seán Óg: Yeah, it's good to see you Ryan.
RT: How's it all going?
SO: Ehh, good, but I must say it has been a tough week for hurling followers . . .
RT: It has, it has.
SO: May I take this opportunity if I may . . .
RT: Please do.
SO: Just to send condolences to the Donohue family from Galway, they are going through a tough time . . . the family, friends and hurling colleagues and emmm . . . I mean I have an opportunity here today to talk about, you know, my life story, which I touch on the ups and downs, especially the downs, but it's nothing compared to what the Donohue family are going through. So ar lámh dheis go raibh a anam.
RT: Yes, well, that's very well said . . .
Two minutes and 28 seconds of the interview have passed.
Another interview. A different journalist. Seán óg is asking the questions.
"You're from Dublin?"
"Where in Dublin did you grow up?"
"That's north Dublin isn't it?"
"So would Parnells be the local club?"
"Yeah, Cluxton's club."
"Is Parnells the club that sold the land?"
"Was cycling big in Coolock?"
"No, I got into it through my father."
"Your father raced?"
"Yeah, he was National Champion in the year I was born."
"What if you had said to your Dad: 'I want to play Gaelic football?' Would that have been okay with him?"
Later, when the journalist revisits the tape, it's this initial, brief exchange with ó hAilpín and those questions at the end that most intrigues him. "What if you had said to your Dad?" Like a man wrestling with a puzzle he had yet to solve.
He's still nervous. He can hear it in his voice. He needs to slow down and think clearly and stop running at Tubridy like a big, excited Labrador.
RT: When we talk about you and your life and times, because you hear "Cork" and you hear "a legend" and yet, for the first, what was it, ten years of your life? You were nowhere near Cork?
SO: Cork never existed until 1987, that's being honest. I grew up in Sydney, Australia but I was actually born on my Mum's island Rotuma which is the middle of . . . well, it's in the middle of nowhere really, a South Pacific island. So I'm born in Mum's island Rotuma, I live there for three months, have no recollection of the island . . .
SO: Dad is working in Australia, so myself and Mum re-join Dad and life for me starts in Sydney and I live there until I am ten years of age, and I must say it was great growing up in Sydney. And I still view myself in ways as an Aussie kid.
RT: Do you?
SO: I love Australia. I love Australian sports and obviously if they weren't playing against Ireland I'd be going for Australia and . . . I know Warren [Gatland] is coming on later but I was definitely going for them after the Lions this year when he dropped Drico.
RT: Well, we'll get down to that later on but . . .
SO: But it was a fantastic, fantastic life in Australia. What else could you ask for? Nine, ten months of the year outdoor living, I don't remember ever wearing long pants . . .
RT: No jumpers.
SO: There's a photograph of me in the book where I'm just in shorts going to school, I mean . . . I grew up in the '80s in Australia, Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan were the pop idols. 'I should be so lucky.'
SO: I'm on a staple diet of vegemite and vegemite and milo, and the biggest thing growing up in Sydney is that I'm a sports fanatic. And rugby league is the number one sport in Sydney. So I grew up loving rugby league.
RT: So how did you get to Cork? What brought you to Cork in the first place? Or to Ireland necessarily?
SO: Emmm . . . it was emmm . . . One evening Dad came home from work. It was 1987.
RT: He being from where originally?
SO: Apologies. My Mum is from Rotuma. My Dad is from Roslea in south County Fermanagh.
SO: So Dad left Ireland and went working in Australia, various places. Dad then went on a holiday to Fiji and he met my lovely Mum – a chance in a million . . .
The year is 1984. He is seven years old and has just been introduced to the joys of Gaelic football. It's a Sunday afternoon. They're travelling home after a game from the Sydney suburb of Auburn. His father is raging. He has been barking since they left the ground. These missed tackles? Not good enough. His failure to chase back? Not good enough. He listens and nods and prays for the storm to pass but his father has pulled over and ordered him to get out of the car.
He waits on the pavement, lost and confused and hoping his father will return. Twenty minutes pass. His father seems pleased he hasn't moved but marches him straight to the garden as soon as they get home and he spends the rest of the week, sprinting up and down.
'What do you do when a fellow runs by you?
'I turn and chase him down.'
'What do you do when a fellow runs by you?'
'I turn and chase him down.'
This is the lesson he must learn.
Three years later, they arrive at Kent Station in Cork on a wet, overcast January afternoon. He remembers the train and the cows but his strongest memory is watching his father in the phone box at the station, going through the ads in the Cork Examiner, trying to find them somewhere to stay. A room will not suffice. He has three younger brothers – Teu, Setanta and Aisake – and a younger sister, Sarote. And their mother, Emeli, is pregnant.
Their first home is a three-bedroom semi-detached on the Parklands estate off the Commons Road and those first months are a struggle. His father, a builder's labourer, is finding it hard to get work. The weather is harsh, the schooling is tough and the natives speak English with a very curious tongue. But some things haven't changed.
He's playing hurling for Na Piarsaigh and under the microscope in every game. His Dad's not great at remembering birthdays, and doesn't do praise but is rarely found wanting when it comes to highlighting mistakes.
"I'm ashamed of you."
"They were laughing at you."
"I wanted to crawl out of the place because of the way you played."
But despite him, or perhaps because of him, the kid starts to shine.
In 1996, he makes his championship debut against Limerick, and is welcomed onto the field with the butt of a hurley into the ribs: "Now boyeen, how's that suit you?" A year later, he makes his first championship start against Clare and is racially abused: "Look at you ó hAilpín, you're nothing but a black cunt." In 1999, he wins his first Munster and All-Ireland title and the game has a new poster boy. And its voice (Micheál ó Muircheartaigh) has a new chime . . .
"Father from Fermanagh, Mother from Fiji."
"Father from Fermanagh, Mother from Fiji."
"Father from Fermanagh, Mother from Fiji."
"Neither a hurling stronghold."
Two of his younger brothers – Setanta and Aisake – are also making headlines and inspire a terrific documentary, Tall Dark and ó hAilpín, which airs in January 2007. But there is one glaring omission and within minutes of the first screening, a fan (An Gaelgoir) has posted a message on GAA boards.
They seem to be very nice lads, very driven in their sport and fair play to them. Just one question, there doesn't seem to be any mention of their father at all.
Nine minutes and 44 seconds of the interview have passed. It's going well. He has settled down and is making them laugh but knows the toughest has yet to come. Tubridy will go there. It's coming. The question. His problem. The puzzle he can't solve.
RT:Can I give you a quote from your book where you're talking about your Dad and you say: 'Deep down I was playing hurling and football only to please him. The games weren't for us at all, they were for him.' What does that mean?
SO: Ehhh, where I come from on that is . . . Emmm . . . Ehhh . . . I grew up on Australian sport – rugby league and Aussie rules and they are very passionate about their sports. When I came to Ireland, I had played a small bit of Gaelic football in Sydney but never touched a hurley in my life, d'you know?
SO: I didn't know anything about hurling. Hurling was a novelty sport for me and I'm asked to pick it up, but not alone that Dad is expecting me to master it (laughs nervously). And any hurling people know it's the most technical sport going, and I was on the back foot as an 11-year-old kid. Many kids, even in my own local GAA club, started at five, six years of age. And as I try and pick up the game and develop and move on, he gets frustrated; I get frustrated because I'm just not grasping the game, it's a struggle. And it is a struggle until my mid-20s. Truth be known, it wasn't until I was 26/27 that I felt comfortable as a hurler.
RT: That's very late in the day.
(Tubridy has given him an out but the wound has been opened.)
SO: But back then, I don't know how many times after games, 'Not good enough. Not good enough. Not good enough.' And you hear that constantly and then that builds up pressure to deliver and the next game you'd be just brickin' in your pants in case . . . (laughs nervously) . . . Oh, sorry, for the viewers that don't understand Cork lingo, you'd be afraid to make a mistake and that played.
RT: But your Dad of course would say, 'Well, that's what made you the success you are. That made you the champion you are.'
SO: Of course, and he'll feel justified but I feel that . . . He lives my dream. His dream was to come back to Ireland and play Gaelic games. It wasn't my choice but I started to live his dreams and when I didn't measure up to that, that's where the anger and frustration (came from). And that's why he drove us hard. And the reason why I do mention it is . . . I see parents in my own local GAA club and they come-up to me and say, 'Ahh, I don't think my Johnny or Joe is up to it. He's a bit afraid and he's this or he's that'. And I say, 'Well what age is Johnny or Joey?' And I'm saying, 'Cop yourselves on. Let the kid develop and if it's for him, it's for him.'
RT: Do you get on with your Dad today?
SO: I do . . . Do I talk to him? Yeah, of course I do.
RT: Because you sound like there's a bit of stuff hanging over from those days.
SO: Well, like all relationships it can be better. But I . . . I . . . I . . . Is there a bit of resentment? Of course there is. I thought there were ways that he could have dealt with it better. Do you know what I mean? Especially when you are picking up a new game you haven't played ever. The picture for me, that tells me that it was wrong, like is my first year I'm in the middle of Nash's Boreen which is the local GAA club pitch. It's pissing rain out of the heavens, I have a Michael Jackson afro, right? I'm dark as the only part that people can see is my teeth when I smile, right? And I'm in the middle and I'm just saying, 'Look, I don't fit here. It's the wrong place.' And I talk to Scotty up in the bridge: 'Beam me up here. Beam me out of here, please."
It's the following morning in Cork. He arrives at the Eason store in Patrick Street, just before 12. Twenty-five years ago, he stood with his mother at the No 3 bus stop here and was cruelly abused.
"Black fucking cunt."
"Go home and wash yourself."
But he's a Freeman of the City now, and will spend the next three hours (and another two after that at a store in Mahon Point), signing copies of his just-published autobiography.
To watch him at work, and spend time in his company, is to understand why he is loved. He is witty, self-deprecating, warm, and has a heart like the Grand Canyon. But it is hard to escape the sense of something gnawing away at him. He has been there and won it but it doesn't feel like a happy ending.
So we go there. To the question. To his problem. The puzzle he can't solve.
"I've got to ask you about your father?" I announce.
He smiles and gives me the standard response: "Seán ó hAilpín, boy."
"The portraits of him in the book are not flattering. Tell me about the day he abandoned you in the car?"
"I didn't have a good game," he says. "And I think he was disgusted when I gave up early. A fellow went by me and I just didn't bother chasing back, so that must annoy him on the sideline. He is talking about it on the way home and tells me to get out of the car and drives on."
"Do you remember how you felt standing there?"
"I was just shocked. I didn't cry. I was just shocked . . . plus, he drops me in a place and I don't know where I am. It's not near Greenacre where I grew up, so I just stand there, hoping he'll come back and pick me up, which he does, 20 minutes after that."
"Twenty minutes is a long time?"
"It probably is."
"You didn't cry?"
"I didn't cry, I was just confused and shocked."
"Was there anyone else in the car?"
"Teu . . . Teu is bawling. I'm not crying but Teu is bawling."
"Did you ever cry?"
"No, in all of the time that he crudely and harshly goes through my game, I never cried in front of him, but you get home and go up to your room and close the door and sit down on your bed and weep."
"Why didn't you cry in front of him?"
"Because he would accuse you of being a real sissy altogether. And he would probably have gone more to town on you. In the book, I give examples of Dad's over-zealous treatment and I've heard from people who have read it that it was just 'that generation' but it wouldn't be my way."
"Did he ever hit you?"
"Yes, but it's not so much being hit as what he says. You get over a flake but it's what he says that has the mental effect: 'I was ashamed of you today.' 'You were a disgrace to me.' So that's why, to this day, when I hear words like shame and disgrace and disappointment, it sends chills down my spine. Having said that, he had flaws, and very serious flaws but it would be wrong of me to . . . "
He struggles to find a word.
"Because there are things in him that you admire," I suggest.
"Ahh fuck, I would. He was a labourer all his life and still, to this day, I don't know how he got six kids educated. He used to say it: 'You don't want to end up like me on the building lines'. And he's my Dad. He is blood."
"But that's not enough?" I suggest.
"The way I would summarise is this," he replies. "He believes that what he did was justified because of what we achieved in sport. But I would swap it all to have a good relationship with him.
"To have the same relationship I have with my Mum. I think it would have killed Dad if none of us had made it, but Mum wouldn't have cared. And there were moments you could see he was proud but he just couldn't say it to you.
"You would feel like grabbing his mouth (he mimics opening his jaws with his hands) and telling him to fucking say it: 'I was proud of you today.' But he couldn't do it. And I'm still trying to work that out. Was it just him? Or dads from that era that never played sport?"
"He wasn't mentioned in the documentary?"
"There's no photograph of him in the book?"
"Has he seen it?"
"I haven't spoken to him about it. He'll probably say: 'What were you going on about there? Is that all the thanks I get?'"
"When did you see him last?"
"During the summer. Do I talk to him? Yes I do, but it's forced. He has become the man I don't want to be. He is my Dad and he is blood and I love him but I don't like him. Does that make sense?"
Seán Óg ó hAilpín: The Autobiography is published by Penguin Ireland