'Kerry was Kerry and Páidí was Kerry . . . I'm not the first or last to say it, but he really was unique'

Sat, Feb 16, 2013, 00:00

GAELIC GAMES:The 24th annual Paídí Ó Sé Comórtas Peile takes place in Ventry next weekend. The man behind the festival was a larger-than-life figure with an unwavering self-belief and roguish humour – his absence will be keenly felt, writes DARRAGH O'SE

We’re all down in Ventry next weekend – the one weekend in the year that Páidí enjoyed above all others. The tournament was his own little project, and it turned into a big annual party, but there will be an empty chair this year, as there will be every year from now on.

It’s nine weeks since he died. Of course I miss him. What I miss most are the phone calls. I called him P Sé. With me living in Tralee and him living back west, we mightn’t meet up face to face more than a few times a month. But we’d talk on the phone three or four times a week, and when we did, it was always the lightest part of my day.

If I heard a story about a fella or saw something on the news that there might be a bit of messing in, I’d wait until I was in the car and I’d say, “right, I’ll give P Sé a call about that now and see what he makes of it”. It was always a treat I would set aside a bit of time for. It’s only since he died that I realise I took those phone calls for granted.

Paudie Lynch was his best friend. I ran into him one of the days there and we were talking for a while before he said: “You know, the one thing I miss is giving him a ring and listening to him go on the way he went on.” And there was me thinking I was special!

When it came to football, nobody had a bigger role in shaping me as a player. I went from being a minor to being an under-21 to being in the Kerry senior team all within the space of three months. Páidí was over West Kerry and the county under-21s at the time, so he was there each step of the way with me.

And though he was great fun, he took the game so seriously. He hammered into me some of the things that I tried to take with me for the rest of my career.

He was adamant about not getting into any verbals with your opponent. Not so much out of some big, high-minded motivation for sportsmanship and respect, more that an air of mystery was a great thing to have. If you get involved in a slagging match on the field, you’re giving up ground. You’re letting them pierce the skin.

Far better for them to be wondering what this madman from west Kerry has going on in his head.

Stand up for yourself if there’s a bit of pucking going on, but don’t ever open your mouth. Don’t ever let your guard down or give them an insight into what you’re thinking.

The way he would have seen it, getting involved would have been showing weakness. And he had no time for that. He’d regularly tell you not to go down unless you were really properly hurt. “Don’t give them the satisfaction; don’t let them know they hurt you.”

He saw it as a cop out, as giving them ammunition they didn’t need to have. He drilled that into all of us. I remember one time playing Cork in Killarney in 1998 when Stephen O’Brien came out and caught Maurice Fitzgerald a sweet one and winded him. Maurice got his free and hopped up off the ground, but straight away he looked over at me standing beside him.

Now, the year before in the All-Ireland final, I took a quick free at one stage and Maurice ate the head off me because the way he was playing that day he knew he would have stuck it over the bar. This was a far easier kick and yet Maurice just threw me the ball. He saw the quizzical look on my face and said out of the side of his mouth, “Kick that free there, I can hardly stand up.”

No way would he let the Cork lads see that he’d been hurt.

That was pure Páidí.

He saw playing in black and white terms. Do your job, don’t mind the other crowd. If they’re hopping off you, pulling out of you, that means they’re not focused. That means they’re showing weakness. Don’t do the same. Don’t showboat either. If you get a goal or score a big point, don’t be waving to the crowd. You’re only doing what you’re supposed to – it shouldn’t impact on you high up or low down. Go back and mark your man.

That’s why he loved the German soccer team. He often said he wanted Kerry to play with the flair of the All Blacks and the hardness of the Germans. He was always bringing them up in team talks.

“Look at the Germans, lads,” he’d say. “They’re there every year. No showboating, no messing. They always get to the final or thereabouts. They’re just a machine, lads, a well-oiled machine.”

Love of Kerry

Kerry football was the one thing in life Páidí never joked about.

Around the turn of the millennium, there was a big function in Tralee one night to pay tribute to Kerry footballers of bygone years. Somebody had put together a video and had gathered up old footage from different eras going way back to the 1930s and 1940s.

Obviously, football has changed a lot over the years and some of the old black-and-white footage had fellas kicking daft balls and making mad jumps after scores. Of course, we all thought this was hilarious.

But when Páidí saw us laughing, he got very cross with us. It was because he had this love of Kerry that just transcended everything. He believed in the tradition of all the All-Irelands that Kerry had won and that we were only passing on the baton that had been handed down to us by the fellas in this video.

It wasn’t bravado. Kerry football was the be-all and end-all to him.

He carried it with him and made a big deal out of never letting it down. He was always big into winning with humility and losing with dignity. If you got beaten and you wanted to cut loose, wait until you were back down in Kerry and cut loose there.

Act out all you like, just don’t do it in front of outsiders. Do it in Kerry, do it among your own. It might sound like the kind of thing that could be a charade in somebody else or that could be put on for the sake of looking like a proud countyman. But Páidí truly believed in that kind of thing. Kerry was Kerry and Páidí was Kerry.

Very young

A lot of that came from my grandmother. Beatrice nurtured it in him from a very young age. She saw that he wasn’t up to a whole lot academically, but that when it came to football he was always a step or two ahead of where he was supposed to be.

He was playing for the minors when he was 14, playing for the seniors when he was 15. He was that bit younger than his brothers, so he was indulged and encouraged that bit more.

Football became Beatrice’s passion as much as it was Páidí’s. When he started making the Kerry team, she used to put his football boots out on the wall in front of the shop on the Monday after a game. She’d want to make sure the neighbours saw that her boy had played for Kerry the previous day. She’d be nearly daring people to come into the shop and ask about the game.

In later years, when he went into management, people looking in from the outside had the wrong idea about him.

They thought he was wild and passionate and not a whole lot more. But I always thought that all the yarns about him hid a great intelligence for the game and for management in particular. He just instinctively knew how to get the best out of fellas.

One thing he used to do was gather up all the names and phone numbers of the mothers of all the players. He’d ring them up and chat to them, he’d send them cards at Christmas, all that sort of stuff. Get the mothers onside and the sons will follow.

He’d often ring up the day after a Munster final and ask if the boy was eating up well and feeling good after the game the day before.

The odd time, just for the laugh, he’d ring up knowing full well the boy was away off on the lash for the day with the rest of the team, just to see what sort of excuse the mother would come up with to cover for him.

He got a great kick out of that kind of messing.

I’m not the first or last to say it, but he really was unique. You often hear people say they don’t care what anybody thinks about them but it’s very rare that they mean it. I can honestly say that Páidí’s outstanding characteristic was that he genuinely did not give two hoots what anybody thought of him.

Now, there were positives and negatives to this. The positives came in the form of the self-belief that carried him through his life. As for the negatives, it often got him into situations that, let’s just say, the rest of us would have found hard to deal with.

Top of the queue

I remember one time we were driving to a challenge match on a summer’s evening and we were late to the ferry in Tarbert. The queue for that ferry in the summertime goes back for a half a mile, and if we didn’t get this one we were going to have to wait half an hour for the next one. That didn’t occur to Páidí at all. He just drove up to the top of the queue, ignoring every last beep of the horn or shout that came our way.

One woman chased us down to the gate and screamed at him in through the window, giving him an awful roasting. Páidí let her scream away and kept going, “It’s okay, it’s okay, the whole thing’s booked.”

She knew well that there wasn’t a bit of truth in this and she wasn’t buying it for a second. “Who do you think you are?!” she was shouting.

Myself and Dara Ó Cinnéide were in the car, staring straight ahead and afraid to say anything in case she started on us. And she kept roaring at him as he drove away on to the ferry, leaving her there in a rage.

“Jesus, lads,” said Páidí, “I got away lightly there.”

It was the most savage bollicking I ever saw anybody take, but when I reminded him of it a few days later, he’d forgotten all about it.

He just didn’t care. He had this unwavering self-belief that meant no matter what company he was in, there was nobody in the room better than him.

There was a neighbour of ours from Ventry who became a curate in Los Angeles, Fr James Kavanagh. In his time over there he became friendly with Gregory Peck, who had ancestors from west Kerry.

One day he took myself and Páidí up to Gregory Peck’s house, this mansion in LA. Fintan Ashe from Dingle was with us also, who was a distant cousin of Peck’s. Gregory gave us the grand tour, showed us around the place and was telling stories about how he bought the house.

He was halfway through some story about how he bought it when he was filming Moby Dick and he was reciting lines for us in character as Captain Ahab when, all of a sudden, Páidí stopped him in his tracks. “You have nothing like a bottle of Miller or something handy there, Gregory?” he asked.

Basically, Páidí was getting bored of this man and his stories and it was a hot day in LA – if there was a cold beer going, well Páidí would be better off having it than being bored.

Myself and Fr James were mortified but Páidí wasn’t a bit annoyed. I asked him at one point did he want his picture taken with Gregory’s Oscar and he said, “Not at all, I’m grand. Sure haven’t I the All Stars at home?” You’d be embarrassed by him at times but it wouldn’t turn a hair on his head.

For all his passion, I never got the sense that he really missed the football all that much in recent years. He was happy running the bar and he loved organising his tournament each year. The intercounty scene was a young man’s game and he realised that the role of an intercounty manager had changed a bit even since he’d been involved.

He still had a great interest and he loved going to games, but he would have felt that he had done his bit and that he’d made his peace with it. He wouldn’t have fancied being like Mick O’Dwyer, still plugging away in his 70s.

I miss him plenty. There are days when I’d run into fellas who knew him and we’d chat away about whatever was going on and all you’d be able to say would be: “Our man would have some spin on that, wouldn’t he?” And in the end, you’d just tell another story about him and get on with your day. I could spend two days sitting in a room telling yarns about him and still not get to the end of them. One thing is for certain – it was never dull.

In his element

About a fortnight before he died, four choppers landed in the field behind the pub. They were a group of lads home from London who had been playing golf in Waterville, and they came in and had a few drinks and headed away again.

Páidí was in his element with them, delighted to have them, delighted to welcome them and chat away to them. But what he was most delighted about was that now all the people in the locality would have to ask him what was the story with the lads in the choppers.

In Páidí’s mind, this was just fuel for whatever fire he chose to get going. So for days, he told anyone and everyone that he was after getting an offer to go back managing. A big county, now. A serious offer. How serious? Sure didn’t they send four choppers down to make it!

Not many people could get away with that sort of yarn-spinning but Páidí could because most of the stories he told were told against himself.

Like the time Martin Sheen came into the bar for a drink. Now Páidí wouldn’t have had much of a clue who Martin Sheen was until one of the punters told him, but once he knew, he was full of chat for him. He showed him around the place, showed him all the photographs he had on the wall of himself with various famous faces, including, of course, Tom Cruise. It was only as Martin walked out the door that one of the punters said to Páidí that Martin Sheen was Tom Cruise’s godfather.

Well, Páidí wasn’t going to let that one go without comment so he hurried out to the front of the pub, where Martin was getting into his car.

“Martin!” shouts Páidí. “Martin! Tell Tom I was asking for him, won’t you?”

How could you not miss a man like that?

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