Seán Boylan documentary goes well beyond the football to explore the man

Director Alan Bradley brings intimate freshness in look at the legendary Meath manager

Seán Boylan and Trevor Giles celebrate Meath’s Leinster victory in 2001. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

Seán Boylan and Trevor Giles celebrate Meath’s Leinster victory in 2001. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

 

“A Cavan man with no success whatsoever in Gaelic football,” Alan Bradley tells me, as if perfectly on cue.

Because there is no scarcity of contradiction in ‘Seán’, the new documentary about Meath’s four-time All-Ireland winning manager Seán Boylan, and that begins with its 29-year-old director.

It’s put to telling use. By turns of the shot or lens, Bradley reveals a Boylan that is vulnerable and then invincible, secretly insecure and then truthfully inspiring, at times thoughtfully deep and never short of wisdom or wit. It’s the story of the 77-year-old Boylan that’s been told before only not with such intimate freshness.

Bradley does have some Meath connections: his father James Bradley played with the Meath minors in 1980, although growing up in Virginia in Cavan, his own playing career ended at the age of 10 “due to an extreme lack of talent”. What drew him to the subject of Boylan wasn’t so much the man who won four All-Irelands with Meath, across two decades, as what made him that man.

Seán Boylan during his time in charge of the Ireland International Rules team in 2008. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Seán Boylan during his time in charge of the Ireland International Rules team in 2008. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

“I grew up very aware of Meath football, especially the 1996 and 1999 All-Irelands, but more the celebration of it all,” says Bradley. “Then when learning about Seán’s herbal business, hearing and reading him talk about that, I always found him such a fascinating character and person. And maybe not what you’d always expect from a GAA manager. Obviously all the Meath success is a huge part of him, and that needed to be there too, but I also wanted to scratch beneath that, look closer at the man.”

Which Bradley does throughout, beginning with Boylan talking about father, Seán senior, an ardent member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, by 1916 a captain in the Irish Volunteers and close ally of Pádraig Pearse, and later a brigadier general in the Irish Free State, fighting hard to stop the Civil War.

Boylan describes his father as a “natural leader”, whereas he had to learn to become a leader, and in some ways step out of the daunting shadow of his impressive father: “My Dad had more faith in me than I had in myself.” Spoken from the kitchen table at his home in Dunboyne it sounds partly confessional, partly liberating.

“I had a rough idea there was some Republican connection with his dad,” Bradley says, “but I certainly wasn’t aware of the huge significance that Seán places on the relationship with his dad, and how crucial a role his dad has played in his life. It was so important to him.

“I also expected Seán to be maybe more confident and calculated about himself, and I was surprised to find that he isn’t really like that at all. He had no great expectations of himself, at first, which also surprised me quite a bit.”

Part of that was a secret desire to enter the priesthood,before against all expectations, especially his own, he was first named Meath football manager for the start of the 1983 season, a position he held until 2005.

Bradley also reveals the family man in Boylan that was severely threatened by his own health scare in 2009: “Again, I was aware it happened, but not that it troubled him so much. And also that he was so open about it, because it is a very vulnerable and personal story to share, and I was delighted he was prepared to share it so openly.”

– Seán airs on Thursday evening at 10.10pm on RTÉ One

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