Seán Óg Ó hAilpín: ‘My Sundays now are heaven’

Cork legend now happy to concentrate his efforts at club level with Na Piarsaigh

From icon of Cork GAA to intercounty couch potato. In the now since six years since hanging up his boots and his hurl, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín can count on one hand the number of times he misses those seasons of Sundays. That’s when holding up his thumb and index finger and creating a clear round zero.

“I’m going to surprise you here,” he says, “and I know because fellas that have been used to getting a kick out of something can’t stop, but I’d be the opposite.

“For 15 years, Sundays for me meant either living in a hotel room, getting lambasted by a manager in a dressing room, or spending an afternoon chasing Henry Shefflin or Eddie Brennan or Eoin Kelly.

“Then going back on the bus for a three-hour journey. And if you lost it felt like 10 hours. You’d go home, you’d barely get to say hello to your partner, who is probably in bed, and then the alarm rings the following morning to go into work. That was my Sunday for 15 years, so you can imagine my Sundays now – it’s f***ing heaven...


“There’s a part of me saying ‘look, I’d a good 15 years doing that, and I just want to do something different, like relaxing’. Sunday for me now is wake up, read the papers – something that we couldn’t do. We were told by managers not to read the papers over the years. Enjoy a nice fry every now and then, hit tennis with the wife, come back, game on TV, and if it was a nice day have the barbecue on. Sundays now are glorious.”

Not that Ó hAilpín has left all of his game behind: the three-time All-Ireland winner, three-time All Star, five-time Muster champion (not forgetting one Munster football title too) still considers himself an avid observer of all things Cork GAA, and is also perfectly happy to pass on whatever tips he can at his club, Na Piarsaigh.

Doing comparisons

“I don’t go to as many games as I probably should, because you’d be kind of tied up with club teams. But I’ll always make sure I see them on TV, if I can’t get to the game, just to see who’s doing well, or what new names are emerging, then doing comparisons, like ‘that fella has the same wrist as Ben O’Connor’, or ‘that fella has the same strength as Diarmuid [O’Sullivan]’, but effectively from an intercounty point of view I’m a couch potato.”

One month shy of turning 41, Ó hAilpín hasn’t lost of any his intercounty physique either, although all the energy he has left for games these days goes back to his club, or to UCC, where he also coaches the Freshers team, along with another former Cork team -mate Tom Kenny.

When asked about any intercounty management ambitions, Ó hAilpín also creates that clear round zero. This despite Cork’s long tradition of former players coming back as managers, from Jimmy Barry-Murphy to Donal O’Grady and plenty more.

“I do the minors in our club, help out with the senior team, and then UCC,” he says. “Enough to get me involved, but not too much, where it takes over life. I’ve no doubt guys I played with will be coaching Cork, but no, some things are for you, and if truth be known, my heart is more in the club these days, than it is the county scene. To be honest my place in the Association, lies in the club, especially my club.

“Only for the club, I don’t think I would have got playing for Cork. And to be honest, our club underage needs a lot of work. It’s not the underage club where I grew up, thriving. So for me it’s just a call, I’m better off up in Fairhill, rather than down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

“It’s not glamorous, it’s far from glamorous. It’s challenging, but when you’re dealing with people that you think have the same mindset and DNA as a lot of people in the club, it’s easy to work with.”

Not unique

Na Piarsaigh last won the Cork hurling title in 2004, his younger brothers Setanta and Aisake both also involved (and both are now living and settled in Australia). Only the challenges facing the club now are not unique to Na Piarsaigh.

“When I grew up, like, we were winning underage competitions left, right and centre. It’s like any crisis. You can’t pinpoint one thing. It’s a combination of things. One, aging population up the north side, whereas when I went into the area 20 years ago, it was kids around my age, sprawling estates with young people, so on the back of that our club thrived.

“A lot of those kids, and I’m a prime example, don’t live in that area anymore. I live outside it. Now siblings or generations don’t play with the club. You have that.

“And the interest in kids, not just in hurling, but in the feeder schools, is phew ... before, you’d go into the classroom, out of 30 boys you’d have minimum 20, either playing sport, or would have an interest in it. If you were to go into the classroom now, I’d say, from talking to teachers, you’d be lucky to get six, seven hands that would be participating in sport now like. So you’ve a combination of all that.”

One thing he doesn’t blame is the success of rugby, either in Munster or elsewhere: “I mean this with the greatest respect, our area is very much working class, so rugby, nah. Soccer is a big threat. You do get the odd kid that plays rugby, and from my experience, their dad would have played rugby, but by and large it’s GAA or soccer.

“And on the north side of Cork basketball is very strong. So I coach guys at minor level, and six or seven are very active in basketball. You have Neptune Stadium on the northside there as well.

“But the long and short of it, when our club was doing well there, it was like the Roman Empire falling apart. The guys in the Coliseum eating grapes, forgetting what was going on around them.

Depreciating assets

“That’s what happened, a neglect there for a decade, and I can see why that can happen fairly quickly, because all the focus is on the adult teams, but they forget guys like us on the adult teams were depreciating assets, and they need to be replaced fairly quick, and the focus was just taken off it.”

And his couch potato view of Cork hurling this summer?

“If you were to ask me a couple of years ago I’d have said ‘crisis’. If you ask me now, I don’t think they’re in a crisis. In the GAA year, there are two seasons, the season of muck and shite, and the season of hard ground – playing the marquee games in Thurles, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and Croke Park, which I think is more suited to this Cork team that playing in Wexford Park on a dreary Sunday afternoon in February getting horsed out of it by 15- or 16- stone guys.

“That gives me the confidence, that Cork will hit the ground running, when the games start.”

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín on...

....the new Munster hurling championship?

“I grew up in the era where the Munster championship was nearly as big as the All-Ireland, and you had to put all your eggs in one basket for one game. Now, no sooner than you win your first championship game you can’t enjoy your pint you have to get ready for the following week. I prefer the old knock-out system, I speak more as spectator than a player, but with games week-in week- out I don’t know if you will get the same atmosphere.”

.. the modern intercounty hurler?

“Absolutely, I think the players now are better than the players of yesteryear and I still think the players coming in 10 years will be better than the players now. In my day, score 20 points in a game, I wouldn’t say you were a banker to win it, but you were in the top five per cent. But 20 points now, people barely bat an eyelid.”

... any hurling regrets?

“Probably not winning another All-Ireland or two after 2005. That still lingers, it doesn’t eat into me but every now and then the thought comes that it would have been nice to have won another one or two. Would it have been good enough to stop that great Kilkenny team? Probably not. It would have been nice to have a rattle of them for a year or two, but that’s all history now.”

... Cork's football prospects?

“I think this will be a cruel year for Cork football, I don’t think they’ll make the Super-8s, but in the long run I think probably something like this needs to happen so Cork will go through a bit of pain. For the football supporters it will be a few Hail Marys and a few novenas on a Saturday night and see how they do on a Sunday.”

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín is an ambassador for the Sensodyne #AllIrelandSmiles campaign to educate primary school students on the importance of good oral hygiene.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics