Long-grass snipers so wrong about Seán Óg


LOCKER ROOM: A great servant of Cork and of hurling, Ó hAilpín’s values stand in stark contrast to those of the likes of Wayne Rooney

HAVE TO stick one of those declaration of interest/namedrop lines in here at the foundation. I know Seán Óg Ó hAilpín. I’d like to think of him as my friend. I know I think of him as a hero.

I don’t know Wayne Rooney. I have to admit something in him or something in me made me dislike him from the moment he hit my consciousness. Then again, sometimes he does something on the pitch and my jaw just drops. However much I wish it wouldn’t, it, my mouth, just sags open like that of a Labrador lolling on a hot day. Wow.

Seán Óg. I saw a couple of blow-hard snipers pulling their weapons out from the comfortingly long grass of their anonymity this week in the chat rooms. Seán Óg was this and Seán Óg was that. They never met the man. And if they did and they think those things, well, then they met an imposter. The vast and overwhelming majority of those writing last week wrote of a remarkable man and a true laoch.

Seán Óg. 500 words. Never seen him on time for anything. The world tugs his sleeve constantly and he dallies with the world. Indulges it, treats every new face he meets to the sincere and genuine curiosity he has. I arranged to have a cup of coffee with him in Cork last year on the day 12,000 people marched in support of Seán Óg and his comrades. A cold Saturday afternoon. I stood in my anorak, jumper and gloves watching Seán Óg as the pa system for the rally got removed. And then the hired chairs went. And finally they took away the lorry. Darkness fell.

He was in a tracksuit and his teeth were chattering. Every Cork player had vanished back into the world but Seán Óg was still there signing things, and having his photo taken and being introduced to grandmothers and new-borns and asking where everyone was from and seeing if they had any Irish. For almost three hours. And I wanted to grab him by the ear and say will ya stop being so effin’ decent and come for coffee for jaysus sake.

Those who think they know him and – by extension – think they know everything look at his endorsement work and conclude Seán Óg is greedy. Because he gets paid for taking a role in helping somebody sell something? Do we really demand such forelock-tugging subservience out of Gaelic athletes?

Let me tell a story which I have borrowed without permission from Gizzy Lyng in Wexford. Gizzy runs an annual hurling summer camp as Gaeilge every summer and a few years ago he asked Seán Óg if he would come across from Cork one afternoon and take the kids for a few drills, etc, trí­ Gaeilge. Seán Óg said he was suffering from a leg injury but that he would do whatever he could. If Gizzy didn’t hear from him again he could assume Seán Óg would arrive.

On the day, and only slightly late by Seán Óg standards, the car pulled in and Gizzy walked across to welcome his guest. Terrible pang of guilt when the door opened and Gizzy saw that in order to drive from Cork to Wexford without his injured leg seizing up Seán Óg had needed to be attached to some sort of pump contraction as he drove. Seán Óg, of course, made out as if the pump gadget was a pleasure which he had always wanted to sample and went ahead to spend the afternoon among the kids.

If you have seen Seán Óg coach kids you know the truth of it when I tell you that the root vegetables of the Cork County Board have made many mistakes but numero uno has been not been paying Seán Óg 100 grand a year to spend all day every day with the kids of Cork. He is infectious in his love for the game of hurling. And Cork has needed that.

Anyway. The session ended and Gizzy thanked his guest and the kids clapped and cheered and Gizzy slipped Seán Óg an envelope within which was a thank you card and a modest sum of cash for expenses and time. Seán Óg said: “There better not be money in this? Just a card from the kids.”

And so he drove off leaving Gizzy and the students to wrap up for the day. Nearly an hour later, as Gizzy was finishing his chores, the familiar car arrived back in through the gate. Seán Óg. Money back into Gizzy Lyng’s fist, head shaking and off into the evening with him again. Late for some place no doubt.

I’ve heard stories like that hundreds of times. From Antrim to Wexford to Mayo.

He came to our club and gave out medals and stayed all afternoon and evening, and when he was leaving, with nothing but a St Vincent’s woolly hat as a thank you, he stood at his car boot for 10 minutes and emptied the contents as gifts for the awestruck kids. He looked at me happily in the end as I stood mortified at the virtual looting of his belongings and there was almost a look of panic on his face.

Jesus. And he looked into the empty boot and the only thing left was a shoe box. He grabbed the box. “Here a chara. Ger Hartmann made them for me.” And he gave me the best pair of runners I have ever owned as a thank you for being asked to drive from Cork to Dublin and back to give out medals.

More than all that, though, I love the sincerity and honesty of Seán Óg’s play and Seán Óg’s words. People say he is a made hurler and a bit straight-backed and a bit this and a bit that. Meh! He is an extraordinary athlete not just in his conditioning but in the way his play expresses the glory of the game he plays, his exuberance, his intent of making it a simple game, his willingness to be subservient to the team ethic all the time.

When I bring kids to watch a match I love it to be a Cork match with Seán Óg at number seven because everything from the warm-up to the handshake afterwards is done with an intensity that never shortchanges the audience or his team or his talent. Never.

And so it is with his words. People have jumped on him from time to time in the course of the Cork strikes, etc, for the unhelpful nature of his verbal contributions. The truth is he doesn’t do guile or back doors. So if you catch him and ask him to talk he’ll give you as honest a version of how he is feeling as any person can give. Then we kick him to death.

Seán Óg’s career, which should have and would have stretched to Tony Browne-type length, came to a finish with a three-minute meeting and a handshake last week. He had been milling everybody at Cork training all last year. Was working hard on being in the same condition next year. His last game? He was fit enough and good enough in August to play an All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park against the greatest team ever and to be one of Cork’s top three performers on the day.

Weeks later he is out? Hurling lost something huge last week. Cork lost something irreplaceable. Not just a player but a presence, a force, an icon.

That was Monday. By Tuesday the sports pages were all Wayne Rooney, all the time. Wayne feels this. Wayne feels that. A volcanic rumbling in the hungry belly of a callow millionaire who figures he is hard done by. About to spew. About to erupt. Going, going, no, no he’s staying. But at twice the money. Loyal! See! Break him open like a stick of rock and it says United all the way through.

And we buy it. The big show. The bullshit package deluxe. Some day soon Wayne will do what he is meant to do and score a couple of goals for United and peel away kissing the badge of the club he loves so deeply. A kiss was never so expensively bought.

Seán Óg would have liked to have been a professional athlete. I see his point, but I’d argue it with him to the death. Wayne Rooney is a professional athlete and he is the antithesis of romance, a hoor in his heart. If sport has no romance it has nothing. And without the boy from Rotuma there’s a lot of romance gone for next year. And maybe Seán Óg would say, point proven. He would have been better to have been treated like a saleable commodity than a dispensable pawn.

He had earned the chance to be carried off on his shield wearing the red jersey that he has always loved. But in the long grass Seán Óg is greedy and Wayne Rooney is red till he is dead. And that’s the difference. You don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out from a three-minute termination meeting after 14 years of service. Or you watch a great club contorting itself into a knot of humiliation to satisfy your primal needs before you have delivered upon your promise.

Apparently that’s the difference. Romantic Ireland is dead and gone, etc.