11 January, 2011

The Seán Óg, Setanta & Aisake Ó hAilpín story:

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"My proudest achievement was playing with my brother in an All-Ireland Final for Cork," - Seán Óg

               I conducted a one-on-one interview today (Saturday 8th January 2011) with Cork hurling icon Seán Óg Ó hAilpín. Here is an (abridged) version of the interview. For those who are unfamiliar with the brothers Seán Óg, Setanta & Aisake Ó hAilpín, please see The Ó hAilpín Brothers BIOGRAPHY: at the end of this article. Either way, it is a fascinating story, especially if you have even a passing interest in sport.

ME (JAMES CLANCY): I’d like to start off by saying “Thank you” to Seán Óg for joining me here this fine January morning in Cork. I’d like to start off by asking you Seán Óg: you were born in Rotuma in Fiji and it seems as if, in your early years, you seemed to move about a lot as a family. You moved from Fiji to Sydney and then to Cork. I’m wondering: was there a reason that the family travelled so much? 
Rotuma, Fiji Islands
Seán Óg: I was born on my Mum’s home island (Rotuma in the Fiji Islands) because it was traditional in Mum’s culture that the first child would be born on her island. I don’t think she had me and then went back to Australia (Sydney) two days later. I think she stayed on in the island (Rotuma) for a while but ultimately we joined dad in Sydney. I remember very little of my Rotuma days. I was very young when we left Rotuma. I was only about one year old when  Mum and I left, so I don’t remember that. 
Me: What would you have been interested in in your early years (in Sydney). What sort of sports would you have played? I think rugby league? 

Seán Óg: Yeah, rugby league. Anyone that’s been to Sydney will know that rugby league is the popular sport in the winter. Everyone plays cricket in the summer, but in winter rugby league is the big game. In Sydney there are three main sports: Rugby League (the most popular), Aussie Rules Football, which wouldn't be as popular: there's one AFL (Australian Rules Football) club - Sydney Swans in Sydney. Rugby union would be third. I played competitively in rugby league at schools level.

Me: Would you have spoken much Irish in Sydney?

Seán Óg: Very little. There was just a little sign at home saying "Sláinte."

Me: I've seen your (2006 RTÉ television) documentary: "Tall, Dark & Ó hAilpín" (please see the links at the end of this article to the documentary) and your mother seemed to want to teach ye the Rotuman language.

Seán Óg: Basically in Sydney it would have been mainly Rotuman and English that we spoke. The next time I went to the island was when I was ten. We had decided to move everything to Ireland (Cork) and my Mum just went there (Rotuma) to say her goodbyes, because she didn't know when she'd be seeing her Rotuman family again. She was going to the other side of the world (Ireland), so she didn't know when she'd be back to her home island again. It was literally: "Hello and goodbye. I might see ye again or I mightn't see ye again." We spent a month there when I was ten and then on to Cork.

Me: I was going to ask if you played any of the indigenous sports in Rotuma. It (Rotuma) would probably be too small an island to have indigenous sports? It's just a tropical island like.

Seán Óg: Yeah, the island would be too small to have its own sports.

Me: You'd have been ten when you came to Cork. Do you know was there a particular reason for choosing Cork? I mean, your father was from Fermanagh, so was there any particular reason why ye chose to settle in Cork? 

Seán Óg: I don't know really. The only thing I could think of is that Dad would have worked with a lot of Cork people on building sites as a labourer in Sydney, made some connections. One or two of his best friends would have been from West Cork, so maybe it was through that influence. 

 Me: You came to Cork at ten and you started in an all Irish speaking school.

Marcus O'Sullivan: '84 LA Olympics
Seán Óg: Well I actually started in primary school in Cork in an English speaking primary school for three years. Then I went to secondary school, where I would have been taught all through the Irish language.
Me: I wonder were you thinking when you were starting secondary school (in Cork's famous Gaelcholáiste Mhuire North Monastery - where such Irish/sporting luminaries as Jack Lynch and many Olympic athletes including Donie Walsh and Marcus O'Sullivan to name
but a few were educated, sported and played) were you thinking: "I don't really fancy this;
being taught all through Irish. I mean, I won't have a clue what'd be going on".....? I mean, you'd be learning Maths through Irish, you'd be learning English through Irish, I mean, would you be thinking: "What the hell's going on here like?"
Seán Óg: By the time I reached secondary school, I had some grasp of the Irish language, but I still had a lot of catching up to do. I mean, I did the Leaving Cert through Irish and it's like sport or anything, the more you practice, the better you get.
 Gaelcholáiste Mhuire An Mhainistir Thuaidh:  North Monastery

North Monastery Secondary School:

  A great sporting nursery

 Me: But you still had a lot of catching up to do, doing all your school lessons all through Irish. 
Seán Óg: Oh very much so.

Me: And I mean, you were obviously academic so you wanted to do well in your lessons like. 

Seán Óg: Oh yeah, but more than anything it was putting in the work at the studies. That was the option for me, that was the way of advancing for me. I mean I had no trust fund or anything like that, it was get the head down, study hard and take it from there. You play the cards you're dealt and you do your best. But when there was so much sport in
the school, that was a big help too. I mean, if it had been all study and nothing else, you'd go mad like. I didn't mind slogging at the books, when I knew I had the sport to play in the evening.

Me: I mean, I just think it's fantastic: you ended up doing a University Degree all through the Irish language! It was Ríomhaireacht, Airgeadais & Cuntasaíoht (which means: Computing, Finance & Entrepeuneurship).

Seán Óg: Correct.
Seán Óg's alma mater

Me: For a guy that only came to Ireland when he was ten years-old; that's unbelieveable like!

Seán Óg: Yip, I did the four years degree, which was definitely a challenge! And another good thing was that I did it up in Dublin. It was a good thing to get away from Cork for a while, just to broaden your horizons like.

Me: And you appreciate Cork all the more when you come back.

Seán Óg: Exactly! That was another one of the challenges! 

Me: Just to go back briefly to your formative years: who would have been your influential mentors/coaches growing up? Guys that you'd have thought: "Yeah, he's spot on, he knows what he's at."

Seán Óg: Well the main ones would have been Abie Allen (from Na Piarsaigh Hurling & Football Club) and then Dónal O'Grady (Seán Óg's former teacher and School Principal and former Cork Senior Hurling Manager) and Nicky Barry at the North Mon.

Me: Talking about Dónal O'Grady reminds me of a great story involving Setanta (Seán Og's brother): Setanta was training with the Cork senior hurling team. Donal O'Grady was the manager at the time (2003). Anyway, the players were practising taking points, but Setanta kept smashing the ball into the back of the net. So, Donal O'Grady said: "Em Setanta, we're practising points." To which Setanta replied: "I don't do points!!"
"I don't do points" - Setanta Ó hAilpín in his Cork hurling days

Seán Óg: Yeah, that's a great story!

Me: Would there be any training ground incidents or anecdotes that'd stick out for you?

Seán Óg: Well there's so many. Hmmm....(pause!) Well, when we were playing senior hurling in secondary school, we'd play against different schools from all over the place, places that'd be in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, there was one match we had to play in a place called Effin, Co. Limerick on a filthy, freezing, wet February day. The conditions were so bad that the match had to be called off. On the way back to Cork, one fella says: "Well damn that Effin place anyway!"

Me: Good story. Anyway, moving on a few years to your 2005 All-Ireland speech (please see this YouTube link: but only if you understand Irish):

Me: Anyway, did you make it up yourself?

Seán Óg: No, I can't say I did. I had a fair idea of what I wanted to say, but I had a teacher from the North Mon: Brother Beausang who taught me Irish. I had a fair idea of what I wanted to say, but I went to Brother Beausang to tell the points I wanted covered. In fairness to Brother Beausang, he tidied it up and made it snazzy. To claim that it was originally from me would be a lie.

Me: My favourite line in the speech is: "Níl aon áit ar fud an domhain a mhaith liom níos fearr a bheith ach ANSEO, ag glacadh Corn Liam McCáraigh ar son an foireann Corcaigh sin agus ar son muintir Chorcaí." - Which means: "There's nowhere else in the world I'd rather be than HERE, accepting the Liam McCarthy (All-Ireland) Cup on behalf of this Cork team and on behalf of the people of Cork." - I'm just wondering; do you still feel that way or do you ever think: "Look at the two boys (Seán Óg's brothers Setanta & Aisake) Down Under, playing professional sport and earning a king's ransom. Do you ever think: 'Jesus, I'd love to be down there'?"

Seán Óg: Eh, yeah, it's a question that's put to me a lot James. "Would you give up your Cork hurling years for a chance, would ya?" Well, if I had gotten a chance to play professional sport, I would have taken it. But the chance had long passed me by by the time Setanta and Aisake went Down Under. I always feel I got the next best thing. I wouldn't swap winning All-Irelands with Cork for anything. If I was 18 years of age and Aussie Rules Football (AFL) clubs were after me, I'd have gone for it. But this is 15 years on. To have any chance in Aussie Rules, you need to get over there as soon as you can. The Australian clubs saw Setanta playing minor football and that's how he was spotted.

Me: I remember Setanta from the 2003 All-Ireland Hurling Final, when he scored a brilliant goal in the last minute to give Cork the lead and his first reaction was: "Relax, relax, the game isn't over yet." I thought it showed great maturity as a 20 year-old, having just scored a goal in an All-Ireland Final, with 70,000 people going mad in the stadium, that his first reaction was: "Relax, relax, the game's not over yet." I thought that showed fantastic maturity and presence of mind for a 20 year-old. I was wondering if that's how the Aussie Rules Football (AFL) clubs took notice of him.

Seán Óg: Well yeah, it was partly that I think and partly the gaelic football. I mean, if you'd "Google" Setanta back then (2003), you'd see him there in the All-Ireland Hurling Final. What people don't realise though is that Setanta was being watched by Carlton when he was playing minor football in Cork with (his club) Na Piarsaigh. Then, when Setanta had been Down Under for 12 months or so, Aisake (his brother) got his chance through that.
13,000 miles from home but brothers forever: Setanta & Aisake in Carlton colours: Melbourne,   Australia: circa June 2006


Me: Aisake was down in Carlton in Melbourne with Setanta for four years (2004-2008); but after four years, the club (Carlton) were unwilling to give him a contract. Anyway, he was out on his lurch pretty much and came home. It shows how tough professional sport can be that after four years of hard slog Down Under, Aisake was left with nothing. He then came back to Cork for two years but has just gone back Down Under again to give Aussie Rules another go. I remember from the (2006 RTÉ television) documentary (see video links at the end of this article): the clock would go off at 6:30a.m. in the morning: Setanta (down in Melbourne playing with Carlton), would jump out of bed and knock on Aisake's door, go into Aisake's bedroom  and say: "C'mon Aisake, it's time to get up, let's get going." It's a small thing, but I thought it was really indicative of Setanta's professional,  get-up-and-go attitude.

Seán Óg: Oh yeah, Setanta's (professional) attitude is ahead of anything I've seen.

The Three Amigos: (L to R): Aisake, Setanta & Seán Óg Ó hAilpín
Munster Senior Hurling Final: 
CORK  3-16   -   3-12  Waterford;
Semple Stadium;
Co. Tipperary:
29th June 2003
Seán Óg: Aisake now is back in Australia, back playing Aussie Rules in Melbourne (the city where more than half of all Aussie Rules Football clubs play) but in the Second Division, so he is not getting paid as much as Setanta. Aisake and Setanta are both based in the same city (Melbourne) though, so they can see each other regularly. The Aussie Rules Football (AFL) season is played in the Australian winter (April - September). Playing in the Australian summer would be impossible because the weather would be too hot. It's tough on Aisake, because he was with Carlton (Setanta's club also) for four years but didn't get a contract at the end of it, so he came back here (Cork), before deciding to give it another go Down Under a few months ago. I mean the average life-span of an Aussie Rules player is just 2-3 years!! A lot of it is to do with injuries. The main reason that the life span is so short though is because of the draft system. When you draft in six or seven players, six or seven guys have to miss out. So, if you don't make it fairly fast, someone else will take your place fairly soon.

Me: I mean, you hear people say: oh, fellas have the life of Reilly Down Under playing Aussie Rules, with the sun, sea, sand etc, but, people that think it's all about havin' the craic are fooling themselves.

Seán Óg: It's not as glamorous as people make it out to be. All of that, (getting a professional playing contract) it's just a step in the door, and it's what you do after you step through that door (after getting a professional contract), that decides where you're going to go. I mean, obviously, you need a bit of luck as well. Everybody needs a bit of luck in life or the bounce of the ball. There's a bit of luck to it, but there's a lot of hard slog to it too. And it's an even harder slog when (like Setanta), you're only picking up the game at 18 or 19 years of age (or in Setanta's case: 20 years of age). You're competing against the best of Australians, who've been playing Aussie Rules (Football) since they were five or six years old. I mean, just flip it the other way, if you had an Australian coming here at 18 or 19 years of age and started playing hurling and wanted to go down to Páirc Uí Chaoimh (Ireland's main GAA stadium apart from Croke Park) - I mean - a fella would laugh at you if you said you wanted to do it. There's a lot more people fail than succeed in Aussie Rules - and the stats are there. I mean, there's one in a million do as well as Jim Stynes (an Irish man who won almost every award in Aussie Rules Football).
Melbourne Demons retire Jim Stynes #37 shirt

Me: I mean, the reason that people like Jim Stynes are so well known is that so few people reach the level that he reached. Jim Stynes story is the greatest  Aussie Rules story - he won more than any Australian ever won. However, stories like Jim Stynes' story are one in a million. 
Martin Clarke: returned from"Down"Under

"All I ever wanted was to be a professional athlete......"
.....Well, you're a professional athlete now Setanta ;-)
A professional athlete earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year
Seán Óg: So when people say, "Oh, I'd love to play Aussie Rules" - there's a hell of a lot more guys fail than make it in Australia. Just this year, a top Down player; Martin Clarke (left) came back from Oz after failing in Aussie Rules, and he went on to play in the 2010 GAA All - Ireland Football Final a few months ago. There's countless other guys that fail Down Under like. I wouldn't knock a fella for taking the chance though. It takes more mental courage to take the plane Down Under than to stay at home. I mean, going down to Australia, it's not like it's England, Australia is the other end of the World. I mean,  that's the hardest thing with Setanta being Down Under, the family only see him once a year like. And sometimes even less than that. Setanta hasn't been home to Cork for four years now. He's got a new circle of friends in Australia and his friends in Cork have moved on. Setanta said to me there last November: "There's no point in coming back to Cork for two weeks over Christmas and I'll have to get used to the weather and everything and then I'm back on the plane again. And all my friends in Ireland have moved on anyway." I wouldn't rule out the possibility of him coming home and playing with Cork again though - he's said he'd like to. It all depends on his contract this year at Carlton. If he doesn't get another contract with Carlton, will he move on to another club? Would another club want him? There's a lot of variables. Hopefully the fact that he's out of contract at the end of the year will make him more employable. What started off as: "Look, I'll give it a try, if I get to play one game of Aussie Rules, it'll have been a success to come down here", is now a career for Setanta. I mean he started off saying, "Look, sure we've a game at the weekend," but now; it's "work, work, work." It's not a hobby at all for Setanta - it's a full-time job: a  very different World to GAA.
When he went over to Australia in 2003, he was a stick, but now he's a big, powerful man, he must weigh about 110kg. I mean you're not going to be messing with him like. When you become a professional sportsman: you have to adapt.

Me:  We spoke about Setanta coming back to Cork, and I mean, surely he has no more than five years left in Aussie Rules?
"When small boys get tired, big boys don't get small"

Sean Óg: Funny enough; the fact that Setanta started playing Aussie Rules later than other fellas means he'll probably be able to continue playing until later than fellas who started playing Aussie Rules very young. I mean, Setanta doesn't have as many miles on the clock as a lot of the fellas he's playing with and against. Anyway, there's only so much the body can take, but the fact that he started playing at a later age will mean that he'll also be able to continue playing until a later age at the other end. A lot of Australians, by their late twenties, the body starts to break down or the appetite diminishes. I mean, Setanta has been playing Aussie Rules for eight years, but the first three years was just acclimatising to the game and he never got close to the first team. So, in reality, he's only been playing for five years. Also, in Aussie Rules; taller fellas (Setanta Ó hAilpín is 1.99m or 6'5") have a longer life span in the game because they are needed more in the game. A lot of things have changed in the 100 years of professional Aussie Rules, but only one thing has stayed the same, and that's the "mark." And who do you see taking the marks? It's the big boys. So, there's always a need for big, tall players in Aussie Rules. I mean the smaller guys play in midfield and use their pace, but these fellas will burn out much sooner. The tall guys usually take a catch, pass, the ball on or take a goal and not be running around all over the place. This means, the taller guys have a longer lifespan. There's a saying in Aussie Rules: "When the small fellas get tired, the tall fellas don't get smaller." Then, towards the end of the game, they start bombing high balls forward, if a team is losing and chasing the game especially. So there's a possibility that Setanta could eke out another five years in Aussie Rules because there'll always be a need for big, tall fellas like Setanta in Aussie Rules. Depending on injuries, he might even manage another 7 or 8 years. The guys taking the big, high balls are more open and more vulnerable to taking hits from opponents, as well though, and you're also vulnerable to big impact injuries when you're falling from such a height. So Setanta's Aussie Rules future depends on a lot of factors. The reason he's in Melbourne is his work and he loves his work, but when he's finished his work, well, who knows. He could come back here to Cork. It might be five years time, it could be three years, or even next year. He's made a very good living for himself down in Australia though. Again, he's very much into the psychology like - ten years down the line is like another lifetime; there's no point in looking that far ahead. 

Me: Moving on and onto a more serious topic: The Cork GAA Player's Strikes. The first strike by the Cork hurlers was back in 2002 and it was because the Cork team weren't getting taken care of properly by the Cork County Board. Then, the second strike, in 2007 was over managers not being allowed to choose their own selectors. Some people were like: "Ya know, this isn't really an issue for the players" - but at the same time, the players are part of the set-up, they have their own voice and their own agendas as well like. So looking back, what do you think yourself, do you have any regrets?

Seán Óg: Basically, players weren't getting proper meals or adequate training gear and expenses etc (in 2002). Something had to be done, we had to take a stand. There were Cork "fans" on the radio after Cork had been hammered by Galway in 2002, these "fans" were saying that the players were a disgrace to the jersey and these "fans" didn't have a clue what was going on behind the scenes. If they (the fans) had known what was going on, they'd have had a different opinion of us players. Did it really need to happen: "No." If all things were well, No. If the players were allowed to train and the administrators did their own job, there'd be no need to strike. If the players were treated fairly, there'd be no need to strike. I mean, it must take something very bad, if people are playing sport as a hobby, it must take something very bad for them to go on strike because the players love to play. Back in 2002, things were pretty bad.

Me: Well yeah, there's no argument with 2002.
Brothers in Arms: 2007 Cork hurlers strike

Seán Óg: I mean, fans, when they're watching a match, they don't have a clue what's happening behind the line with the players. And when they see rubbish dished up, they're saying: "This isn't good enough" and whatever, but, they don't know what's going on behind the scenes like. I think 2002 needed to happen, to paint a picture to the people. In an ideal world, it wouldn't have happened, if there were structures put into place where people can get the best out of their time. Players feel that they're being taken for granted. I mean, players are sacrificing a lot of time/wages and what not to play Gaelic games. In 2007, it was more of a football problem, but the hurlers backed them because the administrators are all the same for both hurling and football. In 2007, the issue was that managers were not being allowed to choose their own selectors. After 2002, Cork won two All-Irelands in a few years so people were thinking: "Oh yeah, the players were dead right" and the players got very popular because of their stance and their success. So in 2007 the players felt a stance needed to be made to help the managers.

Me: Any regrets?

Seán Óg: No, no regrets at all. I definitely feel that the strike shouldn't have happened, because I mean if the (Cork) County Board took a hammering, we as players took an awful hammering too. I mean, people were thinking: "Jesus, not again, the players are cribbin' again." And I mean, to this day, there's people who still won't give me the time of day because of those strikes. But, do I regret the strikes? No, no regrets whatsoever, once you can identify your beliefs and what you're fighting for and your benefits. I mean, these benefits weren't selfish benefits. I'd hate to see in 20 years time, when I'm well gone like that players would have to be subject to missing out on things like proper welfare. Also, a lot of things get tangled up in a strike: I mean, people twist stories to suit their own agendas. I mean this crack of saying that the strike was all about money and professionalism, that's total bullshit. 

Me: Like one year, Paddy Power wanted to pay you €500 to put their logo on your hurley and the GAA wouldn't allow it. I mean, the GAA is earning millions of euro each weekend of the summer, surely the players deserve to see some financial rewards? So, you didn't see any of that €500 in the end did you?

Seán Óg: No, no, nothing at all.

Me: That's something now that annoys me.

Seán Óg: This goes back to the fans again, I mean, they don't know what's going on behind the scenes. But, because there's a culture of: "Look, lads, the GAA lads, just put up with it." 

Me: The fact is that the money being earned by the GAA (from gate receipts etc.) is not going to the people who are generating the revenue (i.e. the players).

Seán Óg: True, true.

Me: So, what would be your view on professional in the GAA?

Seán Óg: I got totally slated last year when I did an interview with an Irish newspaper in Irish. It got translated into English and the story was taken out of context. Basically, I said that "I'd love to see GAA players getting paid, but the money isn't there." This was then translated into English as: "Oh, Seán Óg says the GAA should go professional" - and I got my head taken off for it. There is not enough money in the game to sustain players being paid. I mean, it (the GAA), is not England, it's not a worldwide game. Our playing season, I mean to win the All-Ireland, you play six games in a season if you go the back-door or four games if you go the front door. That just isn't enough games to sustain paying players on a regular basis. 

Me: At the same time though, the money that's in the GAA isn't simply from gate recceipts; that isn't the only revenue in the GAA, I mean there's plenty people in Cork buy the Cork GAA jerseys and tracksuits etc. I mean, that money isn't just vanishing, it's going to O'Neills (the kit manufacturer) and etc. At the same time though, this crack of €5,000 a week for a GAA player; forget about it.
Players should see money generated from a packed Croke Park

Seán Óg: Oh yeah, forget about it. While pay isn't necessary, compensation is necessary for GAA players. While full-time GAA professionalism isn't feasible, compensation is definitely feasible. I mean an idea would be that a certain amount of the gate receipts at GAA matches should get paid out to the players for holiday funds and etc. Like I mean, the way it is: you have a big game on the Sunday in front of 50,000 plus people and hundreds of thousands watching on TV. Next day, you go to work and you've got workmates cribbing: "Oh, Jesus Christ, that's not good enough, that fella was terrible, you were terrible." And I'm like: "I should still be in bed. I should be in bed til 11 o'clock in the morning the day after a game, but instead I have to get up and go to work!" But we put up with it. If I was asked again, I definitely think GAA players should be remunerated, but the money isn't there to sustain full-time professionalism. I like to think that some day that if James Clancy plays a big inter-county game, that he'll maybe get €1,000 or €2,000 for a game. 

Me: I mean, there is money there like: at Croke Park, you've got average gates of 50,000 plus per week and these people are paying €40 - €50 for a ticket each. So, there is money there. In reality though, for professionalism to be sustainable, there needs to be reforms. For one, the season needs to become a 20 game season.

Seán Óg: Oh, at least. It won't happen in hurling anyway. There just aren't enough teams in hurling like. I mean, there's no more than five or six counties at the business end of the
The GAA: slow to reform
season, because hurling is so much more skillful and a much tougher game than (gaelic) football, it means fewer teams are competetive in hurling. Stuff definitely needs to be revamped and reformed, but, while I'd never knock my experiences with the GAA, it's an organisation that's slow to change. 

Me: I actually think that the fact that Denis Walsh (Cork hurling manager) retired you cost him his job. But, I remember in December 2003, when Setanta went down to Australia, I thought; where are Cork going to get goals from. I mean, Setanta was called "Santa" because he brought us the gift of goals. But in 2004, Cork went on to win the All-Ireland, which is the aim of the ball game. 
Devastated: Setanta after 2003 All-Ireland loss
What did Setanta think himself in 2004; did he think: "I wish I'd stayed on in Cork another year" (so as to win the All-Ireland which Cork did win in 2004 and make up for the loss of the All-Ireland Final in 2003).....?

Seán Óg: Yeah, he came back to Cork for the (AFL) off-season in 2004 and he was at the game (the All-Ireland Final in 2004). I mean, he was delighted for me and the Cork team, but I know that deep down inside, it'd rip him to bits to miss out on playing in an All-Ireland winning Cork side. And he still does feel that he's had no redemption since 2003 (and Cork's All-Ireland Final loss to Kilkenny). Knowing Setanta; the only way he'd see redemption for 2003 (All-Ireland loss) now would be to go and win an Aussie Rules (AFL) Grand Final. He saw Cork players get redemption back in 2004, they got their All-Irelands, but he missed out. If he'd have been human at all, he'd have been hurt. But, at the same time, he'd be delighted for us to win the All-Ireland. I think what strengthened his resolve was that he left Dublin after the 2004 All-Ireland, he drove down from Dublin, he stopped at a shop and had some smart alec tell him: "Look at you, ya eejit, you went down to Australia to play some useless game and you missed out on this (Cork winning the All-Ireland)." I'd say after that, he had a mini-talk to himself  that really strengthed his resolve to make a go of it in Australia. He had given up so much in Cork like, it was really a challenge then to make it in Australia.

Me: It goes back to Setanta's decision to go to play professionally in Australia though, was it a hard decision for him to make? What was your advice to him?

Seán Óg: I mean I said to him; "Look, I've been playing with the Cork Senior Hulers for eight years (this is back in late 2003) and I'm still living at home with the parents like, which I was at the time. I don't have my own place, my pockets aren't bulging with cash. You have to make the most of your talents Setanta. If I was your age - whit - I'd be gone. I knew the Aussie Rules journey was going to be hard for him though." It's an opportunity that you have to go for really, if you make it in Australia, you wouldn't be earning as much as the guys in the Premier League in England, but you'd have your mortgage paid off within a few years easily. So, you should go for it I said, give it (professional Aussie Rules) a lash. 

Me: I was thinking, and I think we mentioned earlier that Setanta's height - of over 6'5" would be a help to him. Would he be one of the tallest players in Aussie Rules?

Seán Óg: No, no, he's average height; you'd get plenty of guys in Aussie Rules who are 6'7" or 6'8" or 6'9" - a lot of smaller guys too though; guys that are 5'11" or 6' tall.

Me: Moving on from that anyway, you were mentioning about the guy at the train station - the idiot after the (2004) All-Ireland Final who was giving Setanta stick. Just talking about small mindedness, I mean, I know that Setanta has experienced some severe racism Down Under, I just wonder, did you and your family experience racism when you came to Ireland originally in the 1980's?

Seán Óg: What, growing up? Ah yeah. I don't think that should come as a shock to anyone. I mean there wasn't much ethnic communities in Ireland at the time.

Me: And of course, anything "different" is wrong.

Seán Óg: Ireland, even to this day hasn't adapted to the worldwide revolution, so you can imagine what we were subjected to.

Me: And was it serious, or was it intimidating or....?

Seán Óg: It'd be kinda stupid comments and poisonous venomous stuff as well though. And I'd have gotten it from the stands as well in my Cork playing days. At that stage though, we were so headstrong and determined to make the best out of life here that you just stick with it. It's like short-term pain for long-term gain.

Me: And would there ever have been anything physical?

Seán Óg: No, no, thankfully not.

Me: Well, that's something anyway.

Seán Óg: So, was racism an issue in Ireland growing up? Of course it was. But getting involved in sport transcended our integration into Irish society. I never had any (racist) problems from my own team-mates though. Opposition players, yes, we'd have gotten racism from them, but that was mainly to put you off your game.
Dónal Óg Cusack: misunderstood

Me: Speaking of small-mindedness and ignorance, this leads me onto Dónal Óg Cusack (Cork's Senior Inter-County hurling goalkeeper who was won two All-Stars and three All-Irelands). He "came out" as being gay a few years ago. Anyway, I have a quote from you here Seán Óg, which says: "In some quarters, Dónal Óg (Cusack) is just not liked." Is that simply because of his sexuality, or.....? 

Seán Óg: No. It's nothing to do with his sexuality whatsoever. I mean, I like to think that I'm in a good position to judge Dónal Óg. I've known him since we played together for Cork at Under 14 level and all the way up along to senior and winning 3 All-Irelands together. To be honest, at Under 14 level, I wouldn't really have gotten to know Dónal Óg, because at that level, it's just a novelty. I mean, you only have a few training sessions and a few games a year at that level. You really get to know guys in the Cork set-up at Senior level, because at Senior level, you're training together 3 or 4 times a week and you're going away for weekends together for games and going on holidays to-gether and stuff. You're basically living together for nine months, because you're training for nine months a year together on the inter-county scene. Dónal Óg is misunderstood, definitely, because people don't know him. They don't know him the same way I'd have known him. I've been lucky enough to play with him and train with him. All the negative flak he gets is to do with one thing only: people don't know him. I mean, back in 2002 (and the Cork hurler's strike), he was the first person to stand up. If I (or anyone else) had been the first person to speak up (about the poor treatment of the Cork hurlers), I'd have gotten the grief over it. I mean, ever since then, everyone has been saying: "Oh, Dónal Óg is the ring master, he's a trouble maker etc." And that's totally wrong like. The only reason people don't like him and the only reason they give him stick, is because he was the first guy to speak up. When we got hammered in 2002 by Galway in the (All-Ireland Senior Hurling) qualifiers, he spoke up on a chat show on (Cork radio station:) 96FM and Cork "fans" were saying that the players had no respect for the jersey. He (Dónal Óg) said: "Hold on, if you knew what the players had to deal with, you'd understand a (poor) performance like that." So basically; ever since then, it's stuck with him that he's a trouble maker etc when, all he wanted to do was back up the players. I mean, he's a very unselfish guy.

Me: Exactly. I mean he was putting his head on the block. 

Seán Óg: Unbelieveable like. And not many people see that. And not many people would do it (Take the stance that Dónal Óg took for the Cork players). A lot of detractors or enemies would coin him as a troublemaker and say that any time there's a strike, he's the one starting it. And that's totally wrong. And that's why I would back him to the hilt. About his homosexuality, that hasn't anything to do with it. If anything, it's fortified my respect for him. 

Me: We'll say in the dressing-room or whatever, would there be a problem?

Seán Óg: None whatsoever.

Me: Obviously though, from the terraces (at matches) is different though?

Seán Óg: Well yeah, it would be different. Fans have a place in sport, watching games or whatever, but the beauty about it is that they don't determine whether you win or lose a game. What determines that is the guys inside the white line and Dónal Óg was, still is and will be an integral part of the playmakers that determine the result. I mean, it doesn't matter whether Seán Óg is half-Fijian, or Dónal Óg is gay or someone else is whatever, once you're inside the white line, you're the guys that decide who wins and who loses. It doesn't matter, once you give it 100% for Cork and the guys up in the terraces can say whatever they want, but they won't affect the result. There needs to be a separation between the players and the fans, but you couldn't have one without the other. I mean, Dónal Óg has been a phenomenal goalkeeper for Cork.

Me: Would you see him as Cork captain in the future?

Seán Óg: I think he should be Cork captain already, but there's too much politics involved in the Cork set-up for him to get the captaincy. There's still deep wounds there, if he was named captain, there'd be trouble. If I was a manager though, I'd name him as captain long ago.

Me: Do you ever think, maybe managers think: "Goalkeeper isn't a good position to be captain, because they're too far away from the play." I mean, what would your opinion on that be Seán Óg: do you think a goalkeeper could make a captain?

Seán Óg: Certainly. 

Me: Speaking as a goalkeeper myself, I'm glad you said that!
Anyway, speaking about all these strikes and whatever, there's a lot of people listening to/reading this interview who won't be from Cork, who'll be wondering: "What the hell are they on about strikes and whatever,"  however, most people listening/reading will be Irish. So, I'm just wondering; what would be your opinion of the Irish 2002 World Cup Saipan, Roy Keane debacle? I mean, obviously, it's nothing to do with you and nothing to do with me. But, I mean; what would have been your own personal opinion on the whole Saipan thing?

Seán Óg: I personally would have had a lot of sympathy for Roy Keane. I'd be more on Roy Keane's side to be honest.
Ireland 2002 World Cup manger Mick McCarthy & 'keeper Given
Keane: Controversial, Confrontational, Cunt

Me: Well, I'd be the opposite! Don't get me wrong, I've dealt with the FAI (Football Association of Ireland) for years, I've played League of Ireland and whatever. And I mean, last season: I was playing for Cobh Ramblers and there was a few players couldn't start the season because the FAI had lost their registration forms! It was an accident, but you don't hear about these sort of things happening with other sporting governing bodies. And I read John Giles autobiography recently and he said that the first time he was called into the Republic of Ireland Senior International squad (1959), the method of notification from the FAI was that they (the FAI) told the newspapers, the newspapers published the squad list and the FAI hoped that the players would read about being selected for Ireland in the newsapaper!! I mean,  don't get me wrong, back in 2002, the FAI wasn't good enough: with the balls being late and the gear being late and the pitch being too hard. But at the same time, you don't walk out on your team, especially not at the World Cup. None of the other Irish players walked out - or wanted to walk out. At the same time, there's two sides to every story and we don't know everything that went on, but I still feel that you shouldn't walk out on your country. Don't get me wrong; the FAI is a shambles.  A journalist once said: "The FAI is the dysfunctional organisation which other dysfunctional organisations call 'Galacticos'" - and I couldn't agree more with that. At the same time, you don't walk out on your team. Anyway, moving swiftly along, before there's trouble!! 
CLUBS: the lifeblood of the GAA

We'll say, getting back to Na Piarsaigh; everyone says that the clubs are the lifeblood of the GAA. I remember Graham Canty (Cork's 2010 All-Ireland Football winning captain) saying at the Homecoming for the Cork team: "I'd like to thank all the clubs in every village, in every Parish, in every town and every city in this country. Without them, we would not be here tonight." If you had a choice between an All-Ireland with Na Piarsaigh (Seán Óg's club) or an All-Ireland with Cork, which would you choose?

Seán Óg:  That's a hard one. That's a very hard one. The club'd argue that without them, there'd be no Cork. And I suppose, (PAUSE); if I was to put my head on the block, I'd say; "An All-Ireland with the club."

Me: Is that because you've never won one?

Seán Óg: That could be partly the reason. But the main reason is that it's where you're nurtured from day one and it's where you're going to finish up. I made good friends from my Cork days, but my closest friends would be from Piarsaighs. It's like the "chicken and egg" theory: like, without the club, you wouldn't get to go on to Cork, but being involved with Cork has benefitted my performances with the club because you're playing with better players (at inter-county level), you've better training techniques etc. And when you're playing with better players, you become a better player yourself.

Me: It's an almost impossible question really.

Seán Óg: I mean, it's a very hard one to answer, but, if I was to put my head on the block, I'd probably say slightly to win an All-Ireland with the club.

Me: Just one last question: in 2004 you won an All-Star and you were voted "Hurler of the Year." In terms of your proudest achievement, would it be something like that, or what would it be?
Brothers and winners together

Seán Óg: My proudest achievement? Hmmm; proudest achievement: I've been lucky enough to share success James in the last 14 or 15 years I've been involved with Cork. All the achievements are special. I mean, in 2003, me and Setanta playing senior level (with Na Piarsaigh and Cork), that made me very proud. My proudest moments would have been togging out with Setanta and Aisake at Senior hurling level. Eventhough there's six years between me and Setanta and eight years between me and Aisake, they would have lived it all with me. They would have gone to my training sessions and to my matches, and through that then, that gave them the ambition to represent Cork. So, having grown up together in the same household, with the same ambition and to share that ambition, that's what it's all about.  

Me: I remember seeing the (2006 RTÉ) documentary; "Tall, Dark  & Ó hAilpín" and the two boys (Setanta and Aisake) are watching the All-Ireland Final (which Cork lost to Kilkenny) and the two boys were devastated to see Seán Óg miss out on the "Three In A Row." Also, when Setanta played  his first AFL match: the cameras showed Aisake in the crowd watching, and he was pure nervous for Setanta to do well. It obviously means a lot to ye.

Seán Óg: Of course it does. When you have someone close to you, you feel the same emotions, there's a connection. On top of playing with my brothers for Cork: the All-Ireland wins of 1999, 2004 and '05 meant a lot to me as well. If you told me back in 1996 that I'd have 14 or 15 years with Cork and win 3 All-Ireland's; I'd laugh at you because, eventhough I had dreams of fulfillling that, to achieve it was very special.

Me: You mentioned '99 (winning the All-Ireland): is the first one always the best? 

Seán Óg: It's sweet. The first one is always the sweetest but, unfortunately, you don't appreciate it until afterwards and the reason why I never appreciated it in '99 was: we were a young team and we thought: "This is the way it's going to be every year." But then it took 5 years to win another All-Ireland, which was very special.

Me: So, you'd put 2004 up there with '99?

Seán Óg: Oh, big time yeah!

Me:  What about 2005 when you captained Cork to the All-Ireland, was that extra special?

Seán Óg:  To be honest, a lot of people would see that as a special moment, but there's 15 captains on an All-Ireland team. You're a figurehead (as captain), but that's it. I mean, anyone could have been captain of that team, it was a very good panel. That was an enjoyable year though, because it's not every year that your club wins the County championship, which gives you the chance to captain Cork. Though that's not the way anymore. That goes back to the strike (in 2007 - Cork hurlers), it was seen as a sweetner for a manager to not be allowed choose his selectors but he could choose his captain.

Me: These rules have all been sorted out with managers and selectors now though?

Seán Óg: Oh yeah, the manager now can choose his own selectors, which is the way it should be, but the strikes did no good for Cork GAA, it stymied the progress of Cork teams.

Me: Moving on; what do you like to do outside GAA? What sports or interests would you have?

Seán Óg: I follow Setanta playing Aussie Rules Down Under. I can see him live, which is great. I don't know the ins and outs of the game, but you can praise him and give him support if he does well in a game. It's more for moral support than anything. I've visited him in Australia and it's a lonely road for him - especially starting off. Starting off, it was very hard for him, because for every good day he'd have, he'd probably have 10 bad days. You don't see these things and Setanta doesn't crib, but it's not easy for him. I mean, it's mainly moral support we try to give him, you know, we're behind you and we're here for you we tell him. So mainly AFL, is what I spend  most of my spare time on.  A lot of people would think playing hurling would give you an advantage with golf, but I just wouldn't have the patience for it.

Me:  I suppose, to finish up: you're obviously tipping away in the bank, but where do you see your sporting/GAA future?

Jimmy Barry Murphy: Gave Seán Óg a second chance
Seán Óg: I'll play with Na Piarsaigh for the next couple of years touch wood - hurling and football and after that, I'll start gradually getting into underage coaching. I'd probably see my talent best used in sport, dealing with underage kids.  I admit I never expected to pull on the Rebel jersey again, after being cut from the squad by outgoing Cork senior hurling manager Denis Walsh last season.  I was ecstatic when I got the call (to the Cork set-up).  I never believed I'd get a second chance and I'll be forever grateful to Jimmy Barry-Murphy for this opportunity.

Me: We were talking earlier about high-level sport and there's a lot of egos and a lot of yelling and roaring and grabbing fellas by the neck and stuff. It's not pleasant to be around. 

Seán Óg: I've sat in dressiong rooms and I've played opposition players and I have no problem with a fella if he talks the talk and can back it up. But there's fellas who've taken short cuts and they think they're the business. And they blame everyone except themselves and they look for other excuses and basically that's at adult level and at adult level you're supposed to be more mature and more wise and that you're responsible for your downfalls. Not everyone is though. If your downfalls are your own fault, then look at yourself in the mirror and the easy option is: "Ah, I'll blame James, I'll blame Seán Óg, I'll blame this, that and the other." So, I don't see myself working well with those sorts of people.

Me: And the sad thing is that those sorts of people comprise a fairly sizeable percentage, certainly from my point of view and judging from your point of view, it's been the same experience for yourself. At the same time, I've dealt with great people  at adult level as well, but there's definitely plenty that aren't great. 

Seán Óg: When you're dealing with underage, the ego is stripped and basically, they just want to learn and they do it for the enjoyment of it. At adult level, there's far too much ego and nonsense basically. 

Me: I think I told you before, when I saw your interview in the newspaper (November 16th, Irish Examiner), where you said you wanted to coach kids and not get involved in senior inter-county coaching. It was as if you took the words out of my head, when you said that at adult level, there's so many egos etc and that at underage level, they just want to learn, have some enjoyment and there's no hidden agendas.
Kids: Our future, my future, the future

Seán Óg: I'd like to pass on the wisdom that I've learned over the last 15 years at inter-county level. I'll need to upskill with Coaching badges etc. I mean, the game moves on with sport science and people changing and the game changes over time, so you've got to upskill and move with the times. I've been very lucky and and I'd like to give something back. I'd hate to hear someone say: "Jesus Christ, he got all he wanted out of the game, but wouldn't put it back." I mean, as it is, I've done my fair share, I've been asked to go to clubs and do coaching sessions and talk to players. I would have done my own fair share already and I look forward to working with the new generation.

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The Ó hAilpín Brothers BIOGRAPHY:

Seán Óg in full flight
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín was a senior inter-county hurler with Cork from 1996 - 2010; when manager Denis Walsh retired him. Seán Óg won 3 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Titles (1999, 2004 and '05) with "The Rebels" and played senior inter-county football with the county from 1996 - 2001. He nearly completed the Dual Double of All-Ireland Hurling & Football Titles in 1999, but Cork lost the All-Ireland Football Final to Meath two weeks after Cork's hurlers had beaten Kilkenny. If he had achieved that feat, he would have been the second person (after Cork's Teddy McCarthy in 1990), to win the Dual Double in the same year. Seán Óg was 2004 (All-Star, Gaelic Player's Association & Texaco) "Hurler of the Year"; crowning his career by captaining Cork to the 2005 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Title with victory over Galway.  Seán Óg also won two Cork Senior Hurling Championship Titles (1995 & 2004) with his club Na Piarsaigh as well as numerous under-age medals.
          Seán Óg was selected for the Ireland International Rules Team in 2004 and '05 and played in all four Tests (two in 2004 and two in '05) as Ireland won the first Series at home but were defeated Down Under.


You never forget you're Irish - even if you're on the other side of the World
Setanta Ó hAilpín was born in Sydney in 1983 before moving with his parents and brothers (Seán Óg, Teu and Aisake) to Cork. Setanta was a leading light with his club Na Piarsaigh at underage level and was a Cork senior hurler (and minor, U-21 footballer) before his 20th birthday. He sadly and famously lost the 2003 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final with Cork before his football talents were spotted by Melbourne Australian Rules Football (AFL) club Carlton Blues and Setanta went for a six-week trial with the club in late 2003. Setanta was offered a two year rookie contract and after playing in the Victorian (Junior) Football League for two years he suitably impressed and was offered a further playing contract in 2005. He made his AFL debut in 2005, but injury stunted his progress. Setanta  was placed on Carlton's senior list in 2006 and played in the final ten games of the season. Setanta has become a Carlton crowd favourite and played his 50th AFL game in 2009, the third Irishman (after Tadhg Kennelly and Jim Stynes) to achieve that feat. Early in the 2010 AFL season, Setanta had become the regular full-forward in the Blues line-up, kicking an average of two goals per game. Later in the 2010 season, he became the first Irish man to kick five goals in an AFL game. Setanta has one year left on his contract with the Blues and towards the end of the 2010 season had been in and out of the Carlton starting line-up. There had been unfounded speculation in the Australian media that Setanta might be traded to another club, but Setanta is not a quitter and he will fight for his starting place at Carlton - and will fight with all his heart.  At the end of the 2011 season, Setanta moved to new Sydney franchise Greater Syndey Football Club.


Aisake: making a go of it again Down Under - but a REBEL forever
Aisake Ó hAilpín was also born in Bankstown, Sydney in 1985 before the family moved to Ireland (Cork) shortly afterwards. Aisake established himself as a prominent underage hurler and footballer with his club Na Piarsaigh before being drafted by Austalian Rules Football (AFL) club, Carlton Blues in late 2004 and Aisake duly followed his brother Setanta to Melbourne. After four years as a rookie at the Blues, Aisake failed to secure a contract and thus returned to Cork. He played with the Cork and Na Piarsaigh seniors in the 2009 and '10 Championship before returning Down Under and a return to Aussie Rules with another Melbourne club. Aisake has since taken up modelling and moved the city of his and his brother Setanta's birth. The twin tower brothers see each other regularly.

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