Sean Ó Sé reflects on the retirement of Cork hurling’s greatest, and most controversial, figures.
The exclusion of Seán Óg Ó hAilpín from the Cork panel for the inter county league and championship was surprising to many. Not because a player who has given so many years to his county will be hanging up his boots and calling it a day, but because of the manner in which his departure from the panel took place. In a statement released through the Gaelic Players Association, Ó hAilpín said:
“I met with the Cork hurling manager, Denis Walsh, where he informed me that I was not in his plans for the Cork Hurling Panel. I would love to continue to play for Cork, but I must respect the manager’s decision in this regard. I will however keep playing with my club Na Piarsaigh. I would like to thank all the players who I played with over my fourteen year career. I have always taken immense pride in wearing the Cork jersey and representing the county I love (…) Corcaigh abú.”
What is interesting from this statement is that Ó hAilpín’s retirement seems to have been pushed on him rather then being instigated by the man himself. Usually when a player retires from inter-county level it will be on the their own terms. A player who is getting on in years or who is spending too many games on the benches will often realise that it is time to go. Yet from the above statement, it appears that he had no intention to leave and was surprised by Cork manager Denis Walsh’s decision. Ó hAilpín is clearly of the opinion that he did not retire willingly but rather the decision was made for him.
Seán Óg made his inter-county debut for Cork in 1996. For the past fourteen years he has been a key player on a side that has had some great victories. Playing at wing back, he became part of a famous Cork defense that included hurlers such as Diarmuid ‘The Rock’ O’Sullivan. Since coming on in the Munster Championship in 1996, he has only missed one championship game at inter-county level, which is an amazing feat. He was also a very important member of the Cork senior football team for a period during the 1990s, playing in both the 1999 hurling and football finals.
He went on to win All-Ireland medals in 1999, 2004, and memorably in 2005 when he captained the side and made a famous speech in Irish after being presented with the Liam McCarthy Cup. Dan Shanahan has remarked that “I wouldn’t have much Irish myself but that was incredible for a fella coming from Fiji, and it really summed him up.”
Yet Ó hAilpín’s career has also been sullied by strikes and feuds with the county board, the first of which occurred in the winter of 2002. It was bitterly fought, but public support was on the side of the players and the board gave way to the demands of the players. This did not put matters to bed, however, and history repeated itself in 2008/2009. This second strike divided public opinion in Cork. Many believed that the players were going too far in their demands and that they should leave the manager and the county board do their job. Others maintained that the hurlers were right to strike in their fight for fair treatment. It’s still a contentious topic in Cork, with some believing that Ó hAilpín’s retirement is a chance for hurling to move on, while other see it as a local hero being betrayed.
One fact that no Cork citizen, nor any GAA fan in the country, will deny is that Seán Óg Ó hAilpín was one of the greatest players to ever grace the hallowed ground of Croke Park. Aside from his involvement in the players strike, he has be thoroughly respected by fellow players and fans of the sport. He has been a fantastic representative, not only of GAA but of an Irish identity for a rapidly-changing country. A famous quote from an equally-famous broadcaster, Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, sums up what Ó hAilpín represented in the GAA: “his father’s from Fermanagh, his mother is from Fiji, neither a hurling stronghold”. Without doubt he will be missed by rebel and non-rebel alike.