Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
Sunday Stage

My grandfather, sporting memories and a Kerry team playing on All-Ireland hurling final day

Next Sunday is a landmark day for Kerry hurling.

IN SEPTEMBER 1992, watching on from his home in North Kerry, the achievement of a team clad in green and gold made quite an impression on my grandfather.

Maybe it was the colours of the Donegal jersey that Patie O’Sullivan warmed to or their historic breakthrough in winning Sam Maguire for the first time.

Either way he figured there was only one place to head to the following week.

A retired farmer at the age of 74, and a man with no reluctance to embark on journeys alone, he headed off from Banemore, about five miles north of the village of Ardfert. Got dropped into Tralee, boarded a bus to Limerick and then jumped on another to Galway.

There was no real plan nailed down on where to stay that first night but a man with the capacity to strike up a conversation with anyone was not going to be caught out. The bus driver had a link to a B&B in Connemara, Patie stayed there and the following morning he was back on a bus to his destination of Donegal Town.

In a county engulfed in giddy celebrations after a landmark win, he found himself at ease. The pubs were full, the people were warm and inviting, and a traveller from Kerry was always going to be welcomed.

An enquiry was made at one stage as to whether Patie, who had lived his whole life in a county which has dominated the sport, had ever played a bit of Gaelic football himself.

“Ah I did, I played minor for Kerry.”

When he was later told the story, my father pointed out the central flaw that county recognition had eluded Patie O’Sullivan.

“But sure how was anybody in Donegal going to know that I didn’t?”, came the quite reasonable reply to justify this bending of the truth in a time far removed from fact-checking.

I have never tired of hearing the retelling of that story and imagining how enjoyable that 1992 trip must have been for him. He had put down a few hard years. His daughter, my mother, passed away in 1988. His wife, my grandmother, passed away in 1991.

If those times were tough, I remember him up until he died in 1999 at the age of 81, as a man of great spirit, a strong manner for expressing his views, a deep passion for sport and a devout faith to his county of Kerry.

This week, building up to the All-Ireland hurling final in December, he would have been in his element.

Sunday in Croke Park is about Limerick and Waterford and the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

But it is also about Kerry and Antrim and the Joe McDonagh Cup, a moment for the other side of hurling to perform under the same spotlight.

Kerry booked their place in the decider a few weeks ago. They trailed by two heading down the stretch in Tralee but overhauled Carlow to win by two. The platform for the Kerry win was constructed by the pair of first-half goals struck by Daniel Collins, his home is the neighbouring farm in Banemore to that where Patie O’Sullivan spent his life.

As the eldest grandchild and the only one living in Ireland at the time, I spent plenty younger days in that part of the world in Kerry when despatched on summer holidays, school breaks and the odd weekend. There was no shortage of family members to be looked after by, Patie had seven children with my aunt Catherine and uncle Patrick doing most of the heavy lifting when I was down there.

Yet I feel Patie took it upon himself to impart sporting wisdom. He was immensely proud of the Kerry hurling heritage. When my father, a man of Tipperary persuasion, first visited Patie’s farm, it was quickly pointed out to him that this was no hurling backwater. For all the football tradition built up, it was in hurling that Kerry’s first All-Ireland senior win had come in 1891.

There are other sporting memories. The hurling breakthroughs of Clare and Wexford. Watching Euro ‘96 with him and learning why German efficiency is a key ingredient in soccer. Realising that he didn’t take kindly to his young grandson pointing out Cork were enjoying a rare spell of Munster football supremacy.

“Yerra ye’d have won nothing, only ye went up to Kildare and took their two best players,” was the reply as he again won a debate against a protesting eight-year-old.

In the farmhouse there was a long table with a bench against the wall where I would sit and he would be at the end next to the fire in his rocking chair. The TV was at the opposite end of the table. There couldn’t have been only sport, news and weather forecasts to watch but it certainly felt like it.

The Sunday ritual of looking at a GAA match was established. There were the mid-summer nights watching athletics meetings from continental European cities. The achievements of Sonia O’Sullivan provided common ground, we could all agree on the greatness of one Cork sportsperson.

Patie died in June 1999. The end of his life had been a lean period for the local Kilmoyley hurlers. Their last Kerry senior hurling title was in 1971 and there had been just a couple of final appearances in the interim, 1983 and 1988. I remember the stories of the 90s revolving around Ballyheigue and Ballyduff successes.

And then in 2001, Kilmoyley got back to the final. I was brought to it by my aunt and uncle on a day of biblical rains in Austin Stack Park. Kilmoyley were down by seven at half-time but recovered to win by one. Recalling the wild delirium as supporters raced around the pitch after their 30 years in the hurling wilderness had ended, I’ve often regarded the joy on show that day as the barometer by which to judge post-match celebrations.

Kilmoyley have grown accustomed to it. A further eight titles have followed since, the most recent in September this year.

The extended O’Sullivan family are a bunch scattered around the world now in Glasgow, Kidderminster, London, Brussels after a relocation from Stockholm, and Boston. Similar to most in 2020, the Whats App activity has increased and bound us together. The discussions are relatable in this strangest of years – news of the different stages of lockdown in countries, Netflix recommendations and the search for fresh questions for Zoom quizzes.

But on the third Sunday of September, the focus was on Austin Stack Park. There was a typical GAA family interest in ways – my cousins Richard and Liam part of the Kilmoyley squad, their mother Catherine chief supplier of post-training meals in recent years, her husband Mike the team sponsor with his hardware shop in Lerrig.

Yet the increased interest from foreign shores was different and the capacity for them to live-stream the game as they followed Kilmoyley clinching a one-point win after an absorbing game. Daniel Collins top scored with 0-8, himself and his brother Robert flew the Banemore flag. John Meyler was at the helm as manager, like he had been for that 2001 breakthrough.

Next Sunday Daniel will be involved in Croke Park, just as his sister Laura was last year when Kerry won the Premier Junior camogie title. There are other Kilmoyley playing representatives in the goalkeeper John B. O’Halloran and the O’Connor brothers, Paudie and Maurice, while Sean Maunsell is a selector.

Kerry have sampled recent Croke Park hurling days, packing in Christy Ring Cup final appearances between 2010 and 2015. But for their squad this is a priceless chance to share hurling’s centre stage. Shane Conway of Lixnaw is their star turn and trail-blazer, just like Shane Brick of Kilmoyley was in the 2000s.

“Nine parishes in the north of the county faithfully turned out nine senior hurling teams,” wrote Denis Walsh in his seminal book ‘Hurling – The Revolution Years’, in a chapter about Kerry’s fortunes.

“Pockets of hurling blossomed elsewhere from time to time, but those flowers were growing wild and sometimes the soil turned against them.

“The hurling area of North Kerry was the walled garden.”

It may be enclosed but their passion for the game has never been diluted. You get a sense of that spending time down there or if you were exposed to sporting influences like Patie O’Sullivan.

I wonder how he would be this week, thinking of next Sunday with a Kerry team playing in Croke Park on All-Ireland hurling final day, the sporting eyes of the nation locked on the venue and a player from the farm next door in Banemore central to the local hopes of success?

I think it would be a day Patie O’Sullivan would very much be looking forward to.

And it would have been a great story for him to tell the next time he headed up to his friends in Donegal.

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