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Wexford GAA roots, an All-Ireland winning father and Aussie Rules life in Sydney

Hailing from a strong Wexford GAA family, Barry O’Connor is pursuing a different sporting dream in Sydney.

Barry O'Connor.
Barry O'Connor.
Image: Inpho/@Sydney Swans

IN THE GAA circles in Wexford, this is a blockbuster weekend.

The type to dream about during that long, grim winter lockdown. High summer and it’s championship season. The hurlers heading to Croke Park today for a showdown with Kilkenny. The footballers welcoming the best side in the country tomorrow as Dublin journey to the south-east.

There will be the welcome sight of supporters to cheer them on in person and the well wishes will also come from further afield.

Barry O’Connor is based in Sydney these days. He has three cousins – Rory, Jack and Joe – in the Wexford playing ranks this afternoon. This being the 25th anniversary of that seminal summer of 1996, there is a natural reawakening of memories amongst the county’s hurling fraternity.

Barry’s father was a central character then, the final whistle that September prompting George O’Connor to fall to his knees, hands clasped in simple gratitude at realising an All-Ireland ambition in the last of his 17 seasons as a senior hurler. He was able to enjoy his moment of glory at the age of 37.

george-oconnor Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

Barry’s own senior playing time was on the football front, a teenager fast-tracked into the county squad in 2018, just a year out of school. 

That all explains the close allegiance he feels to both Wexford camps, yet he uprooted himself and carved out a different sporting path.

It was two years last month when he officially signed up to Australian Rules life with the Sydney Swans club, a then Commerce student in UCD opting to avail of the brilliant opportunity he had been presented with.

And that’s why he is now tuning in from the other side of the world.

“It’s definitely flown by,” says the 23-year-old.

“It was a massive lifestyle change. Leaving all your families and friends, and going over to a place full of people I didn’t know.

“But I found I adapted pretty well. There’s a lot of great people in the club. Sydney is away from the bubble of the AFL in Melbourne, a lot of the guys are from inter-state. So everyone’s sort of in the same boat.”

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For every young promising Gaelic footballer that makes the choice to have a crack off Australian Rules, there is the obvious challenge of adjustment to a new and alien sport.

In O’Connor’s case, that task was hardened by the sense of chaos off the pitch.

First there was the bushfires that raged wildly around Sydney at the start of 2020, before then Covid-19 altered every aspect of life.

“I think when you’re experiencing it at the time, you tell yourself to get on with it,” recalls O’Connor.

“You look at the bright side. Now when we’ve some form of normality and you look back, you see it wasn’t ideal and all a bit mad at times.

“With the bushfires, it was mid-summer in Australia but all the stereotypes of the sunny weather and the beaches, that sort of took a backseat in my first few months. You were trying to stay inside as much as possible. You woke up in the morning and you could taste the smoke in your mouth, constant smell of it.

“It definitely wasn’t pleasant at training, the air quality was shocking for a while. It was a terrible thing to happen. Afterwards we did get to go out and clean up some of the affected communities in New South Wales.”

If the hope then was for things to settle and allow preparation for a new season, the onset of the pandemic disrupted plans as the 2020 AFL campaign was on the cusp of starting.

O’Connor was faced with the dilemma of whether to head home or stay to wait for the games to recommence. He chose the latter and there was a redeeming factor at play at the time.

“My parents had literally just came to visit. They were home a matter of days before Covid arrived and all the restrictions were brought in. I was really lucky in that sense.

“It was brilliant timing. They got a great sense of what Australia is like and they were able to see exactly what I was doing on a day-to-day basis.

“When guys were deciding to head home two weeks later, I was sort of in the mindset that I’ve just seen my parents.”

O’Connor couldn’t have envisaged then that he’d still be waiting in midsummer 2021 to see everyone at home again. He stayed in Australia last Christmas, travelling back and forth not as straightforward in these unusual times.

It is surreal to be away from home for so long, yet there is a strong support network in the club that has helped. He feels fortunate with the influence of Irish figures at their base in Sydney. Tadhg Kennelly was coaching when he first joined, a trailblazing figure in the sport.

Cork native Mark Kilgallon recently departed after working as an S&C coach.

“I only came from an amateur sporting setup but Mark was top class. Just from listening to the other lads as well and the coaches, he’s phenomenal. He’s been all over the world coaching Olympic athletes, rugby players, hockey players, all sorts. He definitely has the credentials and the CV to back it up.”

And on the playing front, there is Colin O’Riordan. He lives near the Tipperary native, which was beneficial during lockdown last year as he tried to funnel his energies into training. Last November he saw him fly home and help fashion his county’s historic achievement in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

colin-oriordan-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I think the pull of home is always going to be there for lads. When you’re little kids you dream of representing your county. Seeing Colin playing, it was just pride and happiness for him. The way it worked out for him, it was just brilliant to be able to watch on from here.

“He’ll admit himself, everything fell into place at the right time. I’d look up to Colin in a lot of ways. He’s kind of paved the way before me, so I’d be attentive to whatever he has to say.

“The lockdown was so hard and strict initially, you really couldn’t waver out of the restrictions they put in. Very much isolated at home. Myself and Colin were able to train together, I trained with one or two of the other Swans boys as well. If I didn’t have guys like him, it would have been very tough and a lonely few months.”

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What moment can be pinpointed when the AFL recruiters were impressed with the teenager from Piercestown in Wexford, to persuade them to put a contract on the table in front of him?

2017 was definitely a standout year. He turned 19 that June, fresh from a Hogan Cup campaign with St Peter’s of Wexford Town that attracted glowing praise for his displays. Five points were whipped over in a final loss to St Brendan’s of Killarney, three years on from the same schools stage where Geelong’s Mark O’Connor and Conor Glass, formerly of Hawthorn, had been in in opposition as Dingle played Maghera.

barry-oconnor-and-lorcan-mcmonagle Barry O'Connor (left) in action for St Peter's Wexford. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

And with St Martin’s, O’Connor also prospered that year, they won the senior hurling crown in Wexford and were only denied a double at the final hurdle in football.

When he sketches out the family tree of the O’Connor clan, it is easier to appreciate the talent available.

“There’s six O’Connor cousins that are boys and then eight girls. The three lads are in the senior hurling. Harry would have played Wexford underage, he’s off in New York at the moment, and Patrick is playing with the club, he’s holding the fort at home.

“Then five of the girls are involved with county camogie teams, my two sisters Katie and Ella, and the three cousins Sarah, Ciara and Aoife.”

With his cousins shining lights in Davy Fitzgerald’s camp and his father an illustrious figure, there may have been an assumption he would gravitate to the hurling side.

But O’Connor has a strong attachment to the football camp that tomorrow will be attempting to halt Dublin’s unstoppable drive.

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“It was great to be able to watch the lads do what they did in the hurling with Wexford in 2019. But it was leaving the football panel that was the decision I had to make. It might seem like an easy decision for someone looking in from the outside.

“But despite them not having had much success, it was still a pretty difficult thing to do because you build great relationships. I still try to watch the games on GAA GO when I can, ringing and texting the lads how training is going.

“The manager Shane Roche was my old PE teacher in school. He was one of the main influences in my career growing up. Daithi Waters was another one, he’s still playing now which is phenomenal, it was brilliant to see him reach that milestone.

“Ciaran Lyng as well, I didn’t get to play with him with Wexford but I played with him at St Martin’s, so those two guys are fantastic football men in Wexford.”

There was never any pressure hanging over him at home either, even if George O’Connor is a name synonymous with Wexford hurling.

“I’m extremely lucky with Dad, the way he treated me growing up in a sporting sense, he was always supportive and never pushing me in one direction.

“Same with my Mom (Ellen), it hasn’t changed since I came out here, they both just think it’s a fantastic opportunity. For Dad to get to come out here, meet the coaches and players, get a glimpse of the game, waas great.”

“He’s not able to watch much of the highlights on his phone, he can’t use the touchscreen phone with his fingers (after hurling injuries). I fill him in over the phone on calls. I’d love for him to be able to see more of it, it’s a sport I think he’d enjoy watching a few more games.”

george-oconnor George O'Connor. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There was barriers to attempting to make strides in that sport last year. He began with the Sydney Swans reserve team in the North-East Australian league but that competition had to be scrapped halfway through.

This year they merged with the Victorian league. Even if uncertainty has returned to everyday life in Australia of late with clusters of cases popping up and sharp lockdowns introduced, it has overall been a more positive sporting experience.

“I only had nine games last year and none of them were official, they weren’t 18-a-side. With Covid we were in hubs, basically shifted around the country every couple of weeks.

“But that was a good life experience, sure I ended up seeing every state bar one in my first year in Australia.

“And this is my first year playing proper games, you can notice yourself improving at such a quicker rate.”

There is more a sense that pieces are falling into place, playing as a defender and getting to grips with the intricacies of the game.

“I reckon if you speak to a lot of Irish guys, it’s almost not a question if you’re going to be good, because a lot of guys are already very talented footballers when they’re at home.

“It’s how quickly you can become good at the game, which is often the issue for a lot of lads. It’s a professional environment and it’s pretty ruthless. You don’t have forever to get your game up to the standard that they want. That’s been the main focus for me.”

He’s coped with plenty off the pitch, enjoyed the challenge of it all and is looking forward to the test of trying to make a career for himself.

And this weekend there will be one eye thrown to events at home, to see if Wexford’s sporting summer can achieve lift off.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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