Belfast Telegraph

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín shows father's love not always a blessing

By Declan Bogue

'The one thing we all struggled to cope with was Dad's assessment of our performances.

'After a game he'd say, "If you don't wake up soon I'll drag you off myself. You were useless here. You were a disgrace there. Why do I bother going to your matches ... " Deep down, I was playing hurling and football only to please him.'

- Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, The Autobiography

By now, you will be familiar with the narrative. The book launch, the subsequent extracts and the Late Late appearance has detailed Seán Óg's struggles for acceptance and approval from his father.

One of the highest-profile sportsmen in the country, a man who grew up in Cork with a mother from Rotuma and a father from hard on the Fermanagh border in Roslea. Immortalised forever with a commentator's quip. A tri-lingual hero of Cork who delivered his captain's speech As Gaeilge when he lifted Liam MacCarthy in 2005. Hurler of the Year, 2004.

You could say he had it all, but he would give it all up for ... well, as the man himself said: 'He believes that what he did was justified because of what we achieved in sport. But I would swap it all to have a good relationship with him.'

Funny thing. In all the sizeable media interest down through the years of Seán Óg, including the documentary 'Tall, Dark and Ó hAilpín', the father was seldom-referenced, never seen. And that extended to the family picture in the book of Seán Óg receiving the Freedom of Cork city. No sign of Seán senior.

This revelation immediately brought to mind Andre Agassi's autobiography, 'Open'. The first chapter is entitled 'The End', the setting a second-round win in the 2006 US Open over Marcos Baghdatis. It was the end of his career, the beginning of real life.

He takes a cortisone shot to ease the pain coursing through his 36-year-old body to play. Before that, just as he finishes shaving, he notes: 'Somewhere in those eyes, however, I can vaguely see the boy who didn't want to play tennis in the first place ... '

His Iranian father, Emmanuel, viewed many houses for his family in Las Vegas, barrelling through the front door with the estate agent yakking about crime rates and local schools. Agassi senior would reach the back yard, take out his tape measure and see if a tennis court could be built within that space.

If the dimensions didn't suit he would immediately make for the Oldsmobile, screeching off and leaving the agent standing in a fog of puzzlement.

No matter what, this man was going to succeed through hard work. He wasn't going to end up like the degenerate gamblers he serviced all day in the casinos he worked in.

Only he didn't achieve it. Instead, he tortured his son to succeed.

' ... Never mind that I don't want to play at Wimbledon. What I want isn't relevant' Agassi would say.

The father/son relationship is probably the last frontier in sports writing that has yet to be truly conquered. The marvel about it is that sons can have it all with the support of their father, or they can reach the top in spite of him.

We think of other shining examples such as Bradley Wiggins, whose father's idea of love was similar to the smothering examples above. Some years ago, Wiggins cut off contact with his father Gary, a former professional cyclist.

Fortunately for Wiggins he does not resent the bike, but when he is on the saddle, he channels something of a paternal link.

Perhaps Sigmund Freud was right when he said of the Irish that "This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever."

The relationship between a father and son in this country is one of forever-exposed fragility and vulnerability. It defines each of us, but the potential closeness of a father and son relationship is strangely under-documented.

We think of how Michael Murphy – a highly-admirable figure in Irish sport – can always be found after big games with his father Mick close by, the two of them sharing a private, gentle moment. No doubt, Mick often thinks of the young Michael undergoing a hip operation a year after his birth, when he catches images of his son holding the Sam Maguire and Cormac McAnallen Cups aloft.

Somehow in expressing their love, Seán Ó hAilpín, Gary Wiggins and Emmanuel Agassi experienced a blockage. They substituted support and equipping their children with tools for life and instead drove them in different ways. They wanted to gift them a forcefield to guard them against all other elements of life.

Tricky things, relationships, love and life.

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