Kerry Captains

Tales from the Captains' table

December 27th, 2009
by Dermot Crowe, Sunday Independent

Behind the spotlight of All-Ireland day lie stories of controversy and bad luck.

Each of Kerry's 32 All-Ireland winning captains had a story to tell; about the journey there, the day itself, its impact on the rest of his life. From the trail-blazing Thady Gorman in 1903 to the sprightly Darran O'Sullivan last September, they constitute a motley crew, with diverse experiences and outcomes. More will be revealed when a five-hour DVD goes on release next March honouring their achievements. Others who narrowly missed out on raising the Sam Maguire will also feature.

The vast majority being profiled were successful captains, but not all -- you will hear the voices of the dispossessed, those either unsuccessful through defeat or cruelly denied the honour because of a controversial selection decision. Included are the likes of Jack O'Shea who captained his county in 1983 and 1991 when Kerry failed to win the All-Ireland. A quarter of a century later, O'Shea reveals how he considered himself an "unlucky captain". This, and innumerable other revelations, will feature in the DVD which is to be launched in London on St Patrick's Day, 2010.

The ambitious enterprise is a joint effort by Weeshie Fogarty of Radio Kerry and a close friend, Christy Riordan from Caherciveen, who is shooting and editing the film and who first floated the idea of producing a DVD detailing all winning captains. Fogarty's initial reaction was to shudder at the enormity of the challenge but he soon warmed to the possibilities. He began interviewing every surviving captain around 14 months ago and where captains are deceased he has talked to relatives. Riordan was his constant travelling companion and each captain featured will have around eight to nine minutes of time devoted to his role in the grand tradition. Of the 32 winning captains featured, 16 are still alive.

By now almost all interviews, around 100 in total, are completed and the editing has started. While there was much work involved, and Fogarty has been talking to people regularly over the last 14 months, they've been fortunate that the vast majority of captains, or their relatives, are still living in the county. The nearest candidate is only a few doors down from Fogarty in Killarney: Johnny Culloty was captain in 1969 with Fogarty as his understudy. Directly to the rear of Culloty's home in Killarney is the residence of Ambrose O'Donovan, the captain in Centenary Year and who, in a neat quirk of fate, was Fogarty's nomination to be granted that honour 25 years ago.

The background to O'Donovan's selection is one of many available illustrations of the problems created by Kerry's appointments procedures, which allow county champions to propose a captain. In 1983, Killarney won the county title with a combined team of Dr Crokes and Fogarty's club, Legion. Fogarty was on the selection committee to choose the Kerry captain for 1984. It agreed on Diarmuid O'Donoghue. He played in the attack against Tipperary in the opening round of the Munster championship but before the Munster final against Cork in Killarney, O'Donoghue was dropped and the selection panel was asked to find an alternative captain.

"I nominated Ambrose O'Donovan, the next east Kerry man, as there was no Killarney player on the team," recalls Fogarty. "He was only a young lad at the time and during the (DVD) interview I said to him that the homecoming to Gneeveguilla was a very special occasion -- I was at it -- out in Sliabh Luachra. It must have been very special for your family I said to him. He buried both of his parents recently and he became very emotional. He went away and composed himself and came back."

In Dick Fitzgerald's book on how to play Gaelic football, written in 1914, there is a section dedicated to captaincy. Fitzgerald was one of Kerry's four two-time winning captains, well qualified to comment, but the system in Kerry doesn't faithfully serve those convictions. Almost 100 years ago Fitzgerald argued that the team captain should possess natural leadership qualities, be one of the better players on the team and, ideally, play in a central position. In Kerry, it is an added perk for the county champions, and the player chosen is not safeguarded from losing his place and the captaincy with it. This, however, makes an account of the history of Kerry's captaincy all the more compelling because invariably there are horror stories. Not every captain's experience has a happy ending and some players, even well into advanced age, remain bitter about their experiences.

Fogarty accepts that it is a system that has caused numerous problems. "The strange thing about it is, in most cases, I popped that question to them. And all of them, bar none, wanted it (the existing system) to stay the way it is. There was a kind of a move by some people in Kerry to have the system changed, where it would be decided by the manager. Five years ago at a convention in Kerry, the Spa club in Killarney put a motion to have this changed and it was defeated ten to one. Overwhelmingly. But you must remember that the likes of Paddy Kennedy and the likes of Johnny Culloty, Mickey Ned (O'Sullivan), Tim Kennelly, would never have been captains only for the system we have today. And I believe strongly myself that the system we have, the divisional system, is one of the backbone factors in Kerry winning All-Irelands."

The oldest surviving winning captain is Jas Murphy, from 1953. He was Fogarty's first interview and immediately the ructions caused by the captaincy became obvious. "His story is absolutely fascinating," Fogarty explains, "because he got the captaincy by default." In 1953, John Joe Sheehy, who had captained Kerry twice to win the All-Ireland and whose son, Seán óg, led Kerry to similar glory in 1962, was one of the county senior selectors as they sat down to pick the team for the All-Ireland final. His late son Paudie was a wing-forward. "They picked the team and when it came to that position John Joe excused himself, thinking of course it was automatic," says Fogarty. "He left the room and when he came back his son was dropped."

Jas Murphy, somewhat reluctantly, being a Kerins O'Rahilly's man (and good friends with Sheehy who played with John Mitchels in the same town, Tralee), found himself nominated to take over as captain. "They kept it (captaincy) in Tralee and Kerry won and Jas in his interview became very emotional when he said that the following year he was dropped. Never played with Kerry again. Can you imagine that? Never played with Kerry again. And up till this day, he holds that grudge against the county. A retired Garda, a lovely gentleman. His late wife took it very badly too. Played the first round next year and was dropped. But those things happened in Kerry."

The Sheehy family were not to be denied for long, with Seán óg captaining the county in 1962, therefore completing the only father-son pairing to captain successful Kerry teams. Another son, Niall, captained Kerry when they lost the All-Ireland final in 1964, while a third, Brian, played for Kerry but did not captain them. Paudie recovered from the disappointment to captain Kerry in 1960 but they lost the final to Down.

Gus Cremin, having passed his 90th year, is the oldest living captain Fogarty interviewed for the DVD, and one of the most intriguing subjects. "He is living with his son and daughter-in-law up in north Kerry and we spent a lovely afternoon with him. And he was another man who was very badly hurt and to this day he feels it." In 1945, Cremin's team Shannon Rangers won the county title and he was captain when Kerry drew the All-Ireland final with Roscommon the next year, but sensationally dropped for the replay. "He holds it against Dr Eamonn O'Sullivan (team trainer) because he felt he had no time for farmers or people like that. Paddy Kennedy replaced him as captain but Gus came on in the replay and got the score that people believe won the match for Kerry. But he did not join in the celebrations that night or go home with the team next day. He got on the train the following morning and came home on his own. And he was back in his fields, tilling his crops, while the team was returning with the cup. And to this day he is very hurt abut it."

You knew about this, Fogarty is asked. "I had been aware that there was something there but when you hear it coming from the man's own lips it's a different kettle of fish. His eyes light up and he nearly comes up off the chair. That happened in 1946!" In '46 Kerry went through four different captains. Kennedy, Cremin's late replacement as captain, was a Garda from Annascaul, reputed to be one of the greatest midfielders of all time. Fogarty and Riordan contacted his family in Dublin and visited them there. "His son met us at the station and he took us to Paddy Kennedy's grave in Dublin," says Fogarty, "and we interviewed his son about his father and what it meant to be the son of Paddy Kennedy. He said he could never make a footballer because people said you will never be as good as your father. It happens a lot of Kerry people, now. Then back to his house where his wife showed us a bracelet she keeps locked in a safe with all his All-Ireland medals attached. She wears this for special occasions. His sons and daughters and grandchildren were there and we sat down with them and reminisced. The highlight for me was when his son went upstairs and brought down the jersey he wore in the Polo Grounds in 1947."

Fogarty has a personal interest in Kennedy. "Well, I'll put it to you this way: I have an interest in every Kerry footballer. But Paddy Kennedy would be of particular interest because I grew up just after his era and everyone was talking about Paddy Kennedy. And I remember watching Mick O'Connell in his first game in Croke Park in 1958 and I grew up hearing people comparing the two, saying Kennedy was as good if not better than Mick O'Connell. And one of the family tells a lovely story when Paddy was being taken to the church from the house the morning of the (funeral) Mass how Mick O'Connell stole up beside the church and all eyes were on him and he sympathised with the whole family. So I would have a special interest. I regret not having seen him (play). And I never had the fortune to meet the man."

But if Weeshie Fogarty is to pick one story from them all that truly held him spellbound it is that of Phil O'Sullivan, the captain of Kerry when they won the All-Ireland in 1924. While writing a book on Dr Eamonn O'Sullivan, the eight-time All-Ireland winning trainer, Fogarty discovered it was Phil O'Sullivan who had got him involved in coaching. In 1924, Kerry didn't have a trainer and O'Sullivan was persuaded by his college friend to take over the county team. "Only for Phil O'Sullivan, Dr Eamonn O'Sullivan would not have trained eight All-Ireland winning teams," says Fogarty.

They discovered the fascinating and tragic story of Phil O'Sullivan in the Christy Ring heartland of Cloyne, where O'Sullivan's niece, Annie Hegarty, lives. "He was from Tuosist. We went down and we filmed the house where his father was a teacher, it was a school as well, and Phil was born in that house and became a teacher later. In 1927, he went to America with the Kerry team. At one banquet, there were 1,000 people at it, a Kathleen O'Mahoney from Tipperary, who was 18, was playing the piano and Phil and her fell in love and got married -- all this coming from Annie Hegarty, the only surviving family member, who we met in Cloyne. She was around 90 and exceptionally lucid and entertaining. We spent a whole afternoon with her. I suppose out of all the people we have interviewed, she was as good as any of them. She is a retired teacher from England, very refined. But the memory!"

Kathleen O'Mahoney's parents had died in Tipperary and her grandmother sent her to America to stay with relatives. "She was learning to be an actress, a dancer and a piano player and she was playing at the banquet for the Kerry team that evening. And Phil was a beautiful singer. She (Annie) told us he had a voice like an angel. He was persuaded to sing with Kathleen at the banquet. He got chatting and he fell in love with her. Eventually they got married."

The couple stayed in America but they had no family. Later O'Sullivan's wife turned to drink and the marriage disintegrated. When he died there was no one at the funeral. He remained in an unmarked grave in New York until a group from Tuosist found the plot in the 1960s and placed a proper headstone over it. He and Tom 'Gega' O'Connor are the only Kerry captains buried in the US. The GAA pitch in Tuosist, near Kenmare, is named after Phil O'Sullivan.

"I'd never heard of Phil's story," says Fogarty. "I knew he had gone to the US. Until we talked to Annie. We interviewed her for over two hours. It flowed out of her. Fascinating lady. She remembers them coming back to Tuosist on holidays, the two of them, they were perfect she said, the perfect couple and she was a fabulous dancer. She hoped to make Broadway and Annie remembers her dancing in the house in Tuosist and Phil singing. She said she could nearly touch the ceiling she was so light on her feet. I thought the whole thing was very sad and poignant. How they were so happy, when they came home. Annie tells us that of a Sunday after Mass they'd all gather at the local field and he would be there teaching them how to play football."

From the modern era, Liam Hassett talks about how his greatest regret as captain was not inviting his brother Mike, who was captain when they won the Munster championship but lost his place, up to the presentation in 1997. Mickey Ned O'Sullivan was the only captain unable to accept the cup, after being hospitalised by that infamous Dublin challenge in the 1975 final. A young Pat Spillane took over the duty and confesses to having made what he claims was the shortest speech by an All-Ireland winning captain. Jo Jo Barrett talks of his father Joe Barrett who captained Kerry twice to All-Irelands. "He (Jo Jo) came down specially from Dublin and he speaks very movingly of his father and what it meant to him," says Fogarty. "He tells of his father being ill and having his medals up in the bed and he dying".

There is the story of 1970 captain Donie O'Sullivan who later in life had to deal with one of his sons becoming seriously ill. "He had cancer," Fogarty reveals, "and things were very bad for a long time but eventually he beat the cancer and recovered and that year Donie took him and his brother to Croke Park to watch an All-Ireland. And he gave us a photograph of himself sitting alongside his two sons and he said, 'Weeshie,' he said, 'I played a lot in Croke Park, 'but that was my finest moment'."

The most recent Kerry captain, Darran O'Sullivan, is the first interview fully edited by Riordan and ready for public consumption. They also spent a couple of days in the county library in Tralee poring over old Kerryman newspapers to film headlines before and after All-Irelands and there will be scenes of the homecomings that have become the stuff of legend. Fogarty remembers vividly the homecoming in '55 because his neighbour, Culloty, was on the team as a teenager.

"When the team was coming in, they were special occasions, everyone would go on to the platform, I don't know how people didn't get killed -- the crowd would go berserk. A group of us young fellas went to an old field near here. There was a donkey grazing, tied up, and that evening about a dozen of us stole the donkey and dressed him in green and gold. Our idea was to bring him to the station and put Culloty up on him and bring him down the town. We brought the donkey to the platform but could not get near Culloty."

He thinks of the homecomings and how they perpetuate the winning tradition and sense of natural succession. "In my time it inspired me. I even see now today you would have fathers with sons up on their shoulders and every young fella there, where does he want to be? He wants to be up on that lorry."

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