There was a time when Cork hurling legend Seán Óg Ó hAilpín hated Ireland. He hated the weather, even the people. Now, this is his home.
Hurling legend Seán Óg Ó hAilpín spoke at a seminar on ‘Embracing Diversity’ in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo, Ireland, on October 18.
This is the story he told an overflowing conference hall:
I’m half-Fijian, half Irish, but if someone was to ask me ‘Who am I?’, my first answer would be ‘I’m a hundred percent proud Irishman’. And, like a lot of the population here in Ballyhaunis, we share the same kind of story in terms of we don’t look Irish, but I consider myself Irish every day of the week.
That would be ironic, because if I was to roll back the clock 31 years ago, I hated Ireland, didn’t want to be here. Hated everything about it – the weather, the people. But go back a small bit before that – you have to understand my background.
I’m from a mixed background. My dad is from County Fermanagh – a very proud Fermanagh man, God love him. And my mum is from – actually I say Fiji – but she is technically from a place called Rotuma. When I look at an atlas (Here’s how) I can tell if it’s a good atlas or not. I go to the South Pacific and look for my mum’s island and if it’s not on it, it’s a rubbish atlas.
Rotuma is a very small, tiny island in the South Pacific that is part of the Fijian island group. I found it easier to say ‘She’s Fijian’ when I was asked ‘Where is your mum from?’, because when you say ‘Rotuma’, you’ve to spend about 30 minutes saying where it is, how to get there and so forth. But my mum’s a very proud Rotuman.
But I grew up in Sydney, Australia.
My dad emigrated from Ireland in the 1970s and worked for 30 years. He met my mum when he went on holidays on mainland Fiji. My mum had left her small island for mainland Fiji like a lot of Rotumans do.
I won’t explain what happened after that, but out comes me.
So, my first eight years were in Sydney. What a great childhood! What a great life! It was everything a young kid could ask for. Going around in shorts. I barely wore runners or shoes and lived on a diet of ice-cream. Kylie Minogue and Jason O’Donovan were my pop idols.
So imagine the shock when, in 1988, dad comes home from work and announces that we’re going to Ireland.
Shortly after that, we land in the metropolis of Cork city, oh Jesus, in the depths of winter in 1989.
You can imagine I’m a shattered kid at this stage.
I had great friends in Sydney. In my neighbourhood, there were different ethnic groups, so I had Lebanese neighbours on one side, Greeks across the road and Italians and Russians up the road.
When we landed, it was like the invasion of the martians. The Ó hAilpíns landing in the northside of Cork city.
I mean this bluntly: The first three years were the toughest years, especially for my mum. It was so hard to adjust to the climate. I wore 4 or 5 jumpers constantly. It was unbelievably cold for the first year.
And trying to understand a Cork people – I know I talk like one now, but trying to understand one back then was like trying to decipher Hindu, it was impossible.
But basically – when you look at the people we were living with… we didn’t look… to fit in. and unfortunately, people will let you know about that – sadly. And I’m being blunt about that, but it is reality.
So, you can imagine as a 10/11 year old kid, I’m frustrated, I’m angry and I’m questioning the motives to come to Ireland. Dad painted it as a great place. But in those early years I didn’t experience that great place.
I used to pray that dad brought us over and there was a return ticket and one day he’d pull it out and say ‘Look, we’re going back to Sydney’. I prayed for the first Christmas, the second Christmas and the third Christmas, but there was no return ticket.
There are a lot of things that our parents decide for us and, when I look back to that time, I wouldn’t agree with 99% of them. But unfortunately when you’re a young kid growing up, you (hope) they made the right choices.
But there’s one decision that the parents made that I will forever be grateful for and it changed my life in Ireland. That was to get involved in sport. My dad enrolled me in the local GAA club – Na Piarsaigh.
To give you an idea of where I grew up in Cork city, people liken it to Beirut or Nicaragua. It’s a tough, gritty area, but I love it. I love the area. I don’t live there, but I go coaching there because I love it. I go through the gates of the GAA club and it’s like – when you watch the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ and they go through a wardrobe and it opens up a whole new world for them. Well, that’s what Na Piarsaigh hurling and football club did for me.
Did I see huge changes overnight?
Absolutely not, but incrementally; the more times I went through the GAA gates I started to see the barriers stripping off one by one.
It was there I made my first best friends. I still keep in contact with three of them to this day – great buddies.
At that stage, I began to see the value of being part of a team sport and everyone rowing together and having the same common goal. In other facets of my life I don’t see that same powerful bond as you get in team sport.
(Seán Óg took that moment to single out GAA football All-Star Cora Staunton who was in the audience):
I’m honoured and exalted to be in Cora Staunton’s presence. What a legend! You should be up here talking, not me – I’m an also ran (by comparison). Cora would tell you about the powerful bond a team can make.
People in the club start calling you by your first name. They know your address. They started to know where my parents – my mum was from. All of that builds up self-esteem. They made me feel welcome.
I started to kinda feel, ‘Yeah, I belong here’.
The greatest kick I got was the local community support after games. You’d be clapped off by supporters whether you won or lost and they’d pat you on the back and say ‘Thanks for the effort’
And – as a young kid who grew up with a half-Fijian background who was trying to look for a place, that was powerful for me.
Now, when I look back, what the GAA club did for me is summed up in what the greatest human need is – to be loved. That’s what being involved in a sporting organisation – in my case it was a GAA club – gave me. Over the years – you got that love, you were appreciated and the more you got it the more you wanted to give it back.
But back then, was I a good player? Absolutely not, I was catmalojan. I couldn’t even puck a ball. But it didn’t matter. Basically, I kept wanting to go back to a place where I was accepted and loved. And through that, I started to unearth a talent I didn’t know I had in me as an athlete and as a player. I was worked on by coaches and mentors who cared. Through the next few years, I started to realise that my talents could take me somewhere.
Fast forward a few years and I started playing with Cork. I made my debut as a 19-year-old, in 1996 – when it was unheard of to have a half-Fijian lad playing with Cork. And it’s great when I see GAA games now – in (the club team I coach) we have guys from five ethnic groups.
I have mentioned the power of representing your club at local level. When I started playing with Cork you could multiply that by a hundred million.
I won’t go through my Cork years, but it brought me on a 16-year journey playing with the Cork Seniors.
In that time, I met a couple of Taoiseachs, Presidents of Ireland. I met the greatest musicians, performers, comedians and the greats past and present of the GAA and other people.
And the greatest kick I get and still get to this day – I travel far and near and I’m greeted by the warmest welcome by local people whether that’s in Ballycastle in Antrim or Ballyskenach in County Offaly – you name it lads and I’ve been there – through the power and connection of the GAA.
One point – over my 16 year career – I’ve been lucky to be involved in winning teams. You can be a good player, but the key is to play with a great team! One of the years we won, I was the captain and it was a very proud moment. We won the All-Ireland – beating Galway in the final. I collected the cup from Uachtarán na Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, Sean Kelly, and went back into the dressing room and – Cora will tell you – there is only about a ten minute period in the dressing room that you get to yourself before the madness begins. Then everyone starts coming into the dressing room and you go out and meet the fans.
So, within that ten minutes, it dawned on me that even though I am not of you, I have become one of you. That’s what summed up… that 2005 captaining of Cork. It was only then that I declared myself. And I laugh and I said, ‘Dad if you’re still holding that return ticket, rip it up because I’m not going back to Sydney.’
To finish off, I speak on behalf of the great work that the GAA do. Other sporting and other organisations also do great work. Don’t underestimate the value and the power of what ye do, especially with people like me who come here looking for a home.
I was a lost kid and they put me on a steady path.
One of my paybacks is I’m now one of those coaches in the club – the wheel has turned – welcoming and helping the next generation of Irish people who come here looking for a new home.
So, sin a bhfuil ata a rá agamsa. Go raibh maith agaibh agus go n-éirí libh!
Recording by: Allen Meagher, ‘Changing Ireland’.