SEÁN Óg Ó hAilpín may be known to all GAA fans as the player who won five Munster hurling titles, three All Irelands, three All Stars and a Munster football title, but few know the ‘real’ Seán Óg – the main reason for writing his autobiography.
Few know that as an 11-year-old he moved from the Western suburbs of Sydney, Australia to Cork. Fewer know about an injury to his knee, suffered in a car crash, might have ended his career, but even fewer know his real name, John Halfpenny.
“It’s pronounced Hape-enny, the ‘f’ is silent” Seán Óg admits. “When I was seven, my dad decided to change my name. Seeing as he was John too, he decided on the Seán Óg part. Then the closest translation for Halfpenny was Ó hAilpín, so it became what I am today.”
Changing name at seven, followed by a move to Cork at 11, Seán Óg did not have anything easy from a young age.
“Growing up in Sydney was like being in heaven. I walked around in flip flops and T-shirts all the time. Up the road we had the Oval, where we played football and rugby, while across from my school, there was a 50 metre public swimmimg pool. It was a beautiful place to live.”
The move came in 1988 and Cork was not as welcoming at first as it would eventually turn out to be.
“No offence to Cork now, but Cork in the late 1980’s was a drab place to be. It seemed to never stop raining and compared to Sydney it was a real culture shock. I mean, outside of being dressed up on St Patrick’s Day every year by my father, I didn’t have a clue where Ireland was. I mean, Ireland might as well have been on Pluto or Uranus for all I knew.”
Times were tough for the Ó hAilpín family in Cork. The saviour for the ‘foreign’ kid from Fiji was sport.
“Sport for me was a lifesaver. I mean, because of my mother’s features, we stood out a mile. I found acceptance in sport and when we started to represent the local area and parish in sport, coupled with going to school, we became part of the community, not just the family of the woman from an island in the South Pacific.”
The perception of Ó hAilpín has changed several times over the years. From Fijian schoolkid in Australia to hurling in Cork, through All Ireland wins and strikes, there has been much written and spoken about Seán Óg over the last 25 years.
“One of the main reasons for writing the book is to give people an insight into my life. A lot has been written and said about me over the years. Some of it is true but the most of it is wrong. I just felt that writing this book would show people the real me and what I have gone through in my life. It have not had it all as easy as some people think.”
Indeed he hasn’t. A car crash in May 2001 left Ó hAilpín seriously injured, with his kneecap driven up into the top part of his leg. The Cork wing back, famous for his long solo runs and huge physical fitness, refused to allow his career to be ended on the side of a road in Tipperary.
“The doctors told me that to walk again would be a big achievement for me. I did not want to hear that kind of thing. I needed to be back playing hurling for Cork. That was my dream.”
A family friend was about to help Seán Óg achieve that dream by introducing him to a Limerick native.
“Jim Mc Evoy knew Ger Hartmann through some sports contacts and he hounded Ger to take me on as a patient. If I had not met Ger in 2001, I would have been an also-ran. I would never have played hurling again. I did everything he asked of me. When Ger said jump, I said how high. It took me one and a half years to get back, but I did and I owe Ger the world for that. When I came back, I was fortunate enough to join a Cork side who would play in four All Ireland finals in a row and win two of them.”
One of those wins saw Ó hAilpín captain Cork. His acceptance speech, completely in Irish, is still referenced today, a full eight years on.
“I never expected the reaction to that speech. I went to an Irish speaking school, so I never thought it strange that I would accept the Liam Mc Carthy in Irish. The best thing for me from that speech is that people continue, to this very day, to try and converse with me in Irish. I have met people who use whatever Irish they have when they can and I think that is something I will never really get over.”
One man who played a strong role in Ó hAilpín’s life was Donal O’Grady. The new Limerick co-manager taught Seán Óg at North Mon, while also being his manager for the Cork senior hurlers.
“I have been privileged to work with many great coaches over the years, but Donal O’Grady has to be the best for me. He always got the best from me as a hurler and he is a real hurling tactician. He brought Cork on no end and he is, to this day, a great friend and mentor to me. Limerick are very lucky to have such a hurling brain as Donal O’Grady in their ranks.”
With the aforementioned highlights on the field, All Ireland wins, Cork captaincy and dual status honours, it is one off-field honour which Ó hAilpín cherishes the most. From a one time outsider on the banks of the Lee, to becoming a living legend, Ó hAilpín has achieved it all with a powerful grace few are blessed with.
“I was presented with the Freedom of Cork in 2011 and for me that was an amazing honour. If you were to offer me an apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York and all the money in the world, I would not swap it for Cork.”
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín will be signing copies of his book in Eason, O’Connell Street, Limerick on Saturday November 16 at 3:30pm.