Northern Protestants, particularly those born in the 1920s, tended not to take much interest in Gaelic games. When the only television channels available were the four British ones, the possibilities of a chance encounter of coverage of matches were limited, but two matches each September were deemed worthy of broadcast – the All Ireland football and hurling finals.
After a substantial roast dinner at my mother-in-law’s table, the two Sunday afternoons would be spent watching the respective fixtures. The sight of green and gold jerseys of Kerry, a sight that was expected in those years, would prompt my mother-in-law, a woman from an Ulster Unionist family, to ask if Mick O’Dwyer would be there.
Mick O’Dwyer was probably the only name in the whole of the Gaelic Athletic Association my mother-in-law would have recognized, and, indeed, he would definitely have been there. Having been a successful player, O’Dwyer was manager of the Kerry team from 1975 until 1989. In twelve years, the county appeared in ten All Ireland finals, winning eight of them. O’Dwyer’s Kerry team were the greatest in the history of the game.
The O’Dwyer name would prompt her to reminisce upon family holidays in the Kingdom in the 1960s, particularly the time the car broke down and the O’Dwyer family garage in Waterville provided them with generous assistance and a small bill. It was a story that seemed worthy of a man who was already a legend in his forties.
Sitting at the RDS last Friday evening, watching a Leinster rugby match, conversation turned to the announcement on RTE Radio last week of Mick O’Dwyer’s final retirement from football – at the age of seventy-seven. A friend recalled seeing O’Dwyer playing in 1970, his presence on the pitch creating an impression that remained vivid more than forty years later.
It seemed odd that Mick O’Dwyer should be seventy-seven years old; he seemed always one of those people who should never grow old, who should be an ageless presence among us, inspiring people to play harder and better for years to come. While lesser mortals aged with the passing years, such a giant should never pass beyond late middle age, his name still appearing on match reports for decades more. It seems strange that there will never be another summer Monday morning when the round up of weekend games makes mention of his coaching exploits.
In Britain, he would be Sir Michael O’Dwyer, or even Lord O’Dwyer of Waterville, as it is, in Ireland, the admiration and affection of generations seem a far greater honour than any title.