The final season starts here

There is a box of chocolates on the table.

Half its contents remain in the box. The other half?

I’ve eaten them.  And I may well eat the rest before this night is out.

It’s January 13.

This has to stop.

At the end of last season, I decided pretty quickly that it wouldn’t be my last. Five goals and a grubby fistful of points and assists in eight games at the tail-end of the season had me thinking that there was one more season left.

Like a politician, I am handing this to the gods, because I haven’t got the good sense to go at a time of my own choosing.

The indoor soccer is doing its usual job of keeping me sane but I’m not fooling anyone. There’s an awful lot of arse and gut that needs to be either shifted around or disposed of altogether, and the muscles of my upper body resemble nothing more than knotted pipe-cleaners.

But that’s OK, the season doesn’t start just yet.

Before it does, I have some work to do in the pool and the gym and on the bike. Not to mention on my shooting.

I’ll also have to get the souvenir I took home from Tallinn with me sorted out.

At some point on that hot summer day last year, I went to pick the ball up and got flattened by a Helsinki Harp.

Until that moment I was delighted with their arrival on the scene, but ever since I have a click in the joint of my right hip that pops inexplicably, mostly when I’m watching TV.

I’m doing so at the moment.

The men-mountains of the NFL, all rippling muscles and powerful running, are doing their best to shame me into lifting my stuffed-turkey carcass up and out its torpor.

Tomorrow is the beginning of what I expect to be my last season as a Gaelic footballer.

And I will be documenting every painful step of it here.


Inside the Irish Book Awards

Ever wondered what it’s like to go to a swanky awards dinner and be in with a shout- however remote- of winning something? Read on…

I never had a debs. I can’t remember why (although I seem to remember former Dublin footballer Ger Regan being involved), but for some reason our particular year in school was denied the chance to don the dickie bows and make a show of ourselves.

But God never closes one door without opening a window 22 years later, and nominated for Sports Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards on Thursday, I had that chance.

Except it was a little more difficult than I’d imagined.

The suit was fine- a bit baggy but I’ll put that down to Phil Cahill’s training (despite missing far too much of it lately).

The shirt, however, did a fine impression of the Boston Strangler as I tried to get the top button closed. As well it should- it was a size 15 collar. I take a 16 1/2.

No matter, Black Tie on Westmoreland Street were open late and the ever-helpful Ollie was able to make the switch. I made it out to the RDS in good time.

My date for the evening was poet/gaming feminist genius Sara Maria Griffin. Most of you will remember her as the woman who whipped my ass at the Literary Death Match in Dublin back in September. Since then we’ve been helping each other out as writers should and next year, she will no doubt be nominated herself.

The evening also represented a perfect opportunity for the two of us to do a good cop/bad cop networking routine, with both of us playing the good cop.

The photographers at the entrance paid us scant notice (apparently we were supposed to tell them who we were), and as we entered the impossibly glamourous hall, we met the impossibly glamourous Ciara O’Connor, Gill and MacMillan’s PR manager and far more cultured than any person from Cork should be.

We took our seats, only to rise again for the arrival of our new president, Michael D Higgins. There followed a love-in as Seamus Heaney received yet another lifetime achievement award (it’s not that he doesn’t deserve it, it’s just that other people might too), before we got down to business.

It was only when Sarah asked my if I was nervous that I realised that I actually had something to be nervous about- regardless of me being an unknown, I had a six to one chance of winning. Matters weren’t helped when Fergal Tobin, publishing editor at G&M and the man who gave me the chance to tell our story, came over.

“If you win,” he said conspiratorially, “you’re on your own. Just go up there and say whatever the hell you like”.

Thank God the Sports Book award was one of the first to be given out.

I had thought of writing a just-in-case speech. My opening would be the standard GAA-man-accepting-a-trophy- “tá an-áthas orm an corn seo a ghlacadh”- before a few words to the president as gaeilge too.

Then I wanted to dedicate the award to anyone who felt so let down by our country that they were contemplating leaving it.

I wanted to tell them that thousands of us have already sailed, and we are here to help them.

We don’t have all the answers, but we have ways of finding some of them.

I wanted to say they could go away and when they have done all there is to be done, and when they have won all there is to be won, they could still play a part in making our country great again- perhaps even more so from abroad.

In the end, I wrote nothing.

Ger Cunningham introduced the nominees, and for a few brief seconds the cover of my book and Bob Strong’s photo of me outside the Dubliner in Stockholm flashed up on the big screen.

Tension. Sarah asked if I needed to squeeze her arm. I declined, afraid I’d break it.

Then Nicolas Roche was declared the winner, and I wouldn’t be saying anything.

Later, I went over to where Ronnie Whelan was sitting with Paul Kimmage to get my picture taken with two entirely different kinds of legends.

“Ah, so you’re the other lad who was nominated,” said Ronnie. “Come sit in the loser’s corner for a while”. This from a man with two European Cup winner’s medals.

Was I disappointed? Not as much as I thought I’d be, but disappointed all the same.

Writers - an impossibly smiley breed.

I was the outsider after all, and if it was tough on me, how much harder must it have been for Kimmage? His outstanding first book “Rough Ride” details how he competed with – and in the shadow of –   Roche’s father as a cyclist, only to be undone by his son as a writer?

But as Ger Cunningham said, none of the six sportspeople nominated would be happy coming second, and the truth is I really wanted to win it. I feel our story deserves it- whatever about how I tell it, it’s something we can all be proud of.

Sarah and I schmoozed a little more before making our excuses and geting the hell out of there around midnight.

The long journey home to Stockholm the next day didn’t temper the disappointment either.

It was only this morning when I saw a post from Karl Lambert – the Sundbyberg Express – on the book’s Facebook page that it faded away.

A friend of Karl”s from way back when had posted the following on his wall:

“How ya Karl. Donal from Donegal sitting at Jack’s bar reading a book with you on the cover . Small world hope you on the pigs back. Cheers from mid town :)

I’m no longer disappointed.

So congratulations to Nicolas on winning the award.

I hope winning it made him feel as good as the idea of Donal from Donegal reading my book and our story in a bar in midtown Manhattan made me feel.


A different reward

Tonight’s the night.

An outsider in the field, I’ve been nominated for Sports Book of the Year, up against celebrities like Donncha O’Callaghan, Ronnie Whelan, Tony McCoy and Nicolas Roche, not to mind Paul Kimmage, who I am in awe of.

The awards ceremony will be held at a black-tie dinner in the RDS tonight, with our new president presiding.

Win or lose, I’m not sure that awards are the best way to judge a book – I’d rather see people interested in sport buy all six nominated books and make up their own minds.

But I’m nothing if not competitive, despite being the outsider by some distance a part of me really hopes I win, and not for the prize or prestige or anything else.

It’s because I feel that our story – the story of the Irish community abroad and how Gaelic games helps us keep it together – really needs to be told.

With a massively expanded media landscape, it can be very difficult to make your voice heard these days, and despite a slew of interviews and media appearances there are still people out there who don’t know that the GAA’s reach extends far beyond our borders.

It is for them that I wrote “A Parish Far From Home”.

It is written for those who keep it lit, as Hector would say. It is for the mothers and fathers, the families and friends of our emigrants that I put these words on paper.

So tonight when I put on the black tie and head for the RDS I’ll be fulfilling one of the first sentences I wrote when I started on this journey.

“We had a dream. And in sport, if you don’t have a dream, you don’t have anything.”

A vote for victory

I’ve never believed that competitions and prizes were a good way of deciding the merits of books.

Until I was nominated for one.

And I know not all of you have read it, but there’s a line in my book about how I’ve no interest in being told what I can’t do.

After the nomination for Sports Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, it’s been happening again.

“Well done on the nomination! Shame you’re up against such tough competition.”

People are telling me I can’t win. And maybe they’re right. But that ain’t going to stop me trying.

It’s true that there’s some heavyweights there- Paul Kimmage, Donnacha O’Callaghan, Nicholas Roche, Tony McCoy and Ronnie Whelan have also written excellent books this year.

In one way even being mentioned in such great company is a victory in itself.

But even though most people saw the list and had no idea who I am, there are still two factors in my favour.

One is that it’s the only book about Gaelic games on the shortlist.

The other is that my book is a tale for every single emigrant that ever left our country, and every single mother or father that ever watched them go.

As I write, the presidential election in Ireland is about to take place, and I and thousands like me don’t have a vote. We get no say in who represents us.

But we all have our dreams, and as I wrote in A Parish Far From Home, “in sport, if you don’t have a dream, you don’t have anything”.

My dream is to go to the Irish Book Awards on November 17th and to tell the tale of the Irish abroad, of how we help our country and each other in our hour of need.

My dream is to tell anyone who’ll listen about how we’re bringing Gaelic football and hurling to the four corners of the world, introducing them to new players and cultures as we go.

My dream is to let everyone know that, even if you are forced to leave Ireland, you can find a little corner of it in Sweden, in Sydney, in Shanghai – or you can start your own, so bring your boots.

Your part in this dream is that you can decide where I get to tell this story.

I can tell it to every guest and journalist I meet as we mingle the night of the Irish Book Awards.

Or you can vote for my book as Sports Book of the Year and I can tell them the glorious story of the Irish far from home from the podium when I go up to collect the prize.

You can vote for A Parish Far From Home as the Irish Sports Book of the Year here.


Getting your point across

On Thursday, my countrymen will choose my president. I don’t get a say.

Somehow, by leaving the country, I have renounced my right to have a say in who represents me.

That I and thousands like me are essentially Ireland’s travelling sales people makes no difference.

Our country can call on us for our support, but doesn’t feel the need to ask for our opinion.

I don’t do conditional support. I believe in the principles on which our state was founded on, and for all our faults I believe in the innate goodness and beauty and talent of our people.

I would ask our next president, whoever it may be, to consider giving us a voice. Most of us will never waver in our support for our country. All we ask is a little in return.

Tuesday is the final day for expatriate voting at – this is YOUR chance to make your point.

Always something to play for

It’s hard enough having a job and a family and a book to promote, without having the chance to win a bunch of trophies on the field too.

We secured the first one in August when we retained the Scandinavian championship.

Next up was the Ambassador Cup., our annual 7-a-side internal tournament which is at least as competitive and divisive as any local championship or competition.

Because the last round was cancelled, it’s now up for decision in the committee room and needless to say the lobbyists are out in force to make sure their team takes the crown.

Last of all is probably the trophy some of us want the most- a European title.

After a bad start in the Belgium tournament we have no chance of winning the championship outright this year, but there’s still the final tournament of the year in Limerick to be won.

For me, it’s the last chance saloon.

Whatever about playing in Scandinavia, there’s little chance I’ll play in Europe next year- for a guy the wrong side of 40 the physical demands of playing against Europe’s elite are too much.

Which is all the more reason to go “balls out” (as Phil Cahill put it) in Limerick and try to win it.

Everyone wants to bow out on a high, and I’m no different.

Seeing the other side…

There’s always a risk in writing a book about real events and people – not everyone likes how they are portrayed.

My missus isn’t too happy with page 58, and one person who shall remain nameless told me that the story doesn’t really get going until after thirty pages or so- coincidentally, it’s exactly the page where their name is mentioned for the first time…

I’ve heard that some of the lads in Malmö GAA are none to impressed with some of the things I’ve said about their club, but that risk is always there, especially when you compete.

Without the story of the rivalry between ourselves and Malmö that blew up in our first season, there story would have been all the poorer.

The reason they get plenty of mentions- some positive, some negative- is because no team put it up to us like they did last year, pushing us all the way to the wire.

That they did it again this year shows that they are still the biggest force we have to reckon with in Scandinavia.

But if the truth be told, I’m more worried about the wife.

Malmö can only ruin about six weekends every year for me- if she chooses to do so, she can make the rest equally uncomfortable, if not more so.

The rollercoaster continues

The author reads from "A Parish Far From Home" at the Irish Embassy in Stockholm, Sept 23 2011.

It’s a long time since I spent a full week in Sweden, and even longer since I’ve felt as humbled as I did on Saturday.

The Irish Embassy had organised a reception to acknowledge the launch of the book, and it turned into a wonderful celebration of our club and our community and our games.

Displaying all the diplomatic skill he has honed on almost 40 years in the service of our country, Ambassador Donal Hamill made sure that his last official engagement before his retirement was dedicated to the ordinary people of Ireland, and his gracious speech highlighted not just my achievement with the book, but those of the whole club.

It might sound a bit far-fetched, but I don’t like being in the spotlight for my own achievements – I’d much rather share it with the lads or the girls or both – but I had to grab the bull by the horns.

I read two extracts from the book – the first in particular I still find tremendously difficult, a year after I forst wrote the lines- and then spoke about my gratitude to everyone there, and to the club.

I finished by saying that this book is but the first chapter in a new era for the Irish in Sweden, and that there was still plenty of time for everyone to make their mark.

I wasn’t joking. The previous Thursday the unstoppable Liam Kennedy had taken three others with him to a Swedish school and spent an afternoon teaching them to play hurling and Gaelic football. The kids loved it.

Our Embassy in Stockholm is in a beautiful location, with breathtaking views over the Stockholm archipelago.

As I stood by the window in the sunshine and read from our story of our first season, a thousand miles away in Dublin the future was taking shape – three of our girls had been selected to play for the European county in a seven-a-side competition.

Later we found out they’d made it to the final.

Long before that, we’d decided that this tale is far from over.


Dubs delight made the world a little smaller

It only happened a few hours ago, but I’ve just watched it again. I’ll watch it many more times.

I’ve waited sixteen years for it, so I’m going to make the most of it.

In the most dramatic of circumstances, Dublin banished sixteen years of failure and won the All-Ireland Gaelic football final.

I was one of the lucky ones in that I had a ticket, but circumstance intervened and I couldn’t travel to the game.I was lucky enough to be able to see the game at home- the rest of Stockholm was equally lucky in that it didn’t have to witness the madness in my front room.

Others weren’t so lucky. All through the game I was getting messages from all over the world, asking for a stream so that people could see the game on the internet.

All over the world, owners of Irish pubs abroad battled with a moral dilemma- to show the showpiece of Gaelic games, or to show the soccer matches from England and Scotland that draw the crowds and keep their businesses in the black.

I called last week for the GAA and its broadcasting partners to get together and stream the game free around the world; it didn’t happen, but if the will is there hopefully this will be the last year when Irish people around the world are denied the chance to be part of something so indescribably huge.

For despite the sometimes bitter rivalry between the capital and the rest, what is often forgotten is that a victory for Dublin’s Gaelic footballers or hurlers is a victory for everyone in the country.

Gaelic games in Dublin are built on the efforts of people from every corner of every county who give so much to the games and the Dublin clubs.

Most of those who will celebrate into the wee small hours in the Burlington Hotel have a mother or a father from beyond the Pale; all will have been coached or mentored by folk from the country.

And every single person in Croke Park today will know someone who has left our country to try to build a better life for themselves.

Dublin’s victory today made the world a little smaller; the GAA has a chance to make it smaller still by going back to the drawing board and making the games available free of charge over the internet to ex-patriates.

Because the Dubs showed today that this is so much more than just a game.

This is who we are.

Author calls on GAA and RTE to stream football final free

Media Release

Stream All-Ireland football final free to fans around the globe- Philip O’Connor

Author Philip O’Connor has today (Sept 14) called on the GAA and RTE to stream this Sunday’s All-Ireland Gaelic football final free to fans around the world.
The writer and Dublin GAA fan is chairman of Stockholm Gaels in Sweden, where he has lived for the last 12 years. His book about the Gaels, “A Parish Far From Home”, was recently published by Gill and Macmillan.

“The football and hurling finals are the high-point of the Irish sporting year, whether you live in Ireland or not” O’Connor said.

“It’s bad enough seeing people forced to leave the country to find jobs, but the fact that many won’t even be able to see the match online is another return to the dark days of the 80s”.

“Live video of the final is currently only streamed within Ireland via the RTE website. That means that from America to Australia, Sweden to South Africa, thousands of Irish emigrants won’t have access to the biggest game of the year.”

“Many of the 27,000 people who left the country last year will be denied a chance to see the Dubs take on Kerry,” said O’Connor, who as a schoolboy was a teammate of Dublin manager Pat Gilroy.

“Even if tickets are hard to come by, Irish people at home are well-served with TV, radio and web coverage. But for those beyond Ireland’s shores, unless you live in a big city you have little chance of seeing the game.”

“I’m calling on the GAA and the RTE to reach an agreement to lift the restrictions so the match can be watched online anywhere in the world.”

The GAA boasts some 400 clubs outside the island of Ireland, many of whom have seen a sharp upswing in membership as Irish people once again emigrate in search of a better life.

A confident O’Connor hopes that the GAA and RTE will be able to reach an agreement. “It’s been a long time since Dublin claimed an All-Ireland crown, and I’d like to see Irish people all over the world the chance to share our joy!”