A Feature on Football by Frank O’Shea
The Hogan Cup is a Gaelic football competition played between all the secondary schools in Ireland, north and south. So you think of the big guns, Colaiste Criost Ri in Cork, De La Salle Waterford, St Brendan’s Killarney, St Mel’s Longford, St Jarlath’s Tuam, St Colman’s Newry, St Patricks Maghera and the big Dublin schools like Fairview and Synge Street, Knocklyon and Kilmacud, almost all of those with enrolments well in excess of 1000. What chance would a small co-ed school in the Kerry Gaeltacht with little more than 200 boys, Years 7-12, have in such a competition?
Mind you, it would help if you had someone like Mark O’Connor at midfield which is where he played when the school, Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne, won the Hogan Cup in 2014 and 2015. Kerry won the All Ireland minor titles those years also, and again young Mark was at midfield. So the locals were rightly excited about the future of the county’s senior team, with youngsters like him and his schoolmates coming through.
Enter Tadhg Kennelly.
Tadhg’s job is to find young lads who are likely to make it in the highly competitive world of Australian Rules football. Just to put it in context, in Ireland he is trying to find 18-year olds who have only played with a round ball in a (supposedly) non-tackling game like Gaelic football and predict that they would be able to hold their own against kids of the same age who had been kicking an oval ball since they were four years old and had been taught how to put on a brutal tackle or a full-on hip-and-shoulder. That some of Kennelly’s recruits have made the transition between those two sporting worlds is astonishing.
Mark O’Connor is one such. He came to Australia less than a year ago and has already played four games with the highly successful Geelong Cats, a feat that Kennelly himself took more than two years to achieve. And like Kennelly, pedigree may also have been a factor in the young Dingle man’s progress: his great-uncle was Gega Connor whose name is on the same Kerry honour roll as immortals like Tadhgie Lyne, Mick O’Connell and Mikey Sheehy.
It is interesting to speak with Mark about his experiences since coming to Geelong. He is surprised to find that the Victorian winter can be so severe; he knew that the summer and autumn temperatures would be a challenge but did not anticipate the winds and rain of the Victorian mid year. And then there was the question of accent. Australians, as we Irish know, do not listen carefully, and even though he pronounced his name as clearly as any Kerry person would, one of them thought he heard Merrick rather than Mark and that has been his nickname since then.
Wasn’t he bored with all the training, day in day out, I asked. ‘I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t love it,’ he reprimanded me. ‘Lots of variety; no two days the same; a coach for every skill, all keen to help.’ But he understands the cut-throat nature of the pathway he has chosen. If a club is paying you, then they expect you to prove to them that you are worth their time and investment; it is a life that demands you grow up quickly.
The part of his new game that he found hardest to master was the tackle – something which is supposed to be non-existent in Gaelic football, though stylish players like Tony Hanahoe or the aforementioned Mick O’Connell might have thought otherwise. Mark had plenty of help to master the art of kicking the odd-shaped ‘ball’ and believes that Irish converts to the game manage it particularly well – instance Zach Touhy and Conor McKenna of the present crop.
While appreciating the amateur nature of the Irish game, he would like more attention given to recovery, especially after big games. By the same token, he thinks that AFL could do with shorter games and that the 70-minute length of Gaelic football is about right.
In an article in the Irish Examiner in May this year, former Kerry footballer Mike Quirke suggested that Croke Park should be more concerned about player drain to Australia. He wrote that there was an offer from the AFL to recompense Irish clubs who lost players, but this was turned down by the GAA as they felt it came too close to ‘pay for play’.
Mark has made good friends since coming to Geelong. He meets with Laois man Zach Tuohy regularly to discuss things happening in Ireland. He says that they each tend to revert unconsciously to their Irish accents and that these discussions make him feel like he is not so far away after all.
In my final question, I asked him what Irish footballer he particularly admired. Expecting one of the current high profile stars, I was surprised when he nominated Diarmuid Murphy, the Kerry goalkeeper between 2004 and 2009. ‘He’s from Dingle too and he helped me a lot. It’s not just the football, he is a thorough gentleman as well. I want to be like him.’
Before coming to Australia, Mark completed a year at UCC studying Commerce and is continuing his studies through the Geelong club who provide lectures for him and others in similar areas of study. At the end of the season, he will return to Dingle for a few weeks before beginning pre-season work in November.