Has there ever been a GAA player who has transcended the game of hurling (and don’t forget gaelic football which he played at inter county level until the first few years of the new millennium) the way Seán Óg Ó hAilpín has?
Born in 1977 the eldest of six children to an Irish (Co. Fermanagh) father named Séan Ó hAilpín and Fijian mother Emilie. Seán Óg was born on the Fijian island of Rotuma – it was a tradition in his mother’s culture for the first born child to be born on her home island.
The Ó hAilpín’s were however, based in Sydney, it was where the work was during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Seán senior was missing home however and would wake his eldest son when All-Ireland finals were being played in the middle of the Australian night so that the youngster could listen to the action on the radio. Seán Óg would reply in consternation regarding the interruptions to his slumber: “That’s great dad, but I have no idea what that (GAA) is or what it looks like!”
That was to change in 1988 when the family moved lock, stock and barrel to the northside of Cork city. Though Seán Óg was nearly 12 years of age and had never previously spoken Irish, he was enrolled in an all-Irish school and adapted to the new tongue so well that he would go on to undertake a university degree “Ríomhaireacht, Airgeadais agus Cuntasaíocht” (“Computing, Finance and Accounting”) entirely through the Irish language!
It was on the GAA fields of Ireland that Seán Óg was to become famous however. On virtually his first day in Cork, Seán Óg accompanied his dad to the local GAA club (Na Piarsaigh) and it wasn’t to be long before he was gaining recognition. Seán Óg would go on to play in All-Ireland finals in both hurling and football, winning a Celtic Cross in the clash of the ash on three occasions (1999, 2004 and ’05) as well as being a three time (in a row) All-Star, 2004 Hurler of the Year and the only person ever to play shinty internationals as well as in the Compromised Rules Football Series against Australia.
It was however, his All Ireland acceptance speech from the 2005 Cork hurling triumph at Croke Park that Seán Óg Ó’hAilpín was to truly seal his legacy and as a man who transcended all race, cultural and language boundaries. The (then) 28 year-old gave an impassioned oratory, entirely through the Irish language, which detailed his youth in Fiji and Australia and the many twists and turns that ended with him standing atop the Hogan Stand with the Liam McCarthy Cup in his hand.
A man who willingly and without any hoopla or publicity gives his time and effort to charity as well as various other worthwhile causes (while expecting no compensation of any kind), anyone with an interest in Cork GAA (and GAA fans in general) will hope that Ireland’s most famous son of Fiji stays involved in the game in some way, shape or form.