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‘Few and far between’ – Why are so few POCs and Eastern Europeans joining the GAA?

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Almost 16% of people living Kerry are of non-‘White Irish’ descent, yet our Gaelic football teams are almost exclusively made up of white Irish players. In Part II of a three-part series on racism in Irish sport, Adam Moynihan asks why so few foreign nationals and people of colour are lining out for their local GAA clubs.

 

A little over 12 months ago, the GAA published a new manifesto titled ‘Where We All Belong’. It was part of a wider campaign aimed at highlighting the role the Association plays within the community, and a “celebration of our shared values and of all the people who make our GAA what it is”.

“We all belong here,” it begins. “In this place. At this time. Being here means belonging. Belonging means knowing you’re part of a community. A community that has a place for all.”

It’s a nice thought and the GAA does undoubtedly play a huge role in Irish life but, in light of recent revelations, one has to wonder if people who are not white and Irish really feel like they “belong” in our national games.

High-profile intercounty players like Lee Chin of Wexford, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín of Cork and Boidu Sayeh of Westmeath have all been the victims of racism on the pitch and, over the last week or so, many more people of colour within the GAA have spoken out about the vile racial abuse directed at them by opponents.

In Kerry alone, Brian Okwute of the Killarney Legion, Stefan Okunbor of Na Gaeil and Franz Sauerland of An Ghaeltacht have all told of their own personal experiences.

No matter how welcoming your own club and your own teammates are, it must be difficult to feel like you truly belong when a member of the opposition asks, “why are you playing this sport?” or says, “go back to your cotton fields”.

Sauerland, a Gaeilgeoir who was born and raised in Ard na Caithne in West Kerry, has been on the receiving end of both of those comments. Of course, the great irony is that if Sauerland replied as Gaeilge, the other lad, who no doubt considers himself to be as Irish as Irish could be, probably wouldn’t be able to understand him.

Historically, Gaelic games have always been considered innately Irish and, on the one hand, that is a source of great pride to us all. But what if this ‘GAA = Irish’ mentality actually contributes to these instances of racial abuse on the pitch?

Ireland is an increasingly multicultural society but do some of our young men still feel as though Gaelic games are for Gaels only, which in turn makes it easier for them to single out people of colour like Sauerland (despite the fact that many POCs and sons and daughters of immigrants are as Irish as the rest of us)?

And does holding the GAA up as this bastion of Irishness actually make immigrants and the children of immigrants reluctant to join the Association in the first place?

The numbers suggest that something is keeping people whose ethnicity is anything other than ‘White Irish’ away.

Take Kerry as an example. Almost 16% of our population is Black, Asian, Eastern European, mixed race or another non-‘White Irish’ ethnicity, but only a tiny fraction of our Gaelic footballers come from any of these communities.

If you look at senior men’s football, how many non-‘White Irish’ players are there in the entire county? I’ve done some research and consulted with supporters and between us we can only come up with eight names. Eight. (The true figure may be higher but I would be surprised if it’s much higher than that.)

Let’s say the 72 teams (including B teams) playing senior football in Kerry have roughly 1,600 players between them. That would mean that approximately 0.005% of our adult playing population has an ethnicity or nationality or any kind of background at all that’s anything other than white and Irish.

Of course, a significant portion of the 16% mentioned earlier would be the children of immigrants who are simply not old enough to play senior football yet. It is, however, unlikely that they’ll graduate to senior if they’re never picking up an O’Neills in the first place.

A SMALL PERCENTAGE

The Killarney Legion is a relatively large town club in a relatively diverse town. One would imagine that, of the 60 or so Gaelic football clubs in the county, Legion would have more POCs and players of non-Irish descent than most.

However, club chairman Fergal Moynihan says that although they have tried to recruit children from different backgrounds, juvenile players who are not white and Irish are “few and far between”.

“The club has made an effort to reach out and attract more people because of the demographics in Killarney,” Fergal explains. “There are a lot of different ethnicities here, and the Irish population is lower than it was before.

“There would be some Polish children involved but if I look at the academy now, there doesn’t seem to be a high participation rate across different ethnic groups within the Legion. And I haven’t seen it at other clubs either, to be honest with you.

“There are a few but it would be quite a small percentage.”

The low number of Eastern Europeans taking part in Gaelic games is somewhat surprising considering the size of the Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian communities in this part of the world.

What’s keeping them away?

IRISH FOOTBALL

Polish man Adrian Jasinski has been living in Killarney since 2012. As a person with a strong background in sports, and the father of a son who gave the GAA a go, perhaps he can give us some insight.

“I live in an estate where there are 10 other Polish families with kids who could easily be playing GAA, but the parents have very little knowledge about the sport,” Adrian says.

“They hear it being called ‘Irish football’ so they think that it’s only for Irish people, not for other nationalities.”

Jasinski’s 12-year-old son lined out for Dr Crokes for five years before leaving the sport to focus on soccer and, while Adrian speaks very highly of the Lewis Road club (“there was always a great atmosphere there and the people were very friendly”), he can see why so few Polish children are playing Gaelic football.

“It’s very hard for the Polish kids to make friends,” Adrian says. “If an Irish child goes to play GAA, he knows the other players, the parents know each other, maybe his brother played before… If most of the Polish kids aren’t playing GAA, it’s very hard for that one kid to go and play because they feel more comfortable with kids from their own community.

“The Polish kids are not integrating that well with the Irish kids. I think that’s a big problem.”

Legion’s chairman also has concerns about the levels of integration outside of sport.

“I think it might be a broader societal issue as well,” Fergal suggests. “Is there big, big interaction going on between Polish children and Irish children in school? Are Polish and Irish families meeting on a daily basis? I’m not sure that’s always the case. I think if there was more integration in the community at large, barriers in the GAA would be broken down along with it.

“The GAA is a subset of society and if something isn’t happening in the broader community, it makes it more difficult for it to happen in the GAA as well.”

START THEM YOUNG

Adrian, who coaches Killarney Athletic’s U12 team, believes that it can often be more of a challenge to get the children of immigrants involved in organised sports across the board.

“A lot of (Polish) people in Ireland only think about work,” he says. “They’re doing overtime and they’re working, working, working, and saving money. They don’t have time to bring the kids to sport.

“Sometimes they might want their kids to get involved but because of their working hours, they just can’t manage it. And they don’t have family members who can look after the kids. They have no grandparents, no aunties, they don’t have cousins who can go together, maybe they don’t know their neighbours well enough to let them take the child along… And sometimes the older kids in the family have to mind the younger kids.”

He does, however, feel that the GAA could be doing more to attract players at a younger age. And the younger they get them, the better.

“You have to get them started early because even at 10 or 11, it’s almost impossible to break into the groups. You have to be a strong character to get into that group and feel part of the team even if you’re an Irish child, and it’s harder again for the foreign kids.

“It’s a physical sport and if you’re coming to it late, and you don’t know the other kids, it can be hard to get into it. You might think, ‘maybe I’m not in the right place’. That happens.”

 

[caption id="attachment_32323" align="aligncenter" width="367"] Deividas Uosis of Dingle is a rare example of an Eastern European Gaelic footballer. The Lithuanian-born all-rounder won an All-Ireland with the Kerry minors in 2017. He is now set to join the Brisbane Lions in the AFL. Pic: Sportsfile.[/caption]

 

For his part, Fergal is hopeful that more players of different ethnicities will break through in the years to come and he says that Legion are committed to making all of their members feel at home.

“All we can do is reach out to the various communities, bring them in at a young age and make them feel welcome. By doing that, eventually you’ll see more people getting involved.

“It’s very important to us that players from different backgrounds are welcomed with open arms and I think Brian (Okwute) is a great example of that. He made his debut for the seniors earlier this year and he’s included in absolutely everything. I can see that he has a great affinity with the club. Hopefully Jamie Alade won’t be far behind him.

“Whatever background our players are from, they’re Legion players at the end of the day and their ethnicity doesn’t matter."

"From our perspective, they’re just as important to us as everyone else. They’re not treated any differently.

“Their nationality or the colour of their skin never comes into it.”

UNDERREPRESENTED

It’s a complex issue and there are myriad factors to consider but the bottom line is that minorities are underrepresented in Kerry GAA. Wider societal issues beyond the control of the clubs certainly appear to be of some significance, but surely more can be done to open the door to people from different backgrounds, and to make them feel more comfortable within the GAA family once they get here.

Speaking to our young players about racism might be a start. It’s all well and good being welcomed by your own club but if players are telling us that racism is a problem on the pitch, we have to believe them and address it head on.

Who knows? If we can somehow create a positive, open environment that has a place for all, maybe one day a Kerry star of Polish or Nigerian or Malaysian descent could be the one to bring Sam Maguire back to Killarney.

And that, Adrian believes, could change everything.

“If you had one foreign player, maybe Polish or another nationality, who has great success in the GAA, that would definitely attract plenty of more foreigners to play.

“People need someone to follow.”

In all likelihood, that “someone” is already among us. They just need to feel like they belong.

 

Main Pic: Stefan Okunbor of Na Gaeil is one of a number of black GAA players to speak out about the racial abuse he has been subjected to on the pitch. The former Kerry minor now plays for Geelong in the AFL. Pic: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile.

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Munster Final Preview: In-form Kerry should be too strong for Cork

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Munster SFC Final

Kerry v Cork

Sunday at 4pm

Fitzgerald Stadium

Live on RTÉ 2

Killarney. July. Munster final weekend. The sun is blazing. The town is buzzing. What more could you ask for?

Well, a ticket would be a start. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the capacity for Sunday’s Munster final, the first provincial showpiece in the Fitzgerald Stadium since 2017, is capped at 2,500. That means that upwards of 35,500 would-be spectators will instead hang around the town and watch it there. Which is… safer?

I suppose after a tough year and bit we should count our blessings; the fact that a couple of thousand fans will be left in is better than nothing. And, let’s not forget, Kerry didn’t even reach the Munster final last year.

Compared to 2020, this truly is a time of plenty.

LINE-UP

Peter Keane showed his hand on Friday night and the only change to his matchday squad is on the bench, where Tony Brosnan replaces his Dr Crokes clubmate David Shaw at No. 26.

Other than that, Kerry are set to line out just as they did in their easy victory over Tipperary a fortnight ago, although three players will have different numbers on their backs this time around. Micheál Burns (10), Stephen O’Brien (12) and Paul Geaney (14) have all reverted to their preferred geansaís for the team’s biggest match of the year to date.

Cork manager Ronan McCarthy will name his team at 9pm tonight.

PREDICTION

Kerry will naturally be wary of Cork after what happened in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last November and in Seán Powter, Ian Maguire, Ruairí Deane and Luke Connolly, their old rivals have players who can hurt them.

But the reality is that the hosts are looking strong at the moment, far stronger than they did going into the last encounter, and they should be beating a team who have arguably dropped below Clare in Munster football’s pecking order.

Rebel supporters will no doubt draw comfort from the fact that they overcame similar odds last year. They are facing a far more potent Kerry outfit tomorrow, however, and when you also take into account their own patchy form, and their dismal record in Killarney, it becomes almost impossible to see how Cork can cause an upset.

From Kerry’s perspective, anything other than a fairly straightforward victory would be troubling.

VERDICT: Kerry by nine.

Kerry team to face Cork

1. Shane Ryan (Rathmore)

2. Brian Ó Beaglaoich (An Ghaeltacht)

3. Jason Foley (Ballydonoghue)

4. Tom O’Sullivan (Dingle)

5. Mike Breen (Beaufort)

6. Gavin Crowley (Templenoe)

7. Gavin White (Dr Crokes)

8. David Moran (Kerin’s O’Rahilly’s)

9. Diarmuid O’Connor (Na Gaeil)

10. Micheál Burns (Dr Crokes)

11. Seán O’Shea (Kenmare Shamrocks)

12. Stephen O’Brien (Kenmare Shamrocks)

13. David Clifford (Fossa)

14. Paul Geaney (Dingle)

15. Paudie Clifford (Fossa)

Subs: Fitzgibbon, A Spillane, Morley, Murphy, K Spillane, Walsh, Barry, G O’Sullivan, Sherwood, Kilkenny, Brosnan.

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Birdie after birdie: The remarkable golf career of Michael Guerin

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Legendary Killarney golfer and three-time South of Ireland champion Michael Guerin speaks to Eamonn Fitzgerald about some of his career highlights, including a remarkable round which included 12 birdies in 13 holes

Recently, I was playing our friendly fourball in Killarney and got to the compulsory stop off at the 9th on the Mahony’s course to sample the tea and hot scones prepared by the genial Paul Cotter in the Chapel. He was waiting with a single lighted candle on a scone. Why?

A fourball came off the 14th on Killeen, regular visitors to Paul’s: Dermot Foley, Seán Brosnan, Tom Prendergast and Michael Guerin, wearing that distinctive white golfer’s cap. He was celebrating his 80th birthday that day and what better way to start the celebration than to play the game that made him famous?

No need to divulge his score after 14 holes, except that it was low, too low for an 80-year-old and leading his direct opponents Foley and Prendergast. Brosnan and Guerin had the bragging rights in this competitive fourball where there are no gimmes. All four are very competent golfers and age has not disempowered the octogenarian, whose smooth, delightful swing grooved in the heat of battle on his eight international caps for Ireland and, of course, in the prestigious South of Ireland Championships. Michael Guerin won this major three years in a row in 1961, 1962 and 1963. More about that outstanding achievement later.

THE YOUNG CADDIE

Michael was born in Aghadoe and then the Guerin family moved to Gortroe. Michael has been there ever since. Living just across the road from the Killarney Golf & Fishing Club, it was only natural that golf would be an attraction. He started off working as a caddie, especially for Dr Billy O’Sullivan, a great sportsman.

“I caddied a lot for Dr Billy and he was a very good player,” Michael recalls. “I picked up many tips from him and started off with just one club, a 4 iron. I learned how to play all kinds of shots with it – it was a difficult enough club to use. Dr Billy encouraged me when he saw I was interested. He must have seen some potential in me.

“I caddied for him in the Irish Open (1953) and there I saw how top-class golfers played the different shots to bring in a low score.” Michael was just 12 years old at the time.

“Billy loved the weekday ball. Thursday was a half day for most employees in Killarney at that time, so it was a very popular day for golf. Many of the priests in St Brendan’s were good golfers and played on Thursday afternoons. Dr Billy’s fourball included John C (Cooper), Scottie (Eamonn Scott) and Tom Cooper (the cinema). Frank Campbell was another regular.”

What was Killarney Golf & Fishing Club like in the early fifties?

“Killarney was very elitist as far back as the founding of the club and that continued. There were very few members, especially lady members, who were wives or spouses of the men.”

That is quite a change to the present membership. “Yes,” Michael agrees, “there is a huge membership now and it isn’t confined to those with status in society. There is a huge number of ladies playing on equal terms as full members with the same rights as the men. That’s the way it should be.”

Caddies were not allowed to join the club as members in the early fifties so, in Michael’s early days, caddying for Billy and co. was all he was allowed to do on the course. All he could do was learn from the Doctor about the game of golf. Both Dr Billy and the great Jimmy Bruen took a great interest in this caddie and he learned so much from them. He was working at Liebherr, as was his brother, Patrick.

“Patrick was a fine golfer, but unfortunately he was killed as a young man in the factory and that was an awful blow for the family.”

Eventually Michael was allowed join the club in August 1959 and was given a starting handicap of – wait for it – 7. Money wasn’t flaithiúil in the Guerin household, so there was no hope of acquiring a branded matching set of clubs fitted to the unique requirements of the then 18-year-old.

He started with a set of ladies’ clubs which included irons 4, 6 and 8. Added to these were 3, 5, 7 and 9 irons from a men’s set, as well as a driver. This unorthodox mismatch of a set also included a Pinpointer pitching wedge and for a putter he used a Crotty blade. That was his arsenal for the first club competition he won, Mrs Grosvenor’s President’s Prize in Mahony’s. That was the only course in the club at the time; the Killeen course didn’t come on stream for another 20 years.

Undeterred by his lack of a matching set of clubs, Michael shot 71 gross, one under par, a 64 nett and that was a v-par competition.

That was a morning competition and a separate competition was played in the afternoon. The young fella was cut three shots for his exploits in the morning competition and had to play off a handicap of 4 in the afternoon fourball. For the first ever Killarney Scratch Cup, he was eternally grateful to the benevolent Scottie who gave him a loan of his clubs, bag and trolley to play. He was also very fortunate to get to know the great Jimmy Bruen, who saw the great potential in the young golfer.

“I used to deliver milk to him,” Michael says. “He had a caravan down near the Hotel Europe and later moved to a spot near the 1st in Killeen. It was into the left as you started on the road linking the present 1st and 3rd.”

Within one year he had worked his game through the seven-shot concession to become a scratch golfer. Impossible, us mortals would contend, but he developed his own game and practiced endlessly. “Yes, I was constantly on the practice ground perfecting the game that suited me best.”

So, he started with a 7 handicap, then to 4 and later to 3 and then to 1. Never at 2. That was some achievement. 7, 4, 3, 1, scratch, +1 and then +2?

“That is correct,” Michael confirms.

Christy O’Connor, the maestro himself, was the pro in Killarney at that time and there was huge excitement when he partnered with the Brad (Harry Bradshaw) to win the Canada Cup in 1958. That is now known as the World Cup. The two Irish heroes were paraded through the town of Killarney when they returned with the coveted trophy.

Michael’s progress as a golfer was on the up and up. Within one year of becoming a member in Killarney he went on a winning streak. In 1960 he set a new course record for Dooks, carding an amazing 63 (five shots better than the existing record).

Not surprisingly, he was called up for the Munster team and played in the inter-provincials in 1960 and in 1961. In a sparkling inter-provincial career he played at Royal Dublin, Royal Portrush, Newcastle, Co. Down, Rosses Point and Lahinch.

BIRDIES AND EAGLES

“I was [a big hitter] in my hey days and regularly my tee shot on the 13th in Mahony’s went down the hill stopping short of the drain. I could also send my drive on the 16th down over the hill on the fairway, stopping short of the drain. That was then and not now. That is the one thing you notice as you grow older, your shots lack distance – even the well struck ones.

“My second shot then to both of those greens was an easy wedge, so I was putting for an eagle and birdie at worst.”

Killarney members who played regularly with him also say Guerin was an excellent putter.

“I was full of confidence in that part of my game. I had practiced over and over again a putting style that suited my game. Then all I had to do was to roll the ball into the cup and to do it consistently. There are very many amateur golfers and even some professionals who have a great round going, but lack consistency on the greens, not sinking those 10-footers. What should be a single putt goes to two and sometimes even to the dreaded three. That inconsistency would wreck any promising round. You must size up the putt, decide and then deliver. I never neglected practising this vital part of my game.”

How many putts would he take on a regular round?

“It was all on the Mahony’s course at that time and we were playing off the championship tees (blues). Killeen wasn’t open until 1971. On average I took less than 30. I carded a total of 23/24 putts regularly and my best ever was 21. Those 21 putts came in the Racing Cup, a very popular competition at that time held in conjunction with the July Killarney Races meeting.

“I shot 64 and that included just 21 putts. Danielo (Connell) was a very good putter, but he said it couldn’t be done. He didn’t believe I took just 21 putts in the round for the Racing Cup.

“I went around quite regularly in the 60s for the par 72 course in Mahony’s, off the blues all the time. I shot several 60s and it all came together on the day I returned a 66 gross, a course record.”

What is his secret to bring in such low scores on a regular basis?

“A good tee shot is a great start and sensible decisions on where you want your ball to land. Many gofers do this consistently, but too often play poor approach shots. These must have be very well judged to get close enough to have a go for the cup with a single stroke. A single putt can make up for bad shots out the course and allow you to finish with a good score overall.

“So many players who are fine strikers of the ball, have all the right type of shots to manage the challenges of the course but leave shots go on the approach to the green. Your shot must be accurate, allowing for the contours of the green. Give yourself the chance of a single putt. Again, I emphasise the importance of practice, but practice with a purpose. Spending hours on the putting green and stroking countless balls is of little value. It is not the number of putts you take in your practice that counts when you want to transfer that learning lesson on to your round. Make less putts when you are practicing, but make planned putts. The only putt that matters is the one I am taking now.”

Can Michael recall any really exceptional round?

“I certainly can and doesn’t every golfer remember the day he/she shot an exceptional round. Mine was in a competition playing against Ivo (Sullivan). It was a 13-hole competition in Mahony’s old course, where I carded 12 under for the 13 holes off the championship tees. It was birdie after birdie.”

PRIZE

Michael Guerin caddied for Dr Billy O’Sullivan in the 1953 Irish Open Golf Championship played in Killarney, where Norman Drew beat the local Doc in the final. Remember, caddies were not allowed to become members of the Killarney club, to preserve the elitism so prized by the members at that time. That was the way until Michael Guerin was eventually accepted as a member in August 1959.

Playing off a handicap of 7, the 18-year-old won his first prize, the President’s Prize, in September 1959. He progressed quickly and entered for the O’Sullivan Cup at Dooks on the August Bank Holiday 1960, creating a new course record by bringing in a magnificent 63. This was five shots better than the previous record.          

That was some score and no one believed that an unknown and unrated golfer would reach the heights in the Irish Close Championships at Baltray. The course record of 70 was held jointly by Christy O’Connor, Eric Brown and Joe Carr. Guerin sparkled, returning a 70 and leading the 32 qualifiers on 141 (71 & 70).

“Yes, a massive 70”, Michael recalls. It included birdies at 7 and 8 and a dyke (birdie) at the 16th. His unbelievable second shot stopped three feet short of the hole. “I three-putted the famous short 18th.”

His only comment to the press was, “I would have liked a 69”. His nearest rival Billy Malone was five shots adrift. Another Killarney sportsman, the late John C Cooper, was also well in contention with 152 (71 & 77).

FIRST SOUTH OF IRELAND

In 1961 he travelled to Lahinch for the South of Ireland (SOI). Michael Guerin was an unknown among the top amateurs in Ireland, and he astounded the field by winning it. He defeated the judge, the highly rated Ian Bamford, with an emphatic 7 and 6 win in the final. Conditions were wild and wet.

What’s more, he continued his great form and completed an historic three-in-a-row in 1962. It was very hard for Guerin to even get to the Clare venue as the journey involved a four-hour bus trip with (hopefully) four days of competition. The format at that time was all matchplay with the final of a Wednesday over 36 holes. “You were really on your own,” he says.

Lahinch is a very testing links course and the prestigious SOI was the most coveted prize on offer, attracting the top amateurs in Ireland. It was tough to survive over the four-day competition. It was first played for in 1895 and has continued ever since apart from the war years and during COVID. Some of the top Irish professional golfers of recent decades earned their spurs by winning the SOI. Winners as amateurs at Lahinch included Darren Clarke (1990), Paul McGinley (1991), Graham McDowell (2000) and James Sugrue (2017). Strangely enough, Pádraig Harrington never won the title. The closest he came to victory were finals he lost to David Higgins (Waterville) in 1994 and by Jody Flanagan in 1995.

One other winner (amateur) of the SOI was Mick Morris, centre back on Kerry’s All-Ireland winning teams of 1969 and 1970. He was also subsequently capped for Ireland.

THREE-IN-A-ROW

In 1961, the 28-year-old Ian Bamford of the Royal Portrush was the pre-tournament favourite and he showed why as he worked his way to the final. He was a senior Irish international in 1954 and was unable to play for Ireland on some subsequent years as he had moved to Canada. The big surprise was 20-year-old Michael Guerin, who had been a member of Killarney club for just two years.

His opening hole yielded a birdie but then it was up and down for long periods. The young fellow from Killarney would surely crack, but he battled back on several games. He had a mighty battle before seeing off Fitzgibbon 2 and 1 to qualify for the final.

The vastly experienced Bamford was the firm favourite to win the 36-hole final, but Guerin defied the odds. He claimed his first South of Ireland in 1961 by winning 7 and 6.

He was still basking in glory when he received a treasured letter on August 21 confirming the he had been selected for the Irish team internationals at Portmarnock. The letter was addressed to Michael Guerin, Crane Factory, Killarney.

“What I enjoyed most about winning my first SOI in 1961 was coming home to the clubhouse in Killarney with the big cup and seeing so many club members so happy to have the cup in the clubhouse for the first time. We celebrated over cups of tea. Mrs Grosvenor was a proud woman and there was a great sense of satisfaction that all the time I practiced here had paid off.”

Guerin was the youngest person to win the SOI and also the first Kerryman to lift the coveted trophy His supporters at the SOI included Patie O’Shea, Paddy Vaughan, Brian Mulcahy, Kevin O’Dea, Cally McCarthy, Peter Malone, Derry O’Donnell and Scottie. “They kept following me around and that helped.”

In 1962, the Gortroe man was defending his title and standing in his path was David Sheehan (UCD), a fellow Irish International and Walker Cup player. Both he and Guerin worked their ways through to the final; it was the duel that everyone wanted to see. Guerin won the greatest match of his career to that point, defeating Sheahan 2 and 1. It was sweet revenge for him having lost by 2 and 1 the last time they met in the Irish Close at Rosses Point three years previously.

In 1963, he beat Lahinch’s Michael “Darkie” Skerritt 4 and 3 to complete the magnificent three-in-a-row and the press ran the headlines, ‘Michael Guerin: King of Lahinch’.

“When I get under pressure I play well. I love the cut and thrust of competition.”

When he returned to the SOI much later in 1979, the 38-year-old Guerin had to fight hard to survive. He was four down after eight versus John McHenry, the well-known golf pundit on RTÉ. He levelled on the 18th and won it on the 5th tie hole. Guerin drilled his trusted 4 iron shot to within four feet of the hole and eagled for a win. Typical fighting spirit once more.

“I was well on my way to exit the competition at the quarter final stage when DD O’Connell left the Killarney supporters in disgust and headed for the clubhouse saying, ‘my dear men, Michael is out playing the Klondike (5th hole) at the moment and…’ When we got back to the clubhouse, DD couldn’t believe I had won the match with a strong finish.”

Guerin kept driving on and was narrowly beaten by Vincent Nevin in the final.

He met the Irish international Brian Malone on three occasions and won them all, coming back from five down with six holes left to win on the 18th in the junior internationals at Rosses Point. In the semi-final, he won on the 20th hole.

BANDAGED THUMB

He played inter-pro with Munster on 30 occasions and won eight Irish caps. Indeed, on one occasion he cut his left thumb on a grinder at work with Liebherr and even though it was red raw and very painful he played with a heavily bandaged left thumb in the junior internationals. He was off work for several months with that injury.

Michael was rated “the longest hitter”. His last appearance for Ireland was in 1963, before he turned professional.

He won several Scratch Cups, such as Killarney (twice), Cork (three times), Kenmare, Tralee, Thurles, Macroom and was runner-up in other Scratch Cups at Waterford, Killarney, Tullamore, and Cork. He never won the Irish Amateur Close. His closest was in a final when he lost to Philip Walton, Malahide, who went on to have a successful professional career.

Guerin also went professional for a short few years. What was that like?

“Pro life was very different then than it is at present,” he explains. “Jimmy Bruen and Dr Billy encouraged me to go professional on foot of my great career as an amateur. There was no sponsorship or other help available when I joined the ranks, but I was very grateful to the Mulcahy family who provided me with shoes etc. (Marguerite Mulcahy is the current President of the Killarney club.)

“It was a tough decision, but I decided to have a go. I joined the exclusive Temple club of less than 100 members near London as assistant-professional to the very well-known Henry Cotton. The harsh reality was brought home to me very quickly. I was paid £3 a week and of that I had to pay £1/10 (one pound, ten shillings) a week for my bed and breakfast at the club. I was giving lessons for £3/10 (three pounds, ten shillings) and the same fee for playing with members, and then had to give 50% of that fee to Henry Cotton. That wasn’t very attractive. My mother died suddenly and I came home for her funeral. When I returned to England, I went to the Flackwell Heath club as assistant-pro, where the wage jumped to £10 a week, but no accommodation provided.

“I suppose the professional Jeyes tournament played in Killarney (and televised) was my highlight as a pro. I was going well on the final day despite the dreadful storm and rain. Peter Allis (TV golf commentator) and Dave Thomas were joint leaders, but I was climbing up the leaderboard. I was playing the 15th when rain stopped play and that became very controversial. My partner, Jimmy Kinsella, agreed to play on and I finished off for a record 66. It was not recognised by the tournament directors, but the Killarney club recognised it.”

It was a remarkable score on dreadful competitions and readers may view the scorecard on display in the clubhouse. That record 66 still stands. He won 6 pro-ams before leaving the professional ranks.

SEVEN-YEAR WAIT

“I decided to give up my professional career and then it took me seven years battling with the R&A to regain my amateur status. I really missed the freedom to play regularly during that time. The highlight of my return as an amateur was winning the Barton Shield with Killarney at Lahinch in 1980. We should also have won it on the previous year.”  

That was the only time that Killarney won the Barton Shield, a poor record for such a big club. The winning Killarney team, managed by Derry Pyne, was Michael Guerin (captain) Seán Coyne, James Loughnane and  Brian Mulcahy.

“I really enjoyed playing Senior Cup with Killarney on several occasions. I played with members such as James Loughnane, Seán Coyne and Arthur Spring. Then a great crop of young, low handicappers made it to the Killarney Senior Cup team such as Eoghan O’Connell, Paul Murphy, Kevin Leacy and the Sugrue brothers. Dan went on to play for Munster.”

Guerin continued to play for Munster and beat Des Smith, who went on to have a lucrative professional career.

MAHONY’S V KILLEEN

I spoke to Michael about the difference in playing Mahony’s in contrast with playing Killeen. “Both are great courses,” he states. “Mahony’s off the blues offers plenty challenges. I played most of my golf there in the old course, before Killeen was opened.”

The 18th rates in the top 100 in the world. How does it get such a high rating?

“The 18th is a great finishing hole and many a fine card has been ruined on this hole. It is not extra-long for a par 3, but the drive is very tight into a narrow green, which is so difficult to reach unless you drill it straight. Pull it to the left and you may never find it and if you do you will most likely have to take a penalty shot. Any hint of a slice and the lake gobbles it up, more so in winter when the lake is fully in. It’s a great test and the scenery is magical.

“Killeen is a tough challenge for players of all handicaps and not just because it is about 500 yards longer than Mahony’s. (Off the blues, Mahony’s is 6,164 metres while Killeen is 6,583.) But Killeen rewards accuracy, precision and good course management.

“Take the first four holes, all demanding accurate tee shots. Your first shot of the day is always a challenge. In Killeen, any hint of a slice sends you down the shore and then it is a case of damage limitation. Too far right and you are playing too low an iron to a tight enough green that has the flag stick out lakeside, inviting an over-hit shot to drop into the lake. In my younger days, my tee shot went out over the bunkers, over the road and I had a much safer second shot to hold the green. I don’t drive it that far anymore.

“On the 2nd it is trouble all the way up the right-hand side. The par 3 third demands good club choice and you cannot quit on the shot otherwise the encroaching lake will call for a new ball. Going through the green leaves you with a difficult shot back and the only bail-out is a small enough section on your left. Know your driving distance for the 4th. Hit it too well down the middle and the ball can hit the ridges on the narrow part of the fairway and dart to the right and into the lake, especially on the hard summer fairway. Too far left and the trees are on your way. The driver may not be the best option for this tee shot.

“So, my advice for the first four holes in particular is to play strategically, safer and shorter. Keep the ball in play. In stroke any uncontrolled play will mount up those shots so early in your round.

“Other holes in Killeen present their own challenges. Sensible strategic play is the key to bringing in a good score in Killeen. Think your way around the course and be just as careful with the putts, avoiding three putting. Killeen is a great test for all players, irrespective of handicap. And the scenery is magnificent.”

KEVIN O’DEA

I spoke to Kevin O’Dea earlier this week. The former St Anne’s Road man, now domiciled in Greystones, won the Killarney Senior Club Championship on two occasions, one off a handicap of 3 and later, much later, playing off 23.

“I have many happy memories playing with Michael Guerin and supporting him on tournaments such as the South of Ireland. That three-in-a-row was very special. Michael had all the shots, executing whatever one was needed. I saw him play an impossible recovery shot from the shore in Lahinch and get down in regulation when a multi-bogey seemed to be the outcome. He had all the shots.

“We often played a fourball and when it came to the 18th in Mahony’s, we elected to tee off from the edge of the present 17th green. Even that didn’t faze him. Invariably his tee shot was on the green even in winter conditions and winds rolling off the lake. He had the shot for all seasons and all challenges. Michael Guerin was a pure natural.”  

For a man that played so much golf at the highest level, there were surely disappointments along the way?

“My greatest regret was all of seven years I lost in that awfully slow process getting back my amateur status. Since I returned as an amateur in 1972 and playing then off scratch, I have enjoyed my golf immensely. You are still competing against the course and deciding which club will take you to six or eight feet from the pin, another birdie chance, a par at worst. I still enjoy hitting shots in practice and the weekly 4 ball with my friends.

“I am enjoying life and golf,” concluded the sprightly 80-year-old golfer.

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