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Guinness, golf and gambling: The day Michael Jordan came to Killarney

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What did Michael Jordan do after The Last Dance? He did what any wealthy American retiree would do. He came to Killarney to play golf and drink Guinness. To find out what the GOAT was really like, Adam Moynihan spoke to the locals who showed him around back in May of 1999.

 

If, like me, you’ve been gripped by the ‘The Last Dance’, you’re probably wondering what comes next. Now that the fascinating documentary is all over, how do we fill the void?

Well, Michael Jordan was probably wondering the same thing himself after the real Last Dance back in 1998. With his sixth NBA championship secured and the break-up of the Bulls imminent, the game of basketball was about to lose its biggest star for the second (but not the final) time.

A salary dispute between players and owners pushed the beginning of the 1998-99 season out to the New Year so Jordan officially retired on January 13, 1999. Just a few short months later, perhaps to get away from the States during the NBA Playoffs (which, for the first time since 1984, did not feature the Chicago Bulls), Michael and a dozen of his friends landed in Ireland for 10 days of non-stop golf.

Why did he choose our little island? The same reason many American basketballers have arrived on our shores down through the years. The late, great Paudie O’Connor.

GOLF TRIP

Arguably the greatest Irish basketballer of all time and one of Killarney’s most famous sons, Paudie revolutionised the game in this country when he was responsible for bringing the first American professionals to our league in 1979. He subsequently moved to Las Vegas where he set up O’Connor Golf Tourism and when a mutual friend introduced him to Jordan, Paudie, ever the big thinker, jumped at the prospect of bringing one more baller back to his hometown. He suggested that Jordan, an avid golfer, should join him on a trip to Ireland and Scotland.

The biggest athlete on the planet accepted his invitation and on May 18, he and an entourage including his manager, George Koehler, and fellow athletes from the NBA, NFL and MLB arrived in Shannon Airport on a private jet adorned with a large Nike swoosh.

There to greet him on the runway was Killarney man Dennis Carroll, a Kerry Coaches bus driver who would ferry Jordan and co. around the country for the following week and a half.

Dennis remembers the trip well and speaking to the Killarney Advertiser this week he said that, contrary to his portrayal as a disagreeable character in the documentary, he found Jordan to be “perfectly fine”.

“You wouldn’t think that he was the superstar he was,” Dennis says. “He’d salute and he’d engage… He was respectful, courteous and he took care of me. As a group, Jordan and his friends were good fun. They were just like ordinary guys.”

Paudie’s brother Séamie, who caddied for Jordan when he was in Kerry, admits that the six-time NBA Finals MVP “got a bit cranky at certain things”, but overall they got along famously during their time together.

“To me, he was a very fine gentleman,” Séamie recalls. “I couldn’t say a bad word against him.”

FANS

Understandably, Jordan’s arrival in Killarney caused quite a furore.

“The day he played Killarney it was like the Irish Open,” Dennis says. “Young fellas were skipping school left, right and centre to see him. I think there were a few teachers there as well if I’m not mistaken! When they played Ballybunion one of the teachers from a nearby school was a golfer and he got wind of it. He brought his whole class down to see Michael Jordan.

“Everywhere they went there were lots of people. It was kind of being kept quiet but word got out fairly quickly. He didn’t shun the people but he wasn’t going around pressing the flesh and signing autographs. He was here on a private visit and he was given his space. The Irish being the Irish, they were respectful. They weren’t on top of him at all.”

 

[caption id="attachment_32183" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] NBA legend Michael Jordan at Killarney Golf & Fishing Club in May 1999. Watching on are Paudie O'Connor and former National League basketballer Joey Sheehan. Pic: Eamonn Keogh.[/caption]

 

Jordan never asked Séamie to keep fans at arms-length either.

“He didn’t refuse anyone anything and he didn’t tell me to stop anyone coming up to him, but I used to wait for the right moment and give the young lads a wink to say, ‘now is the time’.

“Certainly in Killarney there were a lot of young lads around the place looking for autographs and he did a bit of it in fairness, but he was on holiday. It wasn’t long after The Last Dance in 1998 so he had been under a lot of pressure.”

The group, which included baseball player Vince Coleman and NFL wide receiver Roy Green, stayed in the Aghadoe Heights for three nights and they also got to sample Killarney’s nightlife when they were in town.

“They went into The Crypt nightclub three nights on the trot and they had great fun," Séamie says. "This was a strange country to them but they were very struck by the courtesy of the people and the food and the drink, and life in general.

“Jordan loved the pint of Guinness and the Irish coffee and he used to consume them both at the one time."

"They’d be on the golf cart when was playing and the Irish coffee would be cold and the Guinness would be flat, and he’d drink them away.”

36 HOLES A DAY

The travelling party played an incredible amount of golf during their stay. In fact, their driver reckons they took on 12 courses (some of them twice) in just 10 days.

“Michael was a fanatical golfer – I don’t know how good he was – but 36 holes a day was no problem to him.

“They played Lahinch, Waterville, Tralee, Ballybunion, Killarney, Ring of Kerry, Old Head, Fota, The European Club, Portmarnock twice, Royal County Down twice and the two courses in Portrush. They didn’t do 36 holes every day but a lot of days they did.”

And, as was highlighted in the documentary, it wasn’t just the love of the game that was motivating Jordan on the course.

“They were playing for quite large sums of money,” Séamie says. “I helped him to get up and down on the 18th in Killarney for a four and he gave me a slap across the arse. ‘Great call, Séamie!’ I had saved him some money. He was quite entertaining.”

 

[caption id="attachment_32182" align="aligncenter" width="614"] Séamie O'Connor caddying for Jordan in Killarney. Pic: Eamonn Keogh.[/caption]

 

Dennis also recalls some significant wagers being made on the bus.

“He was fond of the gambling. Between golf courses, they were playing cards. They were pretty heavy gamblers, most of them. They weren’t afraid of it.”

One day, however, a game of cards was interrupted when Jordan and his friends became very much afraid. It seems as though His Airness, ironically enough, wasn't too keen on heights.

“We were going from the Ring of Kerry golf course to Waterville, so we were doing the Ring of Kerry arseways for the want of a better word,” Séamie says. “Going up towards Coomakista there’s quite a large, steep drop – it’s probably 200 feet – on the left-hand-side into the ocean. Michael and the boys were playing cards in the back of the bus when we went around a turn. Next thing we looked around and they were all hiding under the table!

“I asked Jordan about it after and he said he had never seen anything like it."

Dennis, nicknamed The Steerologist by Paudie and Séamie for his abilities behind the wheel, laughs as he retells the story.

“Yeah, they were scared. The small roads and all that. I wasn’t hanging about because I was trying to make the tee time. Michael was afraid of heights, strangely enough for a very tall man.”

When they were finished in Ireland, Jordan and his friends moved on to Scotland for some more golf before flying back to America. In the weeks and months thereafter, the people of Killarney could have been forgiven for thinking that it was all just a dream. Did the biggest sports star of all time really just potter about our quaint little town, play a round of golf in Killeen and drink pints of Guinness in The Crypt?

“It was an amazing experience,” Séamie says. “It was great for the town and great for the golf club.

“Jordan enjoyed this part of the world too. He never realised it would be so quiet, with parts of it uninhabited and the green grass and the cattle and the sheep. He couldn’t understand how these golf courses were built and how they were so good. He got a great reception in Killarney and he loved it.”

And, of course, the mastermind behind it all was Paudie O’Connor. Sure, who else could pull it off?

 

Main pic: Eamonn Keogh. 

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No reform for football championship as Plan B falls short

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by Adam Moynihan

There will be no radical change for the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship in 2022 after a motion to restructure the format of the competition failed at GAA Special Congress on Saturday afternoon.

Motion 19 (also referred to as ‘Proposal B’ or ‘Plan B’) proposed that the National League and All-Ireland Championship should become one competition, with the provincial championships being separated from the All-Ireland series for the first time ever.

The motion needed support from 60% of delegates but, contrary to projections, it fell well short of that majority. In the end, after an hour-and-a-quarter of debate, just 50.6% of voters opted for Plan B.

Plan A – four groups of eight “provinces” plus an All-Ireland series – garnered far less support. 90% of those present voted against that particular proposal, which was down as Motion 18 on the agenda.

The end result of the two failed motions is that intercounty football will revert to the status quo as it was before the Super 8s were introduced in 2018, with a qualifier or “back door” system in place. A second tier competition known as the Tailteann Cup will also be staged.

ARGUMENTS

Introducing Motion 19 to delegates at Croke Park, former GAA President John Horan described the proposal as a starting point.

“If we feel we need to improve it, that opportunity would be there,” he said. “This proposal will mean more matches for our players and a better playing to training ratio.”

CEO of the Gaelic Players Association Tom Parsons said the ‘league as championship’ model would spark life into Gaelic football, before reading the testimonies of some intercounty players who supported Plan B. Among them was current Kerry captain Paul Murphy, who was quoted as saying: “The time has come to try a new structure for our football championship.”

Parsons added that some players are being “laughed at” while wearing county tracksuits after suffering heavy defeats.

Former GAA President and ex-Kerry GAA Chairman Seán Kelly also spoke out in favour of Proposal B, suggesting that it should be trialled for a period of three years.

“If you stand still, you go backwards,” the Kilcummin native said. “This motion should be trialled for a maximum of three years and then reviewed. To turn our backs on the voice of the players does not make sense to me.”

Michael Duignan from Offaly, Colm Collins from Clare, Seán Carroll from Sligo, Kevin O’Donovan from Cork and Declan Bohan from Leitrim all backed the proposal.

Representatives from Mayo, Donegal, Antrim, Cavan, Derry, Monaghan and Armagh argued against.

Mayo GAA Chairman Liam Moffatt raised concerns about the sixth place team in Division 1 not qualifying for the All-Ireland series while teams from lower divisions would.

Tiernach Mahon of Fermanagh GAA said that “this motion has the potential to destroy the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of Fermanagh people”.

Meanwhile, Kerry GAA chair Tim Murphy called for Motion 19 to be voted on at Congress 2022 instead.

“It’s a really strong motion with really good attributes and something we should really consider. But I would caveat that by saying it would be a travesty today if the motion is put to the floor and defeated. All the work of the committee would go to waste.

“The sense I get from the floor is that everybody is for change and for us to grow and evolve as an Association we have to accept that. I do feel the motion has huge attributes, but maybe we should go around to the provinces and invite in county officers and players to have their view. If we come back in 12 or 13 weeks with the same motion, then no-one can say we haven’t discussed it properly.

“Perhaps bringing this motion to Congress 2022 is the best solution to the situation we find ourselves in.”

Bringing the debate to a close, Horan again urged delegates to back the proposal.

His pleas fell on deaf ears, however – at least for 83 of the 168 people in attendance. 100 ‘yes’ votes were needed for change, but Motion 19 received just 85.

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A lover of music and song: Jimmy O’Brien RIP

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Eamonn Fitzgerald remembers the late Jimmy O’Brien, the eminently popular bar owner, singer and GAA fan who left an indelible mark on the town of Killarney.

Publican Jimmy O’Brien was laid to rest at sunny Aghadoe on Monday last. He wouldn’t want any fuss, but he got his promise from his lifelong friend, Jimmy Doyle. Jimmy was on the button accordion playing ‘Mary from Bonane’, a firm favourite, and even more so in recent weeks when Bonane native Seán O’Shea was kicking points from all angles.

After his love for his family, nothing meant more to Jimmy O’Brien than football, music and song.

Born in the town land of Lyreatough, Kilcummin in 1932, he attended the local Anabla NS and was well inducted in the various stages of getting the turf from sleán to the reek in the haggard. He was of the bog and proud of it. But he knew it was very hard work and headed for town, specifically Culloty’s Garage at Fair Hill (now Killarney Hardware). There he learned his trade as a mechanic. He didn’t boast about it but was very proud of the papers he received to certify him as fully qualified.

Like so many more people of that time, he was taken to America by Patrick Cronin in 1956 and was home for good in 1961. He must have collected a fair fistful of dollars and held on to them because, when Conno Healy’s pub came up for sale in 1959 (across the road from Culloty’s), he bought it. He returned home to open up Jimmy O’Brien’s pub along with his wife, Mary.

The family came along in due course – Siobhán, Ann and Jim – and the business grew. All went well until September 29, 1994, when his beloved Mary passed away aged 61. Too young to die and it hit him hard. No wonder; wasn’t she his life and soul?

His three children, the bar and his twin loves of football and song kept him going. He had no time for soccer, recounting times he would go up to the Friary, say the rosary, and still no score when he returned.

He was an ardent supporter of the Kerry football teams, but even more passionate about club football. Which was his club?

ROGUES

Set the scene in the Fair Hill bar, with a nice crowd inside. That’s the way he liked it – he got a bit flustered if it became jam-packed. It’s summer time and the O’Donoghue Cup draw has been published.

Johnny Batt (Cronin) was the instigator, and his Spa club mates the Herlihy brothers (Dave and William) stirred it further. Who was Jimmy going to support in the forthcoming matches, in which the rivalry would be intense? Mick Gleeson was as philosophical as ever; he knew better than to try and win this one.

The McCarthy brothers from Gneeveguilla, Thado, Joe and Billy, were in fast to lay claim to the boss of the house. After all, wasn’t he reared in the traditions of Sliabh Luachra and one of its finest sean-nós singers? Rosy was far more definite. Gneeveguilla, of course, I have to say.

Kilcummin’s Dermot Moynihan was in no doubt about how the allegiance would stand. After all, Jimmy was born in the parish, went to school in the parish and the parish rule was, and still is, sacrosanct in Kerry football.

The odds favoured the country clubs and were stacked against the townies. Weeshie Fogarty was a regular and he had lined Jimmy up for Terrace Talk.

His daughter, Ann, married Harry O’Neill (Dr Crokes), Tom Long was his gun club friend traipsing around Cock Hill and not a word out of him, but beside him supping porter and watching the scene develop was Mike Cooper, the man who was born just inside the county bounds and was now living in Killarney. The Crokes are the team, said Mike, his chest swelling with pride. He had just returned from Cahersiveen where Dr Crokes had defied the odds to beat the Maurice Fitzgerald-led South Kerry team in the Kerry County Championship. Five of his sons played the full match to secure victory. But I thought there were only four?

“No, I have five, all good, but the youngest is only a slip of a lad. You’d think you’d blow him over, but the foxy boy will be the best of all of them.” How right he was. The boy became a man and won five All-Irelands with Kerry. Crokes went on to win the 2000 Kerry SFC, managed by Harry O’Neill, Jimmy’s son-in-law.

How was the proprietor going to get out of this one before the gallery of rogues? Sure, he was the greatest rogue of all himself, but we loved him for it.

Everyone looked to Jimmy for an answer, but he turned to another regular, the independent voice of Bracker, from the Rock.

Plenty of grimacing and carry on, but no answer to Johnny Batt’s question. Jimmy O’Brien had the knack of not falling out with anyone and he couldn’t win this one, so he carried confirmation of club allegiance with him to his grave.

I’m pretty sure it is Gneeveguilla, in the heart of Sliabh Luachra, which made Jimmy O’Brien a household name in traditional music, especially with his lifelong ‘brother’ Jimmy Doyle. He embraced the greatness of Julia Clifford, Denis Murphy, Johnny O’Leary, the Doyle brothers and many more.

SINGING

What’s more, he enhanced that marvellous tradition, not in playing, but in singing. I asked Jimmy Doyle at the graveside about Jimmy on the melodeon. “Oh, he could play… But he was only alright! But for singing he was tops, pure and just outstanding. He could interpret a song so well. You wouldn’t hear a pin drop when he sang unaccompanied.”

Is it any wonder that his pub in Fair Hill was a mecca for traditional singers and musicians? They came to the master’s pub for a session.

Paddy Moloney, chief of The Chieftains, was a regular caller; as were The Dubliners; and the Kelly brothers, Luke of ‘Raglan Road’ and Paddy, who was also a beautiful singer. When Paddy was head of the Trade Unions, they held their conferences in Killarney’s Great Southern Hotel. Business over, they trooped down to O’Brien’s. The pint was much cheaper there and they would have a right session singing, and what are you having yourself, sir?

Dolly McMahon, The Wolfe Tones, and the Begley’s all came to sing and play.

There were so many impromptu sessions and you’d get the discreet phone call that the session had already started. “Come, you’ll enjoy it, but ná h-abair focal to anyone.” What an invitation to listen to musical greats from the list above.

“Johnny O’Leary and the Doyles will be here around 10. We have Seán Ó Sé (Poc ar Buile), Johnny Lehane and Diarmaidín Ó Súillabháin will be here from Cúl Aodh. He’ll have the recorder for Radio na Gaeltachta.”

Regular visitors were Mick O’Connell, Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, Donncha Ó Dulaing and Cíarán Mac Mathúna. Thankfully, Ciarán recorded so many of Jimmy’s songs, preserving this priceless legacy for the Irish oral tradition.

And then there were the American tourists drawn to a real Irish pub. They wanted ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Galway Bay’. They also wanted to know what music college from which the vintner graduated. The prime boys from UCC provided him with the answer for the Yanks question. The University of Sliabh Luachra, with its constituent college in Lyreatough. “Wow, fancy that. Must Google that when we get back to the States.”

FRIENDSHIP

My friendship with Jimmy O’Brien goes back a long ways, but specifically to November 1969, when East Kerry won the second of their Kerry SFC titles and the Bishop Moynihan Cup had pride of place.

He introduced me to so many people, including Con Houlihan, sitting in the high seat inside the door, hair well down his back, no pigtail and his hand cupped to his nose. This genius of a wordsmith was a shy man that I met many times later in Dublin.

Just like Paddy Moloney, Jimmy shared his talents with so many young up and coming singers who went on to great things in life. I recall one such case. A very young nervous girl was preparing for her first time on stage, a recitation in Scór. Would he help her out?

Would he what? Bring her along. To this day the now adult woman recalls sitting up on that seat inside the door and this gentle, loving man encouraging her with great tips.

That seat is long gone, but not the bar stand. He splashed out on a magnificent mahogany piece, surplus to the requirements of the Great Southern. “That’s not like you,” says Johnny Batt. “What’ll you use it for?”

“It’ll be a fine bar counter,” Jimmy replied. “And what’s more, when its job is done, won’t it make a fine coffin?”

He was a great Friary man and the highlight of St Patrick’s Day was the singing of the Ár nAthair. Father and daughter, Jimmy and Siobhán, the All-Ireland champion singer unaccompanied in touching harmony. Flawless. Enchanting.

His relationship with his son Jim was more like that of brothers, looking after each other. They got great joy out of travelling to matches in the ageless red Mercedes, certainly the only one in Killarney, if not in Europe. He never got a parking ticket and definitely was never caught for speeding. I’m convinced that the former mechanic set cruise control at 40km and away she went with co-pilot Jim Bob. No need for GPS, Jim Bob in control. God help the poor motorist trying to pass out on the rural roads.

July was his favourite month to live his passions. The Munster final in Killarney on the first Sunday of July was the occasion to meet so many of his friends from afar. It was also the first day of the Willie Clancy festival at Miltown–Malbay and that ran for a week. He never missed it, linking up with Galway hurlers Joe McDonagh and the Connolly brothers and especially their aunts and uncles, the Jimmy O’Brien cultivators of traditional singing and music in Connemara. It was his spiritual retreat. Sustenance for another year.

His nephew, Fr Liam O’Brien, celebrated the touching funeral mass, enhanced by the singing of Maura Reen.

I had the good fortune to spend an hour with Jimmy less than a fortnight before he died. He wanted to know the inside story on Jack O’Connor’s return and then sang ‘The Boys of Bárr na Sráide’ and Garry McMahon’s ‘Kerry’s Green and Gold’.

Pitch perfect. Word perfect. Never a faltering note.

“Not bad for an ould fella,” were his parting words. He knew he could still do it and I was so happy to video live the Master of Songs, treasured recordings for the memory bank.

I wonder if St Peter will listen in on the hop balls between new neighbours, Johnny Batt and Jimmy O’Brien?

To Siobhán, Ann, Jim and extended families, as well as friends from far and near, comhbhrón ó chroí.

Traditional cultural Ireland has lost some great people in recent weeks: Tony Loughnane, Paddy Moloney, Máire Mac an tSaoí, Brendan Kennelly and Jimmy O’Brien. Class acts.

And Jimmy, go gcloisfidh tú na h-aingil ag déanamh ceoil leat ar Neamh.

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