Turtle Bunbury

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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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SENIOR INTER-COUNTY TITLES

Munster Titles 10

All-Ireland 7

NFL 3

AWARDS

All Stars 6

Texaco Footballer of the Year 4

GAA Football
Team of the Century 1984

JACK O’SHEA
GAELIC FOOTBALLER - MIDFIELD

‘We didn’t have a television in our house’, says Jack O’Shea. ‘We rented one for a week at Christmas and that was it. So we got up to all the devilment we could outside, having hunts and chasing each other after school. Everything revolved around exercise. We didn’t have a car either so if we had to go to our grandmother or uncle, we’d cycle six or seven miles from our house’.[i]

Jack’s house was on New Street of Cahersiveen, the village on the western edge of Kerry’s Iveragh Peninsula where the legendary footballer was born in November 1957. Jack’s grandfather Patrick O’Shea was a farmer from nearby Laharn, while his father John apprenticed as a harness-maker. ‘He made harnesses for all the horses and donkeys’, says Jack. ‘He did everything with his hands and I watched him and learned from him.’

With the introduction of tractors, harness-making went on the slide, so John moved to Cahersiveen and became a builder. However, while working on the new technical school at Cahersiveen, he badly dammed his back and, at the age of 31, John was suddenly unable to work.

Jack, then 13, and his older sister Mary quickly went to work to bring in vital money for their mother Bridie and four younger siblings.[ii] Jack began making cartons to package mackerel at the local fish factory for £13 a week. In 1973, a plumber who lived nearby invited him to do an apprenticeship. Five years later, Jack arrived in Dublin and began working as a plumber for another Kerryman called Mick O’Donoghue.

Meanwhile, his footballing career was gathering considerable momentum.

‘Where I come from, football is the only thing’, he explains.[iii] ‘Everybody wanted to play for Kerry. As a boy, I would watch Mick O’Connell and Mick O’Dwyer train in the field opposite my house two or three days a week. I used to be their ballboy every now and then. Mick O’Connell would come in by boat from Valentia and Mick O’Dwyer would come in from Waterville. They’d train for a couple of hours, mostly kicking and catching. I’d be watching and emulating and trying to do what they did’.

The Christian Brothers in Cahersiveen also did their bit. Jack credits them with encouraging him and his classmates to follow their footballing dreams, urging them to practice on Wednesday afternoons, in the evenings, at weekends. ‘Some of the priests would get very involved in organizing games for us’, he recalls. ‘And I’m not sure what it was we were eating but we became a very good team’.

Jack and several of his classmates signed up with St. Mary's, the Caherciveen club.[iv] Under the management of Paddy Murphy, Caherciveen stormed the Kingdom for the next eight years. ‘We won a lot of the South Kerry championships’, says Jack. ‘We won Under 12, Under 14, Under 16, the Minor … we were the same team all the way through. Three of us from the club won All-Ireland’s together but I was the only one who won as a Senior.’

‘It was all innocent fun. Everything was about exercise and it was all natural. I never got injured or pulled a muscle when I was playing which is very unusual for the amount of football I played. My physio said it was because I was physically working on the Monday after a match, plumbing, jumping into attics, jumping on sites, automatically stretching … it was all physical, rather than sitting in a car to get to work and then sitting at a desk all day’.

It undoubtedly helped that he gave up alcohol at the age of 18, laying early signs of self-destructive inclinations to rest. But his fitness was not all down to being a plumber, He played badminton regularly and was a cross-country running champion, once coming fourth to John Treacy. ‘But I never went to the gym and I’m not going to start at this stage’.

Jack is scoffish about certain aspects of modern life. ‘There’s everything too handy now’, he believes. ‘People don’t appreciate things. They demand everything and want everything. But you can’t appreciate things unless you go out and earn it yourself. All our kids are just handed everything. If they didn’t get what they wanted, I think a lot of them wouldn’t be able to cope. Its frightening to say that but if you ask young people to cook for themselves or change a fuse in a plug or even change a light-bulb, a lot of them wouldn’t know how. They think the light comes on when you hit the switch and that’s it.’

Jack made his minor debut for Mick O’Dwyer’s side against Waterford in the 1974 Munster Championship. He went on to represent the Under-21s with whom he played in a record four All-Ireland finals, winning three times. In 1978, he moved to Dublin to develop his plumbing career and that was also the year he first lined out in the green and gold for the Kerry Seniors.

Between 1978 and 1981, he was a key member of the Kerry senior team who won four All-Ireland’s in a row. He then managed to be on the team who won the 1984-86 three-in-a-row. It is arguable that no man has ever received louder cheers in Croke Park for the conviction with which he launched into his dazzling high catches. Many of those who queued up at the turnstiles of Croke Park were there because they wanted to see Jack. In 1984 and 1986, he captained the first Ireland teams to play International Rules against Australia.

He is the only person in the history of Irish sport to win six all-star awards in a row. In all he enjoyed a remarkable sixteen years before retiring in 1992 after a match in which Clare bridged a 75-year gap to beat Kerry and win their second ever Munster title.

Jack also played for his local clubs St. Mary’s in Kerry and, after he set up business locally as a plumber in 1984, for Leixlip in Co. Kildare, with whom he won Co. Kildare's Division One League. He also managed the Co. Mayo team from 1992 to 1994, which he enjoyed.

These days he is not particularly sporty although he plays golf every week and heads out deep-sea fishing whenever he is home in Kerry. He also still enjoys one of the Kingdom’s more energetic pastimes, beagling. ‘There’s a lot of beagle clubs down the Iveragh where I come from’, he says. ‘I like to go running up the mountains with the hounds. We hunt hare most of the time, and the odd fox, but we don’t catch them. It’s good exercise. You’d eat the dinner when you come home’.

Jack presently works as maintenance manager with the Moriarty Group, with particular responsibility for SuperValu and the Bracken Court Hotel in Balbriggan. He is also a regular columnist with the Irish edition of the Sunday Times and manager of the South Kerry divisional team. He and his wife Mary have four children. Their sons Aidan and Kieran are both footballers on the rise.[v]

FOOTNOTES

[i] ‘We never had a car at home. My father never drove and my mother never drove. We walked and cycled. If you had to go to Dublin, you went by train.’

[ii] Jack has one brother and five sisters. Two of his sisters are married and live on Valentia – one skippers the lifeboat and lives on Mick O’Connell’s farm.

[iii] ‘There’s no footballers in my family - not on my father’s side. My uncles, the Luceys of Caherciveen played a bit, but nothing major’. One of his cousins is 1991 GAA All-Star winner and Kildare man Martin Lynch; Martin’s grandfather and Jack’s grandmother were brother and sister. Martin’s father Pat Lynch emigrated from Kells, Co. Kerry, to Kildare in 1956.

[iv] There were 52 licensed pubs in Caherciveeen at this time. One of Jack’s favourites doubled as a draper, another as a butcher and grocer. Fianna Fail’s John O’Donoghue also owned a drapery-pub there. ‘We were a very close-knit community with about eight hundred people’, says Jack.

[v] Aidan made his debut for the Kerry senior team in their successful 2009 National League campaign.


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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.