All Ireland Senior: 4
National Football League: 8
Provincial title: 12
All-Ireland Senior: 8.
All Ireland Under-21: 3.
National Football League: 3.
Railway Cup: 6
Provincial titles: 13.
GAA Football Top Scorer 1960, 1970.
Munster Sportstar Award 1969, 1970.
Texaco Footballer of the Year 1969.
Manager of the Year 1984.
Kerryman of the Year 1986.
Honorary Doctorate of Law,
University College Dublin 1984.
Texaco Hall of the Fame 2004.
RTE and Sports Council Hall of Fame 2009..
Mick O’Dwyer’s reins his BMW up in Baltinglass Square. Co. Wicklow, and throws me a wave. I’m standing beside a monument to the 1798 rebel hero Mick Dwyer.
‘My father’s people had a farm about three miles south of Waterville, Co. Kerry’, says Mick, looking up at the statue. ‘His name was John and his father’s name was Michael, known as Mick, but it would be a stretch to make them related to this man’.
Mick has just driven direct from the Atlantic-scented streets of Waterville and is on his way to Roundwood up in the Wicklow Mountains to the north. He’ll then be heading back to his ‘inland’ home in Portlaoise for the night. It’s an average enough journey for the 73-year-old footballing legend who generally racks up 70,000 miles a year.
But sitting in the car has certainly not slowed him down and soon we are pacing around Baltinglass Golf Club of which he is a member.[i]
‘My mother was the oldest of seventeen and my father was one of fifteen,’ he says, acknowledging the salutations of passers by, wishing him well for his present campaign as manager of the Wicklow football team. Their eyes are understandably hopeful. As player and manager, Mick has won over half of the 21 All Ireland Senior Finals he has been directly involved in. That’s Midas Touch enough for many.
‘My mother’s people’, he continues, ‘were fishermen and small farmers from Scariff Island just off the west coast. Her name was Mary Galvin and she was the last of the family to be born on the island. It was tough but it was very healthy. They weren’t worried about making millions or billions. They were quite happy to exist and enjoy their life. It was wonderful the way the people rambled around to each other’s houses every other night for chats and to play cards and all that. Then we got the satellite telly in and that destroyed it. Now when you go into the houses the first thing they say is shush, because they’re watching ‘Coronation Street’. That’s technology for you.’
Shortly after Mary’s birth, the Galvins ‘came ashore and moved to a most beautiful place called Bunavalla’, close to Derrynane Harbour, where Mick spent many childhood summers.[ii]
John O’Dwyer, Mick’s father, was a sheep-farmer who favoured the hunting, shooting, fishing style of life, maintaining a small pack of Beagle hounds in the house. ‘We’d be out with the foot-hounds every Sunday and Wednesday, from October to March, all day long’, says Mick.
One way or another John took a shine to Mary Galvin who was head cook at the Butler Arms Hotel for close on 35 years, during the days when Charlie Chaplin was a frequent visitor. They fell in love and were wed. With thirty siblings between them, they opted for a small family. ‘Just the one between them’, laughs Mick. ‘I’m an only child’.
Mick’s father was great on the fiddle and accordion, but he ‘hadn’t too much interest in Gaelic football.’ The footballing came from his mothers’ side. Five of her brothers played for Derrynane and some also played for South Kerry.
But Mick credits his passion for the sport to John McCarthy, his primary school teacher in Waterville, who did much to organize games between schools in the area during his childhood. ‘He had a Baby Ford and he’d put the whole team in it, fourteen or fifteen of us’, he marvels.[iii]
When he left school, Mick became a mechanic and focused his ambitions on being a rally driver. However, his football prowess was becoming apparent and his father urged him that there could be no finer honour than to wear the green and gold. In 1954, a local Garda drove him 50 miles north to Tralee for his first trial with the Kerry Minors.[iv] He duly became the first player from Waterville to wear a Kerry jersey in any grade. Most of Waterville made their way to Kenmare to watch him score 1-6 against Waterford for the Munster semi-final. But in those days, the ‘remote’ players of south Kerry were often relegated and young ‘Micko’ was on the bench for the Munster Final, which Kerry won.
He made his competitive debut for the Kerry Seniors in a National League game against Carlow in 1956, before making his championship debut against Waterford in the 1957 Munster championship. Two years later, he was on the Kerry team who won both the National League and the All-Ireland. Over the next fourteen years, Mick would gather a trophy chest of four All-Ireland’s, eight Leagues and twelve Munster titles. This was despite his 1965 horror when he broke both his legs, only to bounce back and play a starring role in the 1968 campaign.
In 1974, Mick retired as a player and the following year he became Kerry manager. That summer, he took his team north to take on Kevin Heffernan’s Dublin, then the strongest team in Ireland. Kerry stunned the Dubs with a seven-point win and an exciting and intense new rivalry between Kerry and Dublin broke upon the country.
Mick is famous for his old school training – wire-to-wire runs and endless laps - holding that there’s no finer way to watch a player’s fitness improving. He once took the Kerry team out training 27 nights in a row. As Jack O’Shea put it, ‘he was always one of us but we still listened to what he said like he was a god.’
But he sure gets the results. During his twelve years as manager Mick took his team to ten All-Ireland finals and won eight of them.[v]
He continued to play inter-county for Waterville until he was 37 and also remained on the pitch at his club until he was accidentally kicked in the head and suffered a serious injury at the age of 48.
During the 1990s, he single-handedly revived Gaelic football in Co. Kildare, managing the Lilywhites to win a Leinster title and reach the 1998 All-Ireland final. In 2003, he nearly did the same again for Co. Laoise, taking them, via a Leinster title, to the quarter-finals. And now he appears to be doing the very same for Co. Wicklow. He lead them to victory in the 2007 Tommy Murphy Cup but the prospect of a Leinster title is what really excites the Garden County and Mick relishes the challenge.[vi].
He is also a man of keen business acumen. In 2005, he chose the perfect time to sell his pub in Newbridge and one of his two hotels. He now owns a series of fast food restaurants, rather controversially insisting that if only people exercised, it would not matter what they ate.[vii] Mick can operate grand on five hours sleep, so long as he gets a 40 minute walk every day, and plenty of golf, to keep him in shape. He plays the button accordion when he can, and likes to fish around the islands where his ancestors lived. ‘It’s great to get out on the sea and away from it all.’
‘I had a wonderful time through football’, he says. ‘It took me all over the world. I even went to a place called Wagga Wagga in Australia if you ever heard tell of it?[viii] And yes, it is still all go. But why should I take it slow? There’s only one thing for life; keep going as long as you can. Any man who thinks about retiring, you might as well get the coffin.’ And then, a smile spreading, ‘I do be doing undertaking as well, you see!’
[i] ‘I play a lot of golf. And I don’t need to go anywhere to play. We have one of the finest golf courses in Europe where I live in Waterville. And there’s plenty more all around.’ He is also a member of Baltinglass, the K Club and many others so he can stop in many places for a game. ‘It keeps me in shape’.
[ii] They first lived at Coomatloukane. ‘We worry too much about money’, he believes. ‘That’s the biggest problem. What more do you need? Enough to eat, a bed to sleep in and a good pair of shoes … you could live like that where I come from. You could have a boat and go fishing. There are so many different species, plaice and soul and monkfish and crabs. In olden times, everyone would have a pig and salten him. And there was a big trade slating the mackerel where I come from. They were shipping it to Germany during the war. There was plenty of mackerel available but all the big trawlers have come in and cleaned us out now. They might restock but the fellows who catch them will be restocked as well!’
[iii] ‘Every young fellow who grew up in Kerry wants to play for the county. There are nine Gaelic Football clubs in the Iveragh peninsula – and one soccer club started last year. But that’s it, and golf.’ It would be hard to get pitches for any other sports now, he says. The GAA got in at right time to develop their infrastructure and they have pitches all over Ireland, whereas the FAI and IRFU spent all their cash on players.
Kerry has a population of 160,000 and has won 36 All-Ireland titles whereas Dublin, the nearest, has a million people and has won 22.
In 1953, Mick and his friend Eric Murphy went to Croke Park for the first time to watch Kerry beat Armagh in the All-Ireland Final. ‘We travelled on the Ghost Train, which was a good old steam engine, from Caherciveen to Dublin all through the night.’
‘I used to play a lot of badminton and basketball but football took over my life completely. It’s the big game in Kerry and has been always.
[iv] The Garda, called Donal Kennedy, was later a superintendent in Phoenix Park.
[v] Put another way, during the time Mick was at the helm from 1975 to 1986 Kerry played 55 games, won 43, lost 7 and drew 5. Those sort of figures are close to untouchable.
[vi] He arrived to take charge of Wicklow in late 2006, since when they have come on a good deal. The county had only played two championship matches before he took over. They played six in his first year. His ambition is to reach a Leinster Final. They started at No. 31 in Ireland (with only Kilkenny below them) and he says that in 2009, he brought them up to 12. Kilkenny are bottom; Kerry haven’t won the All Ireland Senior Hurling championship since 1891. When Wicklow beat Fermanagh in July 2009, Mick nodded contentedly. During his time as manager of the four different counties, he had now beaten every other county in Ireland.
[vii] ‘People should be out walking all the time, the Kerry Way, the Wicklow Way and so on. They need to be educated from primary school to know about physical exercise. Its crazy that isn’t on the curriculum.’
[viii] He has no further ambition to travel. ‘I’ve done it all. I wouldn’t be interested in lying in the sun and all that.
‘Thady Dunraven is a great friend of mine’, he says. ‘My uncle Paddy Galvin worked for him. He had a boat called the Tigaleen and I was often in the boat with Thady.’
‘It’s an amateur game and they went to keep it amateur. That has its charm but will young players keep playing?’ He feels the GAA did not make enough effort to promote GAA outside Ireland. When Kerry went to New York in early 1930s, they seemingly became very pally with the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame College who started playing the sport with a passion – but the GAA didn’t follow it up.
‘I’m over 50 years at it now, and still at it’. He reels off his upcoming agenda and it seems there is not a school hall, golf course or football pitch in the land that he will not be calling on during the week ahead.