Place of birth: Valentia Island , Co. Kerry
Date of birth: 4 January 1937
Year of interview: 2010
- Young Islanders
- Kerry (1956-1973)
- All-Ireland: 4
- National League: 6
- Munster Titles: 12
- All Star 1972
- Railway Cup Medal 1972
- GAA Footballer of the Year 1962
- GAA Football Team of the Century 1984
- GAA Football Team of the Millennium 2000
- RTE Hall of Fame 2002.
Some islands are discreeter than others. The now deserted Beginish Island, for instance, has been sitting quietly on the big toe of Kerry’s Iveragh Peninsula since the world was young. And yet very few of those who have tootled around the Ring of Kerry in past decades would know its name. The larger island to the west? Yes, no problem. That’s Valentia Island, the one that sounds Spanish and from where they ran the cable all the way across the Atlantic to Newfoundland back in 1866. But Beginish?
The Vikings knew about Beginish. Scattered relics from their kitchens and farmsteads have survived the storms of a thousand years. By the 19th century, the southern shores of the island were home to a handful of cattle farming families, none feistier than the O’Connells.
Jeremiah O’Connell, Mick’s father, was born on the island in 1894. During the 1920s and 1930s, there was a concentrated effort by the Irish government to move people off such isolated islands. In 1935, Jeremiah and his wife Mary (who came from the Kerry mainland) moved from Beginish to Valentia where Jeremiah continued to work as a fisherman, farmer and ship’s pilot.
His son Mick, or Micko, was born on Valentia two years later. He lived the outdoors life from the outset, working in the fields with his father and brothers, rowing to secondary school in Cahersiveen. ‘In a way we were self-sufficient and had a decent life’, he recalls. ‘The island was idyllic and it was a lovely place to grow up.’ When a storm, a big tide and a full moon coincide, Mick reckons the roar from the ocean is louder than Croke Park can ever be.
South Kerry has long been a footballing stronghold. During Mick’s childhood, Valentia’s footballers – known as the ‘Young Islanders’ – won the South Kerry title three times. Mick and his school pals scampered out to the fields with their gnarly old footballs, and sought to emulate their heroes. Mick impressed from an early age. Back at home, he would kick a ball against the gable end of his two-storey house, using both feet, thundering the ball with all his might and then leaping and twisting to catch it on the return, always conscious of the angle and the height.
In 1957, Mick O’Connell played centre-field for the Young Islanders when they overcame strong favourites Renard to reclaim the South Kerry championship. His presence on the Valentia team ignited a golden age for the club and, between 1957 and 1964, they won seven South Kerry Senior Championships.
Meanwhile, his county record wasn’t looking so bad either. He made his debut for Kerry in the 1955 Munster Minor Championship. The following year, he lined out for the Kerry Seniors. In 1958, he helped the Kingdom win the first of eight consecutive Munster titles. In 1959, aged 22, he captained the green and gold to victory in both the National Football League and the All-Ireland Seniors final. The islander had very quickly become a household name. For a time, he worked as a sales rep for Mex, later Maxol, although he tended to be distracted by all the training and fans every which way he looked.
No doubt on account of his island roots, Mick is a unique individual. While the rest of Kerry celebrated the 1959 triumph long into the night, Mick caught a train back home from Dublin so he could be at work next morning. ‘I was working with the cable company and all the others were going to be at work so why should I get excused because of my sport? Medals or trophies were never important to me. I only collected the cup because it was my duty to do so.’ There was no mention of the knee he twisted during the game.
Mick’s brilliance is almost certainly down to his gruelling, if unconventional, fitness regime. ‘Ninety per cent of my training exercises were done at home and on my own’, he said. He famously rowed to and from Valentia before and after matches. Rowing remains his preferred mode of transport and he still frequently rows from Valentia to the Kerry mainland. The exercise gave him arguably the most powerful shoulders in GAA history and an upper body to match. When not rowing, he was constantly running, heaving, pushing, lifting, jumping, always looking to break a sweat. ‘Training was an obsession with me’, he readily admits. ‘Every day was geared to it’.
Mick’s finest game was probably the final of the 1961 National League when Kerry hammered Derry 4-16 to 1-5 in Croke Park. The late John D Hickey, the greatest sports writer of the day, described Mick as ‘a football sorcerer … who must unquestionably rank as the best midfielder the game has known.’
As fellow footballer Paul Russell put it, ‘he controls [the ball] and uses it as if there was a magnet on his hands and feet. His every move has exquisite grace and poetic rhythm. All his actions are the outward magnifications of a razor keen football mind.’
Mick O’Connell remained the dominant – and most elegant – player in the midfield throughout the 1960s. In 1969, he won his fourth National League medal, his tenth Munster title and his third All-Ireland medal. The following year, he entered his third decade of inter-county football by helping Kerry defeat Meath in the first 80-minute All-Ireland final. By the time he retired in 1973, Mick had played in nine All-Ireland football finals and won four. He also helped Kerry win six National League medals between 1959 and 1972.
Mick played in an age when high-catches and long, accurate kicks were every bit as important as speed, fitness and hand-passing. He is famously reserved in his enthusiasm for the modern game. ‘It’s more like basketball than the old traditional catch-and-kick and its a throw-ball game. The skill is gone out of it for me. It’s win at any cost and I don’t like it.’
Mick lives on Valentia with his wife Rosaleen. They have two sons and a daughter. Their younger son Diarmuid has Downs Syndrome and also lives on the island. ‘I can honestly say he is the greatest gift I was ever given’, says Mick. ‘He has brought untold joy into our lives and we love him dearly. My wife is deeply involved with raising funds for the handicapped on the island and I support her as much as I can.’
Austin Hastings, who worked with Maxol for many long years, sums it up astutely: “He was a very good footballer. He’s reckoned to be one of the best, but he’s never mentioned because he shuns all publicity. When you’re out with him, people talk, ‘Well Mick, you played a great game yesterday’. He doesn’t want to talk about it. But if you talk about cattle or fishing, you’re home.