Remembering an Old Team Mate and Friend

It’s been a great few weeks for UCC and for sport in the college. It’s wonderful to see photos of young people with smiles on their faces and silverware in their hands. As someone who was once lucky enough to have my hands on such silverware (The Fitzgibbon Cup, many moons ago), it’s bringing back a lot of memories.

I know I’m not the only one thinking back, and I know I’m not the only one remembering old team mates and friends. I know too that I’m not the only one remembering one special person in particular these days – that special person being Paul O’Connor, whom we lost in 2012.

When I went to UCC’s Fitzgibbon Cup Quarter Final against IT Carlow in the Mardyke a few weeks ago, it seemed to me that I could see Paul in everything. In the grace of Mark Coleman, the way he ghosts over the ground; his elegance and the way he conjures time out of the ether like a magician. In the pride of Eddie Gunning and Evan Sheehan when they see the words ‘Na Piarsaigh’ under their names in the programme, and how proud Na Piarsaigh are of them. In John Grainger’s energy, up and down the sideline, encouraging the UCC players. In the steely eyes of Tom Kingston and Ger Cunningham, their hurling intelligence evaluating countless interlocking possibilities. In the joy with which the students on the sideline carry their youth, as lightly as drawing breath. In the iconic black and red jerseys, with the white skull and crossbones. In the mist descending from a night sky, the soft earth of the pitch, the pock of a hurley hitting a sliotar, the thud of bodies coming together, the echoing of cheers when scores are taken.

One of the last times I met Paul was on that same pitch, a few months before he died, when he coached UCC to win the Fitzgibbon Cup (again) that year. I went on the pitch afterwards to congratulate him, and I’m so glad now that I did, I’d normally keep to the background. And I touched the side of his lovely gentle face with my hand and said, well done, kid. And he smiled his smile and he said thanks Tadhgie. He used to call me that, which very few people outside Mallow do. And I was glad he did, I’m glad he did.

I’m glad I hurled with Paul for four years in UCC and that I was able to call him friend. I remember so little of games I played in but I remember one wet match in Maynooth (the words ‘wet’ and ‘match’ go together in Fitzgibbons like the words ‘pride’ and ‘jersey’) and Paul was surrounded and I called for a pass and he dummied a pass to me and then turned and hit the ball over the bar off his left from fifty yards – and it was so beautiful. It was so beautiful, and so was he. I was grateful for the memory, as I stood under floodlit rain that night in the Mardyke watching this generation of young men hurl, because in that memory and on that sideline, I felt that Paul was close by.

Helen McDonald, in her magnificent evocation of grief and healing: H is for Hawk, wrote: ‘We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost.’ That reckoning came to me at the Mardyke a couple of weeks ago, because I wasn’t just thinking about Paul, I was thinking of other losses too and other regrets. That’s what happens at games and it’s strange because they are only games after all. But somehow the emotions we tamp down, day in and day out, emerge in these moments – somehow sport lets our guard down and into full sight these memories creep, unbidden. Ask anyone from Limerick about the emotions let loose by a certain game last August.

We lost Paul, but we didn’t, either, and we never will. As long as there are beaming young men and women wearing skull and crossbones jerseys with shining cups held high. As long as UCC defends its titles and wise heads come together to plan the next campaign. As long as new hurlers appear to Autumn college training to test themselves against the best players they have ever faced. As long as old hurlers remember the time when they were young and how oddly wonderful that was.

Paul graced so many lives, including mine, and I was thankful, amid the reckoning of my loss that night. And I was heartened because in that gratitude I knew he will never be gone. He will always be close by, if we need him.

This was my consolation as I passed again through that familiar Mardyke gate and turned left for home, walking through the night rain.

17 comments

  • Thank you Tadgh for your beautiful piece. Paulo was my brother in law for over 25 years but more than thst we were goid friends as well. His passing hit myself and my family very hard. Im still not over it and im bot sure i ever will be. I visit Pauls grave(we buried his ashes in kilcully with his mum and dad) eveey week just to have a chat and fill him in on whats happening with Cork hurling and Na Piarsaigh as well as UCC. I will keep this beautiful piece which Pauls wife Kate sent me. Thank you again and i agree with you when you say Paulo is with us everywhere but especially down the Mardyke. Don Cronin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Don, thanks for your lovely message, it’s so moving, I’m here with tears in my eyes. I have such lovely memories of Paul and Kate and I treasure them, I hope you can remember the good times, too, and keep them with you. It’s beautiful that you go to the grave so often, to keep him company and pass on the bit of news. Thanks again, so much, Tadhg.

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  • I was at that same final in the pouring rain, but Paul’s beaming smile of pride made it seem like a sunny day. He was and is a truly inspirational man and friend and a joy to know. Thank you for that wonderful tribute.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Elaine, thank you for your lovely message. Yes I remember that lovely smile so well, it did bring out the sun. He was, as you say, an inspiration and a joy, thanks so much again.

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  • Thank you so much for your beautiful words about our beautiful Paulo.
    Amazing memories of an amazing man.
    Brought a tear to my eye, miss him every single day!!

    Liked by 1 person

  • Paulo treated every one the same. Be you an All Star Intercounty legend or Junior B hurler helping out. Had the honour of knowing the man and as a teacher like himself came across him at different stages of my life. He always had time to chat and advise even though I was never a Fitzgibbon hurler but helped out with UCC Hurling club. At a reunion a good number of years ago he still came up for a chat when there were many famous faces there. A true legend.

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  • Tadhgh..I want to congratulate you on writing such a moving piece about Paul.Paul was a huge part of our family and to write something so pure and so inciteful about him provides great comfort to say the least.I loved the positive spin you put on his passing and yes I do believe him to be with us everyday.Kate and Paul were a huge influence on my life and a couple I admired hugely and still do to this day..down to helping me chose the subjects I chose at UCC and of course the maths grinds he provided as Kate’s first cousin.He never depaired of my mathematical challenges and always made me feel I could achieve, and that he saw and heard me as a person.He has left a wonderful legacy not only in what he brought to
    our treasured National sport but also in his wonderful children Hannah and Barry who are two of the finest young people I know.I see so much of him in themThe analogy of appkes and trees comes to my mind.Wr would only love to read more happy memories of such a kind understated and spe ial human being.Paul was all that.Thanks once more

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    • Thank you so much for your lovely message, that’s so moving. I have had an incredible response to my blog, but I’m not surprised because Paul made such an impression on everyone he met. Thanks so much again.

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  • Tadhg,
    Really enjoyed reading your fantastically written tribute to our friend Paulo .. You captured the spirit of Paulo and the love and passion that he brought to students hurling with UCC
    I’m glad that you came to the Dyke to see the tradition that Paulo helped create and you enjoyed some great memories. The class of 2018/19 especially his club mate EG did UCC and Paulo proud.

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    • Thanks so much, Ger, I really appreciate that. Congratulations on a brilliant FItzgibbon Cup campaign, what a great win. I actually couldn’t think of a way to mention Na Piarsaigh in the piece but your comment has given me an idea to fix that, so I have, thanks again.

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  • Tadhg I had the honour of playing with Paul forty years ago in Cork and of being the proud dad of Eddie who continued the Na Piarsaigh/ UCC tradition a few weeks ago in Waterford . My father God rest him always boasted that he was instrumental in stealing Paul out of the ‘Marsh’ in Cork , originally as a goalie! Paul’s name has lasted through three generations in our house and I hope it’s not over yet!

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    • Thanks for your lovely message, Tommy, that’s a great story and lovely to have that memory of your dad and Paul. Congratulations on Eddie’s success, too, he did his family and Na Piarsaigh proud this year, carrying on that great tradition, as you say – Paul was always so proud of his club and rightly so. Thanks again, Tadhg.

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