Blues recruit has a Rebel heart


Carlton’s recent announcement that they have signed Ciaran Sheehan for the 2014 season is great news if you’re a fan of sportsmen from County Cork, which I am.


Sheehan (first name pronounced pronounced Kier-ON; it’s the Irish version of Kieran) is from Farran, a village to the west of Cork City. He joins the Cork lineage at Princes Park that began with Colin Corkery, who was at Carlton for five minutes in the 1980s, and continued through Setanta O’hAilpin, the warrior with the warrior’s name, a decade ago.


“Setanta” is an unusual name even in Ireland, much less Princes Park. It takes guts to call your son after the son of Cu Chulainn, the warrior from the north of Ireland who has a special place in Celtic mythology as the figure who slayed entire armies.


But it suited Setanta, who used to charge out from the goalsquare like a man with a shield. He played with fierce passion, befitting a sportsman who grew up in a sea of passion.


I knew a bit about where his passion came from. I met Setanta’s oldest brother Sean Og (Og means junior) in Cork City when I was living there, working at the Cork Examiner, many Celtic moons ago. Sean was not as tall as Setanta, but he was a fine sportsman. He became part of a select group in the history of Irish national games when he played in winning teams in All-Ireland finals in both football and hurling.


The Irish games are of course amateur. When I met Sean his pants were tatty and a toe was about to poke out from his shoe. He was doing a placement at a bank as part of his finance degree, which he was studying entirely in the Irish language.


Sean explained that his mother was from Fiji and his father was from County Fermanagh. They met in Sydney, where they lived until Sean was a lad of 10 or 11. His father’s sense of Irishness was heightened by the fact that he was a Catholic from one of the six counties of Northern Ireland, the British counties. His father moved the family to Cork because he knew his children would get a solid grounding in the Irish language at a good school.


I asked Sean whether he had an AFL team in Sydney. He barracked from Hawthorn because they were always on the telly, but when when I asked whether he had any notion of returning to Australia to start an AFL career he almost drop his farl (bread) in his soup. To him there was no greater honour than playing football and hurling for Cork.


I can still see his bulging eyes: “You’re playing for County Cork, boy. [Every sentence in Cork ends with ‘boy’.] You’re playing for the Blood and Bandages.”


Cork are known as the Blood and Bandages because they wear red and white, but also because the county was a fulcrum for Ireland’s bloody battle for independence from the Brits a century ago. The official nickname of the Cork football and hurling teams is the Rebels. Cork is mighty proud of its history of subversiveness; it’s proud of the fact that many Corkmen were prepared to shed blood for their country.


One of my favourite sports memories involves seeing the Blood and the Bandages play Limerick in a hurling championship game at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick. The stretch leading up to the ground is like a guard of honour of pubs. I remember seeing Sean look awed as he took in the carnival of revellers, bedecked in the red and white of Cork or the green and white of Limerick, while the team bus inched its way towards the ground.


I’ll never forget the silence while the Soldier’s Song was played before the start of the game. My recollections from the game include Brian Corcoran playing imperiously at centre-back, sticking his arm up amid a thicket of hurleys to take the sliotar (ball); cheeky Joe Deane, who was smaller even than Jeffrey Farmer, scampering about in attack; and Sean Og haring down from half-back, balancing the sliotar on the base of his hurley (which is our equivalent of taking a bounce), before belting it far into the forward line. He played with flair and huge commitment, like a man whose family had moved from Sydney to proclaim their Irishness.


Setanta’s time came a few years later, and what a time it was. At nineteen he was a hurling star. He was athletic, charismatic, worthy of the name Setanta, and possessed of no little skill. In the second half of the All-Ireland final he produced a coruscating spell that threw the match on his head. Setanta was the biggest sports star in Ireland after that match. Two months later he was at Princess Park wearing navy blue.


The international rules series came to Melbourne that year, in 2003, and I met up with some friends among the Irish journalists. (You’d do well to read Sean Moran in the Irish Times.) Journalists are hard-bitten creatures, schooled in the difficulties of change, but these men looked crestfallen as they talked about Setanta’s move Down Under. They had looked forward to a decade of writing about the young star.


I thought Setanta looked wrong in navy blue because none of the 32 Irish county teams have predominantly navy strips. (Dublin, with their two-blue set-up, would go closest.) And, try as he might, he never managed to grow into the navy blue tradition of Stephen Kernahan and Soapy Vallance, the great Carlton key forwards (with apologies to Ross Ditchburn, whose family I met in Kukerin.)


I remember him kicking five goals in a couple of matches, but he could never quite nail the caper. Finally it wasn’t enough. At the end of the 2012 season, after eight years at Princes Park, he was shipped off to GWS. After the 2013 season he was quietly culled from the Giants’ list.


His exit occasioned no comment whereas I thought he deserved a wake with lots of Guinness and singing. He gave up so much to travel across to the other side of the world to carve out a professional sports career, more than parochial AFL fans had ever known. Once he got here he honoured his commitment by playing with his heart and his soul, and you can’t ask more than that.


Ciaran Sheehan was feted in his home land after dominating the recent international series against the Indigenous All-Stars. He’s fast and tough, glistening with skill, and I’ll watch him at Carlton with interest. I’m reluctant to make out as if he’s got to play with the same commitment as Setanta just because he’s from Cork, but then again why not?


Go your hardest, Ciaran. Good luck in the AFL.






  1. Great stuff Daff. These Irish are real blood, guts and heart players.
    Setanta seemed forever the inbetweener. Never quite big/small; quick/strong; or skilled enough to ever quite cut it in modern AFL.
    Kenneally and Stynes both eventually found enough of a hint of polish to become great Australian footballers. Setanta had all of the bravery, but his shoes were always scuffed.

  2. Magnificent Daff. Made me want to jump on a plane and get over there for a point or two.

    Only the Irish could have a guard of honour of pubs. You must have had a ball over there.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great read Daff and a timely reminder how difficult and what a achievement it is to switch and then succeed in our game and let’s face it a game open to so many interpretations . The success of so many of the , Irish recruits is quite incredible .
    I agree re love reading the , Irish stories I am sure we will all follow , Ciaran with interest . Thanks Paul

  4. Enjoyed reading this a lot Daff – would love to get over and watch Hurling one day – what I’ve seen on youtube is just cracking. Looking forward to following Ciaran at the Blues.

  5. Peter Fuller says

    There is another notable Cork sportsman, whose temperament and talent were applied not to the GAA sports but the world game. I refer to Roy Keane, perhaps the only player at Man. Utd. never to back down in a confrontation with Alex Ferguson.
    I loved Setanta for the passion he brought to his football. I reluctantly agree with Peter B’s assessment of his limitations, but he never took a backward step on the field, and he responded determinedly to setbacks off it – injuries, the delisting of his brother etc..
    Here’s hoping that young Ciaran can bring an equivalent level of commitment to the task of mastering our game. Given his evident talent, he just might be Cork’s equivalent of Dublin’s Stynes and Kerry’s Kennelly

  6. What a beauty, Daff.
    Wonderful historical & geographical & political context. There’s something lyrical and pure about the Irish in most endeavours, it seems.
    As a Collingwood follower, I’m more than a little wary of a Corkman wearing the navy blue.
    Brilliant piece. Thanks.

  7. Just as a man from Cork, I have to correct you and say Sean Óg never won an All-Ireland football title. He did win three hurling titles though. Still a good read and made me proud to be Irish and most importantly a Corkman.

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