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Back At 43 And Playing With His Son, A Wicklow Hurling Legend Is Still Thriving

Back At 43 And Playing With His Son, A Wicklow Hurling Legend Is Still Thriving

Unsurprisingly, Wicklow’s 3-14 to 3-11 victory against Louth last Sunday in the Kehoe Cup did not make headline news. There is no glamour in January hurling. Pitches are poor and attendances sparse. But for those that were at Louth’s centre of excellence for the game, they got to see a father-son combo line-out for the Garden County. 43-year-old Jonathan ‘Bosco’ O’Neill landed 1-06 on the day. His son, Jonathan Jr., came on in the second-half.

Part 1: The Set-Up 

Bosco O'Neill was the man we wanted to speak to this week. His man-of-the-match performance last week after coming out of retirement was impressive enough in itself, but then there is the added caveat that the legend's return was accompanied by the opportunity to hurl alongside his son.

So, emails were sent and PROs rang in order to arrange a chat with Bosco. The evergreen man was only asked to come out of retirement and play the day before the match, due to a lack of players available.

Part 2: The Set-Up

You don’t get an opportunity to explain who you work for before Bosco agrees to talk to you. An unmistakable heavy clatter rattles through the phone as steel studs kiss marble floor.

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I’m actually out the door on the way to training, does it suit you to call back this weekend? Any time that works for you will do.

Part 3: The Howler

It’s funny, no big deal was made of it actually. My daughter, she’s only 13 now, came in during the week and said ‘Dad, can I ask you a question?’ ‘Yeah’ I said. ‘Were you and Johnny playing county last weekend?’ She only heard it in school that day!

Bosco loves a chat. That is all the interview is really. ‘I ran my first marathon last year, I spent a year with the Dublin hurlers in 95’, sure wasn’t it great to see Galway win an All-Ireland? Delighted for Joe.’

He and his son won a Wicklow Senior Hurling Championship with Glenealy last October and narrowly lost out to Killkenny’s Ballyragget in the Leinster final. He doesn’t shy from the topic of the week, Intercounty player welfare. However, he scoffs at the idea he wouldn’t let his son enter the game right now. ‘What else would he play? The rugby is getting huge but sure, what soccer? Ha! Stick to the hurling.’

His ability and humility are obvious, but there is one overwhelming quality that oozes from the Wicklow man; Bosco is sound.

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Soon he launches into the lengthiest monologues of our three chats, about his love of hurling and its place in Glenealy. Bosco offered a genuine and self-effacing explanation about what it has meant since his Inter-county debut, back in 1992. Yet not a word of it can be quoted, because of a botched MP3 transfer and a master file that refuses to play. All that can be offered is a meek apology and half-hearted suggestion we try again next week, any day or time that may suit.

Ara sure we’ll do it now. I’m only relaxing before the match. And I mightn’t even play anyhow!

1-06 last Sunday, and he’s unsure will he start a week later.

Part 4: The Interview

It was a great day like, very proud. We hurled together in Glenealy so I was almost used to it, but it was still nice to look up and see himself jogging on.

Jonathan Jr is 18 and in the midst of a monumental year. Not only is he hurling with his county, but in June he will sit the leaving cert. His father openly assumes that Jonathan will be a better hurler, and in some ways already is:

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To me, I think he is skill wise. If you think of the standard of hurling back in the 90s and that, we were all using 36, 37-inch hurls and big slow swings. There was a lot of pulling on the ball back in that day! It wasn’t that bad, but the standard of the skill level, the speed and the physique for all of the players is totally different. I think he’s above skill wise, a lot of the young lads have a lot more skill.

There is a delightful video on YouTube of the 2011 Division 3A hurling final. During the match, Bosco O’Neill gives an exhibition in free-taking and Wicklow see off Derry to claim the cup. The after-game celebrations are familiar for anyone who has achieved any GAA success- ‘goodmanyourself’ and bear hugs aplenty.

O’Neill goes into the stand, collects the cup and gives a speech. Afterwards, the players gather on the field for the ‘hip-hip-hooray’ ‘team-with-the-cup' photo. In the middle is Bosco, the cup and a 12-year-old Jonathan, firmly planted in-between his father’s knees.

Apparently, we hurl the exactly same. We have the same style like. We start off in the same role, start inside corner-forward and then come out to midfield. I can kind of see the same similar roles with him, because he played a lot of midfield for Glenealy. We’re quite similar.

For the club, I was midfield and he was corner-forward. The last couple of games in the Leinster, we’d swap positions. In the final he went out to midfield for the last 5 or 10 minutes and I went inside, when the legs were getting tired!

A last-minute call-up to the panel was no problem for Bosco. He already had a friend within the squad to ease him into it.

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Just before Christmas and just after, he’d done a lot of training sessions with them. Just the way it happened last weekend when Seamus rang me we ended up going along together. They were stuck, struggling with injuries and players not available so I got a call on the Saturday.

I was doing a bit of running and Glenealy were still hurling in December, so I was still doing a lot of hurling, fairly fresh thankfully. I’d a lot of ball work done that would mean I’m alright for it.

A few calls have come in for interviews in the aftermath of Sunday’s game. Not only had one of the greatest hurlers the county had ever seen returned, but his son was involved too. For Bosco, it’s a delight; another documented means to remember it by. For Jonathan jr, not so much.

He’s definitely a teenager. Awh, yeah definitely. I was showing him a bits and pieces from the local paper he’d just say ‘oh, alright’ and mutter at you. They just get on with it. It’s the right attitude to have though, even if you look at the best, If you look at the Joe Cannings, even when he’s had negative stuff written or positive stuff, he just gets on with it.

Wicklow take on Longford in the Kehoe Cup semi-final today. For the O’Neill’s, it’s business as usual.

Just another game. I don’t know if we’ll be playing tomorrow. Lots of lads are back. So, we mightn’t be playing. I’ll stay involved for the year, just help out and be around the panel. It’s a very young panel, a lot of them are very, very young. Some of the older guys, Eamonn Kearns and Ronan Keddy are the leaders of the team at the moment but they still need experience around the dressing room. When so many are very young, it's just good to have a bit of experience around the dressing room. I said I’d help out for the rest of the year, if I get game time I get a game, if I don’t I don’t.

A father and son hurling together is a peculiar and wonderful thing. It’s a moment few will get to share and one to be treasured if you do. Bosco does not need to be told this. But prolonged exposure to the sensation at the club game ensures he is used to it. Like the bests things in life, he knows he’ll only truly appreciate it in hindsight.

It ended up being a big deal what happened, but to me it is just another match. When you really retire, hopefully another five years-time, then you can probably look back at the papers and think ‘jaysus yeah, that was good.’ But at the moment, it was just another hurling match.

Maurice Brosnan

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