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Noel O'Leary Made Personal Tragedies 'Driving Force' In GAA Career

Noel O'Leary Made Personal Tragedies 'Driving Force' In GAA Career
PJ Browne
By PJ Browne
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On the night before the 2010 All-Ireland final and in the moments following Cork's victory over Down, Noel O'Leary's thoughts turned to three people close to him who had died a decade earlier.

The Cork half-back lost his cousin Mark and brother Ciaran to suicide, and his friend Benny in a quad bike accident, between January 1999 and November 2000.

O'Leary, who hails from Cill na Martra just west of Macroom, made the deaths of Mark, Ciaran and Benny a "driving force" in life and his GAA career.

"My cousin Mark, he was like another brother really. We just grew up together, from nappies all the way up," O'Leary explains in a moving episode of TG4 series Laochra Gael which airs at 9:30pm on March 16th.

"He had a relationship in school, like we all did, and that broke up. We didn't think much of it at the time.

"I can just remember walking home from school with him, and I knew he was in bad form. I was saying, 'Look, Mark, we'll go out next weekend now and go to a disco. There's plenty more fish in the sea'.

"He was a good looking guy, there was no fear of him that way. I was just trying to get him going really. 'No,' he said, 'I won't go this weekend, maybe next weekend'.


"Monday morning, I think we were getting ready for school and my father came in and said 'Look, lads, Mark passed away this morning'. It was hard to process the thing there and then. It was devastating really.

"When it all happens, the signs were kind of there but you still think it's just a bit of a phase."

noel o leary cork gaa laochra gael

19 September 2010; Noel O'Leary, Cork, lifts the Sam Maguire Cup. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Down v Cork, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Dáire Brennan / SPORTSFILE

The same year that Mark died, O'Leary's best friend Benny suffered a fatal accident.

"[Benny] came to me and said, 'You know, I think a quad bike, a spreader and a sprayer would be a great idea. I think a lot of farmers would give us business'. We decided it was a great idea," O'Leary explains.


"It was a Wednesday evening. We were at home. Benny landed on with the quad bike. He said he was going to go up to the top of the field while we were playing around and would be down again in two or three minutes.

"When he was coming down, he turned to the right across the hill. The quad turned over. He wasn't moving. We ran over. We knew he was in big trouble.

"When they were loading him onto the ambulance, I think we all knew from their body language that it wasn't good. We got the phone call then that he'd passed away on the way into Cork. Another young man gone, it was hard."


noel o leary cork gaa laochra gael

16 January 2023; Cork GAA legend Noel O'Leary at the launch of TG4's new series of Laochra Gael at Light House Cinema in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

On a Sunday in November 2000, O'Leary's brother Ciaran failed to return home after a night out. Initially, alarm bells didn't ring as they thought, like any 17-year-old, he'd probably spent the night at a friend's house.


"11 o'clock came, 12 o'clock came, and we weren't getting too excited," O'Leary says.

"One o'clock came, two o'clock came, and then a phone call came through to say that Ciaran had been dropped at the end of our lane [the night before].

"We took it seriously then, and my father said, 'Look, lads, we need to start checking the lane on the way up. He's fine, but we'd better go about it. We'll go out to the shed outside, put on our wellingtons and check along the fields just in case'.


"He came back in after about two or three minutes, and said to my mother, 'The best thing now you'll do is go down to the neighbour, and we'll call you when we hear more - there's no problem'.

"She went down to the neighbours. He came into the kitchen and said, 'Lads, I found Ciaran. He's above in the shed, and he's after passing away. We're going to ring your mother now, and tell her when she comes up'.

"When she was coming up to the house, she just knew it straight away. I remember that night, my father had my mother held, and she was crying up on his chest. Seeing that raw emotion, I never in my life thought I'd see my parents embrace like that. It hit home that they were heartbroken."

noel o leary cork gaa laochra gael

24 September 2000; Noel O'Leary of Cork during the GAA All Ireland Minor Football Championship Final match between Cork and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

O'Leary, who won an All-Ireland minor title with Cork in 2000, says football was what "slowly but surely brought us around".

"At all their funerals, I left everything out there," he says.

"I cried my eyes out for three or four days. I cried at the removal, I cried at the funeral and looking back at it I’m glad I did. I held nothing in.

"You kind of make the three guys your driving force, really. Then you start thinking about your parents, what they gave to you growing up and what they’ve done for you. All that definitely drove me going forward alright."

Overcoming those personal tragedies was a key turning point in O'Leary's life.

19 September 2010; Noel O'Leary, right, and Eoin Cadogan after the final whistle in Cork's GAA All-Ireland final victory over Down at Croke Park. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

"You’re at a Y in the road, you can kinda go left or you can go right and left could be the bad road and right could be the good road. We took the right, as the fella says, and the pinnacle of that was football," he says.

"When you get over the line like that [in the 2010 All-Ireland final], it's not really the victories, it's the tough times you put down [that you think about]. We went through years where we couldn't win a first round with Cork, and they're the things you think about - those times.

"Things start flooding in fairly lively, everything that you've gone through. I thought about them the night before. You make the three guys your driving force really.

"The biggest moment in my life, really, was getting through what happened outside of football. For me, it was a left or right decision and I can assure you there were plenty of people that could have led me in a different direction."

See Also: Shane Dowling Sees A Straightforward Solution To Cutting Out Diving In The GAA



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