The toughest prison of all
Looking back, I suppose my dad shielded us from the work he did for 30 years. He was an officer in Portlaoise Prison, where they sent the baddest of the bad. As a boy, I was like, ‘Daddy’s off to work, now let’s go and kick a ball’.
It’s only now that I think, ‘Oh God, brave man to be doing that for so long!’
My mammy worried about him, I know that, and I’m sure my brother and sisters did too. I was the youngest, and I was pretty preoccupied with sport. I’m kind of glad I didn’t take the time to think about what he did.
He’s an independent guy, he knew how to look after himself, but it’s scary to think what could have happened to him.
Before I was born, a prison officer from Portlaoise was killed in Dublin; I’m sure my mother didn’t sleep. And then he was off to work the next day. I’m quite happy with my ignorance.
He would have seen some of Ireland’s most infamous criminals come and go. It’s hard for me to view Daddy as anything other than the big, soft, joke-telling, song-singing father I saw day to day, but the truth was a little harsher than that.
He worked with and had to interact with people who were deemed too dangerous to be allowed to roam free. It’s not a particularly pleasant realisation to make about your father.
I remember the sky-blue shirt he wore to work every day, the pullover that was part of the uniform. And the baton. I’d play with the baton, twirl it around like it was a toy, not thinking it was something that was there to protect him, that it’s a bit more sinister than a toy.
They only had batons for protection and to keep the peace, but my old man has always said that as long as he worked there, he only had to pull his baton once to protect himself.
He knows a lot of interesting people off the back of it. Now that I’m a bit older, and I grasp where he worked, it’s kind of like, ‘Jeez! That was a big deal!’. He actually knew some of these guys to talk to, I guess through spending so much time in their company.
We’ve never really sat down and had a thorough conversation about what went on in there, but he did say you’d speak to these guys and if you didn’t know what they’d done, you’d have assumed they were just average, everyday people. And then you’d read why they were in there …
PRISON, POLITICS & PANTOMIME
I was 18 when he stopped working there. He’s written a lot of stories and has plans to put them together in a book, but he’s put it on hold because he’s a local politician now, a Labour councillor in Portlaoise. He figures there’s bound to be another couple of chapters in that.
Daddy’s a very funny guy, extremely outgoing. He’ll be the centre of any party, which has rubbed off on me a little bit. He likes to sing, is a very open person, just a lovely guy to be around. For somebody who did the work he did, he’s a great big teddy bear.
He was always the soft one who the kids would target when we needed something. Mammy would constantly tell stories about having to be the disciplinarian, because Daddy would be sneaking us ice creams right, left and centre.
I’d play with the baton, twirl it around like it was a toy, not thinking it was something that was there to protect him.
My mother is quite light-hearted as well as it happens – I guess she has to be, he’s broken her spirit! I suppose I treat her more like a mate – she tends to be the butt of most of my jokes, but rest assured she gives as good as she gets. They’re a very good pair, I’m very lucky with the parents I’ve got.
Daddy’s always been really involved in the community – he did the Portlaoise Pantomime for 30 years, and he was always the dame, the funny one, the fool of the play. He’s just the guy he is – he likes to make people smile. It was no secret he was going to get involved in politics – we were never going to stop him even if we wanted to. He feels far too passionately about making a difference.
Even now, he’s in his 60s and he’s at meetings every day, writing letters, working for the community. He’s an incredibly well-known and much-loved person. In a way, I hope he doesn’t have ambition to go further – he’s worked so hard for so long I’d like to see him slow down. But he’s too driven, he’ll try to kick on.
Growing up, I knew about the ‘Troubles – the sectarian conflict between the republicans and loyalists – but living in Portlaoise they weren’t on my doorstep. They were up north, weren’t part of my everyday life. Not many 10-year-olds care about politics and what’s going on in the big world. I was too busy playing football.
In my mid-teens, you would hear songs about the Troubles, songs people would play out of innocence. Songs that would glorify the perceived triumphs of one side while ignoring the atrocities committed by those same people.
To most young people they were just songs to have playing in the background while out with friends. It’s similar I guess to kids in Australia singing Sunday Bloody Sunday by U2 while not really knowing what it’s all about.
I suppose I’m becoming a bit political as I get older, but I’d be lying if I said I had particularly strong views. I’m more interested in why people behave the way they do.
In my mid-teens, you would hear songs about the Troubles… songs that glorify the perceived triumphs of one side while ignoring the atrocities committed by those same people.
I recently read a book, Sapiens – A Brief History Of Humankind. It starts at the very beginning in the African Savannah and works its way through, then near the end it starts getting into politics, why some people are right and others are left. I found that interesting, more than the actual politics itself.
I’m the youngest of four, and we all have our own little thing. I was the only sporty one. My brother’s the musical one, my eldest sister is like the secretary for the family, she fixes everything. My other sister, we’re not actually sure what she does – she’s the only one who doesn’t seem to have a niche. She cooks breakfast on Christmas morning for everyone, I suppose that’s her thing.
ANOTHER WORLDWhen I was finishing school, I played in the under-18 Gaelic football competition at home, and we made the semi-finals before losing to a team from Northern Ireland. That night I answered the house phone to a man named Gerard Sholly. I couldn’t pick the accent, and thought it was a journo from Northern Ireland wanting to talk about the game.
I couldn’t believe it was a talent scout from Australia wanting me to come out and play Aussie Rules.
There was an Irish guy from near Portlaoise, Colm Begley, who’d played at Brisbane and then St Kilda. I’d seen what he’d done and was super jealous, so when Gerard rang me I jumped on it. The plan had been to go to college, get into the sports field. But once I thought there was a chance of AFL, everything went on the backburner. My focus shifted completely, which my mother doesn’t know!
I read an interview in a paper back home not so long ago, where Daddy talked about dropping me at the airport to go to Australia all on my own. He said goodbye and watched me walk away, then I stopped at the gate and looked left then right, not knowing where to go.
He said that killed him. He’s a big softie.
My mother wouldn’t even come to the airport, she knew she wouldn’t cope. Even now, after I’ve been home for a visit, she says she doesn’t stop crying until they’ve passed Kildare.
It’s a big thing for them to let me go. My partner Bec and I have got a four-year-old now, Flynn. I can kind of imagine what it must be like to let your child get on a plane and go to the other side of the world to start this strange life. I was going to somewhere I literally knew nobody, was travelling by myself for the first time, had never even played the game before.
It was 2009 and Carlton brought me out on a trial for two weeks. I hated every second of it. I stayed in the hotel across the road from the club, and I’d walk across and kind of sit there. There wasn’t much of a plan for the time I was there, I’m not even convinced everyone knew I was coming. Top to bottom, I hated it.
I went home, and they made me an offer to come two years after that. I made myself take it, I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t. I remember my old man saying to me jokingly before I went back, ‘You know you can come back anytime – just wait until we get our flight out first!’.
Carlton brought me out on a trial for two weeks. I hated every second of it.
I was thinking, that’s going to be games, which is at least March. I’d known of Irish guys going home for Christmas and not coming back, and I wasn’t sure that wasn’t going to be me.
But as soon as I came back out for the real thing, I loved it from day one. I was never really homesick, other than when Portlaoise won the Leinster Championship in my first year away. Missing that was the most I’ve missed home since I’ve been out here. The world’s small now – you can see your family every day on FaceTime and Skype. I don’t like them enough to have to see them all that often!
I’ve landed on my feet, that’s for sure. This is my ninth year and I’m pretty well settled. My mother hates it every time I say that. I’ve always said I’ll end up back in Ireland, but I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. It’s nice to have the choice.
There were a few Irish guys here when I arrived, like Conor Meredith at North Melbourne, who I’d played in the same minor team with, Pearce Hanley and Niall McKeever at Brisbane, Tommy Walsh at St Kilda, Michael Quinn at Essendon, and the elder statesman, Tadhg Kennelly, at Sydney. And, of course, Setanta O’hAilpin was already at Carlton.
The Irish boys who are out here have always been in regular contact. Me and Pearce still talk a lot – he’s a bit older than me and was here a couple of years before me. We’re the two who’ve been pretty much playing regular AFL the whole time we’ve been here.
We all go through the same things, trying to get in and establish ourselves. I know the crop of young Irish guys who are here now all have a message group and hang out a lot. Tadhg has been a big part of that.
To be that older figure now, it’s weird. Setanta used to tell me,’ Just get to 100 games and you’ve had a good career.’
I’ll tick off 150 this week, it’s surreal.
I was always aiming for 100. It would be nice to go past Tadhg to 200, he finished just shy of that. It’s a way away, but if I can stay injury-free, who knows. 150 – it’s a lot of football, for somebody who didn’t play the game.