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Friday 23 February 2018

Cuala ace here to stay after Kerry switch

O'Connell knows Mellows will be a major test in semi

Cuala’s Darragh O’Connell pictured ahead of Saturday’s AIB All-Ireland Club SHC semi-final against Galway’s Liam Mellows in Semple Stadium
Cuala’s Darragh O’Connell pictured ahead of Saturday’s AIB All-Ireland Club SHC semi-final against Galway’s Liam Mellows in Semple Stadium
Cuala’s Darragh O’Connell pictured ahead of Saturday’s AIB All-Ireland Club SHC semi-final against Galway’s Liam Mellows in Semple Stadium

Two and a half years was as long as Darragh O'Connell could hack it.

He was done with the eight-hour round trips to Kerry.

Finished with the solitude of having nothing but a car radio for entertainment and his own thoughts for company - every Friday and Sunday.

The traffic in Adare. The monotony of the N7.

Late home. Head spinning. Up for work on Monday.

Two and a half years was enough and the affects were starting to show.

O'Connell was selling himself short as an inter-county hurler.

We wasn't getting the best out of himself any more and Kerry weren't seeing the best of Darragh O'Connell.

"There comes a time when you have to make a decision which way you're going to go.

"I really enjoyed my time playing for Kerry," he says now, ahead of Cuala's AIB All-Ireland semi-final against Liam Mellows in Thurles on Saturday.

"And your own club, where it all started, will always have a place in your heart.

"But things move on. New challenges."

At that stage, O'Connell already had a couple of years of sporadic training with Cuala done.

Cursed

He qualified as a teacher in 2011 when jobs in the profession were scarce.

The offer of a post in Gaeliscoil na gCloch Liath in Greystones was too rare an opportunity to reject in 2012 so he moved up from Tralee, fell in with a couple of Cuala players who invited him down to their club.

So for two and a half years, he climbed into the car on a Friday, cursed the traffic in Adare and came home to play for Abbeydorney and Kerry.

"Work is hard enough to get. You're happy to get a job," he explains.

"And people realise the sacrifices you're making."

"But you were missing out because lads are training on a Tuesday and Thursday night and especially during the League in January, February and March, you're missing out on those sessions.

"So you're not totally committed. You're not giving the most to the team."

His transfer to Cuala came through at the beginning of 2014 and the invitation to join up with Dublin happened naturally after that.

Over the past three years, O'Connell has established himself as a speedy and essential member of both teams.

Yet despite living on the Southside of Dublin for almost six years now, he hasn't managed to acquire the accent, even if his family notice the odd inflection when he visits.

"Even though every time I do get home, they always tell me I'm after picking up a word or two but I don't know," he laughs.

"The lads in the dressing-room, they don't understand me. And some of the things they come out with, I don't understand them!

"Ah it's totally different," he admits. "It's a different upbringing. But it's a good mix of both.

"I knew the lads in Cuala so I formed friendships and bonds and things. And then you actually become settled in a new place very quickly.

"Like, there's a real togetherness in the club."

Little things caught him by surprise.

O'Connell is from Abbeydorney, eight miles outside Tralee but his mother hails from Minard, Lispole in West Kerry where Irish is still widely spoken.

He spent plenty of his childhood summers there, acquired the language young and spoke it at home.

What he didn't expect to find was that by his own estimate, 90 per cent of the Cuala panel "can speak Irish if they were asked," due to the heavy representation of former Coláiste Eoin and Scoil Lorcáin students.

"It caught me by surprise first when I moved up. I didn't realise there was that grá there for the language.

"But it's brilliant because the more people speak it the more chance it has of staying alive."

In all honesty, O'Connell says, he couldn't have foreseen how well his move would work out.

When his transfer cleared, Cuala "hadn't even won a county Championship since the early 90s."

Difficult

Now, he has three Dublin SHC medals, an All-Ireland and two Leinster titles and this Saturday faces Galway's Liam Mellows for a spot in another St Patrick's Day final.

"Look, I mean, the Galway championship is so difficult to win," he says, making a case for the team he will try to beat this weekend.

"You see so many different teams coming out over the last few years. It's so competitive.

"And you look at Galway hurling and it's on a real high at the moment as well. They're All-Ireland champions. And their clubs teams, their record speaks for itself really.

"So look, we know it's going to be a huge challenge. We're going to have to be at he top of our game on Saturday.

"But Mattie and the backroom team, they understand when a break is needed and it's about judging that making sure that you're mentally and physically prepared for the game on the day."

So on Saturday, there will be a part of North Kerry cheering for Cuala having made peace that their finest export is now a bona fide Dublin hurler.

"I try to get home as often as I can. During holidays or whatever," O'Connell says when asked whether he sees any repatriation with Kerry or Abbeydorney in his long-term future

"Look, family is family. It's great to get home and see people you wouldn't have seen for a while at Christmas or whatever.

"But I suppose I'm up here now six years and you become quite settled after that length of time."

"So," he adds, "for now, I'm happy where I am. It's going into my fifth year with Cuala but you just never know what the future holds," concludes O'Connell. "You've got to try and live in the moment as much as you can."

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