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05th Jul 2023

“Ah Jesus Brian why didn’t you tell me?” – the GAA’s youngest Millennium Men

Niall McIntyre

“When you’re finished, you sit back and you’re looking at the stamp. You just realise what a fantastic achievement it was to get it, to be the only Meath man on it…”

Wherever he goes, there’s always someone who’ll recognise Martin O’Connell. They don’t talk about the All-Irelands, the All-Stars or even the Footballer of the Year award.

“Oh, here’s the Millennium Man coming now…”

“They’d stand and they’d talk to you. I mightn’t know them at all but they’d be up for the chat,” says O’Connell now, 20 years on.

“They’d know I won other stuff too…but that’s the first thing they’d say.”

20 years ago too, Brian Whelahan stood alone. Of a Monday morning up in Croke Park, he was the only active GAA player to be officially ordained with a place among the association’s all-time greats.

Officially…well let’s use that term loosely. Whelahan remembers an eventful day vividly.

On the Sunday, Offaly had beaten Derry in the All-Ireland quarter final and by Monday morning, having had a late one the night before, he wasn’t overly pushed on returning to Croker for the second time in two days. Bigger fish to fry as well, with Cork over the horizon in an All-Ireland semi-final.

“I got a phone-call the week before asking would I attend the function.

“I sort of said ‘Jayzus, sure I’m up in Dublin of the Sunday and traipsing back up…’

“I was thinking at this stage that they just wanted some of the modern, present day hurlers up, just to mix in with the team that was going to be picked, the older generation let’s say. It didn’t even cross my mind that I was in line to have been chosen.

“At that stage as well, awards didn’t really sink in I suppose. I was still hurling, I was still looking to win another All-Ireland.”

But a happy wife is a happy life and with Mary looking forward to the day out, the Whelahans hit the road. On the way up, they called in for Brian’s father Pad Joe, a former Offaly hurler and a distinguished hurling manager – a man who’d revel in the company of hurling royalty.

“The way I looked at it, Eddie Keher would have been there. He would have hurled against Eddie Keher. A lot of that era would have been up there, and I would have said he would have loved to have met those lads again.

“But on the day he said ‘no go on, I’ll do a few jobs in the bar, there’s a bit of tidying up to be done out the back…’

To this day, Pad Joe wishes he left the bar as it was.

Up in Meath, O’Connell, who was named at left half back on the Gaelic football team, looks back with a smile on his face now.

“At the time in 2000 when I was told, I was still playing with my club and I didn’t really make a big thing of it at the time.

“But now when you’re finished, you sit back and you’re looking at the stamp and the poster that was made that time…of course, it was a fantastic achievement to get it, to be the only Meath man to be on it.

“I really kind of appreciate it now more so than when I got it on the day but yeah, it’s one that a lot of people would never have so it’s different that way.

“I was more delighted for my mother and father, just to get something.

“Because you’ll always be recognised for playing with your county and winning All-Irelands but I suppose this is unique and no matter where I go now, some stranger might meet you – I mightn’t know them at all – and they’d go ‘oh there’s the Millennium Man!’

Back to Croke Park and Brian and Mary were running late. Too late for the half back line.

“I got in around 1.00, about an hour late. I met Sean O Leary from Cork and he shook hands with me, he says congratulations. I wasn’t even minding it. I just walked in and Micheal O Muircheartaigh was hosting and he was on midfield at the time, talking about Jack Lynch…

“Next thing he turns around and he says it’s great to have our half back arrive…and still, I didn’t really mind because I wasn’t listening, I was looking for a seat and trying not to interrupt people who had the manners to be there on time!”

But eventually, as he sat down to chat with John Doyle, Jimmy Doyle and Ray Cummins, it dawned on Brian Whelahan that these were Millennium Men in his midst, that there were only a handful of players here, that he wasn’t just invited up as a token guest.

“I found my bearings anyway, and I looked up at the wall behind MicheĆ”l, there was the team laid out and there I was at left half back. To say I was shocked would be an understatement, my jaw nearly hit the floor!”

The poster hanging on Martin O’Connell’s wall is a jubilant reminder of a great time.

“I suppose when you think of the great men that were on it, a lot of them have passed away since – there’s only five or six of us left, Pat Spillane and Mikey Sheehy, these lads, the likes of Mick O’Connell, Purcell, Kevin Heffernan, John Joe Reilly too – I’ve a picture of the whole team here in the room and to see the talent that’s on it, it is amazing really…”

Meanwhile in Birr, a celebration was arranged in the town hall. A few drinks were had in the pub. From all corners they’d come, to shake the hands of the best right half back ever.

But before basking in the glory and before accepting the adulation, it was on the way home when Brian Whelahan’s phone rang.

“Ah Jesus Brian why didn’t you tell me you were on it…” and there was Pad Joe… shouting down the phone…

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