Jonathan 'Bosco' O'Neill is back with a bang
By John Harrington
Jonathan ‘Bosco’ O’Neill’s status as a legendary figure in Wicklow hurling was gilded further last Sunday when he made a successful comeback for the Garden County at the ripe old age of 43.
O’Neill looked like he’d never been away as he scored 1-6 to help Wicklow to a 3-14 to 3-11 Kehoe Cup win over Louth at Darver.
The day was made even more special for the O’Neill family when his 18-year-old son, Jonathan Junior, joined him on the pitch as a second-half substitute.
'Bosco’ had retired from inter-county hurling at the end of 2015 after 24 seasons of sterling service to the Wicklow cause and had never imagined he’d pull on the jersey again.
But when an injury-crisis left Seamus Murphy short on numbers he didn’t hesitate to phone a player he had previously managed with Glenealy and who he knew was still one of the most effective club hurlers in the county.
Over the course of his long inter-county career O’Neill had many great days in the blue and gold, but the experience of playing on a Wicklow team with his son will go down as one of the most special.
“I loved it,” he told GAA.ie. “You know yourself, when you're away from something for so long you get a great buzz out of it. It was enjoyable, especially when my son came on at half-time.
“We had the same earlier in the year with the club because it was his first year of adult hurling with the new rules where you have to be a certain age to play adult hurling.
“It was nice to be able to hurl with him and win a championship with him with Glenealy, and it was great to be able to play with him then with Wicklow.”
O’Neill made such a positive contribution last weekend that he has now been asked to commit to the cause for the rest of the season by Murphy and his management team.
He’s happy to help out in any way he can, because Sunday’s comeback reminded him just how much he had missed hurling for Wicklow.
After he retired at the end of 2015 he did his best to fill the void by joining a local athletic club and last year he ran his first marathon.
And even though he was also still pouring his considerable energy into club hurling with Glenealy, it’s no surprise that after hurling for 24 years with Wicklow it proved to be a real wrench to leave that chapter of his life behind.
“I did what a lot of lads did when they retire, I didn't even go to watch a game for a while because it would hurt too much,” says O’Neill.
“Then you get used to the idea that you're not longer a part of it after they play a few games and then you just start showing your face at matches again.
“But it definitely hurt at the beginning. When you stand back and you're watching the other lads hurl, all you want to do is get out and hurl yourself.”
Hurling is what has always defined O’Neill in all sorts of ways, including the name he answers to.
He might have been christened Jonathan, but his wife Sandra is the only person who calls him by his birth-name.
To everyone else he’s simply known as ‘Bosco’ (an RTE kids’ TV puppet from the 1970s and ‘80s), a nickname he picked up as a juvenile hurler.
“That goes back to the very beginning when I was playing U-12 for the County,” revealed O’Neill once.
“I was in goal so I was jumping around the box, the small square, all the time and I had red hair and squeaky voice so Bosco was a good nick-name I suppose.
“It stuck very quickly anyway, and it’s been with me ever since. Now I even write my name as Bosco and if someone called me Jonathan I wouldn’t answer. It just wouldn’t register with me the way Bosco would.”
O’Neill was always likely to be a quality hurler because he had both nature and nurture on his side.
Hurling is nothing short of a religion in the small village of Glenealy at the foot of Carraig mountain, and the O’Neills were always devout practitioners.
Bosco’s cousin Michael O’Neill was another noted county hurler and made a point of doing all he could to ensure his younger cousin followed him down the same path.
“He did indeed,” said O’Neill. “Me and Michael hurled for Wicklow for 20 years together and he did all the driving.
“Even on the wet days when I'd be looking out the window going, 'ah, I don't know', he'd be kicking me out into the car. He was a great motivator and a good man.
“Glenealy is a little village and it's hurling only, really. If you don't play hurling in Glenealy people don't want to talk to you!
“When you're a young lad growing up, it's all you do. It's a great village and great club, we just live and breathe hurling.”
It’s no real surprise to anyone in Glenealy that Jonathan O’Neill Jnr has followed in his father’s steps by being called up to the Wicklow senior hurling panel for the 2018 season, because from a very young age he was Bosco’s apprentice.
“Any match I ever went to he was always there, brought along with his hurl,” says O’Neill.
“Not just with the club, with the county too. If you ask any of the lads there they'll tell you he was always on the team bus, he was always brought along.
“He loves his hurling. He doesn't play any other sport other than hurling. It's nice for him that he got the call up with Wicklow this year.
“He turned 18 there just before Christmas. He's only young and he has a lot to learn. Hopefully he'll get a run out here and there, we'll wait and see.
“When everyone is back fit and available it'll be tough for him, it's only his first year of senior hurling and he has a lot to learn.”
His father’s influence around the panel will surely only serve to accelerate the education process for Jonathan Jnr as well as the large number of other young players who are part of the set-up.
Many of them were members of the Wicklow U-21 team that Bosco himself managed to an All-Ireland ‘B’ title in 2015 so he commands instant respect in the dressing-room.
With the experienced management team led by Seamus Murphy they have in place combined with the young talent coming through in the county, O’Neill is confident that Wicklow can achieve a lot in the coming years.
He’ll do whatever he can to help them along that journey this season, but don’t expect him to be simply content with a bit-part role in the background.
“When it's in the blood, it's in the blood,” says O’Neill. “I wouldn’t be great at watching it from the sideline.”
That much is certainly clear by now.