The GAA Gene - The Spillanes
The GAA is built on tradition, and there is nothing more traditional in Gaelic Games than great family dynasties.
Trace the history of any county team in Gaelic Football or Hurling and you’ll see the same surnames consistently reappearing as you move back through the decades.
In our new series – The GAA Gene – we profile the families that have given outstanding service through the generations.
This week we focus on the Spillanes of Templenoe, Kerry.
By John Harrington
In the Kingdom of Kerry, Gaelic Football has always been a game of thrones.
Royal lineages abound, and many of the county’s towns and villages will be forever stamped by the family names that have made them famous.
The Ó Sés of Ventry, the Lynes of Cleeney, the Brosnans of Moyvane, the Murphys of Camp, the O’Dwyers of Waterville.
The full list is considerably lengthier, and many the bar-stool debate has been generated in Kerry by the question of who should come where in the hierarchy of greatness.
Geographical bias will always ensure there will never be a county-wide consensus, but by any reckoning the Spillanes of Templenoe must be regarded as among the most blue-blooded families of all.
Pat, Mick, and Tom Spillane hold the honour of the most All-Ireland Senior Football titles won by a set of brothers – 19 in total. Pat won eight, Mick won seven, and youngest sibling Tom won four.
They also have five All-Ireland U-21 titles and two All-Ireland minor titles between them, and Pat’s nine football All-Stars remains a record.
But the GAA gene did not begin with them and nor has it ended with them.
There is excellence in their ancestry, and a new generation of Spillanes are now making a name for themselves.
Mick’s son Daragh Spillane will line out for Dublin in Saturday’s Leinster U-21 Final against Laois, and Tom’s son Killian will play for the Kerry U-21s in their Munster Final against Cork next weekend.
Pat’s son, Pat Jnr (18), will also be in the reckoning to feature at U-21 level for Kerry in the coming years.
No-one is surprised in the Kingdom that the three Spillane princes have sired sons capable of following in their footsteps. It’s simply what was expected of them.
Handing the torch down from generation to generation is seen as a duty in Kerry, not a choice.
That much was made very obvious to Pat Spillane when his first-born was a girl, rather than a boy.
“In rural Ireland when you have a baby you'd often be asked, 'is it a boy or a child'?” says Spillane.
“But in Kerry they ask you, 'have you the footballer?'
“I always remember when our eldest daughter Cara was born and I was at Mass that Sunday.
“The priest said, 'I'd like to congratulate Pat and Rosarii on the birth of their baby daughter Cara. Obviously we're very disappointed it wasn't a footballer. Better luck next time!'
“And my mother, Lord have mercy on her soul, we had two girls and a boy and she had no time for the girls. But when the boy arrived it was a different story altogether.
“It's a Kerry thing, it's a rural thing. If you had a daughter you'd always hear it said that you'd have to go again for the footballer. No pressure in Kerry!”
When Pat himself was growing up, he knew there was an expectation he and his brothers would be footballers.
It never felt like pressure, just the natural order of things.
He came from a footballing family, and his own determination to succeed was stoked by the perception that his father Tom never got the opportunities his talent deserved.
“My father got a raw deal, actually,” says Spillane. “He should have been with the Kerry team in the Polo Grounds, but got a raw deal. He won an All-Ireland Junior medal but should have been a Kerry senior.
“But you must bear in mind the geography of the county. Until Mick O'Connell and Mick O'Dwyer came on the scene in the '50s, south of Kenmare, that peninsula, just didn't have footballers.
“Football was dominated by Tralee, Killarney, and North Kerry to a lesser extent. It was only when O'Dwyer and O'Connell came on the scene that the south of the county suddenly started getting players on it.
“My father went on to become a selector with the Kerry seniors.
“He got a slight heart-attack the night before the All-Ireland Final in '64 but wouldn't go to hospital because of the match the following day. And he died on the Tuesday after it.
“He in his mid-forties. I was only eight years old.”
The sad early passing of their father was never going to dilute the tradition of football in the Spillane household.
Their mother Maura was one of the famed Lynes of Cleeney, and her brothers Jackie, Dinny, Mickey, and Teddy all won All-Irelands with Kerry in the 1940s and 1950s.
Jackie would also manage Kerry to win senior All-Irelands in 1969 and 1970.
Not only did they inherit some special GAA genes from the Lyne branch of the family, Pat is convinced he and his brothers would not have been as successful as they were without the quiet, considered support of their mother Maura.
“When my father died when I was eight, she parked her life for her four children. She just parked her life. Everything she did from then on was for the four of us.
“She ran the bar on her own. When I think of the years we were playing football, we'd be sleeping until one or two o'clock in the day and she'd be slaving below in the bar.
“Three big lumps up in their beds resting, because she wanted us right for next Sunday. That's what she did.
“What we achieved wouldn't have been possible without her. My mother gave everything. Absolutely everything.
“But there was no emotion. She did everything for us, but she never pushed us or talked to us about football.
“The day before an All-Ireland Final it wouldn't have even been mentioned at the kitchen table. Nothing!
“One thing about my mother, she'd never let you lose the run of yourself!
“That's the great thing about Kerry and rural Ireland, you're never allowed rise above your station.
“You're no better than the fella next door whether he has an All-Ireland medal or not. And that's a great grounding.”
Spillane has remained in the limelight long after his stellar career has finished, but he insists that fame and acclaim have never been driving forces for him.
He didn’t need to be congratulated by his mother when he came home with an All-Ireland medal, and the back-slaps from others meant little to him either.
All he needed to stoke his fire was the desire to do the county’s tradition some honour.
“Pride in Kerry football,” he explains. “Tradition, tradition, tradition. And keeping the flame alive. Doing your best and passing it on again to the next generation.
“But no pressure. No-one ever said you're a Spillane, you have to make the Kerry seniors.
“You know your place, you do your best. And if you win, great. But if you win there's no song and dance made of it.
“My mother never got emotional about games at all, she never spoke about football, the only thing she'd say when we'd be leaving to go to an All-Ireland was to just remember who we are. That was it.
“There was no bring back a medal or anything at all. There was no special treatment when you came home with an All-Ireland medal. Not a bit. You move on. That was it.”
Two other sets of three Kerry brothers – The Landers in the ‘30s and the Sheehys in the ‘60’s – have won three All-Ireland medals together.
But the Spillanes stand apart because they are the only ones to manage the feat in three consecutive years, from 1984 to ’86.
What they achieved was remarkable, but at the time there was no sense they were doing something remarkable together.
“It does now, but not at the time,” said Spillane. “You look back on it that way now. It's only when the journey finishes that you realise how exhilarating it was.
“I often find that if things are going bad or wrong I'll go for a walk and you'll think of those good days and it would rise you again.
“When we retired from football we all got involved in coaching or became officers. We gave back.
“I trained teams and was club chairman for seven years, Tommy was managing for years upon years, Mike is involved in management with Cuala in Dublin.
“None of us went off and said, 'well, we owe ye nothing, we're going to go off and play golf for the rest of our lives'. I had great years out of football and I just wanted to give back. That was it.
“I've been training or managing school or club teams every year since I retired from playing. I think this will be the first year I won't get involved with a team. I think I have done 35 years unbroken until now. That's not a bad run.
“It's just that you're proud of the name and you want to keep the Spillane name alive and the tradition alive and pass it on to the next generation.
“If my son wins an All-Ireland medal for Kerry, it would be the greatest day of my life. So far he hasn't, but there's no pressure on him.
“He got a raw deal with Kerry minors last year, but that's the way it goes. At 18 he's gotten a lot of knocks and maybe he suffers sometimes because of his name, but he bangs away.
“He has put his head down and trained even harder, and that's all you can hope to see. There's no pressure on him.
“If he turned around in the morning and said he wants to go playing rugby instead, then that would be great too.”
Spillane’s desire not to heap too much pressure on the next generation of the family was not very apparent two years ago when he hailed his nephew Killian as the best minor in the country and suggested he should be part of the Kerry senior set-up within a year.
“It was the day of an RTE press launch and I was being interviewed by five or six reporters,” he explains.
“One of them asked how good was Killian, and I said I think he's the best minor in Ireland.
“I suppose I should have just said he was very good! But it was a loaded question that I responded to. I didn't just big him up out of the blue.”
He’s confident too his comments didn’t weight heavily on his nephew because the quality that strikes him most about the next generation of Spillanes is that all the expectation that goes with the name sits easily with them.
“Killian is laid-back to the point of being horizontal. And Daragh is so laid back that he didn't even tell his father he was on the Dublin U-21 team.
“When he came home that night Mick asked him was there any news, and he said no.
“It was only at the breakfast table the following morning that the other son, Fergus, said 'oh, by the way, Daragh was selected for the Dublin team'.
One of the most common debates in sport is whether nature or nurture can take more of the credit for the development of elite sportspeople.
Is it more important to have a family history of high achievement in Gaelic Football in order to make the grade yourself, or is it more vital to be exposed to the best coaching possible?
“It's very interesting, I had this discussion with Tadgh Kennelly lately,” says Spillane.
“Tadgh was telling me that when choosing young talent for Australian Rules Football, for the draft, they put a lot of emphasis on the genetics.
“Once they have all passed their physical tests, the big element they consider is DNA.
“If their father had played AFL, then all other things being reasonably equal, the son of the AFL player was always looked on as the first choice.
“It's all because of the DNA. So it's no different than horses, really. And there's certainly an element of that in Gaelic Games as well.
“Obviously it's also important to be brought up in a footballing environment. There are many talented youngsters that are lost because they're in an environment where there is no sporting interest. There's no sporting drive.
“An ounce of breeding is still better than a tonne of feeding. But the environment is important too and we have both the DNA and tradition in Kerry.
“I always use the story of the civil war to illustrate just how much of a football tradition we have. Some of the worst atrocities in the civil war were in Kerry.
“Knocknagoshel, Ballyseedy, Caherciveen. Pro-treaty against anti-treaty. For the anti-treaty you had John-Joe Sheehy who captained Kerry. From the pro-treaty there was Con Brosnan who also captained Kerry.
“They fought each other during the week, but on the Sunday they played together for Kerry.
“I don't think something like that has happened or could happen anywhere else.
“Kerry is football. It's tradition, it's the green and gold, it's the love of the game. So Kerry football has always been about a combination of both DNA and tradition.”
The Spillane family have no shortage of records and medals, but it would be a novel achievement if the new generation could now win different provincial medals in the space of a week.
The latest green-shoots in the Spillane story is the source of a quiet pride to those further up the family tree.
But tradition is tradition, and Killian and Daragh Spillane will know better than to seek out praise.
“The corner-stone of the GAA is family. Passing the torch from one generation to the other,” says Spillane.
“Particularly when your family is steeped in a ferocious footballing tradition.
“Those that went before us won All-Ireland medals, we won them, and now there's another generation of inter-county footballers with All-Ireland medals.
“There’s the pressure of expectation on them, and the thing about it in Kerry is that you're only as good as your last game.
“There will be no-one losing the run of themselves. It's head down and just move on.”