| 8.3°C Dublin

comment Diarmuid Connolly: The Ringmaster of the Hill, the non-conformist spell-worker whose sorcery filled our days with sunshine

Dermo's daring, poise and genius made days that will glow through ages


Connolly celebrates against Kerry in 2016

Connolly celebrates against Kerry in 2016


Connolly celebrates against Kerry in 2016

He could snake charm a football to contort and do his bidding as surely as if it was a hypnotised, compliant python.

On those many days when he seemed unburdened by gravity, Diarmuid Connolly might have been composing a hymn to the bottomless possibilities of his chosen code.

He was Croke Park's artist-in-residence, the creative titan of Dublin's golden age, his summer sonnets as profoundly poetic as the masterworks of the most celebrated laureates.

With the force of a Luke Kelly ballad, the dazzle of a Louis le Brocquy canvas and the cultivated wit of an Oscar Wilde epigram, he gifted the city of his birth an imperishable body of work.

Connolly was among the tiny few athletes fluent in the language of genius.

He conjured moments on a rectangle of grass that made his audience - at least those of them uniformed in Sky Blue - feel favoured just to be alive.

In an age of conformity, of the primacy of systems and structure and technocrat coaches, he dared to be different, a bohemian outlier who forever dreamed in Technicolor.

Others joined the dots, Connolly reached down to a core teeming with ideas to summon breathtaking original work.

Like a Messi or a Jordan or a Senna, the reel of his football life is bursting with refined, daring and original moments, flourishes so stimulating as to trigger a sensory overload.

As with Maurice Fitzgerald, the imaginative, aesthetic Ivy Leaguer he most closely resembled, the bandwidth of his talents was as broad as the avenues of Manhattan.


With either foot, he could manipulate a ball with the masterful technique of Ronnie O'Sullivan at the green baize imparting topspin or side or screw.

He dared to be inventive, as extravagant and maverick as peak-era Seve, fearless in his unfailing ambition to achieve something dreamy and remarkable.

That commitment to offer something fresh and unconventional required a bravery of spirit, a willingness to raise his head above the parapet on those days when the incoming cannon fire was at its most ferocious.

It is sometimes forgotten that creativity under the bright lights in any theatrical setting demands a rare and commendable courage.

Connolly made real compositions that were beyond the wildest fantasies of many of the best of his peers.

A small sample tray: The iconic curling point without breaking stride that finally broke Kerry in 2016; the glorious millimetre-perfect 60-yard assist to Dean Rock against Mayo a year later, a feat so outrageous that there are those who still believe it was manufactured in some CGI lab; the solo goal in the 2014 All-Ireland club final that felt like something from a wild fever-dream.

Of course, he had days when the magic was elusive, but, then, so too did Brian O'Driscoll and Ruby Walsh, Katie Taylor and Sonia O'Sullivan. In our rush to find specks of imperfection, we forget these are humans not machines.

That countless Scorsese scenes ended up on the cutting room floor hardly diminishes his lasting gifts to cinema.

To the surround sound of a rapturous Hill and baying opposition enclaves, Connolly directed his own epic, 12-year Dublin blockbuster. An audit of his playing days finds the balance sheet heavily favouring the moments of high achievement.

A haul of eight All-Irelands (six county, two club), 15 Leinsters (11 with Dublin, four with St Vincent's), four NFLs and five county medals offers an eloquent repudiation to those who argue - absurdly - that he too infrequently emblazoned the days and nights with the best of himself.

Yes his humours were hardly as benign as the Dalai Lama, and there were days when his boiling blood was indistinguishable from molten Vesuvian lava, but it is equally indisputable that he endured an unrivalled cascade of cheap shots, trash-talk and cynical baitings.


He made mistakes and paid a heavy price, enduring season-wrecking suspensions and big-game banishments. He chose to summer in America when he tired of the unceasing attention of life in the bearpit.

And still, against all the other great All-Ireland winners of his playing days - Kerry, Tyrone and Donegal - he delivered days that will glow through the ages.

His seven points in the 2011 quarter-final burnt Tyrone's challenge into oblivion. If the decisive point he scored on a wintry night in Omagh years later had been conjured with oils and brush, the curators of any of the storied art houses would have felt compelled to hang it in their galleries.

In defeat against Donegal in 2014, he was towering, audacious, and, at times, unplayable.

In an untouchable joust with Kerry under a blazing early September sun a year earlier (the greatest game ever played, one that also saw Colm Cooper soar to Himalayan heights), Connolly delivered his defining career magnum opus.

It was an exhibition in class, athleticism, authority and, though often overlooked, leadership that had even Jim Gavin removing his stoic mask when he spoke with friends of how he marvelled at the way Connolly reached down to carry the team to safety.

If some opposing fans, notably those of Mayo who felt Lee Keegan had his number, cast him as a villain, his anti-hero reputation only consolidated the bone-deep connection between Connolly and his Sky Blue tribe.

When Dublin supporters painted a mural in the shadow of Croke Park, there was only ever going to be one subject.

The giant they called Dermo: Ringmaster of the Hill, the unique, non-conformist spell-worker whose sorcery filled their days with sunshine.