Nicknames are rampant in Ireland and it’s hard to say exactly why.
Maybe using pet names is our way of showing affection. Maybe we just love making fun of one another – certain sobriquets seem to have their roots in funny stories or amusing likenesses. In some instances, alternate names are simply functional, a way of differentiating this John O’Sullivan here from that John O’Sullivan down the road.
Whatever the reasons, nicknames are everywhere and naturally our national games are no exception. Our playing fields have been graced by some superb examples down through the years. Babs. Bomber. Bubbles. Brick. The Rock. The Man. Star. Nudie. Cake. Jelly. Woolly. Fingers. The list goes on and on. I’m not sure where they all came from, and maybe in some instances I don’t want to know.
The dressing room environment is surely a factor in all of this. When 20-plus young men get together three times a week, the storytelling and slagging is bound to produce nicknames, and some of those nicknames are bound to stick.
Killarney (and East Kerry) is no exception.
THE BIG ONE
Let’s address the most famous one first (not just around here but perhaps in the entire sport): The Gooch (Colm Cooper). The man many consider to be the greatest to ever do it got his nickname from his Dr Crokes clubmate Peter O’Brien (aka Head), apparently due to the young mascot’s resemblance to the popular ‘Goochie’ dolls of the time.
Speaking of Crokes, Gooch himself lined out alongside a number of players throughout his career who are perhaps better known by their nicknames. Smiler (Michael Moloney, who inherited the name from his father, Smiler Sr), Melon (David Moloney), Socky (Alan O’Sullivan) and Boo-Boo (James Fleming) are some of the more notable ones, alongside current half back David O’Leary who is widely known as Buddy. The late Martin Beckett was the one who gave O’Leary that moniker: he thought that the toddler from Woodlawn looked like American singer Buddy Holly.
Staying in Lewis Road, the O’Sullivan family boast three famous nicknames: the great Eddie Tatler O’Sullivan, his son Patrick The Bag O’Sullivan, and his other son (current senior manager) Edmund Fox O’Sullivan. The latter and the former are fairly self-explanatory. The Bag, perhaps, less so.
Apparently when Patrick’s father was a selector with the Kerry team he was given an Adidas kitbag which he passed on to Patrick, who was a young lad at the time. He was proud of the bag and carried it everywhere, prompting his friends to say, “Look at Patrick with the bag, it’s as big as himself”. The bag became synonymous with Patrick and that was that.
THE NICKNAME KINGS
As many bynames as there are above in Crokes, they simply cannot compete with the undisputed kings in this particular domain: Gneeveguilla. The small parish just the right side of the Cork border is a veritable hotbed for cognomens. To be honest, I feel bad for anyone back there who doesn’t have a nickname. They must feel left out.
Forgie, Slug, Lobster, Spider, Rats, Pebbles, Fuzz, Mops, Bawnie, Stones, Blondie Mike, Curly, Horse, Fox, Badger, Mosquito and, believe it or not, Chesty La Rue have all represented Gneeveguilla with distinction, as has a player with one of the more interesting nicknames around, Pharaoh (Donie O’Connor). The man himself explains how that one came about.
“The GAA club in Gneeveguilla used to run a drama competition called Tops of the Parish in the local hall and in the 1980s, as part of one of the comedy sketches, my father was doing a scene where he was a pharaoh.
“After that everyone locally started calling him Pharaoh and subsequently I became known as Young Pharaoh. It has stuck with us since then. It’s funny now how many people wouldn’t even know my real name, and just call me Pharaoh.”
Over to Rathmore and another unusual leasainm catches the eye: the club’s captain when they won the East Kerry Championship in 2015, 2016 and 2017 is affectionately known as Bonze (Brendan O’Keeffe). Again, I’ll let the player himself enlighten us.
“My dad runs a hardware shop in Rathmore and we had a forklift that was in the business for years called The Bonzer. He claims that I was a little wrecker when I was a young lad, tearing around the place like the forklift. So, I was christened after a forklift, and it has stuck to this day.”
Not to be outdone by their neighbours with their Egyptian, Rathmore also have some Italians in their ranks. Back in the eighties, Zoff (Donal O’Connor) was named after fellow goalkeeper Dino Zoff and later his clubmate Brendan Nagle came to be known as Baggio after legendary striker Roberto Baggio.
Speaking of Rathmore, another star from the eighties (and also my uncle-in-law) Dan O’Leary is more commonly known as The Knife. Meanwhile, his son, Dan Jr, is known to his friends as The Dagger. A similar pattern can be found in Gneeveguilla where you have the aforementioned Stones (Michael Murphy) and his younger brother Pebbles (Donal Murphy), and out in Firies where you have Bush (James O’Donoghue) and his younger brother Shrub (Shane O’Donoghue).
Heading back towards town and Legion have Beano (Kevin Breen), Shadow (Danny Sheahan), the great Mixie (James) Palmer, and of course not forgetting the legendary Weeshie (Aloysius Fogarty), who got his famous nickname from his pals on New Street who were unable to correctly pronounce his “posh” first name.
Spa have no shortage of nicknames either. Chief amongst them is veteran forward Stam (Mike O’Donoghue), and I can tell you the origin story of this one myself because I was actually present when he got it.
Mike was a teammate of mine underage at Killarney Athletic and he turned up for training one morning wearing a Manchester United jersey and sporting a buzz cut. Skinheaded Dutch defender Jaap Stam was at United at the time, so Mike really walked into that one.
Other well-known Spa nicknames include Batt (Eoin and Cormac Cronin, a name they inherited from their father, Johnny) and The Kid (Ryan O’Carroll), and an honourable mention must go to what is surely the cleverest and most delicious nickname around: Chili (Con Kearney).
Kilcummin have Todd (Shane McSweeney) and Dodge (DJ Fleming), Currow have Buff (Michael McCarthy), Glenflesk have Shaky (Michael O’Shea), there’s a Spoon (Jerh O’Sullivan) from Firies and in Fossa you’ll even find Snakes (Kenneth Clifford).
There are scores more at the clubs mentioned above and elsewhere but the names are far too numerous (and, in some cases, far too inappropriate) to share.
So, with all that in mind, what makes a good nickname? In truth, I don’t really think there’s such a thing as a “good” or “bad” nickname. There are simply nicknames that stick and nicknames that don’t. Some are funny, some aren’t. Some make sense, some don’t. Either way, plenty of them tend to stick around these parts – whether the bearer likes it or not.
As one player who has a funny-but-slightly-embarrassing-if-you-know-the-whole-story nickname told me this week: “It’s funny how someone can come along one day and just change your name, but there really isn’t a whole pile you can do about it.
“If it sticks, it sticks.”