Tuesday 25 October 2016

Jack Boothman - Former President of the GAA remembered

1936 - May 10, 2016

Published 15/05/2016 | 02:30

Colourful: Jack Boothman, a ground-breaking and much-loved GAA President.
Colourful: Jack Boothman, a ground-breaking and much-loved GAA President.

GAA Presidents down the decades have been admired, respected, appreciated. Former Uachtarán Jack Boothman, who passed away this week, fits all those descriptors - but perhaps his finest quality is that he will be remembered with huge fondness.

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Large in size and personality, he was a cheerful, colourful character, with irrepressible positivity. He once told a school gathering that, while some days were better than others, he had "never had a bad day".

Jack also had a mischievous sense of humour. Fellow ex-President Sean Kelly recalled this week that Jack "used to joke about the big mark on his forehead. He said he got it from a bullock he was testing for TB - the bullock came off second best".

But the Wicklow man was strong-minded, too, with clarity and courage to his convictions. As the first Protestant Uachtarán (from 1994 to 1997), he was a trailblazer, and played a pivotal role in the redevelopment of Croke Park and the abolition of Rule 21, which barred British army and police personnel from the GAA.

Interestingly, he vociferously opposed the later removal of Rule 42, which allowed soccer and rugby to be played in Croke Park. Boothman argued that it would be "a disastrous mistake" for the Association to hand the advantage to competing sports.

Though he would subsequently, as one profile put it, "become almost part of the beautiful scenery around north-west Wicklow", John Henry Boothman was actually born in Kildare in 1936, to Scottish native Jane Michie and Blessington farmer William Boothman.

He was educated in Blessington and King's Hospital Blackhall Place, a Church of Ireland boarding school in Dublin, where a love of sport was inculcated. He showed a talent for rugby, ironically, and played in a Leinster Schools Cup final.

Jack then attended the Veterinary College on Shelbourne Road. He qualified as a vet in 1959 and worked for a time in the Midlands, living in Portarlington. During this time he became friends with one of Offaly football's most famous families, the Connors, four of whom were central to the immortal 1982 victory over five-in-a-row-chasing Kerry.

Jack married Nuala, a Dubliner, in 1961, and they spent a few years in Cornwall. They would have six children, with son Robert later playing football for Wicklow.

On returning to Blessington, Jack had a veterinary general practice for 17 years, then switched tracks to work as an inspector of meat products for the Department of Agriculture, based in Kildare town. He also indulged a passion for photography, even possessing his own developing lab.

Over the years, he was heavily involved in GAA matters, on and off the pitch. Pat Hennessy, a Department colleague in the 1970s, remembered: "He'd always be carrying around a bundle of papers relating to teams and plans for matches and so on. He was a GAA man through and through, at a match nearly every evening."

He played for the club for years, and from 1985 managed Leinster to a record-equalling Railway Cup four-in-a-row. But his light really shone as an administrator.

He served as Chairman of the Leinster Council from 1987 until 1990. That year he made a first run for election as Uachtarán, losing to Peter Quinn. In 1991, at something of a loose end, he signed up as Blessington Secretary, and planned another tilt at the big job. At the 1993 convention, he was elected 31st President of the GAA.

Jack's achievements in the next three years were seismic. He was in situ for the introduction of a "second-chance" back-door for championship and corporate sponsorship of the All-Irelands.

Perhaps most significantly, he steered the Association towards removing Rule 21, this in the aftermath of the 1994 IRA ceasefire. His one regret was that it hadn't happened during his Presidency (the motion would eventually be carried in 2001), but Jack had laid much of the groundwork.

As a Protestant in a traditionally Catholic organisation, bridge-building and communication were dear to him. (He once said religion was a mere means of communication between you and God.)

Sean Kelly said Boothman had worked very hard "to make our games and association broader, and end any discrimination that existed, which was, in one sense, what people saw Rule 21 doing. His quiet work in the background brought the Ulster Council with him and they brought their members with them.

"Then attitudes changed - those who were maybe reluctant in the beginning had such respect for Jack. That created a more positive attitude and broader view within the GAA."

And he did sterling work on the mammoth redevelopment at Jones' Road during the 1990s. Another former President, Nicky Kelly, said: "While the first cog in the wheel was probably John Dowling, Jack, along with Liam Mulvihill, brought it along the way to crystallisation. Ultimately, Peter Quinn engineered it over the line but Jack played a big part in getting the Croke Park that we know today into the planning area."

Jack also managed to straddle that pervasive and sometimes pernicious divide within the GAA: club vis-à-vis county. While giving decades of service on the macro level, he remained a lifelong and active member of Blessington, and indeed still held the positions of club President and trustee until his death.

He was regarded as a 'father figure' in Blessington, and took great satisfaction when the club hosted last year's Féile (the Under-14 All-Irelands in hurling, football, camogie and handball). They paid tribute to their most famous son this week, saying that club members were "immensely proud of his achievements nationally (and) know he took huge pride in his own club".

As a mark of respect, Blessington closed all pitches and facilities this week.

Current GAA President Aogán Ó Fearghail said: "He had great interest in the club and in the last conversation I had with him recently he told me, 'Don't forget about them.'"

He had an abiding love of the Irish language, too, once attending a course in the Meath Gaeltacht of Rath Chairn with Ó Fearghail and another ex-GAA President, Joe McDonagh - a strikingly high-achieving group of classmates.

Jack Boothman died peacefully at home on May 10. He is survived by his wife Nuala, children Siobhan, Patricia, Robert, Janet, John and Catriona, sisters Jean and Pam, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and his extended family.

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