Saturday 16 December 2017

Our GAA President a hard act to follow

John O'Brien

In quite possibly the most probing election campaign in the history of the state, nobody deemed it a worthwhile exercise, as far as we could tell, to raise issues relating to sport. Not a grateful media asking increasingly tough questions, nor any of the seven presidential hopefuls who evidently saw little currency in advancing sporting credentials as a means of reaching out to what is, by common consent, a sports-mad nation.

It's not as if they lacked them. Mary Davis has an impressive track record as CEO of Special Olympics Ireland and her brother, Eugene Rooney, is a Mayo and St Jarlath's goalkeeping legend. Martin McGuinness has a brother who played football for Derry in Celtic Park and another who played soccer for their Brandywell neighbours. Seán Gallagher played football for his local club, Ballyhaise. Michael D Higgins is president of Galway United.

Occasionally, their nationwide rambles brought them into contact with well-known sporting figures and, doubtless, they would have attended the odd club function or two. But nobody thought to make sport a cornerstone of their campaign or figured it might hold traction with a demanding electorate. And maybe that's just an inevitable consequence of a political culture in which sport is seen as a distraction from the weighty issues of state, only a vote-getter in the local climate of a general election campaign.

So thank goodness for Mary McAleese then. The outgoing president truly understood the place of sport in the hearts of the Irish people. If a key role of the office could be defined by the onus to "dedicate my ability to the services and welfare of the people of Ireland" then McAleese understood from the beginning that one effective way to deliver on that oath was to recognise the value of sport as a means of promoting the idea of community and fellowship.

Given her background, that wasn't too surprising. McAleese grew up in Belfast with a heart that beat for Down football. She played camogie in Ardoyne and met her Gaelic football-mad husband, Martin, at Queen's University. At Queen's, which had a heavy Protestant ethos at the time, she learned the power of sport to break down barriers and bring people together, a lesson she later brought with her to the big house in the park.

She would probably balk at being described as a "GAA president", yet to some that's how it felt. She was the eighth president in the history of the state and, remarkably, the first who could be identified with sport to any significant degree. It wasn't that she focused consciously on one sport, just that she had a passion and empathy for rural Ireland and its people who happened, like her, to have their roots in the GAA.

You could ask what she specifically achieved for sport, but then you could ask the same of every president before her. The enthusiasm she generated when she visited clubs or community centres was palpable and when she spoke, always engagingly and without notes, her genuine love and understanding of the GAA always shone through. Sporting passion is a deceptively tricky thing to fake.

What struck most of all was that none of those tasks ever seemed a burden or a mere duty of her office. For McAleese and her husband, they were voyages of discovery in which they learned that there was a significant group of people, namely elderly men, who felt disenfranchised from the daily life of the community. On its own, though, that acute observation was insufficient. They resolved to do something about it.

They could have tackled the issue in several different ways. From the start, however, they knew that without the GAA on board any scheme would probably struggle to get off the ground. The GAA already had the necessary infrastructure in place and had a power to reach out to vulnerable people who, through no fault of their own, had found themselves living in isolation, outside the help of existing state services.

Although it had an unsteady beginning, the GAA Social Initiative has steadily grown into a vibrant entity, currently reaching 150 clubs across the country, and pushing relentlessly for more. Ultimately, they hope to broaden its appeal to attract both sexes and all ages and, if that takes it beyond its original remit, then it is still the case that the biggest fire often comes from the smallest spark.

And even though the curtain comes down on her time in office, McAleese will remain on as a patron of the project, thus keeping an emotional bond with the idea she inspired and helped bring to life. That was worth thinking about over the past few weeks when candidates, spurred on by hard questions, spoke eagerly of delivering things we knew would be beyond their power once installed as president.

It is McAleese's lasting achievement that, within the narrow confines of her role, she left a lasting and impressive legacy that will make her a hard act to follow.

Sunday Indo Sport

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