Monday 11 December 2017

'GAA units in rural parishes are now under threat'

Presidential candidate Martin Skelly is not short of solutions to the big issues facing the GAA

Claire McCormack in conversation with Martin Skelly at NewtownCashel GAA Club. Photo: Damien Eagers
Claire McCormack in conversation with Martin Skelly at NewtownCashel GAA Club. Photo: Damien Eagers

Claire McCormack

It's in the blood, it runs deep, it's like a religion. If all this is true, then Martin Skelly's bid for the highest seat in the Gaelic Athletic Association has happened not by accident, but by design.

The 61-year-old father-of-four from Longford, is the only GAA presidential candidate representing a county that has never held the highest office in the 132-year history of the Association.

Others vying to be elected the 39th president to date include: John Horan (Dublin), Seán Walsh (Kerry), Frank Burke (Galway) and Robert Frost (Clare).

But why should county board and provincial council delegates cast their vote for Martin Skelly at Congress next month? His manifesto includes: boosting weaker counties, tightening club and inter-county calendars, bolstering finances, the end of the black card, return of the sin bin, handpass restrictions, free match days and finding a suitable home for the Galway hurlers outside Leinster.

His home is in Newtowncashel, a heritage village bedded in the heart of the midlands.

He lays out his ideas after returning from foddering cattle on the family farm - once known as the unofficial gathering place for local football teams. His uncle brought young fellas to matches in his cattle lorry. His aunt stitched numbers onto the back of their jerseys.

"The tea is wet and the scones are on the table," he says.

Before reaching the kitchen, visitors pass by a room full of trophies, certificates, awards, official photographs and framed newspaper clippings.

His GAA service includes Cashel player, administrator (various positions) and team manager, Longford coaching and games development officer, Longford county chairman, Longford senior football selector, Leinster Council chairman, Longford person of the year in New York and Dublin and All-Ireland Masters champion.

He is also the current national chairman of Féile and says it has been a long and winding road from the shores of Lough Ree to Croke Park. However, his passion for Gaelic games and driving the sport forward have remained constant.

"I was just four months old when my mother passed away. It was an extremely tough time for my father, he had a farm to look after and Ireland wasn't a charitable place," he says. "She was buried on a Friday and I was brought back to Dublin in a basket in the back of a Morris Minor on the Sunday with my aunt. She made the big decision to take me in."

For the first 16 years of his life, Martin Skelly lived in Rathfarnham. He says it was a very "Newtowncashel household".

"Gaelic games were always a topic of discussion and when Ballyboden St Enda's was available, I started there. That was my first club. I went up there as an under 11 and enjoyed very, very happy years," he says.

"They were great people and never dreamt of what Ballyboden would become. They gave me a great introduction into GAA."

At that time, rugby and soccer were the leading sports on the south side of the Liffey. Despite his affinity with the Knocklyon-based club, Skelly vividly recalls when his home county journeyed to Croke Park to play Dublin in the Leinster senior football final on July 25, 1965.

"I knew where my heart was straight away, I was cheering for Longford even though I was living in Dublin. The die was cast. I was not a Dub, I was a Longford child in Croke Park," he recalls.

Although Dublin went on to win 3-6 to 1-9, it was the start of a great run by that Longford team, who went on to win a National League title in 1966 and a Leinster title in 1968.

"I looked up to players like Brendan Barden - he used to visit the house and was related - but my idol and my hero was the late John Donlon from Newtowncashel. He was just very special and very good to me through the years."

Coming from a long line of GAA players, Skelly says he was a sports fanatic from day one. "I got an enormous kick out of it. Obviously there was a sense of escapism in my early years too. I tried my hand at several sports. I played both hurling and football, I felt so much at home playing Gaelic games."

His hurling heroes included Tipperary's Jimmy Doyle, Kilkenny's Eddie Keher and former left corner-forward for the Rebel County, Charlie McCarthy. One February evening, after arriving home from school at St Mary's in Rathmines, his aunt, Mary Kate, told him his father had remarried.

Although he was very happy in Dublin, he instantly saw it as his ticket home. "I still had a huge relationship with my father. My sister, Kathleen, lived there too. The fires were burning, Newtowncashel was my natural place."

The city boy returned home to the farming parish that September.

He started playing football with the local club, abbreviated to just 'Cashel'.

"We won the Longford under-16 nine-a-side championship that year. Nine was all we could field, it became the foundation of a very, very successful team ultimately leading to four senior championship titles and five senior leagues in Longford in the 1970s and '80s"

His GAA voice also blossomed in the classroom. "My teacher, Danny O'Brien, was a passionate GAA person. We took to each other and he encouraged my interest in Gaelic games."

By the time he attended his first club AGM, just four months after arriving home, he was well versed. "I said there wasn't enough being done about underage football, our biggest problem was transport," he says.

He walked out of the AGM with his first job - minor secretary of Cashel GAA club. Soon the new recruit convinced a number of local people to commit to the team. They never again failed to field.

He started attending Bord na nóg meetings, raised issues at Longford minor conventions and turned up to county board meetings. "He (Danny O'Brien) saw something in me that I didn't see, but I did it and I loved the involvement and that is the way my life has always been."

After doing his Leaving Cert, he headed to agricultural college in Monaghan. From there he travelled the country on the Farm Apprenticeship Scheme. From Waterford and Tipperary, to Offaly, Leitrim, Cavan and Roscommon, the aspiring pig farmer spent his early 20s living with different farming families and learning agricultural practices.

"I lived on a pig and cattle farm in Ballyduff Upper in Waterford, a great GAA parish, they were hurling mad. I won an intermediate football championship with them.

"I went to Ballinahinch in Tipperary North and Lattin-Cullen in Tipperary South - that was a dairying year and I played with both clubs. I always made my way to the GAA pitch. It helped me integrate into new communities."

Skelly remains in touch with many of the families that welcomed him into their homes.

Wherever he was based, his stepmother, Peg, sent him a copy of the Longford Leader. "It was so important to me. It used to come in the post every Monday tied with twine. No matter where I was I digested it back page to front," he recalls.

He finished up at a piggery in Rooskey, Co Roscommon, allowing him to concentrate on playing senior football with Cashel. After his father became ill, Skelly moved back home to the family farm. With big employers such as Bord na Móna and ESB in the area, the trail of emigration had slowed to a trickle. In 1976, Cashel won the senior league for the first time in their history and, in 1977, Cashel were drawn against arch rivals Rathcline in the senior championship.

Eugene McGee, the man who halted Kerry's five-in-a-row march 34 years ago, came to train them. "It was the mother and father of all battles but we got it over the line and went on to win the senior championship in 1977," he recalls. "Eugene has hero status in this club and will have until the day he draws his last breath, his name is etched in our history."

By the late 1980s the club had gone back to intermediate. But Skelly's ability to drive the club forward did not go unnoticed. In 1993 he was elected as Longford's coaching and games development officer. He held the position for six years and focused on developing the under 13 and under 14 squads.

At that time, he says Longford GAA was losing players "hand over fist" to other codes, adding: "The best players were going to soccer and rugby. A small county like Longford needs all its talented youngsters."

They rented two Prunty pitches on rugby grounds and fielded teams against stronger clubs. The nucleus of those underage squads went on to win a Leinster minor title in 2002.

"We tested them against the best but we had top-quality people looking after them. There was no major expenditure because Longford could never afford that but we created little fundraising schemes and got sponsorship," he says.

In December 2000, Skelly was elected county senior chairman.

"I recognised that if we were to progress with our county squads and Pearse Park more money would have to be generated. I also realised that there were Longford people who were successful in business worldwide but just weren't involved with Longford GAA. I wanted to reach out to them," he says.

Soon afterwards, the Longford Race Day was initiated by Skelly, former All-Ireland referee John Bannon and property developer Seamus Ross. The county are now celebrating their 15th year, having generated almost €2m for Longford GAA.

Skelly became Leinster vice-chairman in 2008 and in February 2011 became chairman of the Leinster Council. Leinster was twinned with Australia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East at the time so he witnessed first-hand the devastating toll of emigration on rural clubs.

"Ultimately our responsibility was to help develop GAA units in those parts of the world. Clubs were starting to mushroom," he says, recalling his first visit to the Asian Games as an "eye-opening experience".

"I saw a thousand Irish people under the one roof in Korea and just could not get over the quality or the numbers, and there was massive interest from other nationalities. Yet, a certain dagger of sadness went through me to think here are our most talented, best educated young people and what a terrible loss for our own country."

While discussing these darker days of the recent past, Thomas Delaney, a neighbour and former member of the Longford minor squad, arrived at Skelly's door having just returned for Christmas from Abu Dhabi, where he works as a teacher.

"I would hope that at least 50 per cent will eventually come back and contribute to society and the GAA," adds Skelly, whose daughter Tara has set up a GAA club in Augsburg, Germany, where she is the chairman and manages the men's team.

Living in a rural village, 12 miles from the nearest shop, Skelly is acutely aware of the concerns of clubs, particularly in weaker counties.

"For the first time ever, I believe GAA units in rural parishes are under threat. Clubs along the western seaboard are facing decline. Féile had to create a 13-a-side competition this year because clubs in Kerry, Cork and Limerick were unable to field 15-a-side teams. Kerry is the home of football but clubs are really struggling.

"Young people are gravitating towards the major urban centres, particularly on the east coast of Ireland, so the problem for the east coast GAA clubs is accommodating the influx.

"Clubs in counties like Louth, Meath, Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford at underage level can hardly cope with the numbers who want to play."

Skelly believes his positioning as a candidate from Longford, in the centre of the country, will help him tackle emerging divides.

"I border Connacht, Ulster, I'm in Leinster and with my experience of working in Munster for many years people would see me as being more than capable of looking after the Association in a responsible manner."

He believes bringing in a two-tier championship is crucial to the future of Gaelic football.

"The day is coming where players will lose heart, will lose interest, if they are not fighting for something that is tangible and achievable," he says.

"We have to be realistic going forward. I believe in the right of all counties to compete in the provincial championships but a structure has to be devised where, if successful, you go on and compete in the All-Ireland 'A' competitions. Alternatively there should be a second-tier competition. I see no reason to disagree with that culminating on All-Ireland final day."

He believes more funding is required to help smaller counties to remain viable and would also support moves to make the inter-county championships more compact. "I would have no problem in bringing the All-Irelands forward by a week or two if that was to help out at the other end," he says.

On the club side of things, he thinks the competitions are drawn out too long to go as far as St Patrick's Day, explaining: "I believe we could play the All-Ireland semi-finals in December and start off our GAA season in the middle of January with the All-Ireland club finals."

As for demands on county players, he says expecting them to play all club games is a bridge too far.

"There has to be a reasonable degree of management. County managers have to agree to release players on certain weekends for club duty, particularly players who might not be on the first 15 of a county team.

"At the same time there has to be an understanding by club managers that if they are training with county teams they cannot be expected to do the grind and the level of training that is required at club level."

And Skelly has serious reservations about the black card. While the black card has reduced dragging down, blocking off, foot tripping and bad language to referees, it is, in his view, intrinsically unfair.

"For a team with a strong bench there is no problem, except to the player who is sent off himself, but it is seen as a far tougher penalty to a team that has a weak bench," he insists.

"I cannot see why the sin bin cannot be implemented. If a player commits an infraction he should serve his time, give him 10 or 15 minutes to cool off on the sideline. And the team must do without the player."

He also believes the handpass has to be limited. "We have to create some way of restricting the handpass because, after 20 or 30 handpasses on the trot, I think the word 'football' then comes into question."

As for Galway's desire to enter into home-and-away agreements in the Leinster senior, minor and under 21 hurling championship, Skelly says it would be a "stumbling block" for the province.

"The position of Galway is an extremely difficult one. Counties like Westmeath, Laois, Carlow, Meath, Kildare, Wicklow and Offaly are doing absolutely great work in developing the game and trying to improve, and they actually see Galway as a stumbling block because of their strength.

"The Galway team at both minor and under 21 level are almost annual visitors to the All-Ireland final and that is the biggest fear, and I can understand that fear with Kilkenny already in the province such a wonderful hurling force."

Consensus is needed and Munster must be considered.

"I do not believe that insisting at national level that Galway have to play in Leinster would be a good thing and I think it would be resented - I think we should definitely steer away from that.

"The crisis is hurling's problem, it's not Leinster's problem, and it needs to be solved at national level rather than dumping it at Leinster's door to the frustration of the other participating counties," he says.

Skelly wants to boost hurling in non-traditional counties, urban areas and parts of Ulster where he believes the sport has fallen behind in recent years.

Despite reports of gambling addiction being a major crisis in the GAA, Skelly believes the GPA has taken positive steps and that the issue is not as widespread as suggested.

"All addictions are deadly, I wouldn't classify one over any other. I think drink, drugs, trying to enhance performance, gambling . . . once you go down that road of seeking a substance or a buzz from something other than what is normal and natural to one's body, you are going down a very, very, dangerous road.

"I don't think gambling is at crisis level, I think by participating in Gaelic games and to live the life required to play good quality club and county football or hurling requires standards of discipline that are second to none, and I think lead people towards a better quality of life."

The idea of implementing gender quotas rankles with Skelly, named 'Longford Person of the Year' in Dublin in 2011, a title also given to the late former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and Liam Mulvihill, former director-general of the GAA.

"Arising out of the explosion that there is in ladies football and camogie it is only a matter of time before more women will naturally want to continue their involvement within the Association. We should be prepared to give it a little bit more time before we bring in quotas," he says, adding that in his own club there are currently five women on their 12-member executive board.

However, in the future he says he would rather see the men's and ladies' associations operating under the one roof - by agreement, not forced principle.

As the campaign for head office heats up, Skelly, who has already visited many of the GAA's international units in the UK, US and Europe, will be visiting every county between now and February.

"I'll be meeting people on an individual basis and I'll be trying to meet executives of each county, and that's an important time because not only will I get an opportunity to express my views on where I feel the Association should be going, but you also need to listen.

"This is an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime. I never went into any job that I wasn't prepared to give 100 per cent, whether it's at the highest or lowest level. The GAA is part of my family and it would be the greatest honour one could possibly have to lead the Association which, somewhere along the line, I believe I was destined to be involved in."

Skelly has great admiration and has been inspired by the work of other Longford men who have scaled to great heights within the GAA - including Peter McKenna, Croke Park's stadium director, Liam Mulvihill, whose mother also hails from Newtowncashel, and John Greene Senior and Albert Fallon as Trustees of the Association.

"It's a tough position and a very, very important role. My motivation at all times has been clear, what is best for the Association is best for me and for my community. There are only 10 counties that have never had the presidency, Longford being one of them. We all like the underdog to succeed and it would be a wonderful shot in the arm for a county with a track record of great people who have supported and developed the GAA for generations."

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