Monday 18 December 2017

Eugene McGee: Social revolutionary Heffo not your ordinary GAA hero

Eugene McGee

Eugene McGee

For Irish people who have never lived in the city of Dublin it may be hard to appreciate the extent of Kevin Heffernan's contribution to the development of the GAA in the capital and subsequently nationwide, especially younger people who nowadays only see the vibrant multi-purpose GAA clubs that have sprung up all over Dublin in recent years.

But in the middle three or four decades of the last century it was a very different scenario. England had won the World Cup in 1966 giving soccer, via the newly arrived medium of television in this country, a whole new outlet for interest in that sport, particularly in Dublin. In addition, Dublin had been more seriously affected by the infamous Rule 27, The Ban, which suspended people who played or attended soccer, rugby or hockey games, or even went to dances run by those sports, up until the rule was abolished in 1971.

Rule 27 automatically engendered sporting sectarianism because soccer or rugby players could not play football or hurling. This divided every area of Dublin city for half a century and did enormous damage to the development of the GAA there.


It is hardly a coincidence that just three years after the removal of The Ban, GAA activity began to develop a new impetus. The man who led that change was Kevin Heffernan because it was his success, in getting Dublin to win the 1974 All-Ireland championship and two more, along with Tony Hanahoe, in the same decade that alerted thousands of Dublin residents to the whole magic of GAA participation.

Suddenly the capital of the country had a new exciting sporting and social movement represented by the Dublin team and the following decade multiplied several times over the dramatic impact of that GAA renaissance in Dublin. Crowds of over 50,000 regularly converged on Croke Park in the largest mass movement of people of the time and a new force had arrived in Irish life – Heffo's Army.

GAA interest quickened all over the city and county and new clubs were formed, many of which now field 50 to 60 separate teams in football or hurling each weekend.

Moreover, Gaelic football suddenly became socially acceptable in sections of Irish society where it had previously been largely ignored. Now Dublin football was a topic of discussion at parties, at the races or in the golf clubs and even in the hallowed precincts of company board meetings. Many famous people in various walks of life who hitherto had turned up their noses at 'that Gah crowd' now took an interest in the game without having to abandon their previous involvement in other football games.

Big business discovered that GAA games provided lucrative sponsorship options too. This was indeed a silent revolution and the role of the then county chairman in Dublin, Jimmy Grey, was vital in augmenting the foundations that Heffernan had created.

In every aspect of his own life, sporting, commercial and social, Kevin Heffernan was a perfectionist, a revolutionary and a genius for devising plans and then implementing them.

The bonds that existed between him and the talented bunch of players in those teams of the 1970s were exceptionally close even though, on a personal level, Heffernan always maintained an aloofness that rarely allowed for emotional attachment. Respect for the manager always seemed to be the overriding principle in that relationship.

The dramatic changes in Irish sporting life sparked off by the success of Kevin Heffernan make him one of the most important people in the GAA's history, so if and when Dublin GAA gets a new stadium commensurate with the current high standing of GAA in the capital, there could be no more fitting memorial than to name it after Heffo.

Irish Independent

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