Sunday 21 January 2018

'I have lived my dream' - GAA President Liam O'Neill

Liam O'Neill has few regrets as he departs as GAA president

Liam O'Neill
Liam O'Neill

Dermot Crowe

NEARING the end of his GAA presidency, Liam O'Neill is seated in the Croke Park hotel opposite the stadium his father took him to for the 1963 National Hurling League (home) final between Waterford and Tipperary.

When he revisits this memory all formality is momentarily abandoned and the magic of boyhood reclaims him.

The 1963 league final was his first visit to Croke Park. And now, as his reign as the 37th president comes to a close, finishing at Congress next Saturday, he admits he "couldn't do another minute" while equally accepting that he's sorry it's over. "It's the best feeling in the world being President of the GAA.," he states. "It's something I first thought about being when I was eight years of age."

This unusually early conviction came at a time when television was in its infancy. At seven he watched the first All-Ireland football final shown live, the meeting of Kerry and Roscommon in 1962, at the home of a friend of his father's in Mountrath. His first trip to Croke Park the following year to see Waterford win the league left lifelong impressions. "I could take you to where we parked the car. I could take you to the seat in the Hogan Stand in which I sat that day. I don't remember every single thing about the game. The highlight of the game for me was the Waterford goalie, Ned Power, pucking out the ball, it being doubled on overhead at centre-field, landing on the 21-yard line and then pulled on. The ball travelled the field without touching the hand. And I was so taken by that."

That September Waterford reached the All-Ireland final. Eager to see them again, O'Neill overcame chronic shyness to call on one of the two houses in Trumera that had a television. "Bear in mind television was only 18 months old. And I knocked on the door and asked the man could I see the match because Waterford were playing again, playing Kilkenny. And I went in. Sat down in a roomful of what I thought were old men. And looked neither right nor left until the match was over. The man who escorted me to the door was a widower called Paddy Holland. I thought he was an old man, he was probably in his 40s. I was actually mesmerised by it. And really disappointed that Waterford didn't win. Because I had seen them before and was really taken by them. But happy enough that a Leinster team won. I walked to the door and stopped. I said 'thank you very much Mr Holland'. He says, 'was there something else?' And I said 'can I please come back for the football'. And I did."

His imagination was fired but the ceremony gripped him as much as the play. "I noticed there were two people in the stadium that matter - the person who was getting the cup and the person who was giving the cup. At eight years of age I knew that we hadn't a club that was going to win in Laois, I wasn't going to be captain, and I knew that Laois weren't going to win the All-Ireland anyway. So I said if I can't get the cup I want to give the cup. Even at that stage of my life I knew it was what I wanted. I am now over 50 years later finishing up as President of the GAA and I suppose I have lived my dream. So that can't be bad, can it?

"I tell children you should always follow your dreams. Maybe president of the GAA isn't the highest ambition you can have but what that story illustrates to me is that if you have the mind and heart of a child at eight, you have them for life. And that is why our under 6 and under 8 programmes are so important to us."

He appreciates the irony, 50 years later, in having to go on RTE to explain the removal of access to some live matches to non-Sky subscribers. The environment has changed dramatically. He notes how as recently as 1995 there were only six matches televised live annually by RTE. But he knows the influence of television and how its relationship with the GAA has evolved in his lifetime.

"I never forgot that man, Paddy Holland, for being kind to me - he could as easily have said, you are a young fella, there's adults watching here, but I was welcome into the house. I told the story at his wake. The extraordinary kindness to a child who had walked away from his house without telling anyone where he was going. You know you could do that that time. And the interesting thing was, the power of television. At seven you become aware of the world. You don't remember everything before seven, you remember everything after seven. It also illustrates the power of television and it's interesting that I was involved in that decision to bring the game around the world. That is an interesting connection."

It was not, however, an entirely popular one and misgivings remain, more recently over the decision not to allow a Clare motion challenging the Sky deal and move to exclusive subscription partners.

"It was a huge decision. As President I could have stopped it. But we weighed up things and made the decision. The only decision I really had to make, basically, was if they were good enough, were we brave enough to go with them? If it was the right thing to do were we brave enough to take the flak?"

He denies that the tipping point was finance or glitz. "There was a kind of an honest view that if they were good enough why should you deprive them? Like, why would you do it simply because they were Sky?"

He cites matches that weren't previously shown on television and caused no outcry - the games between Laois and Galway in the hurling championship over the last two years. "So there are a good few games that are under the radar. I wouldn't think Carlow footballers are televised live too often. The argument got kind of pulled in one direction. We have to look into the future. Let us look around the corner and see what they will bring."

Opponents would argue that it is a basic principle that has been eroded. O'Neill admits that a desire to fuel keen competition between the bidding parties also influenced the decision. You wanted to shake RTE up? "Well, I suppose their coverage needed a shake up. I think everyone accepted that. I think they accepted that themselves. And we will be better informed in two years time, having taken this decision."

On the Clare motion being withdrawn he says it has been policy for "quite some time" that only motions that affect rules are debated at Congress. The rest are dealt with at Central Council. He says Paraic Duffy's director- general's report is open to discussion and debate at Congress. He notes that the television deal passed through Central Council without any adverse reaction. If counties want to express their reservations now, after some reflection, they are free to do so through Central Council.

"I remember we had to put pressure on RTE to do the Munster final as a seventh live game, that was a big favour to us at the time. And they had that free for years. So the world changed."

Your conscience is clear? "Look it was a hard call. We made the decision that we felt was in the best interests of the organisation, and the majority in Ireland I think agreed. Only one person personally confronted me. I got a number of letters. And I got a lot of nasty letters, some of them written in the Irish language. I think that was supposed to offend me more because I speak Irish. But a lot of those were anti-Britain. A lot were letters that people wouldn't be proud of if they'd waited 24 hours before sending them. I didn't read the anonymous ones. We replied to the rest.

"What bugged me about them is that they were from a minority who had minority views. I think the anti-British nature of them shocked me because at a time when Anglo-Irish relations are better there are still some people who are holding on fighting wars that are over long ago. And they need to move on. But they are a very, very small minority. That point has to be made. The vast majority of people approved of what we did and expressed that approval."

The curiosity of what Sky might bring also weighed on the decision and, perhaps, the broadcaster's persistence. "They had been in negotiations the previous three times."

He is reluctant to talk about his legacy which he regards as sounding "grandiose" but there are features of his years in the position of which he is proud. The Football Review Committee proposals on discipline, encompassing the black card, were linked to similar reforms which failed narrowly in 2009 and both sets of proposals had his fingerprints on them. The 2009 move to introduce new penalties for cynical fouling met opposition from the hurling constituency. When they went again, they focused on football only.

A black card for hurling is now on the Congress agenda but there has been a noticeable resistance to disciplinary reform among powerful figures in the game. O'Neill is asked if hurling is right to say it is not cynical and doesn't need reform. "Football is not cynical either, some people do cynical things. But don't tell me the same things haven't been done on a hurling field. Of course they have. Hurling is a pure game. So is Gaelic football when it's played properly. There is nothing as pure as Gaelic football where people obey the rules - it's a lovely game. It will be harder to change hurling. I really don't know why but it certainly will be. That's a fact."

He is asked if he favours the black card in hurling. "I think it will help, if good careful thought has been given to it. It's interesting that the first time we tried to bring in the cards, for seven fouls we wanted to eliminate, it was the hurling group that opposed it. And that was orchestrated in the nights before; there was a vote rounded up. There was a bit of scaremongering done. Hurling doesn't see it yet but it will. The interesting this is that when we had that trial period that focused on fouls like high tackles around the neck it actually eliminated them from the game. And we don't really have those fouls as much now."

The job has brought the usual heavy travel demands, home and abroad, with O'Neill visiting around 500 clubs. He cites the fact that he was at home only eight times from September 27 to December 23.

"I said I wanted to be the best president I could be. I was very conscious of the fact that you'd hate to do anything that would let the organisation down. In Irish life people are just waiting for that to happen to people who are in positions like me. You'd be terrified of that. I will be very sorry when it's over but I will also be relieved. The games went well. There were difficulties we had to deal with. But we dealt with them as best we could, and as honestly and openly as we could. That's it; you won't win them all."

The presentation he longed to be part of since a kid materialised in 2012 when Michael Murphy came up the steps to receive the Sam Maguire Cup. Murphy thoughtfully took a moment to express his sympathy with O'Neill on the death of his sister, Barbara, who had passed away in England shortly before after a long illness. When O'Neill was young, it was Barbara whom he could count on most as his playing partner. In a family of 12 - two more died young - they were very close.

"It was a difficult time and her funeral wasn't until after the replay of the hurling final, it was on the Tuesday after that. So that was an awful week because you're hanging around. Normally funerals are three days. It is less drawn out I suppose. I made two (All-Ireland) presentations in Croke Park while waiting for her to be cremated because that's what she wanted.

"I was number eight of 12 and I had three sisters directly above me and three below me. And Barbara would have been three years older than me. That's why I suppose I value women. They are very happy memories and yet her death was hard on us all and it came within 12 months of her mother's death. But, look, every family goes through that and the bigger the family . . . like in my family someone is going to bury the other 11, that's just life, isn't it?"

His mother was alive to see him become GAA president but died while he was in office. "She was 89, she just died beautifully; she was doing The Irish Times crossword. She had the first clue done and before she wrote down the second one she just bowed her head and that was it. She died in her chair in her kitchen."

When this weekend expires he will happily return to his school job that has been in his family for three generations.

His advice to his successor, Aogán Ó Fearghail, is to enjoy the next three years as much as he did. The long wait since childhood has given him an experience that was all he expected and more.

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