When the GAA decided to play the 1947 All-Ireland football final in New York's Polo grounds, it was an historic and radical decision. Choices in the meantime could hardly be put in the same revolutionary category.
The GAA has defied expectation again and elected Larry McCarthy from New York as its next president, to succeed John Horan.
Larry is no Yank. He hails from Cork and has spent a lifetime involved in New York GAA with the Sligo club. So it is a signal honour for them as well. And New York has a special relationship with the GAA; it is a sort of second spiritual home. It has provided food and shelter for countless poor Irish and in recent times has helped swell the coffers of a lot of county boards who have pulled plenty of dollars from the Big Apple.
The recent general election comes a distant second in terms of the campaigning involved in gaining the highest elected office in the GAA. Over the last few months, all five candidates scoured the country, and beyond, looking for votes. McCarthy had some advantages. He could have probably counted on nearly all the overseas block, which is a substantial number to start with. Similiar to Leinster, in fact. Then the order of elimination of other candidates probably favoured him as well. Being from Cork helped when Jerry O'Sullivan was eliminated and he was also assisted by Mick Rock of Roscommon going out before Jim Bolger from Leinster.
The Connacht vote transfers were always likely to favour McCarthy. The New York project for the Connacht Council is a big prize and no president is likely to tamper with it. Certainly not McCarthy. It is always good to know which side your bread is buttered on. Each county in Connacht gets this golden goose every five years and it can be classified as a special event / football championship match / junket / fundraiser / meeting of families / holiday - or all of those in one. And there are quite a few who might hope this will mean a Congress in New York. Naturally, it would be a major sacrifice but delegates would have to do it in the best interest of the GAA.
It was a most unusual vote therefore with it all so tight. Contrast that with John Horan, who swept home three years ago. That will not be lost on McCarthy. Like Wellington said at Waterloo "it was a close-run thing". Jarlath Burns got almost half the vote so the most prestigious position in the new regime, next to the new president, should go to Burns. Anyway, he has a year to sort out all his committees but he must be ready to hit the road running as the first two years is when progress is made. The last year is mainly a lap of honour and few presidents are willing to take on a major project in their last year as they won't get any credit for it if it is a success and they will get all the blame if it bombs out.
This is a major personal achievement for McCarthy as conventional wisdom would dictate that only somebody involved in the nuts and bolts of administration in Ireland need apply. A lifetime of service in any part of the world can now be rewarded. When Benjamin Disraeli became British Prime Minister in 1868, he said that he had succeeded in climbing to the top of a greasy pole. Disraeli was the first Prime Minister born a Jew. The top of the greasy pole for McCarthy has come in a different way but the passage to the top has been just as difficult, although probably much more enjoyable.
For me it is always what the president does rather than who the president is. There was a time when the Uachtarán, to give the proper title, had a selection of speeches which covered them on the chicken and chips dinner dance circuit. The boast was the number of clubs visited and the number of dinner dances attended.
Yet presidents like Joe McDonagh and Seán Kelly are remembered as reformers. The ban on RUC members joining and the opening up of Croke Park are two examples of contentious topics that former presidents got stuck into and would not let go of. Even when it was not a popular thing to do.
John Horan has tried to put some shape on fixtures and those motions came up yesterday. They are not what I would favour but at least the committee have made recommendations which should be built on in the future. The other legacy of the Horan presidency is a tiered championship. Again, it is merely bowing to reality, but the forces of conservatism lined up to try and derail it. If it is not made into a success in year one then it will take the Tommy Murphy Cup route to oblivion.
Larry McCarthy has the GPA lined up in his sights and has not been happy with their fundraising in New York. There will be tough negotiations now and those same negotiations are not going well at the moment anyway.
It would be a great opportunity for McCarthy to bring the GPA back into the fold as a sub-committee of the GAA with appropriate funding and oversight. It does seem incredible to most GAA members that the Association hands away millions to a group who are to all intents and purposes independent of the organisation. At the time it looked like an Irish solution to an Irish problem. Now it is just a problem.
In New York GAA circles the bells are ringing out. First of all they will see a champion of Gaelic Park, which is in the process of an extensive refurbishment. It might be easier to get more central funds now - proper order too. Spending ten million in New York is much better value than a hundred million in Cork and the work being done by the Irish in the Big Apple and in many other parts of the world in getting second-generation Irish to play Gaelic Games is simply astonishing. They deserve any help they get.
Then there is the club scene. Every president and beaten candidate has uttered the meaningless phrase a thousand times, "we must look after the clubs". Nobody seems to have any idea what to do. Well, it has to start with the county scene and a fixtures calendar which allows county boards to slot in club fixtures, which include county players, at all times of the year. We now have a club scene which is set up to help players go to various cities in the United States for the summer.
Then when McCarthy is finished with that he might take a look at Dublin and the future development of Gaelic games in the city and county.
Not just Dublin as a single entity in terms of a county side, but every aspect of it in terms of participation rates, size of clubs and finance. It is a hugely successful brand in one sense but this is not Coca-Cola, Real Madrid, Liverpool or the New England Patriots. John Horan could hardly be expected to tackle the runaway train so it falls to McCarthy and this will define his presidency more than anything else. Altruism and fairness spring to mind and it should come from Dublin County Board as a future blueprint.
McCarthy is moving back to Ireland for his three-year term, which is a major move in itself. The expenses received are to cover his salary in his present employment in Seton Hall University in New York and that is only right and proper. McCarthy has to decide quickly whether he is chairman or chief. We need a chief, there are thousands of indians.
What members are crying out for is somebody to set a vision and drive or lead everyone towards that vision. The most important thing of all that he needs is courage. I wish him well.
Sunday Indo Sport