The new president of the GAA, Aogan Ó Fearghail, is remembering a time he held a hurley in his hand which, for a Cavan man, would never be considered a formality. In St Pat's teacher training college in Dublin in the 1970s he managed to make it on to their junior team.
"Well, I was always played at corner back, maybe that will tell you," he says drolly. "The instruction never changed; you just pulled on everything that came through. I never graduated from corner back in my three-year hurling career in Pat's but I absolutely loved it."
At the time his presidential predecessor, Liam O'Neill, and the current GAA director of games, Pat Daly, were students there. He warmly relives college years he regards as among the best of his life and a period which reawakened his fascination with the GAA. But, unlike O'Neill, he didn't carry any ambition to hold high office. This crystallised only in recent years.
Through hurling he found himself on an historic shinty trip to Scotland in 1978. In 1937 the British Government decided that the GAA was not suitable company for the shinty community. "They put a stop to all interaction. We were the first group to end that. It was a man called Stiofan Ó hAnnrachain, I had the privilege of speaking at his funeral and giving an oration two months ago, he was a college lecturer in Pat's, and he decided he would take up the cudgel and reintroduce a touring team so there were trials and I made it on to the team. Pat Daly was captain."
At that stage he says he knew O'Neill had designs on being GAA president. Ó Fearghail was "the polar opposite" and would spend the next 30 years in a multiplicity of roles. He returned home to Dernakesh national school which he had attended as a boy and took up a position as principal. He had a hand in running the family shop and post office. He got married and helped raise four children. He built a home next to his parents, who are now both 90 and almost 70 years married. He says he had so much going on in his life that he never had much time to look ahead.
Before his presidential arrival there was a 25-year spell coaching underage teams in his club Drumgoon éire Óg. Ó Fearghail launched the first juvenile teams to ever represent Drumgoon and they began winning county titles. Eventually, those players led the club to an All-Ireland junior football championship in 2002. In his own playing days no juvenile team existed, so he had to play in nearby Cootehill. Over 12 years playing adult football he never won a championship match. They won nothing, at any level.
He had a big hand in changing that culture. While driving the underage programme and coaching teams he became interested and involved in the administrative side. The former county chairman Phil Brady encouraged him to become a representative to the county board and that began a series of incremental steps without him having any real career plan. Provincial administration beckoned and he served 12 years in the Ulster Council, the last as president.
Coaching offered the earthiest gratification though. "My ambition was always to be a better coach. My club were not really doing well. We are a small hilly rural place, we've no village, we've a school, we'd a creamery, we'd our shop, the church, but they are not together, they're spread out, and for 95 years we never won anything at any level in any grade. So I had an ambition, a very strong ambition, to improve my club. That was the height of my ambition. To be GAA president, now that wasn't on my radar."
When he began coaching in his club the chairman at the time was an elderly man called Jack Daly. "A wonderful man. He gave me great support. I tend to move quickly, maybe not wait on a committee meeting to make a decision. But Jack bought into the whole idea, he gave me every support and every encouragement and I will never forget him, the one icon I have still to this day. He was an absolute hero for me."
In his younger playing days he recalls Daly bringing a large convoy of kids in a red Volkswagen to Cootehill. Daly would also have the pitch lined, he'd line out the team and he'd referee the game. "And then when the match was over he'd drive you home. He was pushing 80 then but to me as a young 20-something he was just the anchor I needed and anything he'd say I would take it on board."
It was Tommy Reilly ("brother of Jimmy Reilly") who introduced hurling to the parish. He doesn't buy into the notion of hurling and Gaelic football being separate tribes. "No we are GAA people."
Hurling men? "No, there are no hurling men. There are guys whose main passion is hurling, there are guys whose first passion is football. We are GAA people. It is about the GAA. It is about a sporting and cultural organisation. And if your primary game in a region like we're in now (Monaghan) is Gaelic football I would not do anything to knock that, I think that is great, but hurling should have a presence and everyone should have the opportunity to play it.
"I wouldn't make the exact same case for Gaelic football because hurling, like the Irish language, needs protection. The English language will survive. I think Gaelic football will survive. But hurling is different. We need to have an increased level of awareness and interest to protect the game of hurling. But as for hurling men, there are those, yeah, who would designate themselves as that but I would look at it in broader terms. Hurling will only prosper if we have the whole GAA family buying into it. Not just confining it to your hurling strongholds. And that is not an argument against the hurling strongholds because they are the Gaeltacht of hurling."
He doesn't believe in separate committees for hurling and he is not in favour of the black card being introduced to the game, as it has been in football. The cynicism isn't sufficiently high, he maintains, to warrant it. But he adds that this can change and that the GAA approach will be open-minded "if something needs to be examined".
Nor is he terribly concerned about the condition of football and how it is being played. The game's poor press, he says, is "unfair" and football is "still a wonderful" game. "I think when you weigh everything up in life, whether GAA or anything else, there is no Nirvana. There is no perfection. But to me Gaelic football has far more positives than negatives. I go to a lot of games."
Ó Fearghail admires modern tactical developments and says the GAA has carried out recent detailed reviews of both football and hurling and "had a lot of debate". Coaches go out to create winning teams, he says, and he sees nothing wrong with that. "Winning is a fantastic feeling in sport. I had nine captains that lifted cups in my coaching carer, which is a lot in my club. Even to this day I would be friendly with these guys because they'd be my neighbours. But some captains, I had maybe five, six losing captains and they still would mention it occasionally to me, the pain of that. Now it was wonderful and we had great odysseys. But winning is a very important element in sport."
Ridding the GAA of that mentality is just as important where children are concerned, he accepts, and he stresses the value of the Go Games model. "That isn't based on some airy-fairy idea. The whole notion of the Go Games model which is now well established in the GAA is that it is about fun, that we are not keeping the scores, everyone plays and that there are no subs left standing and going home (saying) 'oh I was a sub all night mammy'. That must be gone everywhere except in some places it's not and I think that is an area where we have to shine a light on. It is wrong for kids of under 8 and under 10 to be shouted at by adults on the sideline and to be roared at. I mean, if someone shouts at you and you are an adult it takes you a while to get over that. But if you're a child and an adult shouts at you in public, on the pitch, and I've heard it happen . . . I have to admit it is now the exception but it shouldn't be happening anywhere.
"The vast majority of clubs and counties and schools are adopting that but there are still some areas where they are still presenting cups to under 11s. It's wrong. Where they are still making guys stand as the fourth sub on the side of a pitch for the night and it's wrong. And there are still places where there's a boy or a girl going out on the pitch and getting shouted at for kicking the ball left instead of right.
"It shouldn't happen on one pitch on the island of Ireland or anywhere that GAA is played in the world. It just should not happen. But it is the exception. And we have made great strides. The big thing that I would be focusing on in terms of my implementation period as president is that we will be making sure that everybody who is in charge of a team has their coaching accreditation. Their child protection courses. Their coaching certification. Most of them have. Some haven't. And that's where we find the problems. Whenever we see issues arising it's invariably a guy who is a passionate coach but 'ah he doesn't bother going to the coaching courses', he 'doesn't need' to go to a coaching course. There are people still of that mindset. We've to change that.
"And when you go to those courses you will very quickly realise that our tutors are of the highest and best standards. That they will get the Go Games philosophy across very strongly. And I will want and I will be challenging, challenging, our counties to make sure that in their county everybody in charge of a child's team has a coaching certificate.
"You need to be told you can't be allowed look after children without having that certificate. It is too sacred a duty to be looking after a child to just make it up as you go along."
Ó Fearghail is Cavan's first GAA president and grew up in a home more influenced by county affairs than club. The club didn't have much to shout about; the county sure did. His parents are old enough, born in the 1920s, to recall Cavan's good times. They won their last All-Ireland in 1952. His father drove a bunch of locals to Croke Park that day in his van. For the 1947 All-Ireland in the Polo Grounds his grandfather, Tom Farrell, drew a large crowd to his house where he took out two windows to allow everyone hear the broadcast on his radio, the first radio in the area. The GAA president says his father Aidan was the quieter of his parents, his mother Katie more animated, rarely more so than when Cavan were playing Meath.
As for his own goals he talks of following the GAA's Strategic Plan and cites a good working relationship with Paraic Duffy which seems a genuinely compatible union. Fixtures are a priority. He says it is unfair to have "two per cent of players" holding up the fixtures calendar for the "98 per cent" majority. He believes that clubs, if they are upset, need to be more actively involved in pursuing their grievances through their county board. He says the counties have been reissued with a discussion document on fixtures and their feedback is welcome. If a more "streamlined" fixtures model is to be achieved he feels that all parties must buy into it.
The GAA's accounts show 60 per cent derived from gate receipts and a 40 per cent reliance on commercial activity. They can't be blasé about that nor lose sight of the traditional values. Player welfare rides high on his list of concerns, with 40 per cent of inter-county players being students and some of them grievously over-drawn while serving numerous teams. Inter-county managers being paid he feels isn't nearly as big an issue, in his mind, as what has been going on across the club circuit.
Can a man so immersed imagine a life without the GAA? "If you live, like most of us still do, in rural Ireland, it would be a very dull, grey, colourless, odourless, tasteless life. Because there isn't a lot else. There would be the beautiful surroundings and countryside. And the beautiful people. Because people are what matter most. And there would be the work. But that excitement, that challenge, that love of your own place. The neighbour's child playing. One of the things that sociologists tell us - they disagree on most things but one thing they all seem to agree on - is that we all need to belong. The GAA provides people with a sense of belonging. Without the GAA this would be a windswept island off the west coast of Europe and I think like the Romans you'd take one look at it and say 'Hibernia, the eternal winter!'"
Even though his job will involve much ceremony and travel, Ó Fearghail is determined to preserve what mornings he can to look after his parents, who need some care to be able to continue to live at home. In spite of their ages both enjoy excellent health. "My father will drink a couple of cans of Guinness every night. They read the papers. Every day a paper comes into our house. They came to Congress and enjoyed it. When I was up with them this morning, my mother said she had watched the GAA USA series (on TG4) last night. She was disappointed she didn't see the Polo Grounds but I told her it will be on next week."
Pressed on a personal legacy as president he recoils a bit. "My policies are the policies of the GAA which are emerging and changing with each strategic plan. It is not about Aogan Ó Fearghail; if it is then you are personalising the position and I would not be comfortable with that. I only want to be primus inter pares, first among equals. Never top of the pile. I would realise the preciousness of the position and every decision you make has an impact on so many people. There is nearly a sacred trust there. I would be very keen to make sure I do nothing to damage the Association."
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