Tuesday 25 June 2019

'Pat Fanning was the most inspiring person I ever met'

Waterford and the wider GAA family have lost a legendary Gael in Pat Fanning, writes Dermot Crowe

Pat Fanning at Congress 2005
Pat Fanning at Congress 2005

A S the remains of Pat Fanning were being taken from St John's Church in Waterford city on the journey to his final resting place, The Hurlers of Mount Sion, the club anthem, stole in over the silent congregation. Its lyrics, hailing the virtues of the club's stickmen, have been invoked for 80 years on various occasions, including sad ones like this.

But old as the anthem is, Fanning's longevity stands apart -- his roots go deeper into the foundations of this famous Waterford hurling community.

Born in 1918, it was with Mount Sion that he won seven county championships, including their first in 1938, and discovered his love and vocational interest in hurling and the GAA. He played, coached and administered for club and county and even in recent years, when unable to leave the house for long due to failing health, Mount Sion had his oratory recorded to motivate the team before they faced Ballygunner. Talking to players was one of his prized assets.

He was a legend in the truest sense of the word, the extent and range of his influence breathtaking. The first Waterford match he attended was in 1931, before the GAA was 50 years old, and marked a seminal Deise moment in Fanning's view, as he'd later disclose; a draw with a mighty Cork side in the Munster final at Clonmel offering a signal of future intent. The replay was lost but seven years on he was part of the side that won the county's first Munster senior title.

In 1959, he was county chairman, one of three terms he served, when the county defeated Kilkenny in a replay to win the All-Ireland for the second and last time. In August 2004, he recounted that experience with unmasked pride. "For as long as I'm in the world, and I'm a long time in it," he stated, "that was one of the driving forces in Waterford: an ambition to equate with Kilkenny in terms of hurling."

Austin Flynn, the team's full-back, recalls a meeting in Fraher Field in 1957 attended by Fanning, then county chairman, and the team trainer John Keane. The team that won the first All-Ireland in 1948 was advanced in years and success did not follow. Fanning resolved to change that. All these years later, Flynn can recite the speech he gave on their first night together. "The gist of it was, 'as God is my judge, I firmly believe there is the winning of an All-Ireland in ye fellas here tonight. Now it will take everything ye have, a great effort, ye will have to dig that bit deeper for Waterford. Cork and Tipperary have their tradition and their jerseys but it's easy to keep going if you are winning. It takes something special to get up off the ground when you're beaten and I am saying I believe ye fellas can win an All-Ireland for Waterford'."

Flynn remembers playing full-back for Dungarvan CBS in his mid-teens, still learning the trade, when he had his first encounter with Fanning who was doing umpire. He had been tangling up to that point with a tall and troublesome full-forward and had become frustrated with his game when Fanning advised him quietly not to stand under his opponent for the next ball, because he wasn't a hurler -- that approach played into his hands. Instead he should meet him when the ball dropped. It worked. He won the next ball and completed a big clearance.

"He was the inspirational figure, he was the one who nurtured the team along, and when he was finished talking in the dressing room you were ready to break down that door to give everything for the Waterford jersey. He was the most inspiring person I ever met. It's embarrassing they are still harping back to when we won in '59, that was considered a great team, but it would not have won an All-Ireland but for Pat Fanning."

Fanning lived through many defining moments in the GAA's history and was the longest surviving ex-president until his death at 91. The obvious landmark came during his presidency when Rule 27 was deleted in 1971, although he was personally in favour of its retention. Fanning handled the occasion masterfully, controlling emotions with admirable restraint. Before the decision was taken he stressed the need for dignity and the crowd obeyed.

He had direct experience of the Ban. In October 1963, he was chairman of Waterford County Board when Tom Cheasty got six months on the sidelines for attending a dance staged by a local soccer club. It seems ludicrous now but those were the days when the infamous Vigilance Committees tracked the movement of Gaels suspected of cavorting with the enemy. Cheasty's own brother led a campaign for the Ban's removal in the years that followed but Fanning was able to maintain warm relations with the family. Cheasty's wife was one of the mourners at his funeral. He is remembered as a fair, open and sincere administrator.

He also had to preside during monstrously troubled times in the north. At the annual GAA Congress in Cork in 1972, seats were left unfilled because of the missing delegates then interned. The Bloody Sunday outrage and outbreak of violence presented the GAA with a major dilemma that struck at the heart of its nationalist ethos. Fanning maintained close contact with GAA people in the six counties and ensured that finance was sent to families stricken by the conflict. The occupation of grounds was also a serious affront to Fanning who led a delegation to Stormont Castle to protest. At the time Casement Park was occupied by the British Army.

The delegation met the British Junior Minister of State and would also make a visit to Westminster to present their case. "We denied absolutely their right to be there," Fanning said at the time, unwilling to compromise by accepting a proposed sharing arrangement or using an alternative facility. When the Ban was removed, Fanning, conscious of the nationalist heritage, informed delegates at Congress in Queen's University that a charter was being drawn up to secure the GAA's old ideals. He also stressed that removing Rule 27 did not mean facilities should be offered to rival sports or lead to a diminution in nationalist sensibilities.

Giving the graveside oration last Tuesday, GAA president Christy Cooney spoke of Fanning's "flair and passion as an administrator" and said he was "described by many as a traditionalist and idealist". He claimed he "held dear the core values that made our Association what it is today" -- citing volunteerism, the amateur status, a love of club and of the Irish language.

Although not one to bear grudges, it is known that he was upset in recent years by references to him in Sean Kelly's autobiography concerning opposition among ex-presidents to opening up Croke Park. A reference to him apparently sleeping at a meeting he held wasn't true but the depiction of him and his ilk as backward and antiquated hurt deeply. Kelly was unable to make the funeral but did make it his business to drop by and meet some of the family at the club on his way to catching a flight to Brussels.

Outside of family, hurling gave him the most pleasure. He wasn't fit to attend Waterford's All-Ireland final appearance in 2008, the first since 1963, but nothing would destroy his belief in the county's capabilities. "Kilkenny were the omnipotent county," said Fanning in 2004, "we were the struggling county, but we were as proud of our tradition here in Waterford as Kilkenny would be of theirs. Ours was a tradition of, if I may say so, something like Clare; a tradition of effort in the face of adversity, a tradition that never permitted surrender even though there was defeat."

That same year, with Waterford hurling into August, he described the long drought after 1963 as "a terrible stretch" with "some terrible defeats particularly at the hands of Cork". He couldn't decipher the cause. "I'm at a loss to explain what happened, I'll go to my grave not knowing what happened on those occasions because those weren't bad teams. They had great men in them."

Christy Cooney said a drive home to Youghal after time spent with Fanning a couple of years ago had left him feeling he had been in the company of greatness. That's a big claim. But have a look for yourself. How can you escape it: great he was.

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