Sean Kelly: Beating the system

Séan Kelly's memoir of his time in the GAA and his involvement in removing Rule 42 gives a unique insight into the Machiavellian nature of the GAA system. By Eoghan Corry


No sporting organisation loves its oratory, its story telling, its mythologising more than the GAA. It sometimes seems that what happens on the field is secondary to the long speeches and bar-room tales that will be made about it afterwards.
The rhetoric of the conferences, congresses and committee meetings, and there are hundreds of these, has a special language and a special tone. When the GAA takes on a Big Issue, it does so to the point of obsession. Rule 42 was the latest of a long cycle of debates where passions ran high and the GAA looked in to its soul for the answer. On this occasion, it found the right answer, largely thanks to Séan Kelly.

Con Murphy, an Iar-Uachtarán and one of Kelly's opponents told the congress which abolished it “we have come to be an organisation that accommodates everything and stands for nothing.”

To get Rule 42 removed, deals were done, opponents were taken out and a media campaign was engineered. It was Machiavellian, convoluted and deliciously GAA. This is not unusual; the GAA's gloriously decentralised structure means that reformers have to navigate an elaborate and complex constituency.

Kelly says in his disarmingly gentle memoir, Rule 42 and All That, that he has never lost an appeal and never lost an election in the GAA, which is shorthand for saying that he knows as well as anyone how the system works.

He is the archetypal GAA official, a fíor gaelgeoir from Kerry, a county that has so dominated the football championship that the rest are left far behind.

If Rule 42 ever was going to be beaten, it was a man cut of this thread who would do it.
His dilemma was that while the GAA grassroots, the players and supporters, wanted Rule 42 removed, a phalanx of GAA officialdom did not - the guys who, like Kelly, understood how the system works. His description of the choreography of the final debate is masterful, perhaps the first from within the GAA of how that system works as it does in Fianna Fáil – of counting the votes before the meeting begins.

Astonishingly, he wasn't sure of success until the vote had been counted. The story is well told – could it be that everyone in Kerry has a touch of the seanchaí in them? Tony Doran's grin for him was “like the gap of Dunloe.” Among a rich cast of characters, his uncle Father Brian is one of my favourites. If it came to being canonised or having the Glenbeigh sports field named after him, Father Brian would pick the latter.

The postman who found an injured calf on the kitchen floor, the hurler who turned to tell a female admirer “I'm a-coming baby” before taking a free, the Kerry GAA official elected to the House of Commons for three days and other snatches of Irish, Australian and New Zealand history, all fill the crevices in the book.

This is the first real parallel history of the GAA, where what happens in the council chamber is as important as what happened on the field.

There are other controversies, equally intriguing for the follower. He expresses remorse, ten years late, for his handling of the Colin Lynch episode and intriguingly opines that Clare were perhaps “too sporting” in agreeing to a replay of their short time semi-final against Offaly. But in the end it was the opening of Croke Park that drew the ire of his opponents, and he responded with all the guild he had learned in the GAA council chamber.

He talks about how he could trust very few people as his moves to bring a Rule 42 motion to Congress were obstructed.
The story hints of tensions between himself and all-powerful Director General Liam O Maolmhichíl, server of ten presidents. He grappled with the considerable tensions between the GAA staff and those running its stadium. None of the Croke Park full-time staff came to his farewell party.

Kelly prevailed because he was cut from the same thread as Rule 42's sternest opponents. Your reviewer once asked Mick O'Dwyer why more players did not become GAA officials; O'Dwyer replied, half in jest, that it was because the officerships were tied down by fellows who scarcely played the game at all and spent their time getting elected at club AGMs. Kelly was one of these. By his late twenties he was vice chairman of the county board.

There is a family clue, also. Sean Kelly's grandfather, a revolutionary who had almost been killed by the Black and Tans, had been the one to first propose that a field be bought and turned in to a sports field in his native Kilcummin. To get a grant from the government a clause was inserted “and other field sports.” At the time it means nothing, but when soccer arrived in the parish in the 1970s the local soccer club also began using the field. It meant the GAA could not develop the field – no drainage, no dressing rooms, nothing.

Kelly proposed the government grant be paid back and then the GAA could build and develop and pay for improvements of their own. They built fine dressing rooms. The soccer club were no longer allowed to use it and developed their own facility.
Fast forward to 2004. Abbotstown has been abandoned, and Kelly has translated the Kilcummin situation into an axiom that Dublin does not need two 80,000 capacity stadiums. A big Croke Park and a smaller Lansdowne was the obvious answer. In years to come readers will need an explanation why the GAA took so long to agree.

Everyone who loves the GAA has gained from Kelly's initiative. When Milan play Barcelona in the Champions League final at Croke Park or Munster win the Heineken Cup there, nobody will accuse the GAA of being an organisation that accommodates everyone and stands for nothing.

All that high rhetoric will be an oddity of history. Exchanges were sharp and often, this being the GAA, hurtful. Kelly describes how his wife and daughter were reduced to tears by the savagery of a verbal assault on him during an awards ceremony in Tyrone.
After another ravaging at Cork Convention, he told a radio station that he wouldn't be much of a Kerry man if he paid much attention to what they were saying about him in Cork. Kelly has a point. For the last century it was widely perceived that Cork ran the GAA. Kelly, from Cork's great rivals, might have turned that perception round for ever. Trust a Kerryman.

Eoghan Corry storylined the GAA museum in Croke Park and is author of the Illustrated History of the GAA (Gill & MacMillan).