Like every good communicator, Jim Forbes was always listening, writes Tony Leen
There are printed photographs, match reports and programmes sprinkled across Jim Forbes’ living room at his now quietened home in Carrigaline, Co. Cork.
His daughters Fidelma and Aoife, and son Killian can’t put names to a lot of the faces and teams they’ve come across as they begin that painful but oft times therapeutic retracing of his life in the GAA. Among the winning smiles and hoisted trophies, there are pictures from the Sam Maguire commemoration in Dunmanway, when scores of the country’s living All-Ireland winning captains travelled to West Cork, and many more of Cork teams, adult and underage, Carrigdhoun and Carrigaline ones too.
None, though, could be as vivid in framing the personality of Jim Forbes, the brilliant communicator, as the one of him encircled by microphones at the Silversprings Hotel outside Cork city just before Christmas in 2002 as he kept score on the improvements his Board had conceded to the striking Cork hurlers. Without a scintilla of rancour or bile in his delivery.
Why would there be? Without Forbes, who passed away last June 27, aged 71, the agreement that moved Cork GAA away from the ledge of crippling crisis, would have remained unattainable well into the following year. Of that I am sure.
As is Donal O’Grady, the manager Forbes pursued once the smoke had cleared to guide the progress of Cork’s hurlers. “He was the ideal chairman at the time, a man with people skills who didn’t take things personally. He had strong views on things, but he had a way with people.”
“An active listener,” long-time friend and fellow Carrigdhoun division officer Edmond Forrest, would say. “While the heat was high, and the fury raging, he was the one taking stock, with his eyes closed, grasping the salient points, proposing the viable solution.” No surprise GAA president Nickey Brennan would appoint him chair of the Central Appeals committee.
Before entrenchment hardened that winter, Jim Forbes, the incoming chairman of the County Board, opened backdoor channels with Joe Deane, one of the more moderate figures driving the hurlers’ campaign for better standards of preparation and care.
“He was a decent and fair-minded man,” Deane subsequently recalled, something his family still hear when folk walk up and stop them in the streets of Carrigaline, where all three remain with their families.
Not that he auditioned for the role of troubleshooter. At home, his wife Maura would cuss those setting landmines, but son Killian urged him to stay the course and work his way through the crisis. Several nights Forbes was on the point of resignation.
It was a modern GAA far removed from the one he signed up for in a small room of Carrigaline GAA club when Forbes became treasurer of the south east (Carrigdhoun) division in 1979. Along with new chairman Carl Daly (Ballymartle), Paddy Fitzgerald (Courcey Rovers), Eoin O’Neill (Kinsale) and Ed Forrest, it was a vocation that would only be broken 32 years later by a questionable GAA regulation limiting officers to five-year terms. Not that such edicts would stop him returning. He was again the serving treasurer of the division at the time of his passing.
Jim Forbes’ ability to mediate, facilitate and communicate was already established by that stage. He was a fence-mender in Cork GAA when the organisation had some fences to mend. He broke through the distrust between Cork officials and media as PRO of the board from 1997.
Nobody doubted beneath his velvet ways was a steely character ready to have the fights that needed fighting. He would open a frank telephone exchange with “And you can quote me on all this...” as the need arose but he set the gold standard for a role which brought dramatic, and sustained, improvements to the area of public relations.
He wrote the playbook not just for Pat Horgan and John Motherway, Bob Ryan, Ger Lane and Tracey Kennedy, but for a crop of new GAA public relations officers around the country, turning Cork’s weakness into a strength: from a wrought iron gate to an open door with a welcome mat.
“I’d always remember him on the phone,” his son Killian recalls, “I don’t think he ever turned it off, or refused to take a call.”
There was another thing. His son remembers from his youngest day a typewriter being in the house. And then in the 90s a personal computer. And something called email. Ever the innovator. He was once secretary of the Cork County Trotting Association, a throwback to his West Cork upbringing and the passion of his own father.
Back in the early 70s, before the GAA dominated his, and his late wife, Maura’s daylight hours, Jim Forbes and his pal Neil de Faoite - who lives still in Bishopstown - showed movies on a portable projector in parish halls around Cork as a means of income. In his nine-to-five life, such as it was, as a fund-raiser for various organisations like Cope and Gael Linn, there was no day that his labours weren’t infiltrated by revenue raising for the Association. “I wonder did he ever do a full day’s work without getting side-tracked into some GAA issue,” Killian Forbes says.
Where once we could set the clock in the Examiner by the weekly arrival of the fixtures from the Carrigdhoun division, last Spring the desk sensed Jim Forbes wasn’t himself. But it wasn’t until his mobile number - one of the most answered in the GAA - came up heading out the South Link road from Cork city that the starkness of his situation was apparent. Seldom has the road ahead looked so bleak. The delivery was unvarnished, as always. It was the Friday before a Munster hurling championship opener, and he wasn’t bothered by the form-lines of either Cork or Tipp. I probably won’t be around for the Munster final, he suggested.
He shook his head a lot when we met after. Life is tough, he cried. And then he’d perk up as the callers filed through his door in Marymount, the nurses so concerned by the volume they suggested a roster. And then a curfew. Jim Forbes batted both suggestions away, but came up with one himself. A notebook, to record and remember all those who wanted a chat with the Great Communicator.
He was properly chuffed Killian, at 36, was part of Carrigaline’s first ever Cork SFC match this season against St Nick’s in Ballygarvan. And that he was there to see it.
But he couldn’t have been as chuffed as his three children were to learn so much about their father’s life, times and legacy through all these faces presenting themselves at his room door in the Hospice. And as the voices surged and the stories echoed, he’d bow the head and close his eyes, listening. Like those south east division committee meetings before when protagonists thought he was dozing off, but he was taking stock, listening to the arguments.
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