Congress veteran moves on to any other business

A GLUTTON for punishment surely, Seamas O’Brien heads off to Down this weekend for his 54th consecutive annual GAA Congress, that great two-day talk-fest when the massive wheels of the GAA can be at their most grindingly slow.

“I suppose I am,” laughs this veteran stalwart of the Abbeyside/Ballinacourty club in west Waterford; “I haven’t missed a Congress since 1957, when I was a deputy for someone else; I was there again in ’58 and ’59, and in 1960 I was elected to the executive of the Waterford county board.

“Between Annual Congress and Special Congress, I think I’ve now attended about 64, of every description. Some of them are very interesting, but it can also be absolutely boring. You’d wonder at young people going – a lot of people are standing up talking, but they’re only repeating what others have already said before them. Oh, I was at some very, very boring Congresses.”

Then again he was also there for some of the most interesting, days when the GAA changed direction completely. “I was at the one Pat Fanning chaired that was held in Queen’s University Belfast, the famous motion brought in by Thomas Walsh on removing the Ban (on playing ‘foreign’ sports), Rule 27 – that was like a Super-Congress.

“I know Pat Fanning was a fellow-Waterford man, but he did handle it in a very masterful way. There was a lot of division in the GAA over that issue, a lot of bitterness, but it got through. I remember the following day, there was a photograph in the paper of Pat standing there with his specs in his hand, under a large framed picture of the Queen – some very enterprising photographer.

“Of course, Pat himself was very much in favour of keeping the Ban, himself and Con Murphy of Cork (another renowned GAA president) – they were like twins, they thought the same way, were very traditional. I had been in favour of the Ban myself, but with the advent of television, I couldn’t see it lasting. If you went down the road to look at a soccer match you’d be suspended but if you looked at it on television, you wouldn’t – that didn’t make sense, change was imperative.

“It was the same with the debate about the televising of the All-Ireland finals ‘live’; that was around 1963-4, and a lot of people were afraid that if it went ahead it would drive down the attendances at the actual games. Of course the reverse was what happened, it was publicising the games, advertising the games, and you had more people coming.

“There were so many Congresses where big decisions were taken – the decision to accept sponsorship, for example, taken around 20 years ago; that involved a lot of soul-searching within the GAA also.

“There were always big arguments about having Guinness as a major sponsor of the All-Ireland hurling championship – my own belief is that there aren’t two people in the country drinking Guinness as a result of that sponsorship. People drink whatever they like, and however much they like – I believe Guinness have been fantastic sponsors for hurling, have been very responsible.

“Then you had the Croke Park debate, opening it up to soccer and rugby – I was against that, but now look at it; we got €36m rental money and every county in Ireland benefited enormously from that, financially, the clubs especially – it definitely didn’t do any harm. Those were all major decisions, decisions that changed association policy.”

Big days alright, momentous occasions in the history of what is surely one of the world’s great amateur sporting organisations.

So, with all that experience behind him, what would Seamas do to improve Congress, alleviate the tedium that so vexes so many delegates?

“There are 123 motions this weekend – far too many. It will start on Friday at around three o’clock, finish on Saturday evening, but 123 motions – everyone will be bored to tears by the time it’s over, listening to all the arguments for and against. They’ll go home confused, a lot of bad motions, a lot of Mickey Mouse decisions.

“There is one motion which – if it’s passed – will give authority to Central Council to make a lot of decisions which would have the effect of reducing, considerably, the number of motions to Congress.”

A contradiction of his view that the clubs are lacking power. No, merely good governance, the top body doing its job. In the meantime, it won’t matter a damn anymore to Seamas, who will be pulling the plug after this weekend, handing over, service done. Not that he’s finished completely with the GAA.

“I’m 88 now but anything I join, I stick with it. My family gave me fantastic support all through the years, my wife Cáit especially, and that counts for a lot.

“I am remaining on in my position as registrar with the West Waterford Board and I am hoping to serve both club and county one way or the other for as long as I am physically capable.”

There should be medals for this kind of guy and this kind of service.

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