Sean Kelly interview: The pitch battle that opened up Croke Park

Ten years on, former GAA president Sean Kelly reflects on the opening of Croke Park.

“Some individuals have questioned the right of the Uachtarán to express his personal opinion on this matter.

One assumes that these critics are expressing their own personal opinions, while wishing to deny me, an t-Uachtarán, the right to express mine. Well, I have news for you gentlemen and it is this: when you have the same mandate as I got from Congress two years ago, then and not till then shall I be silenced by you or anybody else.”

It was here that it happened. Sean Kelly MEP is in the Malton Hotel, pouring tea and reflecting on Rule 42 and all that, and while it was 10 years ago tomorrow Congress decided to open up Croke Park, he himself accepts it was 12 months earlier in the same Killarney hotel that defined his presidency. It seems like a different country, the Ireland of that Congress of 2004, and not just because the Malton was then known as the Great Southern Hotel. While the Celtic Tiger was roaring, some dinosaurs of the GAA world were roaring just as loud that the GAA itself would go extinct if it ever opened its gates to rugby and soccer. Instead of being the most influential president since Peter Quinn, Kelly was in danger of being one of the most ignominious ever.

A few hours before Cormac McAnallen would tragically pass away in a house in rural Tyrone, Kelly had emerged out of a meeting in Croke Park shaken, raging, humiliated.

For a second consecutive year the past presidents of the association had ruled all motions seeking an amendment to Rule 42 technically out of order. Kelly had gone around the table asking each past president, one by one, where they stood. Every one of them said No, some claiming “If soccer and rugby are ever played in Croke Park, I’ll leave the Association.” Ideology was their reason; any technicalities merely an excuse.

Driving home to Kerry that night, Kelly’s mind was racing.

“I was thinking I could go down in history as the worst president ever, that I’d made a right balls of this altogether.

“Ever since I’d become president my mantra had been ‘Congress will decide.’ I’d assumed – stupidly – that because I was now president and that the motions committee would let the motions on. I felt they were in order; they had been in order in 2001 [when they came within a single vote of being passed]. But all I got were blanket objections. So I was thinking to myself, ‘What do I bloody do?’” Then he turned on the radio. Johnny Cash was on. Something clicked, to the point Kelly would even paraphrase Johnny at Congress. Kelly wasn’t going to kill any man in Reno or anywhere else just to watch intransigence die, but there was a line he was going to walk and take.

“Like Johnny Cash,” he’d say in his presidential address, “I intend to keep my eyes open all the time, keep a close watch on some friends of mine, but when it comes to walking the line, I’ll walk no line but my own, the line that I think is best for the GAA.”

Anyone who has been at their share of GAA Congresses will vouch it produces few electric moments but Kelly in his presidency would produce two of them. Most famously there was when he’d declare in Croke Park in April 2005 that the slip of paper Paraic Duffy had handed him read 227 in favour of amending Rule 42 and only 97 against. But that wouldn’t have happened unless a year earlier he quoted Cash and reminded his opponents that he would not “be silenced by you or anybody else”.

The roar from the floor of Congress that greeted such defiance was so primal, it would echo among the grassroots and back to Congress again the following year. By god, the man had gone for it!

“I knew I was taking a risk but I’d made up my mind,” he says now. “I’d asked myself: are you prepared to fail? I said ‘I am.’ Once you decide you’re prepared to fail you can do anything. It is the fear of failure that makes people cowardly. So I threw down the gauntlet at Congress.”

Some disapproved. While most of the floor rose to heartily applaud his address, past presidents remained in their seats, giving every Sunday paper their main pic for the next day. Kelly didn’t mind. “I kind of enjoyed it, those reactions!” he smiles. There’s rarely been a victory without a battle.

Kelly’s genius was to make it a bloodless and dignified one. While he was being openly ridiculed by his opponents, he’d grin and bear it and grin again with good-humoured grace.

At one Cork County Board meeting, some delegates declared Kelly was not worthy of respect with one claiming if he had his own way Kelly wouldn’t even be let in the car park let alone Croke Park. Such inflammatory language went without any censure from the top table, yet when those comments were put to Kelly he quipped: “It would be a very poor Kerryman that would allow criticism from a few Cork fellows upset him.”

Some detractors would upset his family. Former Ulster Council chairman Mícheál Greenan would repeatedly shun Kelly in public. At Kelly’s retirement function in Dunboyne Castle, Greenan would declare any comparisons between Judas and Kelly opening up Croke Park were unfair because “at least Judas had the decency to hand back the money and do away with himself.”

Juliette Kelly wanted to leave the table right there but her husband quietly persuaded her to hold the line. When he thinks of Greenan now, Kelly can only laugh. “Greenan! God, he was unbelievable altogether!”

What helped sustain Kelly’s good grace was that he appreciated that most other conservatives had genuine concerns.

“Looking back on it, I was one of the few presidents, probably the only one, who had a tough time of it as president. If you look at the presidents since – Liam O’Neill, Christy Cooney, Nickey Brennan – they all got on alright with their management committee, there was no major conflicts of any sort. But this was seen as more or less changing the heartbeat of the Association.

And the higher up you went the more entrenched people were out of a genuine commitment to the GAA all their lives. They thought it was a contradiction of the ethos of the Association which had been set up to promote Gaelic Games and culture.

Kelly could appreciate that view. It was one he held himself prior to Italia ’90. Then what happened? Meath- Dublin and Cork-Tipp had a series of epic games the following summer and the people came in their droves.

“We have nothing to fear,” he’d tell Kerry County Board convention in his 1991 chairman’s address. “Rather than being self-defensive and oversensitive we should be self-advancing and compromising. I think an organisation so strong as the GAA has within its scope the power to make at least occasional gestures at national level towards other organisations without compromising our principles. Friendly rivalry should be our motto, not open hostility.”

That conviction would grow upon becoming president. Often he’d watch the groundsmen diligently maintain the Croke Park pitch and he’d wonder why it could remain idle for such a long part of the year. Especially if the national rugby or soccer teams needed a place to play while Lansdowne Road was being redeveloped. Kelly is keenly aware of the persistence and roles of the likes of Clare’s Noel Walsh, Laois’s Alan Delaney and Roscommon’s Tommy Kenoy in keep putting those motions forward. But only someone with the power and scope of the president could successfully navigate it onto the Clár. Especially with the urgency required.

“If you look at almost every other motion in the history of the GAA, there’s been no time limit.

“The Ban, Rule 21, changing the championships: they could go anytime. But the IRFU had to give a year’s notice where they’d be playing their Six Nations games. If it wasn’t passed in my presidency that was that window gone.”

The game-changer was Killarney. In throwing down the gauntlet there he also threw out the solution: the motions committee could help clubs and counties redraft their motions rather than simply judging them in or out of order. Sure enough, in 2005 all 12 motions related to Croke Park were initially ruled out of order. But through Kelly’s mechanism and subtlety at the follow- up meeting, former president Pat Fanning would declare that while he was against a motion, technically it was in favour.

Kelly would still have work to do. Another look at his 2007 autobiography makes some fascinating reading: how he skilfully chaired that decisive 2005 Congress; by his own admission “I took my eye off the ball” ahead of a management committee vote six months later that could have scuppered the whole project. Some of the GAA’s initial negotiators with the IRFU and FAI were crude and outright rude until Kelly helped smooth matters. But as he says 10 years on “getting it onto the Congress Clár was the hardest part of it. At least you were on the field then.”

Over the next few years a lot of big teams and names played on that famous field. Robbie and Duff. O’Driscoll and O’Connell. Thierry Henry a few days before that famous handball. And of course the English national rugby team moments after the playing of God Save The Queen.

If you look at what else was achieved during Kelly’s three-year tenure, it was a stunning presidency. His Hurling Development Committee established the Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard Cups for counties outside the top tier when before there was nothing in the summer for them. By establishing the All Ireland intermediate and junior club championships, he opened up Croke Park to ordinary club players, not just O’Gara and Given.

In attending the 2002 GPA banquet as president-in-waiting, it was the GAA equivalent of Mary Robinson shaking Gerry Adams’ hand in 1994. In getting Dessie Farrell on Central Council, he helped Croke Park realise Dessie wasn’t the devil. By establishing the DRA, he helped bring order to a chaotic disciplinary system that had players regularly going to the High Court to take injunctions, beat the rap and play in games.

But ultimately his abiding legacy is Rule 42. He saved the GAA from itself. Imagine the tv cameras at the airports had the national teams to play in England or Cardiff. Now that would have been catastrophic.

“The GAA would have got huge stick. We’d have lost a lot of support, not just from individuals but what we might call Corporate Ireland. Sponsors. Business people. And government as well.”

Instead the goodwill that came from it couldn’t be bought. “One of the legacies is that the support for sport has grown in the country. There’s a greater appreciation of one another, a greater crossover among the sports.” Even across the Irish Sea. “Would the Queen have come to Croke Park,” he ponders, “if Croke Park hadn’t been opened?”

He sees God Save the Queen being played there again. While the IRFU and FAI are tied in to an exclusive 10-year deal that prevents them from playing anywhere else but the Aviva Stadium, Kelly envisages both sports back in Croker after 2020.

“Croke Park is opened up permanently now. Five years ago my own club Kilcummin put forward a motion to that effect. It went through without any objection, so much so, most people don’t even know it is open permanently now. They [the IRFU and FAI] know they’d make a lot more money by having 82,000 at a match instead of 50,000.”

Every year he meets the past presidents, now that he’s one himself. Relations are civil now, when they were still fraught for a while. The odd time he’ll get the odd crank on the street who’ll admonish him for “letting the Anglo-Saxons into Croke Park” but he’s also had numerous Ulster GAA officials admit that they had it wrong about him and Rule 42 a decade ago.

Even Cork are now open to playing Rugby World Cup games in its own stadium, an irony not lost on Kelly. “There’s no way it would have been politically acceptable to give €30m to Páirc Uí Chaoimh if Croke Park hadn’t been opened.”

The world didn’t end 10 years ago. The GAA and its chicken-lickens didn’t either. It and they just changed. He helped see to that.

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