Irish society is bankrupt, fears Pat Daly, who is heading up the new GAA ‘Going Well’ programme aimed at cultivating well-being among secondary school students.
Daly senses young people reaching out to the GAA for leadership and believes the association can still be a powerful force for social inclusion. But only if it returns to its roots and resists an emphasis on a narrow elite.
That time of year,classrooms and corridors shining with first year students, a new crew easing into secondary school life.
A beautiful noise. But maybe easing isn’t the right word.
Pat Daly concurs. Turns his head and takes a moment. Walks back the room. Looks over to his colleague, Niall Austin, founder and director of Pure Communications.
“Young people today are facing unprecedented pressures,” Daly states.
“I think the GAA cannot ignore this area, because young people are the future of the GAA. Anything that hinders the development of young people in Ireland will ultimately hinder the GAA. That’s the reality. Maybe later rather than sooner, but the definite reality in the long run. And you could be talking about something far graver than hinderance.”
Turning that corner into teenage times, never simple, became still more difficult in 21st-century Ireland. There are the perils associated with social media, spiralling rates of anxiety and depression. One of Croke Park’s central officials, Daly believes this age cohort must come under the umbrella of the GAA’s social impact.
He is the driving presence behind ‘Going Well’, a new initiative aimed at secondary schools.
“The GAA has to return to its roots,” Daly counsels.
“Our roots are in the communities all around Ireland.
The GAA has been shaped by wider forces in society, economic forces and so on, but the GAA must itself strive to be a force for social good, to be an energy for developing human capabilities and character. ‘Going Well’ is our attempt at making a fresh start on this front.
Austin’s formal presentation begins with a passage from The Game (2018), RTÉ’s celebrated documentary on hurling. Seán Óg Ó hAilpín is speaking about his experience as an 11-year-old, about how starting to hurl for Na Piarsaigh in Cork brought him acceptance and approval within a community new to him.
The room finds a quiet beat. This moment is undeniably powerful.
“The GAA has its faults,” Daly notes. “But the GAA can also be a terrific force for social inclusion. The GAA is an open door for anyone who wants to go through it. How many other areas of Irish life can we say that about?”
The two men are in Carriganore, WIT’s Sports Arena, upstairs in a conference room. The audience mainly comprises teachers who are piloting Going Well via a dozen or so schools in Cork, Waterford, and Wexford. Derek McGrath, former Waterford senior manager and a columnist in these pages, is one of the figures engaged on this task. Daly elaborates:
“I think young people are actually searching for some sort of leadership. The Church is pretty much gone for young people. Eco politics maybe aside, politics is nearly gone. The usual political stuff, the party system, does not interest them particularly. The credibility of the bankers is largely gone. Maybe saying so is severe in ways but you could argue Irish society is bankrupt in a lot of senses.
“What is left? The GAA should be part of what is left.”
Going Well is a programme that seeks to emphasise the values of ‘we’ over ‘me’. Its core values are fostering cooperation, gratitude, integration, and resilience. Naturally enough, the benefits of physical activity and sport get highlighted. Thetarget audience is 12-year-olds to 15-year-olds, with first years centre of attention.
This programme unrolls into impressive detail and thoroughness. Teachers are sent a raft of material, including a lesson schedule, interactive CDs and a lesson book. “I’m not from a GAA background myself,” Austin remarks.
“But working on this project really made me look differently at many things, and not least at the GAA and its role. Going Well tries to give young people the tools to deal with any difficulties they encounter, from the smaller stuff all the way up to mental health issues.”
Presentation over, the audience ripples with approval. One attendee responds: “I feel ‘Going Well’ could also be a real positive for teacher themselves. There is plenty there to think about, and not just for teenagers.” Consensus deems the programme user friendly in practical terms. Further discussion sees scheduling, due to schools’ varying number of first year streams, as the main challenge.
Daly shows a wry side. For the sake of cheap headlines, the GAA is often associated with money and ticket sales. Well aware of this trite equation, he laughs and says: “Don’t get me started on the politics of sports funding… The GAA is funding Going Well by itself for the moment. So it might be just as well the football All-Ireland was a draw, because some of the replay funds could end up going in the Going Well direction.”
There is the sort of calm afterwards when time was productively spent. A bleared September afternoon, traffic lancing along the motorway outside Carriganore. Pat Daly is standing in this room, talking about his life’s work. He is an impressive man.
Slightly reminiscent of the historian Simon Schama in appearance, Daly comes across as a careful presence, watchful and observant, youthful for early sixties. There is restrained passion in his voice. He respects the power of refection and thought.
“Populism is the problem with so many issues,” he affirms.
“You have cynical people telling gullible people there are simple solutions to extremely difficult problems. You have to be able to think, and you have to be able to think clearly. You can’t make a good plan without clear thinking.”
Daly’s own life means that ‘Going Well’ is close to his heart in no clichéd sense. Born in 1957 and a native of Tallow, County Waterford, he was orphaned at the age of 12.
Exactly 50 years ago, he started as a boarder in Waterford City’s De La Salle. Sport allowed a means of processing misfortune.
While Daly does not want to foreground this experience, he is moving on the kindness of others: “In fairness, a lot of people looked out for you, because of your position. Because you played hurling and football, you were never going to be at the back end of a queue. I met an awful lot of really good adults, whether it was a coach or a teacher or a parent or a neighbour.
I was maybe fortunate that, because of my circumstances, I meant a lot to those people.
“I suppose what I said to myself was: ‘I have to better myself, no matter what I do. Because if I don’t, there’s nobody there.’
"You have to kind of look after yourself, and better yourself, and strive for that in yourself. But, ultimately, if you are not prepared to help yourself, nobody is going to help you. Because you can’t be helped. You’re helpless.”
Daly’s experience delivered, in time, a philosophy: “At the end of the day, you have a life source.
"Then you have life skills and you have lifestyles. The life choice you make yourself. You’re the person who makes the choices for yourself. I can’t take responsibility for anybody else.
My circumstances were an eye opener for me. But, because you’re in that situation, you’re reliant on things you wouldn’t otherwise be reliant on. Then you understand the real value of sport and how to benefit by it.
Set on training to be a teacher, Daly moved from De La Salle to St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra in 1974. With a smile, he explains ending up working for the GAA: “My big claim to fame in Pat’s was that I became hurling captain. I was the only person ever to be captain for two years, because I was there for an extra year. It wasn’t hurling prowess, I assure you!
“We won a Dublin U21 Championship, as Erin’s Hope, in 1977. Around then, the Government gave the GAA some money to employ a Development Officer. And I suppose it was on the strength of having been captain twice in Pat’s that I probably got the job.”
A road that led to writing The Complete Coaching Guide To Hurling and Football (1993) and promoting Going Well was set in train. As Daly recounts:
“I started out as a Regional Development Officer, and worked up through the ranks. I was lucky enough to meet some great people, visionaries in their own right. They saw what you were bringing and left you at it.
“Lots of things came out of that. The Cúl Camps, the Go Games, the Super Games, the World Games. The ‘intangible culture’ heritage from UNESCO. We’re trying to give practical expression to what values we represent as an organisation, to foster people living in their imagination, to use the power of sport as a power for developing people.”
Daly queries some of today’s emphases:
“I firmly believe we have to prioritise the holistic and the humanistic over the mechanistic. Imagination and creativity are crucial to sport. You cannot change without imagination. You cannot become a better player without imagining yourself a better player.
“We now have a fierce amount of measuring and testing and analysis in sport. The GAA is going the same way. Are we getting away from the essence of the thing? Can you measure spirit?”
There is similar conviction on the need for acknowledgement of club volunteers in formal terms. The award would be an MVA. As Daly details: “An MVA is someone who is deemed to have mastery of values and acumen. It’s a tribute to a person who has contributed to human and social development. Someone who has volunteered for10 or 20 years knows a fair bit about people. He or she is bound to know more than someone with a Masters or a PhD, which is more and more about less and less.”
Daly is equally firm on clubs’ need for internal development: “There should be a leadership group in every team. Management and coaches should be facilitating the creation of this group. Ultimately the players themselves must take responsibility. It’s their gig.
“The whole thing is really about player proficiency and player sustainability. What we are trying to do with ‘Going Well’ is to bring self sufficiency within the schools, so that we don’t have to send in somebody to do the job. That means you have self sufficiency and can talk about sustainability. If you don’t have self-sufficiency, it becomes a pipe dream.”
For him, these criteria are best agents: “If you’re not driving self-sufficiency and sustainability, I’m not sure what you’re doing.
The whole notion should be: ‘We have seven teams and we have a leadership group in each of them and they come through the system, to supply future leaders within the club, and they’re trained to do that.’ And we therefore don’t have to go up the road and pay someone five grand or ten grand to train the adult first team, to be in hock to him, to have a dependency there.
“Doing anything else is at variance with self-sufficiency and sustainability. And the future, if you’re not driving those values, is going to be tricky, putting it mildly.”
Recent defensive tendencies in hurling are not to Daly’s liking.
He believes in rule changes as a means of encouraging attacking play:
“If you look at what’s happening in our game, there is a kind of ‘rugby-isation’ of hurling. You have ‘rucking’ and ‘mauling’ and ‘free hand’. We should been couraging people to utilise all of the hurling skills that are out there.”
His vision is a practical one. Hurling could be rewired by altering the nature of juvenile competition: “What you do is go back and say: ‘We reward skill and players who make the ball the focal point of their attention.’ If you reward skill, and doing that is a guiding principle, then let’s see how we are going to do it.
"It’s two points for a drop puck score, it’s two points for a volleyed score, and it’s five points for a goal. So we are going to incentivise skill and we going to reward skill. Let that be in every competition up to U17.
“Let’s look for it. Let’s look for creativity. Let’s allow kids to live in their imagination. Ground hurling has disappeared. Overhead striking has disappeared. The drop puck has disappeared. Let’s go back to a more expansive game, and let the kids play it, and let them enjoy themselves. That’s what development surely is about.”
Daly witnessed innovation deliver progress: “The Celtic Challenge tournament [at U17] has been one of the great successes. Yet there was huge opposition to it, at the start. Absolutely huge, from all quarters. You’re saying to the guy above in Sligo and Leitrim and other places: ‘You’re playing B and C hurling.’
“Imagine telling a guy he’s playing B and C hurling… He can forget about it. In the Celtic Challenge, they’re happy as Larry, because they’re part of something far bigger. And it’s properly promoted.”
He tracks genuine progress: “The best game in Croke Park this year, from a hurling perspective, was the Lory Meagher [Cup] Final, when Zak Moradi, an Iraqi, came in as a sub for Leitrim. It was a Seán Óg [Ó hAilpín] moment. Some fella said to me: ‘How in the name of god could he come on?’ He was trying to claim Zak lives in Dublin and he shouldn’t be playing for Leitrim.
“That’s the sort of nonsense you have, an adherence to literalism to the detriment of what we’re trying to do. We need the rules but we don’t need slavish adherence to anything.”
Daly instances another game on the same day:
“Take Sligo and Armagh in the Nicky Rackard [Cup] Final. That was as good a game of hurling as I’ve ever seen. A wonderful contest… Where did that Sligo team come from? It was backboned by young fellas that had previously played in the Celtic Challenge.”
Inter-county structures remain a difficult topic. Daly is candid:
“There is a conversation in the organisation about the whole Super 8s thing, the contraction of our season and the concession of September. I would have been terribly opposed to it. Other people as well were asking: ‘What problem are we solving? I don’t see what problem we are solving. We’re actually creating a bigger problem.’
Changes such as the Super 8s and not having the All-Ireland finals in September should be critically reviewed in the context of whether all adult club players are provided with a schedule of meaningful games in which they have realistic prospects of success.
“We can’t just be about catering for an elitist minority, to the detriment of the expanding majority. That’s not what the GAA is about. The GAA is a social movement. That’s not to say you can’t have big games and won’t have All-Irelands. You’ll always have them. But what are we doing for the masses? Are we catering for them?”
He glosses: “This crux takes us back to the club-county balance issue, to questions about what’s the best possible balance we can achieve in that area. In my opinion, we should have games every summer in the communities. You could have community-cup type competitions, games played on a cross-border basis.
“On a Friday night, you want to have a game down in the club. You play that game. And you have a youth game and you have an adult game and maybe you have a ladies game. You could have three games. And everyone knows they’re going to be held on a particular Friday night.”
Quiet passion creases his voice: “We have to get the people back into the clubs, and the games back to the field, and the people back into the field during the summer. Just having those spaces empty… They shouldn’t be empty. They should be buzzing during the summer. To capture a child’s imagination, he or she has to grow up with that sort of buzz on summer evenings.
“Play those games on a cross-border basis, to freshen things up. Put together East Cork, West Waterford, South Tipperary. That sort of approach would take away a lot of the stale stuff, playing the same teams over and over. Play without your county players. That’s fine. We could have these competitions running side by side with the regular ones.”
His mind is lucid on long-term implications. Other codes prove certain truths. Having read some coaching material produced by Pat Daly, Alex Ferguson wrote to the author in warm terms, endorsing this GAA perspective: “I hope your efforts are rewarded Pat as your foresight into coaching is exciting.”
Ferguson’s postscript: “One last thought, in my last decade as a coach, I realised that the young people I was dealing with were more fragile than say 20 years ago.”
Daly relates another soccer encounter that left a mark.
“When I started off in this GAA development role, I ran across John Beck. He was a soccer coach and he was with Cambridge United. And they went from the Fourth Division to the Second Division. And the strategy was to hoosh the ball up the field, and score.”
Eventually, Beck was dismissed when his tactics stopped working.
“I met him a long time ago, before I wrote The Complete Coaching Guide, which is 25 years plus ago now. But what had Beck done? He split down player autonomy.”
Daly believes this case possesses a resonance beyond soccer: “We speak about ‘self determination theory’ with players. You feel confident. You feel you have autonomy. You feel you’re driving the bus to some extent. And there’s a degree of friendship around everything.
“And they are the true drivers of self-determination, of you being determined to do something, of wanting to do something, that you have confidence and autonomy and relatedness. But what Beck did was to strip out player autonomy. And then the thing turned sour, and the players turned on him.”
For Daly, John Beck transgressed against human nature:
“That’s what happens when you start stripping out the things that appeal to people. Things like free will, freedom of expression, creativity, imagination. You build in rigidity and sports science. People then become slaves to the mechanistic and the reductionistic.
"I don’t think the GAA should stand for that. “I believe that John, if he had his time over again, would have opted for a more expansive game where players got to express themselves.”
Pat Daly uses the term ‘enerethics’ to express his belief that the best forms of life, including sport, derive from harnessing in thoughtful fashion the energy only life itself can grant. He concludes with the philosopher’s simplicity of wisdom:
“There are good kinds of excitement, and there are bad kinds of excitement. Should the GAA not be involved in trying to say which is which?
“Our Going Well initiative might be key.”