Joan Henchy insists that ‘gender is not an issue’ after she was elected as the first female chairperson of New York GAA.
In doing so, she becomes only the third woman to head up a GAA county board, and the first outside of Ireland. She follows in the footsteps of Tyrone’s Roisin Jordan and Cork’s Tracey Kennedy — but doesn’t wish to dwell on the achievement too much.
“The Association has evolved so much in the last 20 years that I don’t see the gender issue at all,” says Henchy. “Putting your name forward for positions and clubs backing you, gender is not an issue. It’s based on your record and work ethic and who can do the best job for the Association.
"I don’t think gender played a major role at all at, thankfully. But I am extremely proud and it’s great for younger girls coming through. It shows that if they want to be involved, it’s doable.”
Although born in the US, Henchy grew up in Tarbert, before returning to the Empire State in 1985.
The daughter of former Fianna Fáil senator Dan Kiely, Henchy has immersed herself in New York GAA for the last two decades — serving as public relations officer, registrar, and trustee and has just concluded her maximum five-year stint as county secretary.
While admitting the job seems “daunting” in many respects, she is determined to build on the massive strides made at underage level inrecent years.
“My main goal is to continue the growth in our youth and development squads and working with the minor board to get more playing pitches, which we’re lacking.
We have county development squads for 17 to 22-year-olds in both football and hurling, which are doing great, and for the last five years my primary focus was to create a bridge between them and the senior panel.
“We want the young kids to know that they can make it to the senior squad someday and wear their county jersey with pride, playing against the likes of Roscommon or Galway.
“Challenges in fixtures and time constraints echo those of county boards across Ireland — although the New York situation is slightly different in that regard. Summer is our championship season and getting games played off while at the same time maximising the contribution of our 90-day sanctions has been demanding.
“At senior level, you could have 10 consecutive weekends of games and it’s very hard for players to have a personal life. We do the best we can, but we’re growing in size. Our junior division alone has 22 teams with almost all our games played in Gaelic Park.”
Years in planning and mired in delays, Henchy will be expected to deliver on a new clubhouse at the county’s headquarters in The Bronx and has asked her predecessor Laurence McGrath to remain on the board’s management committee to help streamline the process.
“Fundraising is under way with work expected to start in the new year, and the project should take approximately 12 months then to complete,” she says.
At inter-county level, Henchy is defiantly opposed to any restructuring of the All-Ireland Football Championships which would threaten New York’s provincial status or necessitate an autumn fixture as part of a new two-tiered system – but welcomes extra games with open arms.
“As far as I’m concerned, New York belong in the Connacht Championship, and I will be doing everything I can to maintain our status.
“From a provincial standpoint, we’ve been involved since 1999 and I want to make sure that we maintain our involvement. A game like that is hugely important to the Irish community here.
It’s a day everybody enjoys and people come from near and far to be part of it, regardless of the result.
“Any restructuring will have to involve and include New York and an October date would not be welcome. We’d like to break that glass ceiling and win our first round, and we’re not too far away.”
Henchy believes home-grown players will play a pivotal role in accomplishing that feat and hold the keys to the future.
“The focus has to be on our native-born players. Immigration has slowed down and it would be very wrong of us to say otherwise.”
Longford native Gerry Fox has taken the senior team’s reins having guided Sligo club to their first New York county senior football title, and is on Henchy’s wavelength.
“He has great structures and plans in place, and it includes a number of our development squads,” she says.
“The developments squad manager is a selector to help identify our kids and 15 of them have been called into the panel. It’s really exciting to see the fruits of the labour for the last number of years coming to fruition.”