Noel Walsh: Farewell to a driver of change and fairness

N OEL WALSH loved his GAA history and talking about it, but at the same time he was very much of the present and always looking to the future.
Noel Walsh: Farewell to a driver of change and fairness

AN OPENER OF GATES: Noel Walsh, who died earlier this week, championed an open draw in the Munster SFC and was a selector to manager John Maughan when Clare famously got the better of Kerry in the 1992 provincial decider.
AN OPENER OF GATES: Noel Walsh, who died earlier this week, championed an open draw in the Munster SFC and was a selector to manager John Maughan when Clare famously got the better of Kerry in the 1992 provincial decider.

NOEL WALSH loved his GAA history and talking about it, but at the same time he was very much of the present and always looking to the future.

His penchant for history manifested itself in many different stories: It could be his knowledge of Miltown Malbay’s greatest ever footballer Georgie Comerford, who played in an All-Ireland final for Dublin in ’34 and on a Munster team with 14 Kerrymen; it could be the special 40-year-celebration he organised for the Clare minor football team that won the Munster Championship in 1953; it could be his evocative description of what it was like piling into Griffey’s on the Ennis Road out of Miltown to listen to Michéal O’Hehir’s 1947 All-Ireland final broadcast from New York’s Polo Grounds; it could be his own playing days in the 1950s when he won a couple of senior championships with his beloved Miltown, or the never to be forgotten summer of 1992 enjoyed by Clare’s footballers.

And the list from his back catalogue of history would go on and on.

This history, though, was never allowed to cloud over or distract him from a determination to get things done in the here and now, and on many different levels of the GAA.

It was on the field with the Clare teams he was involved with as a manager or selector for over 25 years; as an administrator there was his crusade in championing an open draw in the Munster SFC; as Munster Council chairman there was the pilot project to bring floodlights to Austin Stack Park in Tralee that became a template for every county and club ground in the country, while there was also the pivotal role he played in throwing open the gates of Croke Park to rugby and soccer.

“Opening Croke Park was something I passionately believed in,” Walsh, who died earlier this week, said last year. “Just like I believe that other GAA grounds should now be opened up as well.

“I thought the ban on other sports being played in Croke Park was wrong because I knew the benefit opening the ground could have for the GAA when I was a member of the Central Council management for three years.

“I was always going up to Croke Park for meetings. In the wintertime we’d be in one of the boxes — you’d look out at the field from September to May and apart from St Patrick’s Day nothing was happening. Here was this magnificent stadium lying idle. It could be used for financial gain.

“The original motion came from Roscommon to Congress when Tom Kenoy put it forward. It got through the committee that assess the motions for Congress and came up on the Clár. When it came down to it Sean McCague and Liam Mulvihill counted the votes and it failed by two-thirds of one vote —176 to 89.

“A recount was proposed and if ever it was justified it was on this occasion. There was no question about it, but it didn’t happen. I came with my motion the following year. I got it through the Clare Convention and that was our first involvement in it,” he added.

That involvement led all the way to the 2005 Congress when, along with others, Walsh stood firm against some forces within the GAA that seemed determined to ensure the proposal wouldn’t be put before delegates for a vote.

Eleven counties were told that their Rule 42 motions were out of order and it was expected that all the motions on the contentious opening of Croke Park would suffer a similar fate.

“It’s absolutely crazy,” blasted Walsh at the time. “Isn’t it amazing that it was possible to get Rule 42 on the agenda a few years ago and now we seem to be all tied up in rules and technicalities? It makes you wonder what’s going on,” he continued.

And it was the clamour made by Walsh that changed things — and decisively so, because at the 11th hour the Rule 42 issue made to the Congress Clár one more time. A total of 217 votes were required for it to cross the threshold — 227 were secured and the gates of Croke Park were finally thrown open.

“Common sense and democracy prevails at last,” the two-time candidate for the presidency of the GAA noted at the end of the campaign.

“A lot of the things that were done to prevent the democratic process were very questionable,” he said years later.

“It did not reflect well on the association — stopping people from putting motions in, throwing out motions. That’s not the way you do business in a democratic society. It had to be overcome.”

It was, just like so many things were in Noel Walsh’s hugely significant administrative career in the GAA that had its starting point in his love of Clare football.

CAREER army man Walsh, who rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, was approaching his mid 40s in 1978 — he was involved wit his club St Joseph’s Miltown at committee level and was the Clare County Board delegate, while also doubling as a Clare and Munster selector.

It was more than enough GAA business to keep him busy, but in tandem with all of the above he decided it was time to move into the realm of Munster GAA politics.

“I didn’t really want to do it,” he remembered, “but felt I had to try and do something with the way things were with the Munster football championship. For Clare football something just had to be done with the provincial championship.

“I just said to myself: ‘The only way I’m going to get things to happen is if I go and do it myself’. I went for Munster Council and got elected and started taking them on.”

Straight away he proposed an open draw in the Munster Championship. “Cork and Kerry should be worried about the monopoly situation they had established,” he said at his first provincial convention.

“The competition was now a farce and it was no longer a competition,” he added scathingly.

“The way I looked on it was that even though the open draw proposal was well beaten,” he remembered, “I had something to work with and work on. It was a case of coming again and again with it.

“At that stage Cork and Kerry were guaranteed to be in the opposite side of the draw for all the different championship grades. That was life, that’s the way it was, and nobody seemed to be put out by it.

“So then I came at it from this angle — ‘if you want your senior finals for Kerry and Cork that’s ok for now, but that shouldn’t operate in the other grades’. I proposed that it should be changed for minor, U21 and junior and surprisingly it was carried,” he added.

That happened in the 1979 Munster Convention, with the Miltown Massacre that came just a couple of months later when Clare were beaten by Kerry on a scoreline of 9-21 to 1-9 prompting Walsh to come back with yet another motion — this time at a monthly meeting of the Munster Council a few weeks after Kerry had won the All-Ireland.

“I said: ‘There’s no point in being beaten by 35 points by Kerry as we were in Miltown, we’ll do something else’. So I said: ‘If Muhammad Ali wins the world title he’s not going to be going out fighting boxers who are the equivalent of Clare and Waterford in football, he’ll only box the number one challenger. I propose that Kerry get a bye to the final and the four weaker counties play-off and the winning team will play Cork in the semi-final, with the winner of that then playing Kerry in the final’.

“It was carried, surprisingly so, as I didn’t think it would be. Did Kerry like it? No way. ‘Who is this fella Noel Walsh from Clare’ they were saying — ‘he’s depriving the Kerry players the right to play a first round of the Munster Championship’.

“It was a victory, a start. After that with the open draw it was case of coming back again and again with the motion — it was very depressing, but the only thing is that if you keep at something long enough you will get there.”

It would take a further decade, with the wheel finally turning in 1990 after another big push by Walsh, this time with delegates from Limerick, Waterford and Tipperary with him all the way.

“I seriously question whether the Munster football championship is a real competition any longer. It can’t be allowed to continue this way,” he blasted ahead of the umpteenth Munster Council vote on his proposal.

“People are already talking about the Munster final in Killarney next year. For players from Clare, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford, this is an insult,” he added.

This time it worked, with the vote in September 1990 being 8-7 in favour of the open draw despite heavy hitters like Frank Murphy and Dr David Geaney speaking out against it.

“This is what Munster football has been crying out for,” said Walsh after the vote.

“We have come to the Munster Council with this motion for many years — we kept coming because we felt it was the right thing to do for football. Now we will see how it works — it can only benefit the game because it’s democratic, it’s now a level playing field and it’s fair,” he added.

WITHIN two years Clare were Munster champions — a remarkable triumph that wouldn’t have been possible but for Walsh’s persistence at administrative level, which made it entirely fitting that he was part of that success as a selector on the management of fellow army man John Maughan.

“Maughan was the man,” said Walsh. “He came to Clare the month after we got the open draw. We had tried to get so many people to take the job. I tried to get Ogie Moran. Another time I remember giving two All-Ireland tickets to a Kerryman — he took the All-Ireland tickets, but he didn’t take the job. We had no manager at that time — I was the chairman of the selectors if you like and in charge of the team.

“I was doing a course in The Curragh and John rang me telling me he had been offered the job. My advice to him was to take it. I was the senior officer, but I was prepared to step down — it all started from there.”

Limerick were the first to benefit from the open draw, contested the 1991 final and ran Kerry to three points in Killarney — a year later it was Clare’s turn as they famously seized the day in Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds.

“I remember going down on the West Clare Railway from Miltown to see them beat Kerry in the semi-final in Ennis in 1949,” recalled Walsh. “It was a half crown return from Miltown.

“To me getting to the Munster final in 1992 was the achievement, like it was in 1949. I thought it was a case of ‘if we run them to three or four points that would be great’. But John Maughan believed. You could see it in the dressing room before the game. I said nothing, just was hoping it was going to happen. It was unbelievable when it did.

“I brought former Miltown Malbay and Clare player Marty Considine to the game. He was nearly 80 and I went out from Limerick, where I lived, to collect him and got him a seat in the stand.

“Then, as vice-chairman of the Munster Council I had to make the presentation of the minor cup and then go to the dressing room to join the Clare team. When the match was over I forgot about Marty. Then I remembered him and we got a photograph of myself and himself with Paddy Hillery. It was important. For all of us.”

That was Noel Walsh — even on the biggest day in Clare football history his nod to history was there, while at the same time he was living in the day and creating a new page of history.

His greatest page.

This interview first appeared in The Clare People.

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