Gerald McKenna: 'I can’t see a way the Association could be successful if it became professional.'

Few if anyone has served the GAA for as long as Gerald McKenna. The current president of the county board recalls those times and discusses where the GAA is now with John Fogarty.
Gerald McKenna: 'I can’t see a way the Association could be successful if it became professional.'

‘I think the county scene has taken over too much at the expense of the club scene and therefore it is time that imbalance is looked at and cured. I feel that this pandemic, the terrible thing it is, should give everybody time for reflection, an opportunity to look back to see what we have been doing and a time to look forward to see what we want to do,” says Gerald McKenna at his home in Ballyduff, Co Kerry Picture: Dominick Walsh
‘I think the county scene has taken over too much at the expense of the club scene and therefore it is time that imbalance is looked at and cured. I feel that this pandemic, the terrible thing it is, should give everybody time for reflection, an opportunity to look back to see what we have been doing and a time to look forward to see what we want to do,” says Gerald McKenna at his home in Ballyduff, Co Kerry Picture: Dominick Walsh

From the outset, it’s worth pointing out that this interview was almost three weeks in the making. Twice Gerald McKenna asked for time to consider the proposal. As he was throughout his career as a GAA official, measurement had to be taken.

His storied commitment to the organisation we will come to but you want to know how life is for him now. You mention the pandemic and what it has meant for him as a pensioner but he makes light of his situation. Reading and crosswords have kept him busy. Before the weather turned, “a little nook” of a suntrap in his garden provided him with a slice of tranquility.

Cocooning

He misses the games but cocooning has been no chore for him. “As a wise man once said to me, you may think you have problems but you won’t need to look more than half a mile to see someone with far greater problems. The problem that was there was bigger for others than it was for me.”

He’s watched the old matches replayed on TV these last few months and admits it’s given him cause to think. McKenna would never have been considered a traditionalist - provincial championships aren’t sacred to him, for instance - but he wonders if recency bias has clouded judgement of certain county teams.

“Dublin have five All-Irelands in a row and there is great credit due to them; it’s an amazing achievement. There is great credit to the players, Jim Gavin and the Dublin administration - John Costello is an excellent secretary and the county owe him a lot.

“But one of the things that caused me to think was that the great Dublin team of the 1970s has almost been forgotten because of the achievements of the present team. Life is transitory but there were great players on that team and I’m not sure if the present Dublin team could have beaten that Dublin team in the 1970s at its peak. I wouldn’t like to make a wager as to who would come out on top.

“By the way, maybe some people would begrudge Dublin but I remember from 1963 to ‘74 Dublin football was at a low ebb. Then Jimmy Gray, who became a trustee of the Association, was appointed chairman and he put Kevin Heffernan in charge of Dublin and I came along later and put Mick Dwyer in charge of Kerry and those two individuals created a rivalry and lifted the standard of football. You still hear about Mick Dwyer because he’s alive, thanks to be God, but Kevin Heffernan is dead and he and the feats of that Dublin are forgotten and that’s a pity but that’s life.”

Kerry's Fallow Years

Micko, who celebrated his 84th birthday on Tuesday, will always be like to the Ballyduff man. McKenna put his chairmanship on the line in 1977 to save O’Dwyer following consecutive Championship defeats to Dublin. By the time McKenna stepped down as chairman, Kerry were halfway towards the four-in-a-row.

“It wasn’t his fault. I stood by him. I had loyalty and he had loyalty. It was not blind loyalty; I knew he had it and I knew that team would succeed. I stood by him and the rest is history. The simplest thing was that the ones who wanted to get rid of him had to get rid of me first. They opposed me for the chairmanship but I succeeded and that kept Dwyer in his position.”

Did any of O’Dwyer’s opponents later apologise? “A lot of them did, in fairness. It was a desire for success rather than holding anything specifically against Mick Dwyer or myself. But if you were successful like Mick Dwyer was, you’ll always have people who are a bit jealous about that. That’s human nature. There was a man here one time who said to me there is no satisfaction in anything unless you beat the neighbour.”

McKenna appreciated that from an early age. One All-Ireland title between 1942 and 1952 was “regarded as worse than a famine” but lose to Cork and the pitchforks were out. “I remember after a Munster final Cork had beaten Kerry and I was in a hotel in Tralee and there was a good crowd of people there going to Lourdes. I remember some fella said, ‘It’s a pity they don’t catch the Kerry selectors and administrators and drop them in the foothills of the Alps!’ Being beaten in an All-Ireland final was one thing but being beaten in a Munster final was another.”

Yet even in Kerry’s fallow years McKenna recognised how the club scene sustained people. In his native Ballyduff, the heartland of hurling in Kerry, the GAA thrived regardless. Kerry have one All-Ireland to show for the last 10 years and yet their units were to the fore in the pandemic, hailed by the county council as being crucial in tackling the challenges it presented.

During the week, Kerry chairman Tim Murphy stated it would make the organisation stronger in the county and beyond and McKenna concurs. That’s not to say he believes pre-existing difficulties such as rural depopulation will go away - on that topic, McKenna favours amalgamations - “so that at least the title of the club is kept in being”. But the resonation of clubs when people were most in need underlined once more the potency of the GAA.

“There is something about the GAA and I don’t know what it is - I don’t know if anybody knows what it is,” McKenna ponders. “There is some kind of an ethos there about the way it entwines itself in communities. There was a poet from Valentia Island called JG Smith,  and he wrote a poem ‘The Secret of Kerry’. One of the things he wrote in it was though born on the sod he couldn’t answer the question. It’s the same now - what’s the secret of the GAA? I don’t know but it’s there, the essence is in the hearts and minds of Irish people and more so than any other sporting organisation.

“I’m not decrying other organisations. One night I was in Dublin and met two Welshmen and they were over for an international match. One of them was living in England and one of them was living in Scotland. They used to meet for every international. I got talking to the two of those and by the time we finished up talking we could well have been talking about Kerry football. They spoke about Welsh rugby at that time as we would about Kerry football. I saw straight away what was engrained in them as Gaelic football is engrained in Kerry. For that matter, how hurling is engrained in Ballyduff.”

Professionalism

The professionalism of rugby union severed some of that connection and McKenna shudders to think what it could do to the GAA. Not because he is against sportsmen being paid but because he’s considered the model in Gaelic Games and it simply won’t work.

“The heart of the GAA, what it’s all about in my opinion is volunteerism. We saw it during this pandemic, that people do things voluntarily, they don’t even think about it. If the game became professional, I think that would disappear. What is more, I don’t think there is enough people in the country to make it professional.

“One of the dangers of living in society at the moment is a litigious society and if some people can get soft money they will try and get it. That is as much a threat to volunteerism. I have been worried about it for a number of years and still they’re coming forward.

“Professionalism is something that has to be looked at and guarded against it, in my book, even though I have thought about it to see how it could be done and I can’t see a way the Association could be successful if it became professional. It would no longer be the GAA we know and what it’s about at the moment would fall asunder.”

The County Scene

With that in mind, he wonders if the GAA “overexaggerates the county scene”. He looks at the backroom squads managers assemble and county boards fund and asks is there a need for so many. “Mick Dwyer had four selectors with him to pick the Kerry team. Now, it wasn’t he who picked the selectors but convention. He had somebody to give the players a rub, I asked Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh to help with the players in Dublin and he did a great job and that was it.

“If you look at the county team today, it’s like a cottage industry the number of people involved in it. There are some that are necessary and then there are some that are not. The amount of money that is being spent in senior teams in counties is exorbitant.

“Now, that kind of money wouldn’t be spent if there wasn’t sponsorship. I would have a worry because sponsors will want value for their money and therefore they will go towards the more successful counties, the Dublins, the Kerrys, the Corks, the Galways, the Kilkennys. Then the less successful counties will find it much more difficult.

“Therefore, what I’m talking about is there has to be a balance. I think the county scene has taken over too much at the expense of the club scene and therefore it is time that imbalance is looked at and cured. I feel that this pandemic, the terrible thing it is, should give everybody time for reflection, an opportunity to look back to see what we have been doing and a time to look forward to see what we want to do.”

Congress Decisions

Recent decisions by Congress, he argues, have not been made with the club in mind. He felt the introduction of the Super 8s in football and provincial round-robin championships deprived clubs of the space for championship fare in the summer.

“We increased the number of games and yet at the same time we squeezed the amount of time in which they were to be played. Now, you could either do one or the other but you couldn’t do both at the same time because in doing that you were affecting the amount of time that was available for the club scene.

“Now, maybe there is a tendency there to finish everything in the one calendar year. That is fine for the county scene but if you take clubs and you want your junior, intermediate or senior championships finished by the end of the year you can look back and clubs being out of championships at a time of year when it would be best for them to be playing championships.

“I don’t think that rule was thought true at all. I have no objection to the county scene but the whole idea of games is putting them out to make them as meaningful and attractive as possible for players first.”

McKenna recalls how Dr Dave Geaney and himself drew up the county leagues in Kerry in 1972. “Dr Dave Geaney was one of most brilliant administrators I have ever met and he laid out a calendar. Players knew what their programme would be for the entire year. We were very much ahead in our way of thinking and doing things at that time and a lot of it was due to him in fairness and I regret he didn’t go on to higher things but however. The thing was if you wanted a championship and you want to finish it for four or five weeks what about the rest of the year? We have to get back to thinking about fundamentals. Clubs, the vast majority of players, we should be catering for them and at times I think we don’t do it.”

Last weekend, GAA president John Horan spoke of the provincial championships standing in the way of true fixtures reform. McKenna was never tied to them. The precocious report by the McNamee Commission, published in 1971, wasn’t either.

“The report suggested three units - the club, the county and the Central Council,” recalls McKenna. “There were no district boards or provincial councils. Out of that report, there were parts of it kept and parts of it scrapped because people were watching their own patch of ground in administration. They wanted to stay there, didn’t they?

“Take the management committee of the GAA, where did they come from? They came from that McNamee committee because the provincial councils were now gone (in the report). The management committee were to take their place. They brought in the management committee and they made sure there was so many from each province on it but that was not in the report.

“I would not at all be opposed to removing the provinces provided you replace it with something that is better. You have to pause at times because take last year the hurling championship in Munster was amazing. But you could also say that if you had an open championship or draw, losers round or whatever, you could have the five Munster championship counties, Wexford, Galway, Kilkenny and Dublin. Now, wouldn’t they produce games as well and as good? It’s not something I would rule out at all.”

The Modern Game

McKenna worries for football, though, describing how it is being played as “terrible”. The success of Dublin he regards as something of a revolt against the establishment. “Jim Gavin did them a great favour in the sense that he got his forwards to kick points from far out. Dublin used to have to get in very close to score points but by God they’re scoring from everywhere now. They combatted everyone getting behind the ball.

“Football needs very sound heads to help it and if they are going to solve it people can’t be looking after their own patch of ground again and ‘what suits me?’ If you have people like that going into committees, they shouldn’t be there at all.”

Self-interest is not something you could ascribe to the man from Ballyduff. Not now. Not ever.

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