Next to Frank Murphy, there are very few who have given as much service to the GAA as Joan Cooney.
After almost 40 years, the proud Cill na Martra woman will soon bid adieu to Croke Park where she has spent most of her time as assistant to the director general and president. As she looks back on the era, all she can do is smile.
To sit Joan Cooney down for an interview is not easy. “What would you want to be talking to me about?”
There are 39 reasons, each for every year she has worked in Croke Park, where she was once one of 18 staff and where this is 120 today.
Her humility explains some of her longevity but it’s only part of her charm. There’s the mischief too. If it’s not on her lips, it’s in her eyes and not before long there’s that distinctive laugh that has filled the corridors of the stadium for decades.
Examples of that devilment? Her recollection of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Croke Park in 2011. She recounts her brief exchange with Prince Philip, mimicking the royal: “‘And what do you play?’ he asked me. I said I played Gaelic football and he said, ‘Oh’, and moved on swiftly.”
There was the time an enterprising sort of Mayo persuasion, she believes, chanced his arm with her for tickets before the 1996 All-Ireland final. “A travel agent from the States phoned up saying he was chartering a plane home for the game and asked if he could get a sizeable number of tickets. I laughed to myself knowing he hadn’t a ghost of a chance.”
And then there was the Cork-Kerry rivalry among the earlier Croke Park staff — the likes of former GAA PRO Danny Lynch on one side and Cooney standing firmly on the other. “On the occasion of a National Football League final between Cork and Kerry (1980), a vanload of staff and others travelled to Cork for the game. A member of the group, a Kerry girl, said to me that the losers would have to travel back in the boot. Cork won the game – I left her off!”
How could a woman so dyed-in-the-wool Rebel choose Dublin? The GAA has plenty do with that. “When I came to Dublin in 1979, I had no intention in the wide world of staying here. Before coming to Dublin, I played ladies football with a team of girls from Cill na Martra.
Cooney began working in Croke Park in 1979 in the development, coaching and youth department with the late Muiris Prenderville from Castlemartyr. She assisted him in overseeing Ógspórt Gael before the position of the director general Liam Mulvihill’s secretary was advertised, which had been co-held by her friend Máire Ní Dhrisceoil, mother of former Cork footballer Noel, who was getting married and returning home.
Cooney succeeded with her application and began assisting Mulvihill on April Fool’s Day 1981 until he retired in February 2008. In that time, she saw an organisation transformed as well as the stadium. Her role intensified as the GAA grew. “The job was very varied. I dealt with everyone from the office of Uachtarán na hÉireann down, particularly at All- Ireland times.
“My year was structured – it started off with Congress where preparatory work commenced before Christmas. Then came St Patrick’s Day and Ard Chomhairle tickets had to be issued. This was followed by the league finals and then the Championship started. In July, invitations to the All-Ireland Finals were issued to Uachtarán na hÉireann, An Taoiseach, the patron, Iar-Thaoisigh and others.
"Replies were received and the Ard Stiúrthóir and I went about setting out the Ard Chomhairle Box for the day of the final. That was the All-Irelands over. Then there could be an International Rules game in October and that would be it for the year.”
All-Ireland finals would be the best of times but also the worst for Cooney, who was responsible for much of the admission. “Just people not being able to get tickets. There were times when I felt sorry for people. Somebody would have an ill child who wanted to get to the game and couldn’t get a ticket – your heart would go out to them.
“I remember Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh at one time looked for a ticket for a blind man. This gentleman was accommodated in the bench in front of the Hogan Stand before it was redeveloped. He sat there happily listening to the game on his walkman or whatever.”
The distribution of All-Ireland final tickets is a bugbear of many but Cooney asks what better way is there to give them out? “A structure for the distribution of tickets is and has been in place. The tickets are allocated through the counties to the clubs. Allocations are given to school’s bodies and others who promote Gaelic games.”
Among Cooney’s other duties before the proliferation of information technology was issuing sanctions for Gaelic footballers and hurlers to play abroad. A time-consuming task with a single fax machine. “Coming up to the deadline - Wednesday for Thursday - I was often at the fax machine for a few hours. I would have a large bundle of forms to be faxed to different areas in the US like Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco etc. along with authorisations for New York.
“I signed the forms on behalf of Liam because it would take a bit too much time to get through them when he had other things to do. I often gave advice to people with regard to sanctions/authorisations. It wasn’t good when players came to Croke Park without the form signed by the county secretary. They wouldn’t be pleased when told they would not be signed.
"I remember a player coming to reception to have his form signed and it didn’t have the signature of the county secretary so I told him the secretary would have to get it before I would sign it. He went out and I observed him forging the signature on the bonnet of his car. I was fortunate in that I was familiar with each county secretary’s signature.”
But the stress of it was offset by the closeness of the employees. And the games of cards. “We’d be rushing to get our work done before lunch because between 1pm and 2.15pm we would play either 110 or 45. The late Seán Ó Síocháin, another Cill na Martra native, who at that time was overseeing fundraising to build the new GAA Ceannáras, played with us.
“We were great friends. It was like a family. I can say that without question. Everyone looked out for the other. ”
At Cooney’s recent retirement party, it was with great affection that Mulvihill referred to her as “The Buffer”. It was easier before email and mobile phones but it was known that if you wanted to have a word with the director general you first had to okay it with Cooney.
As affable as she is, she’d also be known for not suffering fools gladly: “You could have every crank wanting to talk to the boss. It was the same with the president. People in a pub at night could have this idea and decide to phone the president next day.”
After Mulvihill, Cooney worked with Páraic Duffy for four years before she moved over to the president’s office in 2012 where she worked with Liam O’Neill, Christy Cooney and Aogán Farrell.
Organising their diaries was an art form in itself given the amount of requests and invitations that came their way. Rarely did she receive any hate mail on their behalf or that of Mulvihill during heated times like the abolishments of Rule 21 and 42.
“Very few. Any letter that wasn’t signed, you ignored them. Sure, if there was no name or address, who could you write back to?”
As much as events in Dublin consumed her, Cooney always had time for home and Cork’s successes during her time have filled her joy.
“The double in ’90 was very special. On the football team were two players from neighbouring clubs - John O’Driscoll from Béal Átha an Ghaorthaidh and Colman Corrigan from Macroom. It is always an added interest if a player from a neighbouring club gets on an All-Ireland team.”
Ten years later and her great friend Máire’s son Noel O’Leary was claiming an All-Ireland minor with Cork. Another 10 on and he was holding aloft the Sam Maguire Cup, another first for the parish.
“People went mad,” she smiles, knowing full well she was one of them having joined Noel on the pitch in celebration afterwards.
“It was through Noel’s mother that I got to work in Croke Park. She met her husband Dónal through my family.
“We knew the children from the time they were babies. The friendship was always there. Cill na Martra people were and still are so proud of Noel. We’ll miss our own hero.
“As a small parish, we were and are very proud of him. We wouldn’t have a big population but the intermediate team that fielded last Sunday against Ballinora had 33 subs. Almost 50 players togged out. There are great structures in place in the club from underage to intermediate grades.
“The O’Leary family are a lovely family and great club people. Noel came on last Sunday and scored two points. I like to keep abreast of what’s happening at home.”
That’s a peeve of Cooney’s: the talk of there being disconnect between Croke Park and the grassroots.
Cooney’s responsibilities since 2012 as secretary to Coiste Naisúnta na Gaeilge and Coiste Naisúnta Scór have also exposed her to what is happening across the spectrum of the association.
“Scór is an integral part of the GAA. There are people in clubs who may not play Gaelic games or be interested in Gaelic games but they can sing, dance, act and recite. There is a place for those people in the GAA.
“The GAA endeavours to promote the use of Gaeilge. Coiste Náisiúnta na Gaeilge have been trying to get more Gaeilge in the match programmes and in announcements at games.
“With the upcoming appointment of a full-time Irish officer, hopefully it will be progressed and we will get the use of Gaeilge to where it should be.”
After the Scór Sinsir final took place in Sligo last weekend, all there is left now for Cooney to do is clear her office on the ground floor of the Hogan Stand across from that of GAA president John Horan’s and, as she says, “hand back the key”. It’s been a journey of fulfilment for her and surprise.
Her position opened her eyes to many things. “An event I enjoyed during Seán McCague’s presidency was when former Uachtarán na hÉireann Mary McAleese invited a group from the North to the Áras. Another staff person and I were asked to represent the Uachtarán and Ard Stiúrthóir, who were unable to leave another event in Croke Park.
“Two buses left the Áras for Croke Park where the group were welcomed and entertained and taken to their seats to see a hurling game. I got talking to some of the guests for whom a visit to Croke Park was a first. It was hard to break down the barriers at first but after a while they realised that we had no agenda.
“After the game, the group were entertained at a meal in the GAA museum and I happened to sit beside a woman and her niece who at first were hard to talk to. I suppose they were suspicious of us but soon enough we were chatting away. That was a special occasion.”
She doesn’t plan on being a stranger to her soon-to-be former colleagues but there must come an end and hers she’s treating with fondness. Home calls but she’s called Dublin home for most of her life.
“I am going to do voluntary work to keep myself occupied. Faraway hills are greener and I know it is great going home to Cill na Martra on a Friday and leaving on a Sunday evening but if I stay until Monday or longer there is nobody around because everyone is at work or about their own business. I know that. I haven’t made a decision yet.
“It makes me very proud to have been part of the GAA over that number of years.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the GAA. There were times when it was stressful enough and there would be pressure but I can honestly say that there was no low point. I wouldn’t be the type of person to let things get me down for too long.
“I will miss the camaraderie. Hopefully, I will still get to attend games, particularly games involving Cork! After almost 39 years of walking the corridors of Croke Park, I’ll miss that and meeting staff and others and having a bit of a laugh and the craic with them.”
They’ll miss her more.
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