The big interview with Tracey Kennedy: The art of seeing the bigger picture

She has overcome obstacles, from shyness to cancer to advancing in the once male-dominated bastion of the GAA committee room. So thriving as the first female chair of Cork County Board won’t faze Tracey Kennedy. But she does want to represent females in the GAA and be an effective voice for inclusiveness and change...

Tracy Kennedy reads 50 books a year. This year, she has only read 35. The year isn’t over yet, but it hasn’t been a normal year.

For one thing, she’s been acclimatising to a big, new job, since before she became the first woman to chair Cork GAA and only the second to ever hold such a position on a county committee.

After over a decade teaching English and French in the secondary school nearest to her home in Killeagh, Kennedy moved from Youghal to Carrigaline to become a vice-principal of the local community school.

The switch from the classroom to the office has meant considerably less literature and more non-fiction. The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way, about the methodology and philosophy behind a highly-controversial, but effective independent school for disadvantaged children in north-west London, fascinated her.

“They take a zero-tolerance and very prescriptive approach to teaching, which would go against everything we’d do in the new Junior Cert cycle here, but while a lot of it was abhorrent to me, it definitely stayed with me. They expect a lot from their students. Sometimes, I think we expect too little of students, especially those who come from difficult backgrounds.”

Now that she’s on holidays for a few weeks, she’s returning to her first love: fiction, though that can vary from “light and fluffy” to something heavier. Very much falling into the former category for its hilarity is Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling, but next up is Bernard MacLaverty’s latest novel, Midwinter Break, about an ageing couple that could lose more than a weekend in Amsterdam.

She especially likes reading Irish women, like Marian Keyes, and Louise O’Neill, the Irish Examiner columnist and daughter of former Cork football selector, Michael ‘Haulie’ O’Neill. Her native county has also produced a smashing young male writer, in Ciaran Collins, whose 2013 novel, The Gamal, about a small Cork village, is now on the Leaving Cert.

“When I look at the English course, these days, there’s such diversity. The writers are alive. Some of them are women. When I was in school, almost everyone was male and dead.”

The old syllabus, with its old reliables, wasn’t all bad, though. She’s loved Jane Austen ever since she read an abridged copy of Pride and Prejudice in primary school. And she’s had a passion for teaching Shakespeare. “Because it’s so relevant: Jealousy, greed, power.”

As she’s the one who raises how Shakespeare deals with such eternal, primal themes, I mention that I myself studied King Lear for the Leaving. That play must be particularly relevant, considering her new position in Cork GAA, no?

“Don’t go there now!” she says, smiling. “Stop right there!”

What she will volunteer about Lear is that it’s probably the Shakespearian play she disliked the most. A self-professed feminist on her Twitter bio, she just couldn’t warm to the character of Cordelia. She much preferred teaching The Merchant of Venice, because Portia has such wit and intelligence. (Of course, students of the same play will know that Portia wins a legal argument through eloquence and technicality, rather than the moral question at hand. Again, not that such a parallel could ever be made with the workings of Páirc Uí Chaoimh…)

The stage and drama that is Cork GAA has found a similarly likeable and formidable character in Kennedy herself, though her back story and nature are rooted in a more rural, humble setting than the banks of Venice or the Lee.

Home

“One of the greatest strengths of the GAA is that it can make ordinary places extraordinary. If you’d passed through Killeagh any other week of the year, it wouldn’t have looked any different from a hundred other hamlets. But the achievements of Landers and Deane mean that, from now on, whenever Killeagh is mentioned, GAA fans will nod their heads knowingly and say ‘Ah, yeah, Joe Deane and Mark Landers’ homeplace’ ... Hurling and football keep the one-horse towns alive, practically give them a reason to be.”

- Eamonn Sweeney, ‘The Road to Croker’ (2004)

She grew up in Killeagh, still lives in Killeagh, never left Killeagh; when she was studying in UCC, she’d commute home every day, even sitting on the local community council, as its secretary, when most other 20-year-olds would have devoted their volunteerism to the more frolicsome clubs and societies on campus.

It’s why, a few years after she left college, with a BA and a HDip, she gravitated to the committee rooms of the local juvenile GAA club; even though she never played herself (“I was afraid of the ball, simple as, and, since I was the eldest child, my parents were probably a bit protective”), she appreciated how the GAA was serving her locality and neighbours as much as the community council ever could.

The pitch in the village is named after her uncle, Danno Kennedy, the local publican who helped bail out the club financially during the testing 1960s and 1970s. Another uncle, Patrick O’Mahony, made hurleys for Christy Ring, the template of one forming part of the offertory at his funeral. She was a schoolmate and contemporary of Joe Deane and from when Deane was U12, right the way up, Kennedy and the rest of the parish followed his team and exploits, as it racked up east Cork and county titles.

“All of my childhood memories are tied up into going to matches, getting spins from the neighbours, then going back to Coleman’s, afterwards, for a 99. We’d go down to the pitch when we wanted to hang out somewhere. Life in Killeagh was just totally wrapped up in the GAA.”

A few years ago, at a women’s sport awards, Kennedy said that you don’t have to play sport to enjoy its benefits. She was proof of that. That song, ‘All God’s Creatures Got a Place in the Choir’? Well, she was one of those who just clapped their hands, but it made all the difference to her. She would consider herself shy — it’s why the Susan Cain book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, is on her pile of books to read soon — but administering, as much as teaching, gave her greater confidence in herself.

After a stint as secretary of the juvenile club, she progressed to a similar role with the senior club and this also involved attending East Cork divisional board meetings. While plenty of other women had served with her, and before her, on the club committee in Killeagh, she now found herself in different, though hardly hostile, territory. “Yes, physically, I did notice I was the only woman in the room, but I could never say that I was met with anything other than welcome and encouragement. I quickly moved into the role of fixture-making and there was no problem, other than the problems anyone else would face in the role.”

Willie Ring, a nephew of Christy and a stalwart of Cloyne, was a particularly generous and wise mentor. He’d warn her of the unintended consequences of rearranging a match over a stag. Moving a fixture is like moving a carriage on a train, he’d say: it affects more than just one carriage or game. “And remember,” he’d counsel her, “you are not representing your club at this table.” Sure enough, shortly after she joined the executive, she found herself having to vote against Killeagh over a fixture.

The bigger picture demanded it.

Ger Lane would be another whose example and path she’d follow. Shortly after Lane vacated the chair of the east Cork board to become county PRO, Kennedy became divisional PRO and was co-opted onto the county communications committee. For most Cork GAA people, 2009 was the year of the tail end of the last strike, but for a self-confessed “infomaniac” like Kennedy, it was also the year of Twitter and she instantly took to it.

“I like communications, particularly electronic communication, which they say is the vehicle for the introvert! And, straightaway, I could see the potential Twitter had for match updates. I’m not a very innovative person, but I know a good idea when I see it and I’m good at doing the donkey work to implement it.”

A couple of years later, she succeeded Lane as county PRO, bringing a remarkable affability, as well as diligence, to the role. My first interaction with her was at the Cork hurlers’ 2012 league final press night, at the end of which she asked myself and The Sunday Times’ Denis Walsh (another Corkman who would have been regularly critical of the board) to stand in for a photograph with her and some members of the local media who would have been more sympathetic. Again, she was seeing a bigger picture.

“PRO is a great role. I enjoyed it more than anything. I would have been the point of contact for the clubs, helping them set up their GAA email accounts, while, I have to say, the media were brilliant. There has been, and continues to be, a bit of distrust in that relationship, unfortunately, but I remember going to PRO training in Croke Park, one day, and Lisa Clancy and Siobhan Brady saying to us, ‘It’s not dealing with the media, it’s working with the media!’ And I found the media very professional to work with.”

A cancer diagnosis

In January, 2015, a month after she was elected vice-chairperson of Cork GAA, Kennedy went for a routine smear test, only to discover there was nothing routine about the diagnosis. Not only did they find what they initially thought was an advanced stage of pre-cancer, but, after some cell removal, actual cancer, further down. Kennedy still wasn’t 40 years of age.

For half-an-hour, there was “complete panic”. But then she settled. A good friend and medic helped her.

“Dr Con [Murphy] was a brilliant support. Amazing. He was a voice I could trust. No disrespect to my GP, or any other doctor, but it was great to be able to go to Con and say ‘What does this mean? What’s going to happen?’ And, very early on, he was assuring me it was just Stage One A1 cancer, so I wasn’t going to die. I was going to be okay.

“When I accepted I wasn’t going to die, my next feeling was how lucky I am. And I have been so lucky. Because only three-quarters of women go regularly for a smear test, 90 women a year still die of cervical cancer in this country. What if I hadn’t gone for that test, been diagnosed, had surgery? That’s why I’m glad to talk about my experience, because if it encourages even one woman to go and get tested, it’ll have been worth it.

“I’m not married and, obviously, now, I won’t be having children. And I suppose that gives me a level of freedom to do what I do in the GAA that not every woman has. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I had three children. That’s the reality of it.”

Hot seat

The day Kennedy addressed the Cork county convention, she received, by courier, earlier that morning, a bouquet of flowers from Liz Howard, who, four decades earlier, as Tipperary PRO, had become the first woman to sit on a county committee. It was a gesture that moved Kennedy, but the well-wishes have come from all over.

With such privilege, though, comes great responsibility. Her chairpersonship inherits a redeveloped Páirc Uí Chaoimh that cost €16m more than the initial estimation, leaving Cork GAA with a shortfall of €23m. Kennedy isn’t daunted. For one thing, the imminent sale of a 20-acre site in Kilbarry, which the board owns, will go a long way towards alleviating the financial pressures.

“The redevelopment would have been talked about going back to when I was a club delegate and, at the start, I would have had some misgivings, wondering whether we were doing the right thing. But it wasn’t very long before I realised it had to be done and that there was no point in doing a second-rate version, which might have cost only three-quarters of the final cost and wouldn’t be the top-quality, income-generating facility that we have now.

“So, yes, we’re left with some debt now, but the fact we have Kilbarry will pay down a significant amount of the debt. The big challenge, to me, is how we can maximise the benefits of the stadium. The local business community have been amazing, in their support for it, and I hope that continues, but it’s a whole new way of operating, for us.

“When the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh was there, we just treated it like our own club grounds; we just went in and out of there whenever we needed it. If you went in and there was someone in the room you wanted to use, you’d nearly be odd how they got in there before you. Now, we have a conference centre, an event centre...

“So, working out the finer points of the interaction between us and the stadium is going to be a challenge. It’s different from Croke Park. Dublin have their own grounds in Parnell Park. Croke Park is not Dublin GAA’s grounds. Páirc Uí Chaoimh is Cork GAA’s.”

She thinks Cork could be more like Dublin in how Parnell Park has facilitated such alignment with its ladies’ football and camogie association and teams. They share the same sponsor, the same grounds. That’s a model she believes Cork could adopt and that there needs to be greater co-operation between the women’s games and the GAA, right across the board.

“I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot, if we keep clashing games — and that goes for the two women’s sports bodies, as much as anyone. I don’t know where it all is going to end up, though the direction, at the moment, seems to be more towards co-operation, rather than amalgamation.

“And I know there is certainly a greater expectation on me, as a woman, to deliver — which means getting both those great teams playing in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Now, Cork camogie have played in our stadiums for a long time, probably because camogie is longer established than ladies’ football, but I would certainly hope that having Cork ladies’ football games in Páirc Uí Chaoimh is something we can facilitate,” Kennedy says.

In the coming weeks, she will meet with the heads of Cork ladies’ football and camogie, just as she would have as part of the recently-established, Cork GAA strategic committee.

Also pencilled in for a Saturday in early February is a meeting with her new executive.

She’s excited by the potential and energy in the room, as well as being glad to still have the experience and knowledge of Frank Murphy to call on for another year.

When this is all over, the plan is to return to Killeagh, to help out more down in the club pitch named after her uncle. She sees how national names like Joe Deane and Mark Landers have given back, Deane coaching the club U21s, Landers the club seniors, as well as bringing their children in and through the club nursery.

But, for now, the county stage is where she’s needed. The bigger picture demands it.



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