OBITUARY: Joe McDonagh, All-Ireland winner and former GAA president

Former GAA presidents Joe McDonagh, left, and Nickey Brennan

"Saluting the boy from the gable wall" - Sean Kelly looks at the life of Joe McDonagh, former GAA president and All-Ireland winner

MAY is a beautiful month, with grass growing, flowers blooming, and everything bursting into life. Sadly, last month will always be remembered in the GAA as the month we lost two of the most popular presidents in the history of the association: Jack Boothman (1994-1997), and his immediate successor, Joe McDonagh (1997-2000). The latter died, aged 63, on May 20.

It is ironic that they died a short time apart, because when Jack Boothman was elected uachtarán, in 1993, Joe’s performance as runner-up was so strong that Jim O’Sullivan, of the Irish Examiner, stated that we “elected two presidents on the one day.”

Jim was right, as, three years later, at the exceptionally young age of 42, Joe McDonagh was elected to the highest office of Cumann Luthcleas Gael. Exceptional, indeed.

But that was Joe — an exceptional man, with exceptional qualities and talents, all of which he put to perfect use.

People often decry the lack of real leadership in the modern world. There aren’t too many in political, sporting, or cultural life who had the leadership qualities Joe had in abundance — vision, courage, knowledge, eloquence, and know-how. Joe had these, and many other qualities besides, that made the GAA feel good about itself.

We were all proud to have such an athletic and accomplished young man representing us around the globe. Above all, he gave new life, impetus, and recognition to our overseas units.

Theretofore, overseas units were treated as places we might visit on a tour to have a good time, or as places to raise money for some project back home.

Joe’s vision was broader than that. He saw the world as his oyster, and that the GAA worldwide should be helped and encouraged to grow, to cater for our diaspora, and, indeed, make people with a connection to Ireland feel welcome in the association.

He visited GAA clubs never visited before. He praised them, encouraged them, told them stories, and sang songs for them. They felt good about themselves, and the GAA, and they were motivated to grow, expand, develop, and reach out.

Joe, perhaps more than anyone else, contributed to the rapid expansion of the GAA worldwide in the last 20 years. That shouldn’t be forgotten, and never will be by those who benefited from his generosity and largesse.

Of course, being a very successful hurler, and accomplished footballer, was an important factor in Joe’s armoury as uachtarán. He won many of the most prestigious and sought-after honours in the game — he played in an All-Ireland minor final in 1970, won U21 in 1972, a National League victory over Tipp in 1975, played in Galway’s first senior All-Ireland final in 17 years, also in 1975, and won an All-Star in 1976. And, of course, he sang ‘The West’s Awake’, after Joe Connelly gave the best oration ever by an All-Ireland captain, in that iconic 1980 win for the Tribesmen.

That was one of the great All-Ireland victories, and it was fitting that it should be remembered for the two Joe Shows, on the steps of the Hogan Stand.

Joe had many exceptional, and unique, qualities. One that was frequently noted was his phenomenal memory, especially for names and faces. This, of course, reflected a very fine brain, but also a tremendous interest in people. Joe respected everybody, wanted to know their names, their background, and function. Once told, never forgotten. Once introduced, Joe put a name to the face and stored it neatly in his memory vault.

He wasn’t long-elected when we in Kerry got insight into this phenomenal ability to recall names. Former country chairman, Jerome Conway, was introducing Joe to launch Féile, in Austin Stack Park, Tralee.

In advance of his speech, Joe asked Jerome to name the people on the committee so he could acknowledge them and thank them. Jerome showed him the programme in which all of the names of the committee were listed — in excess of 20. Joe read it, put down the programme, and, to the astonishment of all of us, Joe recalled all the names in his speech. I’ve never met anyone with such phenomenal recall.

He was, of course, also a wonderful singer and was in demand for sing-songs. When Joe sang, you could hear a pin drop.

No wonder Joe Connelly said, when recalling their playing days with Galway: “We has good days and bad days, but one thing we always had were great nights.”

When I became iar uachtarán, we invariably sat together at congress and other functions. Joe wanted to know all about Europe, and its working, and his knowledge amazed me. For that reason, and because he was also instrumental in setting up the European GAA County Board, it was only appropriate, when the GAA became the first Irish body to receive the European Union Citizens’ Prize, that uachtarán Liam O’Neil asked Joe to travel to Brussels to receive the award on behalf of the association. No better man, no greater ambassador.

Joe was also very inclusive, and did everything he could to integrate ladies into the association. Indeed, I would say his last great speech at congress was in 2014, when he spoke passionately about the need to accelerate measures in this regard.

Much has been written on his role in driving the association forward to abolish Rule 21. He did this out of conviction, put it centre stage on the GAA agenda, and the rest is history. While the GAA rejected Joe’s proposal in 1998, his successor, Sean McCague, continued the crusade and diplomatically steered the association toward discarding a ‘ban’ that was out of touch with the times.

Joe also did much to pioneer coaching and games development, recognising this was vital to the future health of the association, and he also renewed contact with the international rules.

When Joe was elected uachtarán, in London in 1996, he said: “It’s a long way from gable wall to here.” Indeed, the boy from Ballinderreen went a long way, and the GAA, the educational system, and ár dteanga dúchais are much better for his dynamism.

At the close of congress each year, Joe was called in to lead the assembled gathering in singing ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’. The boy from the gable wall won’t be there to lead the delegates next year, but the memories of Joe will be recalled, and a few tears will be shed as someone else sings our national anthem.

Ní dheántar dearmad ar huchaill Ballinderreen go deo.

Ar dheis lamh Dé go raibh a anam.

  • The author was GAA president from 2003-2006.

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