The GAA’s 39th President, John Horan, reflected on his three-year term in office today before passing on the stewardship of the Association to his successor, Larry McCarthy, at GAA Annual Congress 2021.
You can read his final ‘Óráid an Uachtaráin’ in full below.
Dia Dhaoibh a chairde Gael agus go raibh maith agaibh as a bheith linn inniu as ucht gach rud a dhéanann sibh ar son ár gCumainn.
After the most challenging of times in the most unprecedented of years, we gather for this novel and unique congress setting to take stock of how we have survived the last 12 months.
When I spoke to you a year ago, none of us could have fully known the trials and tribulations of what lay ahead of us.
Nothing could prepare us for the anguish felt by so many families in the wake of the loss of loved ones to the virus.
Nothing could have prepared us for the stress suffered by those who survived – but struggle with the physical toll of Covid.
And nothing could have prepared us for the anxiety felt by everyone trying to make sense of a world that had suddenly lost its familiarity and remains part of the awful term ‘our new normal.’
Just as we paused to reflect on the lost lives on the day of the All-Ireland football final, we again pause and keep them and their families in our thoughts today.
Certainly, as a society, there were things that we thought were terribly important that have taken on a new perspective and meaning now.
But when we as a GAA community reflect on what has unfolded over the last year – what will always be prominent is the manner in which the GAA and its membership reacted.
We didn’t need a pandemic to tell us about the importance of GAA clubs and members to the communities they represent, but it was certainly brought to life like never before in the eye of the storm that raged since last March and continues to threaten us.
For all that we lost, we found something too. The meitheal spirit of old that was there when it was needed
No one is under any illusions that serious work is still needed. And I have no doubt but that our membership will be still there and not found wanting.
GAA critics will point to the late autumn and the handful of club championship celebrations that did not adhere to the restrictions as an opportunity for whataboutery.
They are right.
Those occasions where club finals led to problems were deeply regrettable and potentially very damaging.
We couldn’t be responsible for the bad behaviour which took place around celebrating club finals far away from the GAA pitch. But where it was clear that our games were a trigger for this behaviour we had to take swift action – and we did.
The GAA’s own Covid-19 advisory group led by Shay Bannon and Feargal McGill and with a panel of expert advisers played a key role at steering us through difficulty and they continue their sterling service.
At the height of the summer more than 70,000 children nationwide participated in a Kellogg’s GAA Cúl Camps with only one recorded case of Covid at a camp and that case confirmed as having originated outside the camp and not a result of being involved.
Our return to play app processed more than 10 million unique entries from players and parents of children engaging with games and training. For so many, the physical and mental health of younger people was significantly aided by being able to run around with their friends in their local club.
Amid an, at times, deafening chorus calling for us to shut down, we proceeded with inter-county championships. The reasons for some criticism to this was genuine, for others it was self-serving headline grabbing and for others it was based in begrudgery.
It was not for financial reasons that we played our Championships – in fact they were only played because of the invaluable and generous support of the Government to allow us to do so. But they were played because there was a sense that county games played between October 17 and December 19 could help shorten the winter.
It did that and so much more as the heroics of the likes of Gearóid Hegarty, Stephen Bennett, Brian Fenton and Cillian O’Connor helped light up some dark days. Indeed, I would like to pay tribute to all of our inter-county players for the effort and excellence they produced for all of our benefit.
We honoured our commitment and we lit our 14 torches in Croke Park, and we remembered our own on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, and the following day Cavan and Tipperary memorably rose to the history wrapped around the occasion
A great man once said the biggest challenge facing the GAA is to stay relevant.
I believe we did that, and continue to do that, and while we are here with the beginning of an end to the Pandemic in sight – the GAA will be ready to emerge from the dark clouds that have shrouded us.
Just as our club members and 20 of our club and county grounds were used to help as testing centres, I believe our excellent facilities at community level can be an asset where needed to assist in the roll out of vaccinations.
When the games return, they will do so in a split season model that has emerged as our best hope of solving the club v county fixture conflict.
It’s not all that long ago that our Fixture Review Committee considered this format and thought it was wishful thinking and too much change too soon.
But the impact of Covid has forced us to really accentuate the positives that we have and encourages us to be prepared to take a chance when the prize on offer is worth it and I am delighted that the split season format has the level of support it does.
It might take time to bed in, but it will be time well spent.
Similarly, one of the lessons of Covid will be how we were forced to face up to the runaway train that had become the cost of preparing inter-county teams – and instead of collectively burning through €30m a year we called a halt and the circus of county managers having nearly as many back room members as playing members was addressed.
Centralised expenses payments and limiting collective training sessions to three times a week are also benefits of this.
Meanwhile, time will tell if we have the same enthusiasm and courage to also take some big decisions around our competition formats.
The Tailteann Cup can be a very significant addition to the calendar. Far from being a vanity project it was inspired by the counties it is designed to assist and it can be a help and not a hindrance if given the opportunity.
No one contemplated changing the hurling format away from the provincial round robin structures – yet that structure had endured serious skepticism when first presented.
When people saw it worked, much like the midfield mark in football, it silenced the doubters. The same can be said of the Sin Bin in Football which I believe is also improving football since it was introduced.
Our football format can be similarly energised by some bold thinking and the formats up for review succeed in providing something exciting.
What matters in all of these things is that we have a debate and there is nothing to fear in that.
Debate will be a good thing, and this is also the case in hurling. There was a view held by some that we should act now to curb rising incidences of cynical fouling in hurling and this we have done today. We will be the better for it.
We should do what we believe is right, and respect there will always be a different view of what we do.
Too much of what masquerades as commentary and analysis now is a fear and loathing mentality, driven at times by a social media gang mentality where people can feel brave because they are anonymous.
Many of our members, be they volunteers, or officials have been on the receiving end of this venom and bile which exposes social media not as a tool for betterment but as a dark and dangerous place that cannot be allowed to be a form of bullying that may act as a barrier to encouraging people to step up and make themselves available for volunteering or accepting positions.
Criticism often comes with the territory. And in an organisation as big as ours, universal acceptance of an idea is maybe foolish to expect. But one thing that stood us well in my time was the ability to block out the noise and trust our gut.
Not every decision I took was popular, but I am satisfied that, at all times, every decision was taken in what I felt was in the best interests of the Association at that time.
Leadership is about making decisions. I think in the main that as an Association nationally we took those hard decisions when we had to do so.
There were times too, when leadership also meant accepting the consequences of our decisions. There has not always been a culture in the GAA of taking responsibility for our actions.
All too often a punishment is met with a resolve to look for a loophole or a technicality to get off the hook.
In this context I would single out leadership shown in Armagh, Down and Cork county boards and in Dungarvan GAA Club when they had to take action over Covid breaches and severe punishment was merited, was issued and was accepted. This sets an example more should follow.
We could do with remembering the example set by John Mullane who once said: “if you do the crime, you should do the time,” when he didn’t appeal a suspension.
Mistakes will happen. Bad choices will be made from time to time. It is how we deal with them, at local and national level, that matters.
What doesn’t do us any good is tolerating a culture where the knee jerk reaction to a suspension or penalty is to appeal and try to shift blame or dodge responsibility.
Being responsible is key to what we want people to think when they think of what the GAA is and stands for.
In this regard I was very proud to be part of the unveiling of the GAA manifesto Where We All Belong and the standard and the challenge that it throws down to all of us to live up to that claim.
It is a high ideal, one that rightly calls us out when we fall short of what we claim to be. May it always be so because our role in society is too important for it to be otherwise.
Engaging with David Gough and Valerie Mulcahy to pave the way for the first official involvement of the GAA in the Pride parade was an example of this, likewise the appointment of Ger McTavish as our full-time Diversity and Inclusion officer as we work to bring that manifesto to life.
What began and became a national phenomenon more than 136 years ago from that meeting in the billiards room in Hayes’s Hotel in Thurles is now a global success story.
World GAA is not an aspiration: it is a living, breathing and thriving entity that has GAA clubs and Gaelic games being played in every corner or the globe – mostly by our Diaspora and providing the same sort of structure and support as our community of clubs here – but increasingly it is being discovered and developed among non-native Irish who bring new players and new possibilities and exciting potential.
Seeing this growth and success at first hand has been a great privilege and an inspiration and we are fully committed in our support to this ongoing development and indeed, the fact that our next Uachtarán is from the overseas ranks shows how conscious we are of what World GAA means to us.
Our sister organisations in the LGFA and Cumann Camogaíochta have also enjoyed periods of strong growth in recent times. By inviting their most senior officials, Helen O’Rourke and Sinead McNulty to be present on Coiste Bainistí it gives them a strong voice and a tangible example of our commitment to working ever more closely with ladies football and camogie.
Our memorandum of understanding will continue, our joint representations in pursuit of Government support will continue and I believe the groundwork is there for a road towards a federal system of alignment between the three bodies – similar to rounders and handball
Mention of handball gives me the opportunity to talk about the enormous sense of pride caused by the completion of the new national handball centre and what I am sure is going to be an inspiration for the great progress being made there.
Likewise, the rise in the need for an inclusive GAA where we cater for all is something that is being harnessed by rounders and I look forward to seeing them continue to flourish in the years ahead.
A year has also been a long time in relation to our work on the redeveloped Páirc Uí Chaoimh. I am pleased to report that despite the challenges and difficulties which were laid bare at Congress 12 months ago, progress has been made in our work with Cork county committee and the stadium board and I am confident that we will soon turn a corner and be able to focus fully on the magnificent stadium that we now have in Cork.
While pushing ahead and remaining progressive and ambitious we don’t forget our history and heritage. The strides we have made in the promotion of the Irish language in the last three years, in no small part to the appointment of our Oifigeach na Gaeilge Jamie Ó Tuama, has been significant and I believe this will continue to be a growth area for the organisation helping to connect our young people with our language and culture in a new and modern way, bringing these aspects of our remit to life.
Táimid fós dílis d’ár gcultúr agus ár dteanga agus beidh go deo. Tá ról larnach againn chun na ghnéithe seo den eagraíocht – An Ghaeilge agus Scór – a chothú agus a chaomhnú.
You cannot fulfil the role of Uachtarán on your own.
The staff in Croke Park have had their own challenges this year, remote working and suffering a series of pay cuts that have made life very difficult for them.
Yet through all of that, the work continued and the manner in which the Association via the staff in Croke Park led by the Ard Stiúrthóir responded to challenges and had to react and reinvent ways of doing things to ensure the GAA stayed afloat was a testament to their character and to their dedication to our Association.
The same can be said for the team of committees which I put in place and who have continued to work tirelessly for the betterment of the GAA, again adapting and doing things differently but producing results.
It has been a privilege to see all these people in action.
Like the work on our fixtures, a real goal when I took office was addressing the development of young players in a pathway that put the club at the heart of that work.
Having worked for many years in the development of young players I had a very real concern about elitism which had taken hold in our underage game and which was undermining the importance of the club in the development of young players.
Michael Dempsey’s Talent Academy Report and the knock-on effects of their work on the development of young players will have a far-reaching and long-lasting impact on the Association
I am delighted to report that in the coming weeks there will be the launch of a major new player pathway developed between the GAA, LGFA and Camogie which puts the development of players within the club at the heart of everything. We will develop players in their clubs built around quality games programmes, quality coaching and really strong volunteers – and develop not just players but people.
Having initiated the East Leinster Project in my time in Comhairle Laighean, I am proud of the work it has done to increase coaching and funding numbers in the counties involved.
It is a model that is being tweaked and used elsewhere. It is unrealistic to expect that there will be a single purpose-built one size fits all approach to coaching given the varying numbers of players, the varying number of clubs and facilities and the rural/urban divide in each county is unique to them.
But what is reasonable to expect is a commitment to making sure our coaching structure works in each county.
We haven’t always got back what we put into coaching in the past. I am satisfied that there is a culture now in place to ensure that coaching, and games programmes for clubs are the priorities that they must be to drive the Association forward.
The mandate given to me by the membership of the GAA was a huge and humbling honour.
I have dedicated myself each day to repaying the trust that was shown in me. It will be for others to decide on the verdict, but I am happy that I gave it my very best and was able to do so because of the love and support of family, friends and colleagues and above all the encouragement of my wife Paula and our two sons, Jack and Liam, who gave me the support you need to be the best you can be.
Myself and the Ard Stiúrthóir worked exceptionally well because of the trust that existed between us. I wish Tom and the Executive team all the very best and I know they will find they have another great ally in Larry McCarthy.
I also know that Larry will benefit greatly from the expertise of Teresa Rehill who added Assistant to the Uachtarán to her already busy role of being Operations Manager but in typical fashion always made everything run smoothly and efficiently.
Likewise, I am indebted to the support I received from the members of Ard Chomhairle and Coiste Bainistíochta. There were some long and some difficult meetings but I’m confident I gained more friends than I lost in the course of our work.
Being Uachtarán can be a lonely position at times but I would like to thank current and former officers of the association in particular Aogan O Fearghail, Christy Cooney and Nicky Brennan who were especially helpful.
Our in-coming Uachtarán is another ground-breaking individual and the first President representing our overseas units. Wherever he has been, the GAA has been at the heart of it. I look forward to the energy and ideas Larry brings to the role in the coming three years and pledge him my support as I am sure we all do. And wish him Barbara, Conor and Shane health and happiness during his term.
We’re told that all good things must come to an end. But while my part in this chapter of GAA history is over, I leave office with a happy heart that the GAA is far from over, neither is my own passion and awe of this great Association and I look forward to watching my family to continue to get the same satisfaction and benefit from their involvement in their local club that I did.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh.
Slán go foill agus beir bua.