Liam O’Neill’s rise to GAA President was an appointment 30 years in the making

It was a day of celebration for Laois Gaels at the Heritage Hotel and Country Club on Saturday, as Liam O’Neill assumed the highest position in the GAA when he was inaugurated as the 37th President of Cumann Luthchleas Gael.

It was a day of celebration for Laois Gaels at the Heritage Hotel and Country Club on Saturday, as Liam O’Neill assumed the highest position in the GAA when he was inaugurated as the 37th President of Cumann Luthchleas Gael.

It was a proud day for the national school principal from the tiny Gaelscoil in Trumera, but particularly for his family, who were in attendance to witness the historic occasion. Unfortunately not present was his late and beloved mother Bridget, who passed away since he was confirmed as President-elect a year ago. She was so proud on that occasion, and one could only imagine the dash she would have cut in Killenard on Saturday.

Celebrating with Liam were his wife Aine, daughters Caoimhe and Cliodhna and son Ciaran as well as his 11 siblings and officers of the Trumera club, and indeed most clubs from around the county made the trip to Killenard to join with him in his moment of glory.

It has been a long road to the top for Liam to get to the position that, while he might not admit it, he sought with single-minded intent since he first became involved at administrative level in Laois. He also made history as he has become the first President to be elected unopposed, as challenger after challenger withdrew knowing that they had no chance of beating him last year.

After losing out so narrowly to Christy Cooney three years earlier, he was hot favourite to replace the Corkman, and had the election wrapped up months before the annual Congress was due to decide on a new leader

When he replaced Nicky Brennan to become chairman of the Leinster Council in 2005, he was fulfilling a long held ambition to succeed where his late father, Billy, missed out, when he was denied the chance to become chairman in 1948 after he was beaten on the last count by Jack Fitzgerald of Meath.

Liam would attribute his interest in Gaelic Games to his late father Billy. “I am one of 12, seven sisters and four brothers who are all steeped in the GAA. I am the only one that got directly involved in GAA administration. I took over that interest from my father, who taught me and the rest of us in a tiny country school in Trumera.

“He led the way for us in thinking of the importance of things Gaelic, things local and things that matter. As a very young man of 32 he stood for election for this position in 1948, and lost on the last count. It is of enormous importance to me that I was able to square that circle and find that the family tradition has lived on.” Liam declared when elected Leinster Chairman.

“My interest started in primary school as it does with most of us. We were lucky to have Gaelic games in Trumera and continued on in Knockbeg College under Fr Moiling Lennon and Fr Michael Noonan.”

Liam was a border in Knockbeg College where at a time when, after his father drove him down in September, he wasn’t allowed home again until Christmas. It was tough love and a tough learning curve for a young boy just heading into his teenage years.

He is one of a very large family, but all of them got a college education, with the girls attending the Brigidine in Mountrath and he and his three brothers attending Knockbeg College as boarders. Liam was only 12 when he made the journey to the Carlow border in 1967 and he enjoyed six very happy years there.

His late father insured that all his children got the best education possible, and even though times were tough, it seemed that Knockbeg was the natural place for the O’Neill lads to go. “We were almost 10 miles from Ballyfin and it would have been unthinkable for dad getting up with the Ford Prefect or Volkswagen Beatle and chugging up and down to Ballyfin before school each morning with us. That was viewed then as the equivalent of driving to Dublin now.

“We were lucky to get the opportunity to go to Knockbeg, but when I went there at 12, the first visit home after starting in September was for the Christmas break, and it certainly was sport that kept us going and provided us with an outlet for relaxation in between.”

So, Knockbeg College was the perfect place to be, and everyone wanted to be on the football and hurling teams, because you got special treatment when you were. “In hurling, we were in the ‘B’ championship and one year we beat Birr in a Leinster junior final and that was a big deal. In my final year we were beaten barely by the great Birr team with Pat Fleury and those lads on the side”

From there it was off to University, which was unusual, as most of the boarders in Knockbeg went on to a seminary, including his brother Fr Kevin.

His first taste of administration was with the UCD hurling club in Dublin where he served as secretary and chairman, assisted then by his now wife Aine. “She served her apprenticeship then and knew what was ahead of her in the following years. I was also involved with St Pat’s in Drumcondra and Clann Na nGael Fontenoys.”

His move back to teach in Trumera saw him back with the newly formed local club. “I carried on with my club in Trumera, which was started from a unit that probably wasn’t big enough to sustain a club, but because of its tightness as a community and interest in the GAA, managed to stay together. It was an enormous privilege to see my club first of all win a junior hurling title, then intermediate and go on and play at senior level.”

Liam’s first taste of county final action came in 1970 when he lined out in goal for Slieve Bloom in the minor hurling championship final that they lost in a replay to Ballinakill, and while he had superb game the first day out, he was absent when the replay took place the following year.

Trumera enjoyed little success for a number of decades but eventually made the breakthrough when they won the Junior B title, beating Errill in the final, with Liam coming on to make a real impression as he contributed a huge long-range score.

Liam’s brother Killian was to become the first player from the club to lift the Fr Phelan Cup as they claimed the long overdue Junior A title.

This was a great period for the club and they were able to field two adult teams, and the following year won the Junior C title with Liam as captain, as they beat Ballylinan in the decider.

When his playing days were coming to an end, Liam became a referee and officiated at many games while also becoming secretary of his club and later serving as Chairman.

His first venture into county administration brought him into conflict with some of the establishment in Laois, as, along with colleagues like Des Sutton, David Finnegan, Jim Kells and John Cotter, he set up Cumann na mBunscol to organise gaelic games in the primary schools, which, until then, had been run by the Juvenile Board. Officers of the board were none too pleased that a group of teachers would want to take the ‘power’ away from them.

It proved one of the best moves ever made, and the organisation that he was instrumental in setting up has proved over the decades to be a huge success story, and the Laois model was used as a blueprint all over the country for other counties that followed suit.

“I served a number of officerships on boards in Laois” recalled O’Neill. “And I learned the hard way. I made a number of mistakes and had people to advise me along the way. I was delighted to be associated with the formation of Cumann na mBunscol and I am delighted that it is still going strong and that many of the founders are still involved.”

He then became secretary of Laois Hurling Board and later progressed to become County Secretary, when at a memorable convention in Heywood College a huge wind of change blew through both the hall and Laois GAA, as Dick Miller defeated Tom Hassett for Chairman and Liam ousted the long-sitting secretary Mick Carroll.

“The first person to involve me in administration was the late Murt O’Donnell from Borris-in-Ossory, who was organising a Feile” says Laim. “Sean Ramsbottom was also a great friend and advisor and a great man to tell you how to get back on the right road when you had gone the wrong way. Dick Miller has been a great ally of mine when we served together in Laois.”

He dragged the Laois County Board kicking and screaming into the new age, as he introduced modern technology into its affairs. There was consternation when he suggested doing away with letters and replacing them with e-mails! “It would never work. The clubs wouldn’t embrace it. Sure where would you be going?” he was told. Even his then chairman didn’t agree with it, before reluctantly going along with it. Now practically all GAA business in the county and beyond is done via the internet.

He even served as manager of the Laois senior hurling team – for one day! When Padraig Horan resigned in the middle of a league campaign, Liam took charge of the team the following Sunday against Cork in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.

Liam’s first taste of Leinster Council administration was when he was appointed by Albert Fallon to become Chairman to one of his committees. “I would like to thank him for the confidence shown to me in 1993, because if he had not, quiet frankly, I would not be here today. I was privileged to be associated with Michael Delaney on the Leinster Council and to be part of his team. I have learned from him and admired him, first from a distance and then from close range. He has served the Leinster Council well but more importantly to us in Laois he has served as one of the few icons we have.”

His first tilt at the top job in Leinster ended in failure, as he lost out to Kilkenny man Nicky Brennan, but, undaunted, he immersed himself in GAA affairs and committees. When the position became vacant again he swept to victory, and he was installed at the Leinster Convention held in the Montague Hotel.

A highlight of his tenure in Leinster was surely when he presented the Delaney Cup to Laois captain Ian Fitzgerald, as he became the first Laois man to accep the cup since 1946.

Following a very successful term as provincial chairman, he now set his sights on the big one, and after a very tough, and at times bruising campaign, he ran hot favourite Christy Cooney of Cork very close indeed. So close, in fact, that he was immediately installed as favourite next time round.

Again while bitterly disappointed he didn’t go away and lick his wounds, but instead immediately got back into the organisation at the highest level, and laid the foundations for an uncontested victory three years later in Mullingar.

This week he now heads the biggest sporting organisation in the country at a time of great change and many challenges. He has the experience, the intellect, the honesty and the integrity to face the challenge, and to deal with any and all of them with confidence.

The GAA is in a very safe pair of hands.

See this week’s Leinster Express for a 20 page souvenir supplement marking Liam O’Neill’s appointment as GAA President