On Monday morning, Liam O’Neill was back at his desk in Gaelscoil Tromaire, the whirlwind that was the GAA Congress now replaced by a drama lesson with his students.
After an exhausting and emotional time over the previous four days, returning to work was the perfect tonic for the new President of the GAA. His pride in, and love for, Trumera and the school he works in is well documented, so there wasn’t even a hint of dread going back to work after one of the biggest weekends of his life. Instead, being back in Trumera invigorated him.
Congress for him started last Thursday, as he explains. “We were basically locked into The Heritage from last Thursday lunch time, so that’s why it was great to get back out to Trumera yesterday (Sunday), to draw breath.”
There is a genuine air of excitement about O’Neill’s presidency, and his track record in GAA administration plays its part in that. O’Neill has never been the most vocal or most visible of GAA officials, but while others were making themselves either seen or heard, he was getting things done.
In his speech to Congress on Saturday afternoon, there was no grandstanding on hot topics like payments to managers or anything like that. Instead, he spoke about things like fixtures and discipline, urban sprawl and finance. Topics which may appear mundane in nature, but in fact are the key issues to address if the Association is to improve in O’Neill’s tenure. “It is the local stuff that is important” says O’Neill. “Getting our games right, what else is more important than that? Nothing could be.
“Getting a balance between club and county, that might sound mundane, but it’s not mundane, because look at what happened in Monaghan, club fixtures interfered with county fixtures.
“Usually it’s the county fixtures that interfere with the club fixtures, and to get that balance is a struggle. If we don’t try to get that right, we’re going to continue getting what happened in Monaghan.”
On discipline, he has his own ideas on what way things should go, and the practice of suspending or fining teams, clubs or county boards is not something he agrees with. “What I would love is a discipline system where the person who commits the foul or the misdeed, he takes the punishment, not the team or not the county board.”
Over the course of the weekend, former GAA President Joe McDonagh described Liam as the best prepared President the GAA has ever had. Having served in Laois, then at provincial level with Leinster and having run for GAA President last time out, does the Trumera man feel this appointment has come at the perfect time for him. “The organisation decides whether you are the right person.
“Nicky Brennan beat me by three votes in 1999 for Leinster Chair(man). I could have been in his position, possibly, and I would be finished now a few years ago, so I suppose I used my time, I was never idle.
“When I was defeated by Nicky Brennan I went back and worked as Laois secretary for three years, because I had the three years. Then, when I was beaten by Christy Cooney I went and did the discipline and rules and the Go Games campaign, so I got to know the country very.
“I think there is a general acceptance that I know the organisation well, and from my dealings over the last three years I have met all the counties at the bottom of the order of merit, I don’t like the word ‘weak’, it’s a lousy thing to call anybody. How could you call Longford or Leitrim weak, they’re just small.
“So yeah, I probably am the best prepared, I have always used my time well.”
The challenges will come thick and fast now to test just how prepared he is, and he was less than 24 hours in the hotseat when Wexford hurling manager Liam Dunne called on him to review the current structures of the hurling leagues. The call bring a wry smile to O’Neill’s face, for obvious reasons. “He’s forgetting that I was the one who came up with that format. You can’t please everyone.
“You have this thing now that the hurling counties are sticking together and demanding things for hurling counties, and they think that’s clever and it’s going to help hurling, but it’s actually driving a wedge where it is not strong, it is driving a ferocious wedge between county boards and hurling.”
Hurling is an game close to his heart, but the community of Trumera is what drives him and inspires him on a daily basis. He has plans on how to develop the GAA, but just as he has hopes on the future and how those plans develop, he also has his fears. Chief among them is that communities like Trumera would not thrive in the future. “You worry about the deterioration of the games, a fear of what the long-term future is. In society now people questions things an awful lot quicker
“We are in confrontational mode now the whole time, and if people don’t get their way they hit the nuclear button, and that’s a worry. That’s why I put a lot of emphasis in my speech about community and unity.
“Unity is what keeps a community together. You know how valuable a community is, and you know what unity is, and sometimes the club can have its own difficulties. We had a great day yesterday, it was very important for the club, and the group that arrived into the hall when I spoke was bigger than any group that has ever turned up, and it happened because we are a small, tight group.
“There were people who wanted to be associated with us on Saturday because they saw Saturday as an important day for Trumera. Not for me, but for Trumera, a Trumera man was becoming President and that was a big deal. I’d say we had 300 in the hall. That’s community, and you would be worried about losing that, but yesterday (Sunday) showed that if there is something on, the community will still come together.
“Trumera people celebrated in the hall last night and no one had to get married and no one died, it was an opportunity for people to come together. You would worry if anything would ever damage that, if the confrontational nature of society would change that, but I still think we are there, we still bring people together.”
The immediate future will see O’Neill working out the remainder of the school year before taking a secondment from a post members of his family have held for 101 years in succession.
The excitement of taking office is tempered by breaking a link with the school which he takes great pride in, and he freely admits it will be a huge wrench to leave his post. “This very room we are in now is my favourite place in the world. I have been in this room for almost forty years, eight years in school and 31 years teaching, this school means so much to me. All my family went to school here.
“People might find this hard to believe, but I am dreading the thought of leaving here, but I have chosen to become the President of the GAA, so that is why I am leaving, but I wouldn’t like to stay here and pretend I was fit to teach a class, I think too much of my neighbours to do that.”
See this week’s Leinster Express for a 20 page souvenir supplement marking Liam O’Neill’s appointment as GAA President