Race to become GAA President: Longford's Martin Skelly reflects on his remarkable administrative journey

Newtowncashel's GAA Presidential candidate Martin Skelly got his first taste of GAA administration as a 16-year-old

Alan Walsh

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Alan Walsh

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alan.walsh@longfordleader.ie

Race to become GAA President: Longford's Martin Skelly reflects on his remarkable administrative journey

GAA Presidential candidate Martin Skelly and his wife Gaye pictured with family, Maura and Mark Brehon, Evan, James and Tara Skelly at the launch of his campaign. Photo by Michelle Ghee

With the warm welcoming fire crackling away in the background, Martin Skelly, candidly confessed from the comfort of his sitting room couch at home in Newtowncashel, “To become GAA President, I can assure you, was never my long term ambition. But when something or a position becomes available my nature is ‘to give it a go’ and this is where the journey has brought me to and I wouldn’t change it.”

And as the race to become the GAA’s 39th Uachtarán enters its final furlong, Martin believes he possesses the necessary credentials to take him past the finishing post in pole position.

“I think I have as good a chance as any of the other candidates. In my visits here and there, in Ireland and abroad, I have been getting an excellent reception. I think it will go right down to the wire. I am a very proud Longford man and I feel that my election would be good for the GAA, not only in Longford but the wider midlands area.”

In the vote to succeed Drumgoon Éire Óg’s Aogan Ó Fearghail, the first Cavan man to serve as GAA President, Martin will be up against other high profile candidates in the guise of Frank Burke (Galway), Robert Frost (Clare), John Horan (Dublin) and Sean Walsh (Kerry).

It is a congested field and is one of the most fiercely contested Presidential campaigns. That, however, hasn’t, nor will it faze the former Longford and Leinster Council Chairperson.

He got his first taste of GAA administration as a 16-year-old and the responsibility rested comfortably on his young shoulders. He was subsequently ‘nudged’ towards filling the role of Longford GAA Coaching & Development officer during a meeting he wasn’t even at!

Then, after completing seven years as Longford Cathaoirleach, and having previously never stepped foot inside a provincial council meeting, he contested the position of Leinster Vice Chairperson in 2008 and pulled off a stunning one-vote victory at the expense of Dublin’s John Horan. That success meant he would automatically assume the Chairperson’s hot-seat three years later for a three year term.

Martin takes up the story, “I never attended a Leinster Council meeting as a delegate. After the five year rule came in, I stood down at County Convention in 2007 and was elected unanimously as Leinster delegate. The others nominated withdrew and allowed me to stand unopposed. You don’t begin to attend meetings until after Leinster Convention, and with the Vice Chairmanship available, I decided to let my name forward, put myself on a fast track. It was open to any delegate or county to go for it.”

“I got over the line by one vote over the man that recently completed his term as Chairman (John Horan). So my first meeting at Leinster was to step in as vice chair at the top table.”

Seamus Flynn was Longford’s other Leinster Council delegate. “Seamus was my minder down in Wexford at Leinster Convention. He was up until 5am persuading the Louth delegates to vote for me. He had his job done as I got over the line.”

Martin reflected, “It seems like a blur, even at this stage. Things were happening so fast. I was a complete outsider in the race. People in other counties were stunned by the result. I had built up a rapport with many of the other County Chairmen. John Horan had come from a Coaching & Games background. It was from working with other Co Boards that gave me the impetus. They nudged me and urged me to give it a go. The homecoming was special. There were huge crowds and bonfires, organised by Peter Hanley and his cohort of friends. It was a lovely evening.”

61-year-old Martin has been immersed in GAA as a player and administrator since childhood. His mother died when he was just four months old and he was reared in Rathfarnham until the age of 15 when he returned to his beloved Newtowncashel after his father remarried.

His first steps into administration came when he was sixteen. “At the age of 16, I went to the Cashel minor AGM. Unfortunately, I opened my mouth, and I left with a job!” In a parish where working the land, the ESB and Bord na Mona dominated life, he believed ‘not enough was being done’ to develop football. “On one occasion there was no transport to bring a team to play neighbouring Killashee. As long as I was minor secretary, I ensured that never happened again.” He also hailed the contribution of the Bannon brothers – Dinny and Brendan – for their leadership within the club.

Martin progressed from farm management to working as wages clerk with Bord na Mona at Mount Dillon and it was there that ‘the running of the Bord na Mona All-Ireland Championship came to his door’. He recalled top quality players like Roscommon duo Patsy Cox and Danny Murray, Pat Mullooly (RIP) ‘a good personal friend’, Brendan and Eamon Smyth, and Terry Campbell from Killashee, ‘whose high fielding was legendary’.

Martin says he was fortunate to win four Longford senior football championship medals with Cashel and was proud to be secretary during the club’s most successful era and the development of Pairc Chiaran. “ESB and BnaM were huge employers in the area. Cashel would never have won a SFC without them. The drip of emigration slipped to a trickle thanks to them.”

Picture: A safe pair hands...Martin Skelly, anxiously it has be said, relives his playing days while guarding the net and proving that he has a safe pair of hands during a charity game in memory of Sharon Coughlan in Longford Slashers a number of years ago.

He became Coaching & Development Officer with Longford County Board in 1993, replacing fellow club man Sean Casey ‘who had a huge passion’. “Sean went to Burundy to work on a BnaM scheme and I was nominated to replace him at a meeting I was not at!” Martin revealed the most exciting part of the brief was working with top coaches, including Eugene McGee, and the best young talent. “Paddy Dowd, Enda Williams and those guys came in at 12 years of age to development squads and went on and won a Leinster minor title in 2002.”

Martin’s forward thinking resulted in a radical move, hiring two pitches from Longford Rugby Club as the GAA had no all-weather pitch at the time. “I spoke to Derick Turner of Longford RFC and agreed a package. It was a good example of cross co-operation and it made sense.”

Longford defeated Meath by 3-8 to 2-5 in the 2002 Leinster Minor Final and Martin was delighted to be ‘a cog’ in that successful wheel.

“Jimmy Gacquin drove that minor team over the line. But the key with anything, and I always believe in this. You should never be afraid to bring in people that know more than yourself on any project. We had outstanding coaches within the county, and on a purely voluntary basis, the likes of Eugene McGee, Brendan Smyth and Mike Kenny, from my own club, got involved with coaching.”

A competitive squad was brought together at U-14 level and a spirit was engendered in them.
Martin recalled the passion of Dromard and their positive philosophy towards the county development squads. “The only danger was they would send you in the whole club,” he joked. He praised the behind the scenes commitment and work of TJ Ward, Paddy Doris and John Greene Snr, and referred to when a 13-year-old Shane Mulligan almost packed it all in but for the persuasive skills of Frankie Mulligan and himself.

With the memories and stories in full flow, Martin is interrupted by the ring tone of his mobile phone.
Phew, respite for the interviewer!

Cashel club matters dominate the conversation.

You know what they say if you need to get something done, ask a busy man!

Our chat resumes.

“I ran for County Chairman in 2000 and was successful.” He spent seven years at the helm, a spell that coincided with the introduction of the All-Ireland SFC qualifiers and the development of Pearse Park as Longford hosted Kerry in Division 1 of the NFL and Dublin in the Leinster Championship before a sun-splashed 16,000 attendance in 2006.

Michael McCormack was Longford senior manager in 2001 and an All-Ireland qualifier loss against Wicklow effectively ended his tenure with Denis Connerton succeeding him.

“Mattie Fox was part of the set-up along with Denis and it was quite a successful time. We beat Derry to win promotion to Division 1, and our first game in the top flight was against Kerry. It was also Jack O’Connor’s first game in charge and Stephen Lynch shook the rigging to give us the win. We then beat Westmeath, with Paidi O Se at the helm, in Mullingar.”

Martin recalled that the year finished disappointingly as being in Division 1 seriously tested the depth of Longford’s panel. “The excitement around Pearse Park was astounding the evening we beat Kerry. People were on cloud nine. They didn’t go home and stayed around Longford all evening.”

The Presidential hopeful agreed that such is the professional dynamic around inter-county teams that the chance of the minnow defeating the master is becoming less and less in the GAA.

He suggests that Longford lose their inhibitions when they play in the All-Ireland qualifiers and he reeled off fond memories. Paul Barden’s magical point during a 1-16 to 0-14 win over Down in 2002 at Pearse Park. “It was the best ever individual score I witnessed and just a pity it wasn’t a goal.”

He continued, “Another outstanding evening was in 2004. Denis introduced Declan Reilly, and Martin Mulleady, who was elected to the County Council the same day. We beat Monaghan in Clones by 4-15 to 1-17.”

In 2006, with Luke Dempsey and Declan Rowley spearheading the Longford management, Martin along with then County Secretary Seamus Quinn lobbied Leinster Council Chairman and future GAA President Liam O’Neill, to fix Longford’s championship game against Dublin for Pearse Park. Their wish was granted and there was an incredible atmosphere as the Dubs rolled into Longford.

Indeed, Martin sees no reason why the Dubs aren’t on the road every year. “There has to be a balance, once a county has the facilities.”

If successful in his Presidential bid, Martin suggests, one of the things he will be trying to ensure is that every county has “its own iconic stadium, a field of dreams, worthy of the name ‘stadium’, with decent ancillary facilities for spectators, and centres of excellence all up to a high standard comparable - if not better - than any other competing sports, while trainers of young people in our games should be educated on how to get the message across to youngsters.”

Asked if this was merely a pipe dream, he replied and insisted this is achievable.

He argued there are counties across north Leinster crying out for development and he complimented the officers of Longford County Board for their work in trying to find a solution to the issues at Glennon Brothers Pearse Park. “I’m hopeful a resolution is well on its way. It has been an extremely trying time for Longford GAA.”

Returning to 2006, Martin spoke of the many people that rolled their sleeves up in the six months prior to the Dubs match to ensure Pearse Park was in ‘pristine condition’.
“The effort was led by Donal Brady and Frank Kiernan. Everyone was doing their bit.”

Although they lost to the Dubs, Longford’s run in the qualifiers was sensational, with victories over Waterford, Tipperary and Derry, leading to a mass exodus of Longfordians to Killarney on July 29.
“We may have lost by 1-11 to 4-11 but we left with our heads held high. People in Kerry still talk about the day Longford took over the Kingdom. It was a special time.”

Before the GPA rose to prominence, Martin said he’d like to think that player welfare was to the forefront of his agenda in Longford. “Players were very well looked after. There were trips to Cyprus and Abu Dhabi. There were monthly meetings between County Board and team representatives. If there were issues, that was the forum for them to be ironed out, not in the media. Former GAA President Sean McCague commented upon it and said our model should be in every county.”

It was during his chairmanship that the Longford GAA Race Day began and it has brought in €1.5m to-date.

Photo: Martin Skelly, Mickey Joe Keogh, Melissa Lyons, Sinead Husssey, Colette Reynolds and Gerry Hagan pictured at the Longford GAA Race Day in Punchestown in 2015. This year will mark the 15th anniversary of the race day which has raised €1.5 million for Longford GAA since it began.
Photo by Declan Gilmore

This year is the 15th anniversary race day and Martin paid tribute to John Bannon and the Dublin committee, led by Gerry Farrell, Seamus Ross and Oliver Barden, for their contribution. “The race day at Punchestown has sold out consistently and my advice to people wishing to attend this year is to book their table early.”

RTE’s Sinead Hussey is one of the newest members of the Dublin committee and Martin would love to see more new people get involved. “It is a great day for the Longford diaspora to keep in touch. It is a great social occasion and raises important funds for our county teams, in hurling and football, both underage and senior.”

Martin Skelly fact-file

THE FAMILY MAN
Married to Gaye, from the renowned Dunne musical family in Longford town.
They have two daughters and two sons.
Daughter Maura and her husband Rory Brehon live locally with their two children, Mark and Luke
Son Evan and his partner Daniella are parents to Martin and Gaye’s third grandchild, Jessica
Daughter Tara lives in Augsburg in Germany, with her partner Simon, and she founded the Rómhánaigh Augsburg Óg GAA club
Youngest son, James played in last year’s Longford intermediate final for Cashel

THE ADMINISTRATOR
National Féile Chairperson: 2015 - 2017
32nd Leinster Council Chairperson: 2011 - 2013
Leinster Council Vice Chairperson: 2008 - 2010
Longford County Board Chairperson: 2001 - 2007
Longford County Board Development Officer: 1993 - 2000
Longford GAA Race Day Chairperson: 2003 - 2017
Cashel Secretary 1982 - 1984
Cuchulainn’s Minor Club Secretary: 1971
Cuchulainn’s Minor Club Treasurer: 1994 – 2005

THE PLAYER
Leinster VS medal with Longford: 1970
Longford SFC medals: 1977, 1983, 1984 & 1986
Leader Cup medals: 1976, 1977, 1978, 1983 & 1984
Cashel Tournament medal: 1972
All-Ireland Masters medal: 2000

PART TWO: IN NEXT WEEK'S LEADER

Martin Skelly reflects on his term as Leinster Council Chairman, the challenges facing the GAA and rural parishes, his Presidential election campaign and what he hopes to achieve if he becomes the first Longford man elected to the GAA’s top job.