A proud day...Leinster Council Vice-Chairperson Martin Skelly presenting the Leinster Minor Football Championship Cup to Longford captain Dylan Quinn after they defeated Offaly at Croke Park in 2010.
By 9.30pm at Croke Park on Friday evening, Longford’s Martin Skelly will learn his fate and whether, after three intensive years of campaigning, if he is to be installed as the GAA’s 39th Uachtarán.
Securing election to the prestigious office would represent the culmination of a dream for the Cashel clubman but he refuses to get carried away about his chances of securing success in the high profile battle that has pitted him against Frank Burke (Galway), Robert Frost (Clare), John Horan (Dublin) and Sean Walsh (Kerry).
“At this moment in time, it impossible to predict what way it will go,” smiled Martin.
He suggests, “Shur, in the case of an election, the only truthful ballot is the one on the day. As Hillary Clinton and those supporting Brexit found out, and even the last Dáil election, all the polls were wrong.”
Describing the level of encouragement and support he has received on his exhaustive journey over the past number of months as ‘extremely humbling’, Martin suggests;
“I actually don’t know who will win. It is one of the tightest GAA Presidential contests. The candidates are huge GAA people, all personal friends. I will certainly be hoping it will be me.
“The campaign has been tiresome but memorable, rocky and turbulent at times. It is extremely humbling the level of support that I have got. If it was a public vote in the morning I think I would win by a landslide.
“The electorate at GAA Congress is elite, something like the Seanad. It is a very difficult electorate to get around to. I’ve given it everything and I hope I’ve given hope to my county. I’ve given as good as I’ve got.”
Martin said he wouldn’t be where he is without the support his wife Gaye and their family and the wider diaspora of Newtowncashel and Longford right throughout the world. “Personally, I hope I haven’t let them down.”
Revealing that he always looked up to well known administrators, John Greene Snr (Mostrim), who is a GAA Trustee, and former Leinster Council Chairperson Albert Fallon (Ballymahon), who previously contested the presidency, Martin said both men taught him a lot. “They were never afraid or shy at giving me advice.”
Picture: When Martin Skelly became the 32nd Leinster Council Chairperson in 2011, Convention was held in the Longford Arms Hotel. Martin is pictured here with Sheamus Howlin (Wexford, outgoing Leinster Council Chairperson), Christy Cooney (Cork, the then GAA President) and Pat Cahill (who was Longford GAA Chairperson at the time).
Newtowncashel may be a rural community, however, its links to Croke Park are significant. A native of the parish, Peter McKenna, is the Stadium Director, while Liam Mulvihill, the Ard Stiúrthóir credited with being the brainchild of the new Croke Park, his mother is from Cashel. “Peter is doing a fantastic job and Liam’s legacy will be there forever. The thoughts of what they have achieved makes the hair stand on my neck.”
When pressed about how many miles he covered during the campaign, Martin executes a perfect sidestep! No wonder he has four Longford SFC medals in his back pocket.
“I wouldn’t even hazard a guess,” he sighs, adding, “I don’t think my wife knows how deep we went into our resources. That’s the key. All of my family, club and county have been so supportive and so much behind me that even if I dared to walk away, I would not have been let.”
When Cavan’s Aogan Ó Fearghaíl was elected Uachtarán-tofa in 2014, Martin considered throwing his hat into the ring.
“Three years ago, I had a discussion with Sheamus Howlin (Wexford, also a former Leinster Council Chairperson) and we agreed that I would allow him to run solely on his own. Unfortunately, I did not get the same this time. There are two candidates from Leinster and that makes it difficult.
“I certainly can’t recall a tougher contest. There is no candidate in Ulster or overseas, so whichever candidate is able to procure the most number of votes in Ulster and overseas should be duly elected. That is the battle that is ongoing. It has involved a lot of travel, an awful lot of phone calls and a serious amount of letters and emails. It is just a hectic time, and I couldn’t do it without my family, even my neighbour is helping me out and my club.”
Martin, the current National Féile Chairperson, served as Leinster Council Vice Chairperson from 2008 to 2010, and during his last year of that term he had the huge honour of presenting the provincial minor football championship silverware to Longford captain Dylan Quinn after they put Offaly to the sword by 0-14 to 0-8 in the final at Croke Park.
Having completed his apprenticeship, sort-to-speak, he assumed the Leinster Chairmanship from 2011 to 2013. He ruefully quips, “Obviously, it was a time that coincided with one of the worst recessions this country ever had to deal with and Leinster Council gate revenues reduced from €8m to €4m during that time.”
Martin quickly adds, “Suffering a €4m drop in gate receipts creates extreme difficulty. But one of the things I was very proud of is that we had 120 people employed by Leinster Council in the various schemes and nobody lost their job. We really had to be prudent in how we managed the finances and I think it is a credit to all of the people that worked with me at that time on Leinster Council.”
While Leinster Council kept a tight grip on the purse strings, they still managed to introduce new initiatives and Martin believes the recession brought back a level of realism.
“The GAA is a voluntary organisation but we had been losing our sense of volunteerism. Huge money was being paid to managers and some clubs taking part in Féile were staying in 4 or 5 star hotels when going away for the weekend. We had actually lost the run of ourselves and did not where to stop. The recession was tough, it brought us back to realistic levels, and back to grassroots and the ethos of volunteerism which we need throughout the Association. We are on a more level keel now.”
The prowess of Kilkenny and Dublin in hurling and gaelic football, respectively, ensured that Leinster was to the forefront on the All-Ireland stage during his term as Chairperson and Martin also had the thrill of presenting the Bob O’Keeffe Cup, historically to Galway in 2012, and to Dublin in 2013.
He said the decision to allow Galway cross the Shannon and compete in the Leinster Championship was ‘done by mutual consent’. “I don’t regret it and it brought back a level of competition into the Leinster hurling championship.” Dublin’s hurling victory was their first since 1961 and Martin gained many admirers for calling upon former Dubs star Jimmy Grey to present the silverware to Johnny McCaffrey. “Jimmy has great friends in Ardagh and Rathcline and he also has relations in both parishes,” outlined Martin.
As provincial Chairperson, Martin served as Vice President of the Association, meaning that on occasion he represented the President at some functions. “This whetted my appetite and gave me insight into the role of President and the huge workload that goes with it.”
He represented the GAA at events in Asia, UK, US and the Middle East and it was during these trips that he came to realise the power of the GAA and what it means to Irish people, some of whom departed these shores and others by circumstance. “The GAA is the glue that brings these people together in towns and cities across the world. Volunteerism is paramount overseas.”
Martin is passionate about rural Ireland and if elected, he would focus on the plight of rural clubs.
“My parish is extremely rural. We are three parts surrounded by water here in Newtowncashel and we had extremely tough times during the flooding last year. We don’t have a shop. We have to travel ten miles to get a pint of milk, newspaper, whatever it is and I believe it is not only an issue for the GAA, it is also an issue for Government as well. It is imperative that local people support local enterprise to keep rural Ireland alive. Government, too, must realise that every time they close a post office or garda station it is sucking the life out of rural Ireland.”
Contending that ‘we have to keep the lights switched on’, he suggested a grant from Government of €10k or €15k might keep a shop, that is the lifeblood of a rural community, open.
Picture: Longford GAA Race Day Chairperson Martin Skelly pictured with RTE's Sinead Hussey.
Martin said the GAA prides itself in having a unit in every parish, 2,200 units or so, but suggested the existence of many of these clubs, particularly along the western seaboard and moving into the midlands, was under threat because of migration to the east coast. “The GAA has to keep its finger on the pulse and be proactive. While amalgamations are fine up to a point, every club has to hold on to its own identity. In my own club, we are down to the bare bones numbers-wise.”
The feedback Martin has received from smaller counties indicates that they are struggling to make ends meet, particularly in the counties where attracting major industry is a challenge.
“There is annoyance as counties want equalisation in relation to the distribution of funds. There is an east coast project and that needs to be strongly extended into the midlands and western region. I know it can’t be done overnight.”
“Player welfare is key in any president’s manifesto,” Martin states, rhyming off the problems faced by dual players and those eligible for both underage and adult competitions.
He continues: “County boards have to take stock. There are guidelines laid out by the GAA, but what may suit in one county may not suit in another. Sometimes we may need to get away from a stipulated rule.
“A plan must be worked out with the players as top of the agenda, not the club or the county. Aogán Ó Fearghail has been working hard on this, but the reality is extremely difficult and amateur players have to do exams and some want to avail of J1 visa breaks. In the GAA we tend not to want to get rid of competitions. It is very easy for people who have never sat on a fixture planning committee to come up with ‘solutions’, but people have been trying manfully for years. Each county has a different way of running club fixtures. In a nutshell, such a wide and varied issue is complicated, and is an absolute nightmare for somebody to solve.”
Championship structures and what is being termed the creation of ‘a Super 8’ series in the All-Ireland senior football championship are among the items up for debate at Congress this weekend.
Martin opines, “Páraic Ó Dufaigh is making a genuine attempt to compress the championship. The downside is that the motion only looks at redesigning the championship for the elite, top eight or maybe the top twelve counties, making it harder for a Tipperary or to have a shock like we had last year. There is nothing in this package except extra finance.
“We have to look closer at the structure. The issues are more problematic for second tier counties. We need to create a package that is attractive to them and one that culminates on All-Ireland Final day. The finals belong to the nation and not the elite.”
The GPA, newly formed CPA, free-to-air TV and paid for TV, the playing rules and more are also discussed in length during our interview, however, space constraints don’t permit me to delve into these topics.
Three years ago, Congress voted for the first Cavan man to become Uachtarán-tofa, and Martin Skelly is hoping for a similar breakthrough outcome on Friday evening.
Longford is one of ten counties that hasn’t witnessed ‘one of their own’ in the role of GAA President and the GAA has elected eleven Presidents since 1985, six from counties that hadn’t previously been represented in the office.
Martin will be bidding to become the seventh and all in Longford wish him well in his quest for a historic success.