Eugene McGee obituary: Throughout his writing career, his passion for Gaelic games was a constant theme
Journalist was deeply committed to the local and rural world he knew so well
Eugene McGee was born into a farming and teaching family in north Longford in 1941. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Born: 16th November, 1941
Died: 5th May, 2019
The defining moment of the life of Eugene McGee, who has died aged 77, was the unexpected triumph of the senior Offaly Gaelic football team, which he managed, in winning the Sam Maguire Cup in 1982.
It happened in a now-vanished Ireland, a uni-cultural white, Catholic world, local, parochial and rural. But it was McGee’s great achievement that he could be said to have personified everything good, and worth keeping, about that world, and, in a business career from 1983, to have demonstrated both its resilience and its versatility in what became, from then on, a rapidly changing environment.
McGee could be seen as a kind of perfect manager, not just of a particular football team at a particular time, but such a manager also for a period of huge upheaval.
His first major challenge after the famous triumph which saw the Sam Maguire make its way to Tullamore and not Tralee, thus denying Kerry their fifth title in a row, was to become managing editor in the following year of the Longford Leader at a critical point in that newspaper’s history, when, following a bitter strike lasting 38 weeks, its continued existence was in considerable doubt, having haemorrhaged readership and advertising.
But survive it did. Thereafter, in a very uncertain situation commercially and technologically, it flourished. In the mid-1980s, McGee persuaded the printers’ union at the newspaper to become the first Irish provincial paper to accept direct input by journalists.
Other challenges at that time included the then-impending introduction of local radio stations, competing for advertising, and the depressed economic condition of the country.
Despite this, McGee had such success with the Leader that by 1989, he led a management buy-out. It was a typically brave decision by one who had the confidence to take carefully calculated risks across the whole spectrum of his life.
McGee had come to the Leader by a circuitous and lonely route through freelance journalism. After taking an arts degree at UCD, preceded by secondary schooling at Moyne Latin School, which, under the principalship of his beloved brother, Fr Phil McGee, became eventually the Moyne Community School, he taught for a short time, gradually building up a freelance career with The Gaelic Weekly, a magazine focusing on Gaelic games nationally.
This brought him to the attention of the Sunday Press, where in the early 1970s he was hired as a contributor, writing on GAA sports. In 1980 he moved to the then newly-published Sunday Tribune. Despite, from 1983, being a full-time editor, he continued to work as a columnist for the Tribune, and later for the Evening Herald, and, after retirement in 2004, for the Irish and Sunday Independent titles.
In business, he was one of the first investors in the then-new local radio, taking a share in Shannonside Radio at its launch in 1989, and starting a local newspaper for Cavan, the Cavan Leader, although this was unsuccessful, ultimately closing down. In 1989, he led a management buy-out of the Longford Leader, and by the time he and his fellow shareholders sold the newspaper in 2004, he had become one of the provincial press’ most successful operators.
Throughout his writing career, McGee’s passion for Gaelic games was a constant theme: his leadership of Offaly as manager from 1976 until 1982 came with a long pedigree of commitment. It began with his management of UCD to six Sigerson Cup wins in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during which the club also won two All-Ireland Club and two Dublin championship titles.
In his native Longford, he coached, successively, his own Aughnacliffe home village club, Colmcille GFC, Dromard GFC and, perhaps most notably, Cashel GFC, with whom he won both a County Senior League title and the Sean Connolly (Senior Championship) Cup in 1978, all the while slowly also rebuilding a senior Offaly side from a sluggish position in the mid-70s, to three Leinster Senior titles in succession in the early 1980s, crowned by the All-Ireland victory in 1982.
He also twice managed the Irish team against Australia in the Compromise Rules International Series, emerging victorious 2-1 in the 1990 games.
In GAA matters, McGee maintained a respectful but confident position of critical neutrality, a feature also of his journalism. He had no time for the type of aggressive fouling which had become a feature of the senior game in the 1990s, and used his position as chairperson of the GAA’s Football Review Committee to oversee the introduction of the Black Card.
His concern for standards extended also to sports journalism, and in Chapter 40 of his autobiographical The GAA in My Time (2014), he was particularly critical of the tendency to get former star players to write – or to have ghost-written for them – newspaper columns.
“Their level of objectivity and impartiality is often far removed from what should be demanded by professional, properly-trained journalists,” he wrote. He also strongly criticised the contemporary problem of anonymous commentary on social media, “causing grave offence and acute embarrassment”.
McGee was deeply committed to the local and rural world he knew so well; he was a key figure in the St Christopher Services in Co Longford, chairing the board of its special school’s board of management, where his daughter, Linda, was a pupil, and remarked in The GAA in My Time that the most important part of a provincial newspaper was its “Local Notes.”
Eugene McGee was born into a farming and teaching family in north Longford in November, 1941, to Owen and Katie (nee Rehill) McGee, one of a family three boys and four girls. He is survived by his widow Marion (nee O’Connor, sister of former Offaly senior footballer Liam), their children Conor and Linda, and by his sisters Ita and Evangeline. His brothers Paid and Philip, and his sisters Kathleen and Alice predeceased him.