Former GAA president, player and prominent referee


JOHN DOWLING: The death of John Dowling on February 9th aged 70, robs the GAA of one of its most forceful former presidents. His contributions at the association's annual congresses weren't intended to be crowd-pleasers: they were blunt, no-nonsense expressions of his deeply held convictions. He devoted more than 50 years of his life to the GAA as a player, prominent referee and administrator.

Whereas he could be abrasive, most who knew him even slightly recognised his straightforwardness and uncomplicated good humour. Those who knew him better attest to his surreptitious kindness and deep sense of Christianity.

Born on November 18th, 1931, in Tullamore, Co Offaly, John Dowling was one of seven children of William and Annie (née Cummins) Dowling. He was educated at the old St Brigid's Boys' School in the town. His father was head gardener at the local general hospital.

After leaving school early he went to work with the Department of Posts and Telegraphs as a telegram delivery boy at a wage of five shillings a week - providing that he supplied his own bicycle. He later qualified to become a postal clerk. His whole career was spent in the postal service and in his final years there, he combined his role as GAA president with serving as a goodwill ambassador within the company.

He was an accomplished dual club player with his native Tullamore and represented Offaly at hurling, but it was as a referee that he sprang to national prominence. In 1959, he took charge of his first All-Ireland final, that year's football showpiece between Kerry and Galway. A year later he had the distinction of refereeing both hurling and football All-Ireland finals and so emulated his countyman Jimmy Flaherty, who had accomplished the same double in 1939. In all he officiated at five All-Ireland finals, including Down's historic football victory in 1960 - the first of any cross-Border county - and three memorable Wexford-Tipperary hurling finals in 1960, 1962 and 1968.

As a referee he was described as "very much respected for his authority and competency. He just got on with the job in his quiet and efficient way". John Dowling's career as an administrator began when he was 22 and was elected secretary of the Tullamore club. By 1959 he had become Offaly's delegate to Central Council. Two years later he was elected assistant county secretary and in 1965 he became county secretary, a position he was to hold for 23 years.

During his tenure Offaly won breakthrough All-Irelands in both football and hurling. In an interview months after the 1971 success in football, he was asked what the impact of the football triumph would be on hurling. He replied that he expected Offaly to win a hurling All-Ireland within 10 years and in 1981, the county duly did.

Part of the credit for this is attributed to his reform of the county structures in the early 1970s when the separate football and hurling boards were abolished and all activity brought directly under the control of the county board.

Between 1981-1983 he served as chairman of the Leinster Council and having contested the presidency of the GAA in the centenary congress of 1984, he went on to win election to that office three years later.

His presidency (1988-1991) was an eventful one and he took the first steps towards the redevelopment of Croke Park by opening negotiations for the acquisition of the Belvedere College grounds behind the old Cusack Stand.

There was also the occasional controversy, most notably when he was reported as saying that he would spend the afternoon of the Euro 88 Ireland-England soccer match tending to his garden. He was upset at the publication of what he regarded as private conversation and the brief furore which followed.

In this, however, he wouldn't have been striving for effect and had little interest in sports outside Gaelic games and athletics - helping found the Tullamore Harriers club in the mid-1950s. Other hobbies included an inherited interest in gardening.

John Dowling was also an intensely religious man. It was recalled at his funeral that during his trip to Australia for the 1990 International Rules series, he had been thrown into a panic at the end of one long flight at the thought of missing Sunday Mass for the first time in his life.

A former chairperson of the pastoral council of his parish, he was also the principal force behind the graves committee that did immense work in renovating the parish graveyard.

He married May Carey from Mullingar on July 30th, 1962, and was a devoted family man, raising a family of four children, Blaithín, Fionnuala, Kieran and Cormac. He is also survived by his brothers, Billy, Chris, Joe and Mick, and sisters, Esther and Nancy.

John Dowling: born 1931; died, February 2002