Malachy Clerkin: Seán McCague was our school principal and our footballing god

He rose through the GAA in the same way he managed our school - a fundamentally practical doer of things that needed to be done

Tell you one thing that would have set Seán McCague’s wick a-quiver over the past few days – the fact that the GAA’s public statement commemorating him misspelt the name of his home club. “The Scottstown man served as the 33rd President of the Association from ...” Woah, woah, woah, lads. Scottstown? Where’s that?

True, there are parts of Knockatallon and Knockballyroney that are remote and far-flung indeed, so much so that anyone lost in them might need an adventurer of the calibre of Captain Scott to guide them back to civilisation. But no, there is but one ‘t’ in Scotstown. Has been this many a long century.

And if that all sounds needlessly pedantic to you, then you are revealing yourself as someone who was never a student in Scoil Mhuire in Monaghan during Seán McCague’s time as principal. Oh sure, he went on to do some stuff in the wider world. Big noise in the GAA, apparently. But to any of us who went to his school, he was, forever, McCague. And in McCague’s school, you did the thing right or you didn’t do it at all.

My abiding memory of him from those days was a speech he gave our school football team before a game. It might even possibly have been our first time playing for the school. And even though he was the Monaghan manager and had won Ulster titles and National Leagues and was basically a footballing god, the pregame speech had nothing to do with tactics or skills or anything like that. It was about one thing and one thing only. The referee.


“Everybody in this game today will make mistakes, boys,” he said. “That includes the referee. Nobody is going to give out to you for your mistakes so I don’t want to hear anybody giving out to the referee for his. If I hear anybody saying a word to the ref, I’ll take you off straight away.”

It’s the guts of 35 years since he gave us that talk and it’s entirely likely that it sticks in the mind because he gave it to us more than once. One way or the other, I can see him clear as day spelling it out. That was McCague. He was straight as a yardstick and if you wanted to impress him, you were too.

McCague was just a serious dude, a fundamentally unshowy, practical doer of things that needed to be done. He was a Central Council delegate while he was still the manager of the county team. Unthinkable now.

And why wouldn’t you want to impress him? He was the manager of the Monaghan football team at a time when the Monaghan football team were good. The first time any of us ever went to Croke Park was the 1985 league final against Armagh. The second time was four months later when Monaghan drew with Kerry – Kerry! – in the All-Ireland semi-final. In between the two, Barry McGuigan beat Eusabio Pedroza to win the world title in Loftus Road.

We had good reason to think we were the absolute centre of the sporting universe that summer. You would too if you were seven years old and the principal of the boys’ school up on the hill was on television talking to Ger Canning with exactly the same manner and directness that he talked to lads in the schoolyard.

“I don’t know whether I should be congratulating you or commiserating with you,” Ger said to him after Eamonn McEneaney’s late free from the ends of the earth in that semi-final. “I suppose neither, in the circumstances,” said McCague. “Initially I was disappointed but I’ve matured a lot in the last 10 minutes.”

It was about as close he came to a wisecrack. In later years – and especially as he rose through the ranks of GAA officialdom – plenty of observers portrayed him as a dour Border man, implacable to the point of stubbornness. But that wasn’t him. It was more that he was just a serious dude, a fundamentally unshowy, practical doer of things that needed to be done. He was a Central Council delegate while he was still the manager of the county team. Unthinkable now.

As we all got older and moved on in life, his name would bubble up occasionally and we’d note that no matter the stage of his ascent, the first principles stayed the same. When he was put in charge of the GAA’s Games Administration Committee and therefore given responsibility for discipline, we knew how that would go long before the rest of the country did. You’d hear of some county player looking to appeal a suspension for throwing a box and you’d shake your head. Keep the petrol money and head out for a few pints, lad. You won’t be getting around McCague.

And when all the big, complicated changes started to come about in the GAA near the end of the 1990s and during his presidency, it was no surprise that his brand of direct, honest dealing had a way of simplifying things. Scrapping Rule 21 – the ban on security forces in the north from playing Gaelic games – was never going to be straightforward. But the one thing all parties would have known was that with McCague there, the top table had heft, empathy and sincerity. Right man, right time.

His health failed all too rapidly in recent years, robbing the association of his voice and intelligence and the chance to have him as an elder statesman around the place. But the end of the road brought peace to him and his family, a mixture of sadness and relief and release.

Still, though. Guarantee you he’ll not be in the grave long before he starts spinning at the sight of that errant “t” in “Scottstown”. McCague would never have let you away with that one.