GAAconomics – a strange and brilliant hybrid of pragmatism and idealism

Michael Moynihan’s intriguing tale follows the trail of money in the Association

Dublin supporters unfurl a giant flag in a poignant tribute on All-Ireland final day to the late Kevin Heffernan – former player and manager. Liam Hayes’s book, Heffo – A Brilliant Mind  looks at the career of the Dublin legend. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Dublin supporters unfurl a giant flag in a poignant tribute on All-Ireland final day to the late Kevin Heffernan – former player and manager. Liam Hayes’s book, Heffo – A Brilliant Mind looks at the career of the Dublin legend. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile


The publishing industry fondness for GAA subject-matter endures and this year’s Christmas stockpile of books contains much that is familiar. There is memoir, as always, and biography and history too.

But for sheer novelty we have Michael Moynihan to thank for his inventive take on what he calls GAAconomics: The Secret Life of Money in the GAA (Gill & MacMillan). This is a book that was waiting to be written as in GAA-land, nothing sets nostrils flaring quite like the subject of money.

How much does the Association make, from where does it come from and where does it and should it go?

Eschews politics
These questions lie at the core of an informative and wide-ranging piece of work which, sensibly, eschews polemic and partisanship in favour of a calm exposition of the relevant issues and debates. Moynihan’s style is conversational and he consults widely and wisely, allowing the views of economists, historians, sponsors, broadcasters, PR men, Croke Park chiefs, GPA executives and others a fair airing.

What results is a diversity of perspectives on a multiplicity of subject-matter – from the prospects of professionalism to the marketing of games, from gate receipts to club lottos, sponsorship and more.

If economics is the dismal science, this book makes clear that GAAconomics is not a science at all – it’s more an ethos, a value system, a strange and brilliant hybrid of pragmatism and idealism.

In fact, as so much of the testimony attests, the more you follow the money – at least the legitimate, over-the-counter kind – the more you comprehend just what it is that makes the GAA both different to other major sporting organisations and more socially significant.

By following the money you see how hard-headed commercialism – at all levels of the GAA – comes tempered by a sense of wider responsibility. How else to explain the recycling of so much of GAA revenues (86 per cent and rising) throughout its club/county network or the commercial decisions (like the opening of Croke Park for schools/junior club finals) that make no commercial sense ?

“There are a lot of inherent contradictions,” says Tom Ryan, the GAA’s financial director, before adding the “whole thing is volunteer-led and community-based, and we’re not here to make a profit.”

From big money to big names: across the literature of modern sport, the autobiography is the predominant genre and here, at least, the GAA conforms to the general norm.

This year’s major contributions – Seán Óg ÓhAilpín, The Autobiography (Penguin Ireland) and DJ: A Sporting Legend, the official autobiography (Blackwater Press) – come from two hurlers who have much in common: both are All-Ireland winners and poster-boys for their sport. Both carry reputations for being fiercely competitive on the field and unfailingly generous with their spare time off it. And both, too, have been subjects of reverence and rumour within their respective counties. And yet, anybody who chooses to read these two worthwhile books together will probably be struck more by what distinguishes their experiences than binds them.

This is not simply a comment on their contrasting life trajectories – Ó hAilpín’s epic journey from sun-blessed Fiji to Sydney to the dreary cold of a late 1980s winter in Cork couldn’t differ more from Carey’s upbringing in rural Gowran.

No, it has more to do with how their inter-county careers have been shaped, defined even, by the relationships they have had with the various managers under whom they played. Donal O’Grady and John Allen apart, Ó hAilpín relations with various Cork hurling managements have not always run smooth and he doesn’t disguise his hurt at what he considers the premature ending of his inter-county career – first by Denis Walsh and then by Jimmy Barry Murphy.

Own choosing
Carey, in contrast, retired from Kilkenny duty at a moment of his own choosing and he heaps varying degrees of praise on each of the five managers he served under. Brian Cody, quite properly, gets a chapter to himself, but emerges as elusive a personality as ever. It’s not that Carey holds anything back; it’s just that he, like all other Kilkenny players who have played under the James Stephens man, know so much and no more.

And what they know is this: “He’s good for them, good for Kilkenny hurling and, indeed, good for hurling in general, but that’s as far as it goes. After that, he’s a private man who does his own thing.”

The cult of what Carey terms “the boss”, the manager, in Gaelic games owes much to the personality of Kevin Heffernan and the hubbub that accompanied the rise of the Dublin footballers in the 1970s. The man who gave to Gaelic games ‘Heffo’s Army’ has been the focus of some brilliant journalism over the years, but when he passed away in January this year, he left behind neither an autobiography nor an authorised account of his extraordinary sporting life, times and legacy. With Heffo: A Brilliant Mind (Transworld Ireland), therefore, Liam Hayes has gone some way to redressing a serious deficit in the country’s sports literary canon. He picks his way through the milestones in Heffernan’s sporting career - with St Vincent’s, the Dubs and the Irish International Rules team – the lively narrative informed by the insights of those who toiled with him, under him or against him.

This a book that will undoubtedly add to the mythology of Heffernan, but, much as with Brian Cody, there is much about the Marino man that is simply unknowable – now, sadly, irrevocably so.

Heffernan also looms large in Dáire Whelan’s The Managers: the Tactics and Thinkers That Transformed Gaelic Football (Hachette Books Ireland), an entertaining read that charts the evolution of Gaelic football from the 1960s onwards, from the dismantling of simple catch and kick orthodoxies, to the rise of coaching, to the contemporary obsession with structured, massed defences. Many of the sport’s leading personalities are interviewed, some providing surprisingly fresh insights. From Donegal’s Brian Mc Eniff , for instance, we learn how advances in telecommunications and man-management went hand in glove as phones, then mobile phones became more available.

Richard McElligott’s book, Forging a Kingdom: The GAA in Kerry 1884-1934 (Collins Press) is for those who like their history underpinned by scrupulous, scholarship. This is an important piece of work which examines in terrific detail the multifaceted realities of GAA life in a single county, probing the interaction of sport with wider social, cultural and political forces. It tells how Kerry evolved into a Gaelic football powerhouse. This book deserves a readership far beyond the Kingdom’s borders.