Loneliness and controversy: Life as GAA director-general

Páraic Duffy on retirement: ‘If Croke Park was in Monaghan, I’d have the perfect job’

Director-general of the GAA. Would you do it? Would you want to? It’s a uniquely conditioned role in Irish life. You’re the face of an organisation over whose body you realistically have little control. In theory, you’re the chief exec, the grand poobah. In practice, you’re the complaints department. The suit of all suits. Them Hoors Above in Croke Park made flesh.

At some point over the next couple of months, Páraic Duffy will take the lift down from the sixth floor of Croke Park for the last time. He will point his car up the M1, turn off at the Ardee bypass and kill the hour from there to Scotstown with, probably, some class of podcast. Major League baseball will be coming round by then so maybe something to do with the Red Sox. Or Spurs maybe. Sport, anyway.

His phone won’t ring with the next day’s problem. His mind won’t drift to the length of his to-do list. He will melt back into rural life, and the future of the country’s biggest sporting and cultural organisation will be someone else’s look-out. And he will be thoroughly and genuinely content for that to be the case.

“If you asked me to do another year, I just couldn’t face it,” says Duffy. “Partly that’s because when you decide to go, you’re halfway out the door already. For the last year, I’ve known that this was going to be the end of it. At the moment, I’m doing the work but my head is back in Monaghan.

“For the last 21 years – between a decade as principal in St Macartan’s [College in Monaghan] and 11 years working here – I’m not complaining but it’s been two pretty intense jobs. Both of them are never-ending, they’re all-year-round. I know the big concern my family have is how I will settle down into not working at a very intense rate. They wonder how I will fill my time, how I will slow down. I think I’ll manage it.”

One way or another, he is done. When he took over from Liam Mulvihill in November 2007, his intention was to do the seven-year term and let that be that. Liam O'Neill asked him to stay on as the eighth year loomed and he was enjoying it enough to keep trucking.

Dark side of the moon

But in his head, Duffy was never going to do any more than three more years. Scotstown isn’t exactly the dark side of the moon – he can go door to door in two hours – but it’s There, not Here. He has lived apart from his family for a decade. It’s time to go home.

“That’s been the hardest part. That’s the one thing above all others that I’m looking forward to seeing the end of. I’m looking forward to getting back to Monaghan. That was the biggest negative for me. I used to travel back to Dublin religiously on a Sunday night, I never left it until Monday morning. I always said that if Croke Park was in Monaghan, I’d have the perfect job. Living away from home for 10 years has been difficult, no doubt about it.

“I used to find the evenings very long. I was living in an apartment – my daughter was with me so that was a help but she has her own life to live. I used to miss the evening time being at home, going out training teams with Scotstown and all the craic involved with that.

“That’s the one thing I’m really looking forward to. Being at home, being involved with the club, being involved locally. That was the biggest negative of living in Dublin. Financially it would have made a lot more sense living at home but you couldn’t have done the job as well as you’d like.”

Whether or not he has done it well depends on your own context and the prism through which you see the association. That Duffy is popular with his staff is obvious when you talk to anyone in the building; that he is impressive in the face of questioning – for instance during his annual trip to the Oireachtas committee – equally so. Even his loudest critics regard him as an honest broker and an indefatigable worker.

And yet, and yet. It is undeniable that the broader view towards him from within the plain populace of the GAA has turned attritional over the past few years. He has become a lightning rod for the myriad ills that have chipped away at the association’s soul. Take your pick from the Sky deal, the fixtures morass, the championship structures and plenty more.

Symbolic problem

Some of it is his own fault, certainly. The Sky deal would be a symbolic problem regardless of how it was arrived at, but for it to come no more than a year after he had effectively ruled it out in Michael Moynihan's book GAAconomics: The Secret Life of Money in the GAA was a bad misstep.

“With our TV rights we’re constrained, rightly, because we wouldn’t get away with selling the rights to the championship to Sky Sports,” he said, before doing just that. Whatever about the ins-and-outs of the move – all of them well-aired at this stage – the abrupt about-turn made him appear disingenuous, a charge nobody was ever able to level at him before.

“On that, I would say that’s fair comment. People do have a right to change their mind, at the same time. But I’ll tell you, Liam Mulvihill’s last report was in 2007 and it was when Setanta came in and had National League rights for the first time. And he talked about how this was a challenge for the association and so on, the first time our games had gone onto a subscription channel. That was a watershed moment at the time and yet it didn’t seem to cause anything like the same furore.

“I accept the fact that it is a problem for people. I have said that numerous times and I have written it numerous times. People will have a different perspective on this to me. They have well- and sincerely-held views and I have never questioned that, and I never ever would. But I have a different view too and people know my reasons for them.”

At the heart of every virtually every criticism that comes his way is the GAA’s unabashed move towards commercialism. Partly this is down to the fact that everyone in the GAA thinks everyone else is making out like bandits. But mostly, it’s down to the fact – readily admitted to by Duffy – that they have chosen their direction deliberately and unapologetically.

“Obviously, it’s something we have taken a fair bit of criticism about. But for me, it’s simple. I want the GAA to be better and stronger and relevant. You can’t do that without finance. We have to compete and our sport has to be presented in the best possible sense. Certainly you would be queasy sometimes and you have to get the balance right. But I think the vast majority of GAA members understand.

“I think first of all they’re very proud of the stadium here and what it has become. At the end of last year, for example, the stadium gave us a cheque for €7.2 million to put into developing the association. I understand people’s concerns but I think we do try to maintain a balance.

‘Defending positions’

“I find myself sometimes defending positions that people are uncomfortable with. But I do genuinely feel that most members are with us on most things. I have been around the country, clubs all over the place. I don’t think that sometimes it’s as big an issue for members as it’s made out to be. I think people understand we have to keep up with the times and that we have to be commercial to remain relevant.”

Money, money, money. Now more than ever, it’s the GAA’s very bloodstream. Nobody has enough, nobody thinks the other crowd deserve it more than they do. If the inter-county game wasn’t where the money was, there’d be no problem with club fixtures. If the provincial councils weren’t maintained on the revenues from the provincial championships, the overall structures could be changed to something more sensible. In time, Duffy reckons, that’s what’s going to have its say.

"There is a problem with the provincial championships. You can't deny that. The Leinster Championship at the moment doesn't look good for the year ahead. When you see Meath last Sunday and Kildare at the bottom of Division One, you have to ask where in Leinster is the challenge coming from. And to be honest about it, that's the biggest problem because Dublin at the moment are in a position where they can freewheel until the provincial championships are over. I think this year that will be a little bit different because the round robin will change things for everyone.

"But it's definitely a problem. If we continue with a situation where Dublin win, say, nine out of the next 10 Leinster championships and Kerry do the same in Munster, as seems possible, I do think it will get to a situation where the provincial championships won't go on forever. It is being questioned now more than it ever was before.

“Now, as a Monaghan person I do still see a value in it and even in Connacht it has a certain value. There will be an attachment to it in some counties. But I think eventually, if it continues in this way, you will get to a situation where people will decide, look, the provincial championships should be a competition on their own earlier in the season. I think that change will come. I do. So much has changed in the past 10 to 15 years, I think it’s inevitable.”

Classic conundrum

Dublin’s pre-eminence in the football championship has come about on his watch, during which the association aggressively targeted the city for growth. In a way, this is the classic conundrum for the person in his chair. Had the GAA stood idly by and done what they’d always done in Dublin, their foothold in the suburbs would have slipped unacceptably. By pouring funding in at grassroots level on an unprecedented scale, they have protected their sport. At the same time, they’ve contributed to the moribund nature of the top end of it.

"Dublin got their act together and money is part of it, yes," says Duffy. "But I've said this before, the credit goes to John Costello and it goes to the Dublin county board and to Jim Gavin. We will look back and see what a fantastic team this was. But it will pass. It won't last forever. They could win it this year or next year but that's sport. Unless you are going to talk about the way the GAA is organised, on the basis of county boundaries, I don't have an answer to it.

“The one alternative is to make Dublin weaker, is to split them into two or three or four or whatever it takes to make them not as strong as they are now. I don’t think that would be good for the GAA and I have outlined the reasons in my report. If you want to make sure that Dublin will be weaker, that’s the way to do it. But that, to me, is a price I wouldn’t pay.

“You can say I am being disingenuous but to me, that is the logical argument. Look, you have to hope that Dublin won’t dominate forever. I don’t think they will, personally. I think sport teaches us that all around the world. I would find it very hard to believe, for example, that Kerry won’t win an All-Ireland in the next three or four years considering the talent they have coming through at underage.”

Interested observer

If and when they do or if and when they don’t, Páraic Duffy will be no more than an interested observer. He’s a selector with the Scotstown reserves this year and will fiddle away at this and that around home. He’ll get over to Spurs a good bit more and set the DVR at night-time for Red Sox and Celtics games to watch back during the day. He’ll go to Monaghan matches in the summer and be happily idle when they’re over. A retired GAA official. Someone they used to talk about.

“There’s things I want to do. I keep buying books that I don’t read. I want to get into watching movies again. I love the movies but I very rarely go. I’ve gone a bit more in recent years but I’m just too tired in the evenings.

“I feel a bit of a regret that I lived in Dublin for 10 years and didn’t really get the most out of it. To be honest, I’d just be too tired. I would go to a film and I would have to bring a can of Red Bull with me in case I would fall asleep. I know – that’s terrible.

“I would go to the Gate theatre maybe three or four times a year, that was the one thing I tried to do. But I couldn’t go without my can of Red Bull. I would have to take it after 10 or 15 minutes, otherwise I would fall asleep. That’s just the way I was – I’m a morning person and I work early in the morning and by the evening time, I’m just wrecked. You work hard here, it’s an intense day’s work every day. There’s always stuff coming at you.”

Not anymore.

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