Seán Moran: Election fever a reminder of the GAA's fertile political soil
Engagement with Gaelic games has proved a potent tonic across the political spectrum
Former Mayo footballer and twice GAA All Star Alan Dillon is standing in the upcoming general election for Fine Gael. File photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
When Seamus Mallon was laid to rest on Monday, members of the local GAA club, O’Donovan Rossa Mullaghbrack, provided the guard of honour. The former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and deputy leader of the SDLP was one many politicians with a background in the association.
He gave a great interview to RTÉ’s Breaking Ball nearly 20 years ago when he talked about the role of the GAA in his life. Some of the tales he had already told journalist Eamonn Rafferty for the 1997 book Talking Gaelic, including this timeless testament to the devastation of All-Ireland loss.
“I could take you to the exact spot where I sat, on the old sideline seats in Croke Park. I remember my father at the final whistle. He was a quiet undemonstrative man and he always wore a hat. He took it off, stamped on it and stood there crying. It was the first time I ever saw him cry. I will never forget it.”
That year, 1953, was Armagh’s first All-Ireland final and they lost to Kerry. A missed penalty (curiously, a feature of the county’s first three finals) has gone down in history as the great stumbling block although contemporary accounts are divided on that.
The young Mallon went on to have a decent career, playing minor and senior, albeit as he put it later “after what we could rightly call the golden age of Armagh football”.
In the context of Northern Ireland and nationalist politics, the GAA is an obvious calling card but it’s much the same south of the border. Although the association is currently conducting its own presidential race, there is the broader canvas – and canvass – of the current general election campaign.
The big names that have crossed over to representative politics have one principal asset: high recognition value. Think of the sums of money that go into posters and sticking them up all around constituencies and with roughly the same impact as sticking your hand up in Croke Park and shouting, “me, me . . .”
Even the hardest working county councillors are often not sufficiently visible across a couple of electoral areas and the advantage of someone with county and sometimes country-wide profile is considerable.
Of course it only gets you to the table. The work, late nights and assembling a dedicated team, sometimes of the very councillors who have been overlooked for nominations, is tricky and demanding. For someone like John O’Mahony, the former Fine Gael TD and senator who is retiring at this election, a background in successful team management was helpful in running campaigns and constituencies.
Dillon was brought in to strengthen the party’s push to hold on to two seats now that former taoiseach Enda Kenny – himself the son of a TD whose launch pad was as member of the first Mayo team to win the All-Ireland, Henry Kenny – has retired.
Mayo may be an outlier in all of this in that the GAA political profile is so tilted to Fine Gael. Elsewhere in the country, Kerry provided the party with former minister Jimmy Deenihan, and in Louth there is Peter Fitzpatrick, the county’s misfortunate 2010 football manager. And of course there is former GAA president Seán Kelly, another Kerry politician who actually didn’t make it in the 1991 local elections but went on to be a huge vote getter in European elections.
All parties have benefited from running GAA candidates at some time and place but Fianna Fáil have traditionally had the lion’s share: from the exemplar Jack Lynch, whose record of six successive All-Ireland medals comes under threat from a host of Dublin players this year, to another former taoiseach Brian Cowen, who played under-21 football with Offaly, former tanaiste and Polo Grounds veteran John Wilson and two former GAA presidents Seán McCarthy and Dan O’Rourke, who served as TDs.
Furthermore, the original of the Mayo species was 1950s All-Ireland winning captain Seán Flanagan, who was a Fianna Fáil TD during his playing days, including in 1951 when he lifted the Sam Maguire for what to date is still Mayo’s last victory.
Programmes of the era show that his name on the team sheets was punctiliously suffixed by the letters “TD”.
Over 30 years later, that legacy became important again. In his weekly column, Mayo political laureate John Healy wrote under the headline “Connacht GAA True to its Own” that Flanagan’s exploits wouldn’t be forgotten in the 1984 European elections where it was suggested he was experiencing some turbulence in the Connacht-Ulster constituency.
That year marked the GAA’s centenary and it was said at the time that a controversial screening on RTÉ’s Monday Game – a second highlights programme – of one of Mayo’s All-Ireland victories in the lead-up to the election had been pretty useful in rallying a vote identified by Healy, who wrote:
“Seán Flanagan was the last Mayoman to carry the Sam Maguire Cup from Croke Park, as captain, across the Shannon to Mayo. In this remembering centennial year, Flanagan’s name rings with the magic of the rest . . .
“Inevitably there will be a year and a time when the old campaigners will have to suffer the humiliation of defeat and those who forecast it will be Flanagan’s turn this time may well be right – but the GAA in Connacht is still true to its own.
“The bench of bishops may turn dramatically to the Left (??) – but the GAA will see Flanagan back for the Last Hurrah.
“If not, we can’t depend on anything anymore!”
Seán Flanagan took the final seat by 1,580 votes to depose the formidable Niall Blaney.