Joe McDonagh was laid to rest in Rahoon Cemetery yesterday. His death last Friday came as a shock to many, who weren’t aware that he had been unwell and particularly because he was just 62.
There was also the eerie coincidence that saw the death of his predecessor as GAA president Jack Boothman less than a fortnight previously.
It may have been a statistical detail but it was also apt that McDonagh led the association into the new millennium more than 16 years ago. He was the youngest president in modern times, elected at 42, and had the further distinction of still being a player – captain of the Ballinderreen junior hurlers – at the time of his election.
The president is the face of the GAA and the demeanour of the office holder will influence, for better or for worse, the public perceptions of the association. It was a role made for McDonagh. He had a cheerful energy and the ability to communicate fluently that was invaluable for the GAA.
His charisma wasn’t built on a relentless “look at me” insistence. He was a natural performer – he appeared on stage at An Taibhdhearc in Galway – and was always called on to wrap up annual congress by singing the national anthem.
Like many gifted orators he could go on a bit, which prompted a mordant if affectionate reference to him as “The Guffnor” but typically when told about this some time later, he erupted into laughter.
That typified his quality of being able to articulate high-concept speeches when required but with an underlying sense of mischief that cut through the pieties of official duties and protocol.
He was of course famous for singing The West's Awake after Galway's historic 1980 All-Ireland hurling victory but it could have been a bittersweet moment for someone who had been a mainstay of the county's revival in the 1970s – an All Star, which would be another distinction on the CV of a president – and who had captained the unsuccessful team a year previously but was now an unused replacement.
If Galway had won in 1979, Joe McDonagh would have had the victory platform from which
gave his immortal speech 12 months later. Instead he was game enough to deliver an exuberant rendition of the haunting Connacht anthem.
Being GAA president isn’t, however, three years of music and laughter. His initiative in trying to rid the rule book of the ban on British security personnel was controversial.
He bounded on to the podium of the 1998 annual congress and said he would propose the suspension of standing orders in order to debate the deletion of rule 21. After a few years of dithering, the GAA had its collective mind concentrated fairly sharply.
It became clear after walk-outs had been threatened at a lunchtime Central Council meeting that this reforming blitz wasn’t going to work. Instead a special congress was fixed for a month later
McDonagh was quietly – and not so quietly – criticised for spooking the horses and neither bringing the Ulster counties with him on the topic nor listening to the more experienced voices in the North, who could have sympathetically advised a more cautious approach.
The history of GAA reform has, however, always involved initial defeat and although the special congress ended in a watery compromise, the rule was gone little more than three years later after the insistence by McDonagh’s successor Seán McCague that the association could not be seen to undermine the formation of a new police force, the PSNI.
A less well-known intervention came in 1999 when, on the first trip to Australia of the resumed International Rules series, a racism controversy broke out involving Meath's Graham Geraghty, who had used a profanity along with the word "black" and directed it at an AFL Academy player.
The incident clearly caused commotion during the match with Australian team officials, led by the late Jim Stynes, protesting that such language was absolutely unacceptable.
No one believed Geraghty was a racist but he had, however, heedlessly trod on a landmine in respect of the AFL's attempts to eradicate racist abuse from the game. An attempted cover-up was blown when the Age newspaper spoke to the young player's family, who had emigrated from South Africa, and broke the story.
Much to the disgruntlement of Ireland team manager Colm O’Rourke, who felt Geraghty’s apology should be enough, McDonagh in consultation with the GAA management committee insisted on a suspension for the first Test.
He said at the time that he was as much influenced by the message the GAA needed to send to the growing immigrant communities at home as the urgent need to address Australian sensibilities.
Recalling that he had trained a juvenile side in which a black kid was getting racially abused during a match, McDonagh said he would never forget the sense of anger and shame he felt when the player, panicky about the humiliation, pleaded with him not to take the matter further and that he didn’t mind the abuse.
Joe McDonagh’s death leaves the GAA bereft of the ease and good humour through which he communicated his passions for the language and broader Irish culture. Yet above and beyond all that, he was a decent and humane man, who brought honour to the community he served.