Aogán Farrell is aiming to become the first Cavanman ever to hold the position of GAA President. PAUL FITZPATRICK charts his journey, from his early association with Gaelic games to the verge, the county hopes, of the top office in the GAA.
Memory takes what it wants, as Tom MacIntyre wrote on these pages some years ago, and, they say, it has good taste.
When Aogán Farrell looks back on his journey in the GAA, certain events glisten in his mind’s eye. It must feel like peering over a wall at a different world.
There’s a teenage boy, wide-eyed and innocent to the workings of it all, who liked to play handball with his friends on an old outdoor alley, one wall and a square of concrete, and went about setting up a club, attending meetings, taking notes, grabbing the attention of a floor full of wizened old men.
There’s a schoolteacher in his early 20s, studiously conducting a survey of children in his class and parish to see how many had played football, or had any interest in doing so. Creating a tradition.
There’s the same man, ferrying car-loads of kids around the county for underage matches, his girlfriend and later his wife acting as umpire, losing, losing, losing until one evening, he feels like jacking it in altogether, when a friendly priest intervenes.
There’s a new man taking a top position in the Ulster Council and bringing him along for the ride. And, all the way, there have been elections and meetings, matches and conventions, long days in the classroom and summers in the Gaeltacht, speaking the language, blissfully soaking it all up.
And now, four decades after he first decided he’d organise the group who’d flock to the ball-alley after school and on Sundays after mass, there’s the 54-year-old widely-respected official, who stands on the precipice, the county hopes. of one of the most prestigious positions in Irish sporting life, the presidency of the GAA.
Creating a structure
As a boy, in the late ‘60s and early ’70s, Farrell played football with the neighbouring Cootehill Celtic, because Drumgoon had no team of their own. The best players stayed on towards U16 and minor; the rest – including Aogán – packed it in. That’s just how it was.
Finished, for the meantime, as a footballer, he turned to handball. The alley was located between his home, where his parents owned a shop, and Dernakesh National School, and the children would play on the way to school, after school and for hours on summer’s evenings.
“It was the main activity in all weathers. We all played,” he says.
“We played rounders and handball but none of them were organised, that was all among ourselves, there was no juvenile GAA club in Drumgoon so we didn’t play any U12 or U14 competitions, we just played for the craic in school... You’d wait for hours on a game of handball in the summer time.
“But there was no club and it sort of left an impression on me, that unless there’s a structure, unless there’s organisation, it will fall away.”
So, he put it right, reforming Drumgoon Handball Club – out of business for the previous 15 years or more – and organising leagues. Soon “fifty or sixty young players” were signed up to play. The club was affiliated to Cavan County Board and the 14-year-old secretary was on his way.
Attending handball meetings brought the kid into the GAA, and soon he was immersed. At one point, he spearheaded a drive to build an indoor handball court, at the same time as a local committee were putting up a hall. The hall posse approached the handballers and suggested that, should they throw their weight behind it, the alley would be incorporated. They did – it wasn’t. Lesson learned, Farrell moved on.
Soon, he was in St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, training to be a teacher. He naturally gravitated towards the football club and found himself filling the assistant secretary’s role for Erin’s Hope, the college’s club. In 1978, with a team featuring the Martin brothers from Templeport, they won the Dublin Senior Championship. The Dubs were All-Ireland champions at the time and their championship was one of the fiercest in the country.
By this stage, he was playing handball (and acting as secretary of the college club) and had dusted off the boots to play hurling and junior football, too. Ach, Is leor don dreoilín a nead – the nest is enough for the wren. The blue and gold of Drumgoon was bringing the Irish scholar home at weekends, lining out for the club on the old field at Foy’s Green.
“St Pat’s,” he says, “was what really brought me into GAA administration. I was back playing adult football for Drumgoon but I was getting busier and busier with that end of things.”
On graduation, he took up work in Kells, but lived at home in Maudabawn. By now, he was looking at Drumgoon and wondering how he could raise their stock.
“I was involved in the school team in Kells but I was looking very strongly at the situation in my home club which was still, at that time, a junior club with no underage. I had lived through it myself and I thought, well, it’s time to do something about that.
“I got a job then in Dernakesh and I did a survey – and I still think all decisions should be based on data and evidence, there’s too much hearsay – and of most of the young boys and their brothers and sisters, the vast majority of them never played football at all.
“They just didn’t play. Those that were considered really good, they continued to go in to Cootehill to play but the guy like me, the average player, just didn’t play football at all.
“So, Drumgoon were getting very little new blood into the club and that’s why they were a junior club and never winning anything.”
In Dernaskesh, he found that nothing had changed since his time as a pupil. Barring the “odd gasun with a family connection”, the GAA meant little or nothing to most of the children in the parish.
Needs must. Aogán got to work again.
“To address all of that I decided that I would establish a juvenile club in Drumgoon. It wasn’t easy at the start because some of the older members of the committee felt it would be a drain on their finances, that we wouldn’t have enough lads, but I showed them the figures that there were plenty of children in Dernakesh but they weren’t playing.
“But some of the wiser heads, and in particular I’ll never forget the chairman of the club at the time, a man called Jack Daly, who was one of those chairmen that had been there forever, he saw that what I was saying was right and gave me every backing.
“So, I set up the underage club and really I was on my own because you set it up, you trained them, you coached them. We had an U12 and an U14 team and I trained and coached and transported both teams on my own. I did all the administration at the start on my own.”
Mol an óige...
Year One was a disaster. The young Eire Ógs lost every game they played. But in the second season, a chink of light broke through the darkness.
“Some things you remember, some things you forget. The second year, we won a game early on and that was an incredible boost. We beat Mountnugent in an U12 game and we thought we had won the All-Ireland.”
It was now 1982. Things didn’t get any easier. The Mountnugent win threatened to light a blaze but the ashes went cold again as defeat followed defeat. That May, they lost their final game of the year against Munterconnaught; Farrell has never forgotten it.
“By then, I was very down about the whole thing, this was now two years and we’d only won one match and I was feeling, ‘maybe the nay-sayers were right, we just don’t have it’.
“Munterconnaught beat us in a close game and I remember a priest, he’s now dead, a fella called Fr Pat Brady, coming over and talking to me and I still remember to this day, he was full of encouragement and praise. You would think we had won, the way he spoke. He thought they were well-mannered gasuns, lovely lads and to keep it up. And that was the boost I needed.”
It was a year later when the teams started winning matches – a trickle at first which turned into a flood.
“People began to take notice in the club. We got to a semi-final, then we got to a final and in 1986, the dam opened, we won a county final. And that was the first ever county title in Drumgoon’s history, from they were founded, in 100 years. At any level. We’d never won anything!
“We’d only a junior team, we had contested a junior final once, in 1926, and lost it. We had a really good team in the ’70s in Drumgoon but all we won was tournaments, we never won county titles.”
The sap had risen. For the next 15 years, Drumgoon would invariably contest semi-finals and finals at underage level, year after year. The Class of ‘86 would go on to win more at U16 and minor levels and, eventually, the adult breakthrough arrived in 2001 with a first-ever Junior Championship. The All-Ireland Junior club title and a county intermediate crown followed.
Drumgoon had become an overnight success, as the joke goes, 20 years later. And when the smoke cleared, the fingerprints of a man with a plan all those years before were everywhere at the scene.
The end of the beginning
That wasn’t the end of Aogán Farrell’s GAA story – when the tale comes to be written, it will be seen, maybe, as only the beginning.
After forming the juvenile club and single-handedly sending out those first underage teams, he had been roped in to become adult secretary. As a young teacher, not yet married, he was the obvious choice whenever a job needed doing in the club.
“I was a young delegate with the county board and I got elected on to the executive at a young age. It came as a bit of a shock. Then I ran for Irish officer and was elected Irish officer to the county board.
“I was greatly encouraged by Fr Dan Gallogly, who was a mentor to me. I was young and inexperienced and Fr Dan was an older, wiser head, and Phil Brady, who was chairman at the time, gave me an awful lot of protection. I was only in my early twenties and those fellas brought me in and encouraged me in a huge way.”
So, he began organising Irish language courses. It seemed natural – as his grá for the GAA had grown in his formative years, he would spend time each summer in the Gaeltacht. Soon, in his mind, the language, the culture and the games were indistinguishable.
“The GAA was always the games but very much the culture and the language and it was all part of the very Gaelic tradition that I belonged to, and the language was very central to that. I felt it was impossible to promote handball, football or hurling without the language, it was all one and you can’t have one without the other.
“I got involved then with Irish language and then I was a youth officer and then Irish officer. When I was involved in the county board, Fr Gallogly unexpectedly became president of the Ulster Council — it was quite a dramatic move at the time - and there was a vacancy for Ulster Council.
“I had just stepped down as Irish officer, I was after getting married and I was still keen to keep my commitments with Drumgoon and I felt the whole thing was getting to be a lot so I stepped down from the county board in 1986.
“I felt I just couldn’t keep everything going, and club came first.”
Urged on by Gallogly and Brady, he relented and ran for the position of Ulster Council rep, coming through at convention in the Lakeland Hotel.
“That was a big step for me and I went for it. I’ll never forget it, it was a big election, there were five candidates and I was by far the youngest and least inexperienced but I won.”
He would spend a dozen years in the position, having eased himself out of the firing line in his home club.
“At this stage our underage structure was flying, we were going well and were winning titles and had plenty of people, so I dropped back to U12s and left the U14s to other people. But I continued with that group, I spent twenty-five years coaching my U12s and I’m more pleased about that than anything else in my involvement in the GAA.”
Farrell’s involvement in the Ulster Council grew. He came through another election to win the position of PRO, and then defeated his close friend Paul Doris from Tyrone for the role of treasurer.
He served his time as vice-president before bringing it all back home when he was appointed Ulster Council President at convention in Cootehill, a couple of miles from the school and ball alley at Maudabawn, in 2010.
The role was a demanding one, taking up five or six evenings each week. Along with his work on the Management Committee in Croke Park and as chair of the national IT committee, it left little free time.
Then, towards the end of his term, around this time last year, a remarkable thing happened. Individuals and clubs began to approach Farrell and urge him to run for the presidency. He flat-batted the questions at first, stalled on giving an answer, but the seed had been planted.
“I didn’t make up my mind until I finished Ulster Council, which was last February, and I told them I would make the decision by the summer time. Myself and Frances thought about it for a few months. I looked at the data and the evidence, I thought about my own family situation and different things.”
It was August when he finally gave the nod. The Drumgoon club had been prodding and cajoling and having weighed it up, he decided he would allow his name to go forward for the top job.
The campaign began at a routine Drumgoon club meeting, which, in the great democracy of the GAA, carries as much weight as any other.
Five months later and Aogán Farrell is on the election trail, canvassing, speaking, meeting people, telling his story. The new president will be chosen at the GAA’s annual congress in Croke Park next month. Should he get in, it will be life-changing. Should either Sean Walsh of Kerry or Sheamus Howlin from Wexford get the nod, the Cavanman will shake their hand, head back to Dernakesh and keep doing what he’s always done.
Because, at the back of it all, is home.
“The club had been gently encouraging me all along and when I decided that I would definitely go for it last summer, they invited me to a club meeting in August and the chairman, Eugene McCabe, told the club committee that he would like to nominate me for the presidency of the GAA,” he recalls, matter-of-factly.
“The club brought it to the county board in September. I’d be very pleased about that. No matter how it goes at Congress, it started in Boyle Park. That’s where it will all start and finish for me in the GAA.”
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