It’s in the blood, it runs deep, it’s like a religion. If all this is true, then Martin Skelly’s bid for the highest seat in the Gaelic Athletic Association has happened not by accident, but by design. The 61-year-old father-of-four from Longford, is the only GAA presidential candidate representing a county that has never held the highest office in the 132-year history of the Association.
Skelly became Leinster vice-chairman in 2008 and in February 2011 became chairman of the Leinster Council. Leinster was twinned with Australia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East at the time so he witnessed first-hand the devastating toll of emigration on rural clubs.
“Ultimately our responsibility was to help develop GAA units in those parts of the world. Clubs were starting to mushroom,” he says, recalling his first visit to the Asian Games as an “eye-opening experience”.
“I saw a thousand Irish people under the one roof in Korea and just could not get over the quality or the numbers, and there was massive interest from other nationalities. Yet, a certain dagger of sadness went through me to think here are our most talented, best educated young people and what a terrible loss for our own country.”
While discussing these darker days of the recent past, Thomas Delaney, a neighbour and former member of the Longford minor squad, arrived at Skelly’s door having just returned for Christmas from Abu Dhabi, where he works as a teacher.
“I would hope that at least 50 per cent will eventually come back and contribute to society and the GAA,” adds Skelly, whose daughter Tara has set up a GAA club in Augsburg, Germany, where she is the chairman and manages the men’s team.
Living in a rural village, 12 miles from the nearest shop, Skelly is acutely aware of the concerns of clubs, particularly in weaker counties.
“For the first time ever, I believe GAA units in rural parishes are under threat. Clubs along the western seaboard are facing decline. Féile had to create a 13-a-side competition this year because clubs in Kerry, Cork and Limerick were unable to field 15-a-side teams. Kerry is the home of football but clubs are really struggling.
“Young people are gravitating towards the major urban centres, particularly on the east coast of Ireland, so the problem for the east coast GAA clubs is accommodating the influx.
“Clubs in counties like Louth, Meath, Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford at underage level can hardly cope with the numbers who want to play.”
Skelly believes his positioning as a candidate from Longford, in the centre of the country, will help him tackle emerging divides.
“I border Connacht, Ulster, I’m in Leinster and with my experience of working in Munster for many years people would see me as being more than capable of looking after the Association in a responsible manner.”
He believes bringing in a two-tier championship is crucial to the future of Gaelic football.
“The day is coming where players will lose heart, will lose interest, if they are not fighting for something that is tangible and achievable,” he says.
“We have to be realistic going forward. I believe in the right of all counties to compete in the provincial championships but a structure has to be devised where, if successful, you go on and compete in the All-Ireland ‘A’ competitions. Alternatively there should be a second-tier competition. I see no reason to disagree with that culminating on All-Ireland final day.”
He believes more funding is required to help smaller counties to remain viable and would also support moves to make the inter-county championships more compact. “I would have no problem in bringing the All-Irelands forward by a week or two if that was to help out at the other end,” he says.
On the club side of things, he thinks the competitions are drawn out too long to go as far as St Patrick’s Day, explaining: “I believe we could play the All-Ireland semi-finals in December and start off our GAA season in the middle of January with the All-Ireland club finals.”
As for demands on county players, he says expecting them to play all club games is a bridge too far.
“There has to be a reasonable degree of management. County managers have to agree to release players on certain weekends for club duty, particularly players who might not be on the first 15 of a county team.
“At the same time there has to be an understanding by club managers that if they are training with county teams they cannot be expected to do the grind and the level of training that is required at club level.”
And Skelly has serious reservations about the black card. While the black card has reduced dragging down, blocking off, foot tripping and bad language to referees, it is, in his view, intrinsically unfair.
“For a team with a strong bench there is no problem, except to the player who is sent off himself, but it is seen as a far tougher penalty to a team that has a weak bench,” he insists.
“I cannot see why the sin bin cannot be implemented. If a player commits an infraction he should serve his time, give him 10 or 15 minutes to cool off on the sideline. And the team must do without the player.”
He also believes the handpass has to be limited. “We have to create some way of restricting the handpass because, after 20 or 30 handpasses on the trot, I think the word ‘football’ then comes into question.”
As for Galway’s desire to enter into home-and-away agreements in the Leinster senior, minor and under 21 hurling championship, Skelly says it would be a “stumbling block” for the province.
“The position of Galway is an extremely difficult one. Counties like Westmeath, Laois, Carlow, Meath, Kildare, Wicklow and Offaly are doing absolutely great work in developing the game and trying to improve, and they actually see Galway as a stumbling block because of their strength.
“The Galway team at both minor and under 21 level are almost annual visitors to the All-Ireland final and that is the biggest fear, and I can understand that fear with Kilkenny already in the province such a wonderful hurling force.”
Consensus is needed and Munster must be considered.
“I do not believe that insisting at national level that Galway have to play in Leinster would be a good thing and I think it would be resented – I think we should definitely steer away from that.
“The crisis is hurling’s problem, it’s not Leinster’s problem, and it needs to be solved at national level rather than dumping it at Leinster’s door to the frustration of the other participating counties,” he says.
Skelly wants to boost hurling in non-traditional counties, urban areas and parts of Ulster where he believes the sport has fallen behind in recent years.
Despite reports of gambling addiction being a major crisis in the GAA, Skelly believes the GPA has taken positive steps and that the issue is not as widespread as suggested.
“All addictions are deadly, I wouldn’t classify one over any other. I think drink, drugs, trying to enhance performance, gambling . . . once you go down that road of seeking a substance or a buzz from something other than what is normal and natural to one’s body, you are going down a very, very, dangerous road.
“I don’t think gambling is at crisis level, I think by participating in Gaelic games and to live the life required to play good quality club and county football or hurling requires standards of discipline that are second to none, and I think lead people towards a better quality of life.”
The idea of implementing gender quotas rankles with Skelly, named ‘Longford Person of the Year’ in Dublin in 2011, a title also given to the late former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and Liam Mulvihill, former director-general of the GAA.
“Arising out of the explosion that there is in ladies football and camogie it is only a matter of time before more women will naturally want to continue their involvement within the Association. We should be prepared to give it a little bit more time before we bring in quotas,” he says, adding that in his own club there are currently five women on their 12-member executive board.
However, in the future he says he would rather see the men’s and ladies’ associations operating under the one roof – by agreement, not forced principle.
As the campaign for head office heats up, Skelly, who has already visited many of the GAA’s international units in the UK, US and Europe, will be visiting every county between now and February.
“I’ll be meeting people on an individual basis and I’ll be trying to meet executives of each county, and that’s an important time because not only will I get an opportunity to express my views on where I feel the Association should be going, but you also need to listen.
“This is an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime. I never went into any job that I wasn’t prepared to give 100 per cent, whether it’s at the highest or lowest level. The GAA is part of my family and it would be the greatest honour one could possibly have to lead the Association which, somewhere along the line, I believe I was destined to be involved in.”
Skelly has great admiration and has been inspired by the work of other Longford men who have scaled to great heights within the GAA – including Peter McKenna, Croke Park’s stadium director, Liam Mulvihill, whose mother also hails from Newtowncashel, and John Greene Senior and Albert Fallon as Trustees of the Association.
“It’s a tough position and a very, very important role. My motivation at all times has been clear, what is best for the Association is best for me and for my community. There are only 10 counties that have never had the presidency, Longford being one of them. We all like the underdog to succeed and it would be a wonderful shot in the arm for a county with a track record of great people who have supported and developed the GAA for generations.”