IT was history in the making at the Cork GAA Convention in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday last.
The very first convention in the new stadium saw the very first lady cathaoirleach being installed in the long history of the Cork County Board, which dates back to 1886, when Tracey Kennedy of the Killeagh club stepped into the position. It’s been a long time in the making and took a lot of bravery from the new cathaoirleach as she blazed a trail through the different ranks of the GAA, from her own club Killeagh, through the East Cork Board, taking on officerships all along the way that had never seen a female touch before.
Yes, there was a bit of confusion about the new title she would adopt. Would she be referred to as Chairperson, Chairwoman, or simply as Chairman? The lady herself solved the dilemma by using the Irish version Cathaoirleach, which has always been common in the GAA, although less so in recent years.
‘It is not I who made history today but you, the clubs of this county, who have supported me from my earliest involvement,’ Kennedy told the delegates in her first impressive address in her new position, for which she received a standing ovation.
‘Six years ago you elected me to the position of PRO, three years ago you elected me as leas-chathaoirleach and this year you accorded me the great honour of electing me without opposition to the position of cathaoirleach.’
Not so lucky to avoid an election was the new leas-chathaoirleach (vice-chairman) Kevin O’Donovan of Kilmeen/Kilbree. He, as outgoing coaching officer, had to fight a hard campaign against the outgoing development officer, Richard Murphy of Lyre, for the position. In his incoming address O’Donovan stated, ‘It is a huge honour to be here as a Kilbree and Kilmeen man, as a Carbery man and more importantly today as a Cork man, to assume the role of leas-chathaoir of this great county.’
So, as the Cork County Board faces into a new era with the flagship new stadium as its shining beacon, what can the GAA in Cork expect from a new captain and vice-captain in charge of its crew?
As PRO, Kennedy was instrumental, with Ger Lane, who finished his term as cathaoirleach on Sunday last, in hauling the board into a new technological age. Gone was the era of the phone and the letter and the clubs were dragged into the new communications era. Kennedy did Trojan work in that transformation. In doing so she has shown a willingness to introduce innovations and to push forward at every opportunity.
Likewise O’Donovan, as coaching officer, was never slow to change if he saw a need. The GAA has a habit of allowing change to happen only very slowly and gradually, not so O’Donovan. He saw a radical need for big changes in the coaching structures in the county as regards underage and development squads and he just went and did it. He saw a great need to change many facets of the new Rebel Óg, such as ‘soft borders’ and he again carried it out.
So, in Kennedy and O’Donovan, Cork now has two leaders who are not slow or afraid to introduce change, not for change sake, but for the better of the GAA in the county. Cork GAA needs change, especially as regards fixture and club games, and the standards we have been accepting from our county teams. We should now see a lot of change in these areas.
Whereas for the past three years as leas-chathaoirleach, when she chaired the prestigious CCC, Kennedy has shown great diplomacy when dealing with clubs and their problems, and has avoided the headlines and any great controversy, O’Donovan has sparked major debate within the county about the changes needed and has not been slow to step on a few toes along the way. Some even thought him too radical to elect as leas-chathaoirleach. There is no doubt that as cathaoirleach of the CCC, he will have to reign in some of his enthusiasm and revolutionary statements but together Kennedy and O’Donovan are the perfect blend.
Whereas Kennedy will prefer the kid-glove approach, with a tough streak of independence behind it, O’Donovan will probably favour the battering ram at times. Between them they will find the right approach to many of Cork’s problems.
They are both young and enthusiastic, both are relatively unscathed on their way to the top, both see a different future for the GAA than many of the older generation, and both are workaholics as regards the association. Throw in a young, dynamic new cisteoir (treasurer) in Diarmuid Gowen and Cork GAA could be in for a very exciting and adventurous few years.
The new cathaoirleach in her address also stated, ‘It’s no good being the first if you’re the only one,’ and she appealed for other women to follow her path into the inner sanctum of the Cork County Board.
Right now she is an exception to the rule but can we now expect many more women, especially those who are involved at club level, to become involved at the highest level? Nobody would object to that, as many clubs and Boards are struggling to fill officerships, but how practical is it in today’s society where women are not only expected to raise families but to hold down jobs as well?
Do we have any reason to worry about the new combination at the top in Cork GAA? Some GAA people in the county expressed a fear that O’Donovan’s election, as a junior club member, could lead to a take-over of the board by junior clubs and that such a development would be a disaster for all senior and intermediate clubs. Such an idea is surely preposterous as junior clubs and members have made a huge contribution to Cork GAA down the years. Those same people said the same about junior clubs becoming full members of the board ten years ago and about women when Kennedy first became an officer of the board.
The second worry among GAA members is that the board will now becoming more hurling orientated than ever and that football in Cork will be the big loser. Kennedy hails from a hurling division and a hurling club, whereas O’Donovan, although hailing from a football division and a dual club, has always been a hurler at heart. However, both in their careers in the board so far have never shown favouritism for hurling but the fact that Kennedy’s own division, Imokilly, has only paid lip-service to football in recent years while dominating Cork hurling, won’t do anything to lessen the footballers’ fears. Cork is a dual county which has always leaned towards hurling and I doubt if the new officers will do anything to aggravate the leaning towards the small ball.
As O’Donovan stated on Sunday, the winds of change are blowing through the GAA in Cork, and I would be very happy that in the new officers, the county board has the right people who are fully capable of harnessing those winds and using them for the good of all in the county.
It could be an interesting and challenging new era for Cork GAA.
Slán go Fóill