INCOMING Cork County Board Chairman Marc Sheehan acknowledges that there are big issues to be tackled on and off the field, but he is optimistic that a strong unity of purpose will bring about success on various fronts.
Sheehan is a native of Aghabullogue, though his mother Mary (née Whelton) hails from Camus, Castlefreke and he says that that part of the world is close to his heart. There’s no doubting the important place Cork GAA holds in his affections, either – while working as a primary school principal in Killannin, Co. Galway for just over three years, he continued to serve on the county board.
Returning to Cork in February 2018 with his wife Caitríona to take up the principal’s role at Scoil an Athar Tadhg in Carraig na bhFear, Sheehan was elected as vice-chairman at the end of that year, replacing Kevin O’Donovan, who was appointed county secretary after a year as Tracey Kennedy’s second-in-command.
Kennedy and the seven chairmen before her had all been vice-chair immediately beforehand and so Sheehan had a good idea of where that role would lead.
‘Yes, absolutely,’ he says, ‘it was a big decision to go for it.
‘Obviously, there was an election situation which had to be contended with and that’s a consideration and an energy-sapper in its own right.
‘It was a two-year project rather than the usual three-year term – it arose when Kevin was appointed county secretary. I became vice-chairman on December 15th, 2018 and our first baby, Ruaidhrí, was born two weeks later.
‘All of that had to be factored in and that’s how it fell, really. I’ve no regrets about going on that pathway.
‘It was a big family decision and it is a five-year commitment, effectively. Having been around the block a few times, your eyes are open to the pathway. It’s a matter of choice, if you want it or if you feel you can make a stab at it as best you can.’
An injury at a young age meant that Sheehan’s playing career ended prematurely, but the knock-on effect was that it brought him into the administration side. He twisted his knee in the 1995 minor non-exam league final against Erin’s Own, played on the first-ever May bank holiday Monday the following year, just before his Leaving Cert. That wasn’t the end of his knee troubles, though.
‘I went off again, playing minor A hurling championship, and we won it out. We were playing Inniscarra in Ovens in the Mid-Cork final on a Wednesday night in July but my knee went again. My cruciate was ruptured the first time, so I did a right job the second time.
‘I was off into Shanakill Hospital in September of that year – I was lucky to have private health insurance – and Mr Cashman told me my cruciate was banjaxed and to go away and start my law studies in UCC and he’d see me straight after my first-year exams in June 1997.
‘Aghabullogue went on to win the county, beating Ballyhea, but my father John, a former club chairman, died just after that, very suddenly, he got a massive heart attack at the age of 45.
‘I got through the operation but, to a certain extent, I never recovered properly. I did play U21 after that and junior A championship but I was spending more time in the board room and coaching teams, which fed into the work situation as well.’
After a stint as Aghabullogue PRO, Sheehan became club chairman in 2002 while still in his early 20s and progressed to become a county board delegate before being appointed as Cork youth officer in December 2008.
He played a major role in setting up Rebel Óg and was chairman from 2011-14, simultaneously serving on the county board as children’s officer. After making ‘the best move of [his] life’ in getting married in 2014, Marc – who had been principal in Matehy NS – and Caitríona moved to Galway in 2014, from where he was kept busy with Cork and Munster Council roles. He religiously made the trip from Galway to Cork city for county board meetings.
‘I’d be back, all going well, at half past 12 or one o’clock. I’d make no bones about the fact that I did all of that travel on a voluntary, non-expense basis. It was by choice and I’d have no regrets about that,’ he says.
‘I was on the Munster CCC [Competitions Control Committee] at the time and that gave a good insight into the workings of the association and the different approaches of the different counties in Munster.’
Now, he is leading that approach in Cork. What does he see as the challenges and opportunities?
‘Going back to 2011, there was a cry in me that time to reform the underage structures and establish what was ultimately Rebel Óg,’ he says.
‘As chairman of the CCC for the past two years, we’ve revamped the leagues and that was very successful, with five points on the table.
‘The 2019 season allowed us to schedule the league in the summer period – obviously there were other considerations this year – but the opportunity arose in 2019 too to look at the club championship structures and a new model was put forward.
‘After torturous consideration of how to proceed in a Covid context, we went ahead and nearly got there in terms of our scheduling.
‘The big unknown is the Covid situation but public-health guidance will allow us to proceed. Club activity is key; we’ve had a good, new championship format, which was been attractive to everyone. The situation in 2020 allowed for clear scheduling.’
Inter-county matters are also a massive consideration, of course.
‘We’ve had minor and U20 All-Ireland football titles and the U20 hurlers are in the Munster final on December 23rd,’ Sheehan says.
‘There’s a huge job of work to be done with the senior, and all of the inter-county, teams, really, to get back to where we aspire to be. That is a huge challenge – it’s an administrative challenge, a personnel challenge and a financial challenge.
‘There’s little point in skirting around the issue of the financial state of the board. It’s somewhat improved this year but we’re in a stark position. We’re at a crossroads, really, and it will take a lot of time and a lot of energy to get that focused.
‘I’m very pleased with the establishment of Rebels’ Bounty as a fundraiser and of One Cork, that unified structure. While it was only launched really, it has been up and running since the summer. I was chairing the sponsorship work-group, we would have been involved with Bons Secours Hospital for the county football championship and Co-op SuperStores for the hurling.
‘It was the first time in over a decade that the championships have had sponsors and that was a vote of confidence in the championship format and in Cork GAA. That was positive and we had a good commercial manager [Sinéad O’Keeffe] working with us as well in that regard.’
To that end, he is confident that Páirc Uí Chaoimh can become a real asset to Cork.
‘In my mind, coming in as chair of the board – and I want to be quite clear about this – my obligations are to the clubs and to the association,’ he says.
‘Páirc Uí Chaoimh is in a difficult position but we are very much seeing a pathway to progress. In a post-Covid situation, it’s going to become a significant enterprise in its own right.
‘There has been a huge amount of work by the company board to advance things and it’s really the work starts from now on, economy-dependent and Covid-dependent, of course.
‘I’m satisfied with the structures that are there and that there’s a unity of purpose there. I will work to facilitate that.
‘I’m fairly independent-minded, I’m not a slave to anyone from the past – I live very much in the present with an eye to the future. That’s my philosophy in life and that’s what motivates me.
‘We all love Cork GAA and our own clubs, my own club Aghabullogue if very close to my heart. If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that we have a unique organisation that really showed its strengths in terms of community engagement and community value.
‘Ultimately, we have to be ambitious for Cork GAA to drive forward. We have no divine right to be at the pinnacle; we have to work for that. There’s a lot of work to be done and I think it needs solid and authentic leadership.
‘That’s what I’m hoping to provide as long as the clubs of Cork want me to do that, to maximum of three years, on a year-by-year basis!’