Seán Kelly: “I think this thing of foreign sports is dead — if we can have concerts, we can have the odd soccer or rugby match”

Cillian Boggan

The former GAA president was the charismatic driving force behind the movement to amend ‘rule 42’, when the concept of Croke Park being an international stadium was not a popular one. Ireland and the UK’s joint bid to host the 2028 European championships is his legacy.

The former GAA president was the charismatic driving force behind the movement to amend ‘rule 42’, when the concept of Croke Park being an international stadium was not a popular one. Ireland and the UK’s joint bid to host the 2028 European championships is his legacy.

In theory, if Seán Kelly was asked to compile a CV it would say, secondary school teacher, former president of the Gaelic Athletic Association and a Fine Gael member of the European parliament. In fact, leader of Fine Gael in Europe. The trouble with CV’s is that honesty is often outweighed by exaggeration. Kelly’s story doesn’t require exaggeration because even in unrefined honesty, it is remarkable.

He attended St. Brendan’s College, a school he would spend much of his teaching career in. St. Brendan’s is ground zero for football in Kerry and a pipeline of truly iconic sporting talent. He completed his Leaving Cert exams when it was rare to do so and carried the stigma of being a Kerry man in Dublin during his studies in St. Patrick’s College, in the early 1970’s.

When Kelly was born into a staunchly GAA family in Killarney seven decades ago, it was not expected he would do anything spectacular. It was an era where Ireland’s political thinking was narrow, democratic choice was sparse and mass emigration was the norm.     

A long career as a teacher with a decent pension would have satisfied many. Not Kelly. Instead, he became the most successful president in the nearly 140-year history of the GAA and is one of our most prominent international politicians. Even now, Kelly admitted as he spoke to me from his office “all the way over in Brussels” that he refuses to relax.

You can take the man out of Kerry

In New Zealand, rugby holds a special place in the hearts of its people. It’s a mistake to think the All Blacks are simply a team. They represent a tradition of success and carry an obligation to past generations to accept nothing less than the highest standard of rugby. That analogy is appropriate for Kerry football. After eight years without an All-Ireland, Kerry breathed a collective sigh of relief last July when they recaptured the Sam Maguire cup.

Being a member of the European Parliament requires you to sit alongside extremists who resent what you stand for and have frank and brutal conversation about economic and climate reality. There’s a seriousness to it which makes a smile inappropriate. When Kelly talks about Kerry football he cannot suppress his grin.

“I was chairman of the Kerry County board. And it was eleven years before we won the All-Ireland in my final year in 1997. That was a real famine. But the last eight years had famine-like symptoms. They were developing.”

He admires Kerry’s manager Jack O’ Connor, who has served as Kerry manager on three separate occasions. O’ Connor has managed Kerry to four All-Ireland championships.

“He is a selfmade man in the sense that he never played intercounty football. His managerial credentials were established by working with club, with school and by winning Hogan cups with Scoil Ui Conall, who hadn’t even competed in the Hogan Cup until Jack came along.  He’s probably one of the best managers in the history of the game”.

Open for Business

A fever dream is short, sharp, and painful. Enda Kenny’s 14-year leadership of Fine Gael was anything but. Kenny was not perfect; however, his politics were never about perfection. It was about making Fine Gael electable. In 2011 amidst genuine fury about the Irish economy’s collapse, the party had its greatest performance in a general election.

Just two years earlier, Kelly, a first cousin of Enda Kenny’s spouse, was elected to the European Parliament. As Taoiseach, Kenny travelled far and wide and proclaimed that Ireland’s economy was open for business. Before the turn of the millennium Ireland was still a closed shop, and to the extent that the GAA is a microcosm for Ireland, it certainly was as well.

At the GAA’s annual congress in 2001, a motion to open Croke Park to soccer and rugby was defeated by a single vote. Four years later the decades-long debate had become an urgent one. If Croke Park was not opened, Irish international teams would lose home advantage and have no choice but to play their games in Cardiff.  Following a heated debate, the motion was finally passed, and this was profound in past and future context.

It seems simple now, but we cannot forget that the GAA was an organisation which removed the first President of Ireland Douglas Hyde as its patron because he attended a soccer match in 1938.

When we spoke, the cabinet had just approved Ireland’s bid to jointly host the 2028 European Football championships alongside the UK. Kelly was optimistic.

“It would be fantastic. I think we should welcome it with open arms. And in fairness to the GAA, ever since we opened Croke Park, anytime a motion came before congress to expand the opening for competitions like the 2028 Euros or the rugby world cup, it’s actually been accepted without even rancour or debate.”

“And we have an awful lot to offer apart from wonderful stadiums. We have a good old sense of sport, people like coming here and there’s great support for all sorts of sports. So I would like to see Croke Park taking the initiative here and marking itself as an international stadium. I think this thing of foreign sports is dead.”

Decentralisation is sometimes perceived as an exclusively political term, but it forces you to ask an uncomfortable question about our sporting landscape. In 2017, Ireland was shortlisted by World Rugby as a candidate to host the World cup in 2023. A comparatively tiny island nation like Ireland will never have the resources to host a FIFA World Cup or an Olympic Games, so this was our opportunity to propel ourselves onto the world stage of sport. It resulted in teary disappointment as the tournament was awarded to France. The fact Ireland only has two major stadiums in the same city was surely a factor.

In November 2022, Munster played what was effectively an exhibition match against South Africa in Pairc Ui Coimh. The stadium was reopened in 2017 after extensive renovations, at an estimated cost of 96 million euro. In his most distinct Killarney accent, Kelly pondered what it would look like as a European venue.

“If you had Juventus playing Manchester City, I’d say you would fill it. Nearly every GAA fan follows some team in the premier league. I think it could be a real novel occasion. You could inter-mix it with GAA and a bit of Irish Music”.

“It’s like going back to gladiator fights in the colosseum. The crowd wants to be entertained. You put on the entertainment; they will come.”

The Aviva Stadium and Casement Park will host the Euro 2028 matches on the island of Ireland. There might be some, not unreasonable disappointment that Ireland won’t have the opportunity to showcase one of the finest pillars of Europe’s stadium infrastructure, Croke Park. But the process of bringing life back to Casement Park will be a shining legacy within Gaelic Games for decades to come. A legacy, very much connected and interlinked to the tireless work of changing attitudes and perceptions which Kelly did during his term as Gaa president.

Cillian Boggan