This article has been sent to us by a guest author, Ferdia O’Mahony. Ferdia (brother of Oisín) works at Mahon Community Centre in Cork, Ireland, and on his blog, he has many articles about the history of his local area. He has a keen interest in sport, history and politics, and has a Bachelor’s degree in History and Politics from University College Cork. For his politics thesis, he wrote about the links between politics in Ireland and its connections with the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).
He has kindly sent us this article for the Cologne Celtics‘ website, but if you would like to read more of his works, please check out his blog at: https://ferdiaomahony.blog/.
Sports and politics can be perceived as different in outlook, with sport seen as good and honourable, while politics as cynical. However, there are cross-transferable skills. Teams that win in competitive sports need on-field leaders in times of adversity on the pitch. In top-level sport, as well as politics, the priority for the participant is winning.
The comparison with sport and politics in Ireland is summed up in this phrase in 2007 by the Fianna Fáil government minister, Seamus Brennan, in conversation to Green Party leader John Gormley, “You are playing senior hurling now lads”.
Ireland is one of the few countries in the world where the most prominent sporting organisation is an organisation that promotes indigenous sports that are also amateur games.
Irish politics is also very different to politics in most of Europe because while Ireland has a proportional electoral system, Irish politics is very personality focused. There are currently twenty representatives in Dáil Eíreann who are not part of political parties. The non-party TDs are the fourth biggest grouping in Dáil Eíreann.
In Ireland, the key to getting elected is to already have a big profile in the constituency that you are standing in to get elected.
In Ireland, there are two houses of Parliament (Oireachtas). For the purposes of this article, I am only including members of Dáil Eiréann.
A former/current inter-county GAA player can meet many of the attributes of being a well-known, popular or big personality in the constituency that they are standing in. GAA is, however, very tribal in many counties, and there are intense rivalries between clubs within counties. It takes a player of great talent/personality to transcend those differences.
There are certainly examples of famous GAA players getting elected to Dáil Eiréann, but there are also examples of many who didn’t.
For example, Tipperary’s most decorated inter-county hurler, John Doyle, stood in the constituency of Tipperary North in 1969 and 1973 but failed to get elected to the Dáil.
Members of Dáil Eiréann
Many elected TDs (Irish members of parliament) have played Gaelic Games either at club or county level. The most notable ex- GAA player in the current Dáil is former Mayo footballer Alan Dillon, elected in 2019. He is a TD for the constituency of Mayo, representing the Fine Gael party.
Dillon played for Mayo between 2003 and 2017, winning eight Connacht titles and two All-Stars (GAA’s Team of the Year) in 2006 and 2012.
Former stars of the GAA who became politicians include former two-time Fianna Fáil Taoiseach (1966-73 & 1977-79) (Irish Prime Minister or Chancellor), Jack Lynch. Lynch was TD for Cork from 1948 until 1981.
Jack Lynch was both a former footballer and a hurler for Cork. Lynch won six All-Ireland medals for Cork (hurling 1941-44, 1946) (football 1945). In 1999, Jack Lynch was named in the Hurling Team of the Millennium at midfield.
According to the biographer, Dermot Keogh, Lynch had very little interest in politics as a young man, and political parties sought him out as a vote winner. Jack Lynch was first elected to the Dáil at the age of thirty. In the 1948 elections, Lynch finished second in the Cork Borough, polling 5,594 first preference votes. This was an excellent performance for a new candidate in an overall losing election performance for Fianna Fáil.
According to the biography, Lynch’s club, Glen Rovers acted as his local electoral machine, independent of the Fianna Fáil party. This suggests that Lynch’s profile as a famous GAA player for Cork helped in his political career and in getting him elected.
Jack Lynch would have an excellent political career and would be one of the most popular politicians in the history of Ireland. When Fianna Fáil returned to power in 1951, Lynch was a non-cabinet minister in the Fianna Fáil government. He would become a cabinet member in 1957 as Minister of Education.
In the election of 1977, Fianna Fáil, led by Lynch, would win a majority of seats in the Dáil. Jack Lynch would be the last Taoiseach to lead a government where one party had a majority of Dáil Eiréann.
Jack Lynch’s political career in the Irish government and cabinet went as follows:
- 1951-54. Minister (Non-Cabinet).
- 1957. Minister of the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking parts of Ireland).
- 1957-59. Minister of Education.
- 1959-65. Minister for Industry and Commerce.
- 1965-66. Minister for Finance.
- 1966-73. Taoiseach (Prime Minister or Chancellor).
- 1973-77. Leader of the Opposition.
- 1977-79. Taoiseach.
GAA Manager: John O’Mahony
John O’Mahony was TD for the constituency of Mayo from 2007 to 2016. He was a Senator from 2016 to 2020 as one of the nominees from the Taoiseach at the time, Enda Kenny.
Before becoming a politician, O’Mahony was an inter-county footballer with Mayo and then a manager with Mayo, Leitrim and Galway. John O’Mahony won two underage All-Irelands with Mayo (Minor in 1970 and U21 in 1973), but his most notable achievements in the GAA came in management.
His inter-county management career started when at thirty years old, he managed the Mayo U21 team. He was appointed to the management of the Mayo football team in Autumn 1987, winning Connaught titles in 1988 and 1989. Mayo reached the All-Ireland final in 1989, losing to Cork. He was Mayo manager until 1991.
John O’Mahony became manager of Leitrim footballers in the autumn of 1992. Leitrim is the least populated county in Ireland and is generally seen as a minnow in the GAA world. In 1994, with O’Mahony as manager, Leitrim would win the Connaught Senior Football Championship, which was a remarkable achievement.
Following his success at Leitrim, O’ Mahony became manager of Galway in 1996, and Galway would win All Ireland Senior Football titles in 1998 and 2001. The All-Ireland victory of 1998 was expertly documented in the Pat Comer film, „A Year ‚til Sunday“. This film is seen as one of the greatest GAA documentaries of all time.
John O’Mahony was first elected as TD for Mayo in 2007 when he was also the Mayo Senior Football Team manager. For three years, until 2010, O’Mahony was both TD for Mayo and the Mayo Senior Football Team manager.
Sporting Political Dynasty: the Donnellans
Another feature of Irish politics is that members of the same family can represent a constituency for decades, as it is not uncommon for the children of politicians to follow their parents into a political career.
The most prominent political dynasty in Ireland with excellent achievements in the GAA is the Donnellan family of Galway. They are among the most interesting families in Ireland. In the generations of this specific family, their family CV includes captaining their county to an All Ireland football title (twice), leader of a political party, holding a government minister position (non-cabinet level), and winning Footballer of the Year.
Mick Donnellan was the first of the family to play for Galway. He was an elected politician before he ever became an inter-county player, having been elected to the local council of Glenamady for Sinn Fein at the age of only seventeen. Donnellan captained Galway to the All-Ireland Football Championship in 1925.
Mick Donnellan served on the Galway County Council from 1926 until 1945. He was originally a councillor with Fianna Fáil but left in 1939 to be a founder of Clann na Talmhan. Donnellan was the leader of Clann na Talmhan between 1939 and 1944. Clann na Talmhan represented poorer farmers, many of whom were ruined due to a trade war with Britain.
Donnellan served as a Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance (Junior or Non-Cabinet Minister) on two occasions (1948-1951) and (1954-1957).
He died in 1964 at Croke Park, during an All Ireland final, in which his son John was playing in.
John Donnellan was a former inter-county footballer with Galway, who won three All Ireland medals in 1964, 1965 and 1966, captaining Galway in 1964.
On the death of his father in September 1964, John Donnellan contested and won the by-election in December 1964, representing the Fine Gael Party. He was twenty-seven years old.
John Donnellan would represent Galway in Dáil Eiréann for twenty-five years between 1964 and 1989, becoming a non-cabinet minister between 1982 and 1987.
John’s son, Michael Donnellan, won All-Ireland Football Championships for Galway in 1998 and 2001, winning the Football of the Year in 1998. Michael also won three All-Stars in 1998, 2000 and 2001.
Members of the European Parliament
The European Parliament is one of the three law-making branches of the European Union. The institution was founded on the 10th of September 1952. The European Parliament was not directly elected until 1979. I will only be including MEPs from that time.
Notable ex GAA players elected in 1979 were Seán Flanagan and Patrick Lawlor (both Fianna Fáil).
Seán Flanagan played inter-county football with Mayo in the 1940s and 1950s and won All-Ireland football medals in 1950 and 1951. He appeared on both the Gaelic football Team of the Century (1984) and the Team of the Millennium (2000) at left corner back.
Seán Flanagan was a TD for Mayo from 1951 to 1977. Flanagan’s governmental career goes as follows:
- 1965-66. Minister (Non-Cabinet).
- 1966-69. Minister for Health.
- 1969-73. Minister for Lands.
Flanagan was an MEP for Connacht-Ulster from 1979 until 1989.
Patrick Lawlor was an inter-county footballer and hurler with Laois in the 1940s and 1950s. Lawlor played in the All-Ireland Senior Hurling final of 1949 with Laois, losing to Tipperary. He was County Secretary of Laois GAA from 1953 until 1956.
Paddy Lawlor was a TD for Laois-Offaly from 1961 until 1981. Lawlor’s career in government goes as follows.
- 1969-70. Minister for Posts and Telegraphs.
- 1970-73. Minister for Industry and Commerce.
- 1977-79. Chief Whip (Non-Cabinet).
Lawlor was an MEP for Leinster from 1979 until 1994.
Seán Kelly is a current MEP for the constituency of Ireland South in the European Parliament representing Fine Gael, who are a member of the European People’s Party. He was first elected in 2009. He was President of the GAA from 2003 to 2006.
Before Kelly was President of the GAA, he was Chairman of the Kerry County Board from 1987 until 1997 and Chairman of the GAA Munster Council from 1997 until 2000. Sean Kelly played club football in both Kerry and Dublin in his twenties.
Kelly was the President that opened Croke Park to the Irish rugby and soccer teams by amending Rule 42, which prohibited such sports from being played on GAA pitches. This was a very divisive issue at the time and was opposed by county boards from Ulster and Cork.
The GAA aimed and aims to revive Irish culture and has been an Irish nationalist organisation from its very foundation. Croke Park was the scene of a massacre in the Irish War of Independence by the British Army, which killed fourteen civilians and wounded eighty others. Historically, the GAA had a very poor relationship with rugby and soccer, seeing them as British sports, and members were banned from playing or even attending matches of these sports until the early 1970s (Rule 21).
Other achievements by Seán Kelly as GAA president include introducing the Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard Cup in hurling and the Tommy Murphy Cup in football.
Seán Kelly’s role as the President of the GAA gave him a profile in the constituency of Ireland South. He won re-election to the European Parliament in 2014 and 2019.
Kerry is the county in Ireland where an ex-sports star is most likely to be elected to a representative institution. People who were involved in high-level GAA, who have been elected in Kerry so far, include Dan Spring (Kerry North, Labour, 1943-1981), Mick O’Connell (Kerry County Council, Ind, 1979-1985), Jimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael, 1984-2016), Austin Stack (Kerry, Sinn Fein 1919-1928), Martin Ferris (Sinn Fein, Kerry North 2002-2016, Kerry, 2016-2020), and Seán Kelly (Munster, European Parliament, Fine Gael, 2009- present-day).
There have also been many ex-GAA people who didn’t get elected in Kerry. These include Mick O’Connell (Independent, Kerry South, 1981 General Election), Joe Keohane (Aontacht Eireann, Kerry North, 1973 General Election), Johnny Walsh (Clann na Poblachta, Kerry North, 1948 and 1951 General Elections), and Con Brosnan (Cumann na nGaedhael, Kerry, 1933 General Election).
Former inter-county players getting elected is also quite common in parts of Connacht, such as Galway, Mayo and Roscommon. Sligo has also elected two former county footballers to the Dáil in the past.
Ex GAA players elected in Connaught constituencies include:
- John Donnellan (Fine Gael, Galway East 1964-1969, 1977-1981, Galway North-East 1969-1977, Galway West 1981-1989).
- Michael Donnellan (Clann na Talmhan, Galway East 1943-1948, 1961-1964, Galway North 1948-61).
- Bill Loughnane who played for Clare and Dublin, winning an All-Ireland with Dublin in 1938 (Fianna Fáil, Clare-Galway South, 1969-1977).
- Michael Finneran, who played in the All-Ireland Senior Football Final in 1980 for Roscommon (Fianna Fáil, Longford-Roscommon, 2002-2007, Roscommon-South Leitrim 2007-2011).
- Hugh Gibbons who won All-Ireland Senior Football medals for Roscommon in 1943 and 1944 (Fianna Fáil, Roscommon 1965-1969, Roscommon-Leitrim 1969-1977).
- Joseph Brennan who played Gaelic football for Donegal (Fianna Fail, Donegal West 1951-1961, Donegal South West 1961-1969, Donegal-Leitrim 1969-1977, Donegal 1977-1980).
- Chief Whip (Non-Cabinet). 1957-1961.
- Minister for Posts and Telegraphs. 1965-1966.
- Minister for Social Welfare. 1966-1969, 1970-1973.
- Minister for Labour. 1969-1973.
- Ceann Comhairle (Speaker of Parliament). 1977-1980.
- Alan Dillion, who played for Mayo, winning All Stars in 2006 and 2012. (Fine Gael, Mayo, 2020-).
- John O’Mahony who played for and managed Mayo. He also managed Galway and Leitrim. (Mayo, 2007-2016).
- Daniel O’Rourke who played inter county football with Roscommon. He was President of the GAA from 1946-49. (Sinn Fein, Mayo South – Roscommon South, 1921-1922, Roscommon, 1932-1933, 1937-1943, 1944-1951).
- Seán Flanagan who played inter county football with Mayo winning All-Ireland Football Championships in 1950 and 1951. (Fianna Fáil, Mayo South, 1951-1969, Mayo East, 1969-1977).
- Minister (Non-Cabinet). 1965-1966.
- Minister for Health. 1966-1969.
- Minister for Lands. 1969-1973.
- Henry Kenny who played inter-county football with Mayo winning an All-Ireland Football Championship in 1936. (Fine Gael, Mayo South, 1954- 1969, Mayo West 1969-1975). His son, Enda Kenny was TD for Mayo from 1975 to 2020, and was leader of Fine Gael from 2002 until 2017. He served as Taoiseach from 2011 until 2017.
- Denis Gallagher, who was Chairman of GAA in Mayo. (Fianna Fáil, Mayo West, 1973-1989).
- Minister for the Gaeltacht. 1977-1979, 1982.
- Ted Nealon, played inter-county football with Sligo. (Fine Gael, Sligo-Leitrim, 1981-1997).
- Luke Colleran, played inter-county football with Sligo. (Fine Gael, Sligo Council, 1942-1979).
- Jack McQuillan played inter-county football with Roscommon, winning the All-Ireland Football Championship in 1943 and 1944. He was originally elected with Clann na Poblachta in 1948, he left the party in 1951. He was an Independent TD from 1951 until 1958. McQuillan served as a TD for the National Progressive Party from 1958 until 1965. (Roscommon, 1948-1965). He was also elected to the Roscommon County Council from 1945 until 1974.
Many politicians from a GAA background come from rural constituencies. However, in other rural counties with success in GAA, such as Kilkenny and Tipperary, there is no record of any well known inter-county players winning Dáil elections. Michael Lowry, who was Chairman of the Tipperary County Board, has been a TD for Tipperary since 1987. While he was originally elected as a Fine Gael TD, he has been an Independent since 1997. He was Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications from 1994 until 1996.
There is no record of any well known inter-county player winning a seat in the Carlow-Kilkenny, however former Chairman of the Carlow County Board, Pat Deering, was a TD for the constituency from 2011 until 2020.
In Wexford, who has long been in the shadow of Kilkenny, when it comes to hurling, several people involved in the inter-county scene have been elected. These include:
- Brendan Corish who played inter-county football with Wexford. Corish was leader of the Irish Labour Party from 1960 until 1977. He represented the constituency of Wexford from 1945 until 1982. His career in government goes as follows.
- Minister (Non-Cabinet) 1948-1951.
- Minister for Social Welfare 1954-1957, 1973-1977.
- Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister or Chancellor) 1973-1977.
- Minister for Health 1973-1977.
- Seán Browne was Chairman of the Wexford County Board. (Fianna Fáil TD, Wexford, 1957-1961, 1969-1981, 1982).
- Hugh Byrne played inter-county football with Wexford and inter-county hurling with Kildare. (Fianna Fáil TD, Wexford, 1981-1989, 1992-2002).
- John Browne played inter county hurling for Wexford. He was Minister (non-Cabinet) from 1992-1994, and 2002-2008. (Fianna Fáil, Wexford, 1982-2016).
- Tony Dempsey was Chairman of the Wexford County Board, as well as Manager of the Wexford Senior Hurling Team from 2000 until 2002. (Fianna Fáil TD, Wexford, 2002-2007).
TDs from GAA backgrounds are usually elected from rural constituencies with small towns. A few former inter-county players have been elected in urban constituencies; the most notable was, of course, Jack Lynch of Cork Borough.
In Ireland, both politics and sports are very localised. The centrepiece of the GAA is the club, and which is based in the local community. The politics of Ireland is based on people that are well-known in their constituency getting elected to the Dáil. TDs are expected to do a lot of work in their local constituency, and those that fail to do their constituency work won’t get elected.
A famous GAA player can bring this person fame and respect from the community. The GAA club can provide an electoral machine independent of the political party. However, club rivalries are often intense, and unless players have an appeal across the GAA community, they can also fail to get elected or re-elected.
Don’t forget to check out Ferdia’s blog at https://ferdiaomahony.blog/ for more updates from him.
Top picture: Government Buildings, Dublin, Ireland from spectrumblue