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‘It was wonderful being in that room because history was made’

Former GAA President Sean Kelly lifts the lid on the politics involved in opening up Croke Park to soccer and rugby.

Former GAA President Sean Kelly.
Former GAA President Sean Kelly.
Image: Andrew P/INPHO

SEAN KELLY, THE former GAA President who campaigned to open up Croke Park, has outlined the fight he endured to get the motion passed.

In an interview with Eddie O’Sullivan, the former Irish rugby coach who oversaw the historic 2007 win over England at GAA HQ, Kelly detailed the level of opposition he endured from the conservative wing of the association.

While ultimately Rule 42 was modified following a vote at Congress, for years Kelly wondered if he’d even be in a position to get the motion onto the agenda. But eventually he did and the high-point of Kelly’s administrative career came when the vote was passed at the GAA’s 2005 Congress.

“Looking back it was wonderful to be in the room for that debate because it was history in the making,” Kelly said on O’Sullivan’s Eddie’s Edge podcast.

The opening of Croke Park was one thing. But that moment, before the Ireland versus England game in 2007 when 82,000 people showed such respect to God Save the Queen, that was a pivotal moment in Irish history. Everyone remembers it.

“And once people saw the benefits of opening up Croke Park, all the old concerns were swept away. They then said, ‘if you (rugby and soccer) want to come back (here) you are welcome’.”

general-view-croke-park-from-hogan-stand-at-kick-off A view of Croke Park for the Ireland/England game. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

One thing that was particularly welcome to the GAA was the rental income generated from opening the stadium, money which was redirected to ground redevelopments in each county.

“They saw the goodwill that was generated and everyone saw the money,” Kelly said. “Once people could see the financial benefit, there was further change (when the GAA voted to keep Croke Park open after the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road). And sport is better for that.”

And yet it seemed as if it would never happen.

“Many people at the top (of the GAA) didn’t want Croke Park to open to soccer and rugby,” Kelly said.

While other non-GAA activities had taken place in the stadium – such as Muhammad Ali’s fight with Al Blue Lewis in 1972 and American Football games between rival college teams – rugby and soccer were never seen there until Rule 42 was changed.

The precise wording of the contentious rule read: “Grounds controlled by Association units shall not be used or permitted to be used, for horse racing, greyhound racing, or for field games other than those sanctioned by Central Council.”

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Kelly, meanwhile, had made it clear in his campaign for the GAA presidency that he supported the idea of opening Croke Park’s doors.

“I was very naïve; I felt if the President of the GAA said he wanted it to be on the agenda, then it’d be on it,” Kelly said. “I felt the reasons for it not being on there were not particularly strong.”

Still in 2004, when he tried to convince the GAA’s motions committee that a vote on opening Croke Park should go before Congress, his proposal was rejected. “We had a big row,” he tells O’Sullivan. “And I was fuming. I went round the table and asked each one of them why it was turned down.”

Some were vehemently against it on principle. “It was the most depressing moment of my presidency without a doubt,” Kelly says. “I left Croke Park at around 9pm and was driving down the N7 and I remember saying to myself, ‘I’m going to look a right fool, here’. The easy thing to do now is accept their decision but then I said to myself, ‘no, I don’t give a damn. What’s happening is wrong’.”

That year in Killarney at the 2004 Congress, Kelly gave a speech where he said that if the grass roots clubs in the GAA had a motion they wanted to put on the agenda then the association’s hierarchy had an obligation to discuss it at Congress. “I threw a few barbs maybe that I shouldn’t have,” he said.

Eventually, the motion got on the agenda and was voted on.

“The debate at Congress was the best I ever heard,” Kelly said. “It was fair, passionate, I’d to chair it. There were lots of good points made on both sides. It was a secret ballot and I didn’t think we’d get a two/thirds majority.

“It wasn’t looking good because Down’s clubs had narrowly voted against opening up Croke Park; New York, of all counties, the centre of the free world, the GAA in New York also voted against opening.”

But in the end the vote was won, 227 to 97, providing Kelly with the necessary two-thirds majority.

“It was very tight. The teller came and handed me the result. He gave me the figures, so I’d to do a quick calculation in my mind. I called out the result; there was 30 seconds of silence, shock. And then there was an outpouring of joy.

“I remember thinking there is to be no gloating here. I immediately said, ‘we must wait to hear from the other organisations about whether they want to use Croke Park or not’. But I had a sense, history had been made.”

  • To hear Kelly’s interview with Eddie O’Sullivan see www.eddieosullivan.ie

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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