By Kevin Egan
Through the gaelic games world there are stories of children growing up with parents who have achieved great feats on the field of play, which in turn inspires those children to reach for the stars themselves. When Nicky Quaid was selected on the 2020 PwC hurling All-Stars team, he and his father Tommy became the fourth father and son combination to both earn that remarkable accolade.
But what of those who achieve great things off the field? Driving a project such as the building of a new clubhouse or training pitch tends not to be the stuff of childhood imagination in the same way as sending over the winning point in Croke Park on All-Ireland Sunday, but these real, local achievements are no less important in securing the future of gaelic games in the community - and in many cases, that community spirit is just as likely to pass down through the generations as the athletic or competitive spirit.
Ruth Chambers (Walterstown GFC, Meath)
To get silverware as a wedding present is not uncommon, but to get the type of silverware that Ruth Chambers did the day she married her husband Michael is an altogether more rare event.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Walterstown was the dominant force in Meath club football, winning five Keegan Cups in seven years and reaching two All-Ireland club finals. They remain to this day the only club in the Royal County to contest a senior club final, with the only other Leinster club winners since then (Dunshaughlin, 2002) falling at the penultimate hurdle.
Walterstown’s coach throughout those glory years was Ruth’s uncle, Michael O’Brien, who was part of the Meath panel that beat Cork in the 1967 All-Ireland final.
The Celtic Cross that Michael won on that day became a wedding gift for the newly-married couple, and the smile on Ruth’s face as she talks about it means she doesn’t need to say how much she treasures that hard-earned medal.
That moment alone would give you some indication why she was happy to take the role of chairperson of Walterstown club when elected at the club’s virtual AGM shortly after Christmas this year, but further delving into the family history shows that she was always likely to find herself right at the heart of the club they call ‘The Blacks’.
“I had what I would call the standard GAA upbringing, in that the sideline was my babysitter, and we were always going to games. I used to look after the scoreboard for home games, though it was never right as I’d be yapping away with a friend rather than paying attention to games, and I remember my Mam at home, stitching together black and white fabric to make club flags” she recalls.
Her father Aidan, served as club chairperson before, as did his father Christopher (Kit) O’Brien. Though to listen to Ruth tell the story, Aidan’s tenure was somewhat brief.
“Dad used to love going to committee meetings, mainly to cause arguments, and sure enough then one year they said to him ‘you take it yourself so’ and he did. He lasted a year!
As if that wasn’t enough service for one family, Seán O’Brien, brother to Michael and Aidan, also took the chair and currently is club president, while Eamon was a selector under Seán Boylan on the Meath All-Ireland winning teams of 1996 and 1999, before guiding the Royal County to a Leinster title as manager in 2010.
In the early part of her career as a GAA journalist and then deputy sports editor with the Athlone Topic, the Offaly Independent and eventually the Leinster Leader in Newbridge, before moving into a graphic design and content role that allowed her to relocate home.
While she maintains that following in the footsteps of so many O’Brien family members before her was never the plan, once she returned to Walterstown, club involvement was inevitable.
“I brought the kids down to training and I met a few old players who I knew from before, and almost immediately I’d been recruited to be part of the club’s Oscarz fundraiser.
Her media background meant she was soon appointed club PRO, a role she continues to fill, as well as PRO for the Meath minor board, while her husband Mike has been roped in to look after pitch bookings – no mean feat in a club that has two full size pitches, two juvenile pitches and three astro pitches across their 27-acre site.
Michael O’Brien might have earned his Celtic Cross on the field of play, but one could argue that it’s in a very appropriate home today too.
Niall Brady (St. Patrick's, Arvagh, Cavan)
With 12 MacRory Cup titles, not to mention a Hogan Cup success in 1972, St. Patrick’s College in Cavan is one of the foremost footballing nurseries in the country. As a boarder in the school, Niall Brady of St. Patrick’s GAA club in Arvagh was very much part of that sporting heritage, but he also has some very different GAA memories from his time in the school.
His father, Phil Brady, served as county board chairperson for seven years in the 1980’s before moving on to act as Cavan’s Central Council delegate, and Niall remembers the special atmosphere around the school when the annual county convention was taking place there.
“The hall would be packed, you could barely see up to the top of it through the fog of smoke, and it would be going on over the whole weekend. Debates could go on for hours, and you’d be quite invested in it, because I remember Dad would often have had to do a fair bit of electioneering in the lead up to it!
He tells the story with a smile of how rumours abounded one year that his father had “encouraged” the county final referee to do what he could to help him out if he got the chance to make a draw out of it.
“Back then, finances were always a huge thing, getting the books to balance. He was up for re-election and the story went around the place that he had met the referee in a pub to try and see if he could get a bit of help!
“Sure enough, the game finished level, but I think both teams were happy enough to get another day out, and Dad got re-elected in the heel of the hunt anyway!
Neighbours looking after the family while his parents attended club dinner dances in every parish hall from Kingscourt to Blacklion, a huge interest in momentous GAA debates such as the decision to open up Croke Park, and the immense family pride at moments such as Phil getting to present the county intermediate trophy to Arvagh club captain Vincent Brady (a second cousin) in 1983 – these are the memories that embedded themselves in Niall’s mind, as he too went on to throw himself into GAA administration for club and county.
“It’s in your DNA, there’s eight in our family and every one of them would be passionate Arvagh and Cavan people” he said.
“On the field I was happy I was able to match my Dad – he won a junior championship medal in 1957 and I won one in 1993, but off the field too, there’s an incredible pride in being part of the Cavan county board and being club chairman here.
“I’ve made some incredible friendships and connections, and I’d say we wouldn’t have missed a league, championship or McKenna cup game with Cavan for 40 years. It’s a really close-knit community, and you don’t think of it in terms of effort, you think of it as a big family.
Shay Galvin (St. Aidan's GAA club, Roscommon)
The normal run of things is that children grow up in a house where GAA activity is part of life, and they learn to follow in the footsteps of their parents. The Galvin family of Mount Talbot in Roscommon took a slightly different approach, where the insatiable enthusiasm of the younger generation led to John Galvin taking over a number of roles in St. Aidan’s GAA club, including the chair in 1990 and 1991.
Life forced John Galvin to take on adult responsibility at a very young age, and as his son Shay explains, pursuing his interest in sport wasn’t really an option through his teenage years.
“His Mam, my grandmother, died when he was very young, so as the eldest of the lads in the family, he had to leave school at age 13 or 14 and go take full time work in a local quarry. He’d always have had a love for football and hurling, but he just didn’t have the time to get involved and it was only when we all got to playing that he felt he could take an active role in St. Aidan’s.
“My Mam, Mary, would have been the same, hugely interested and would have had the rosary beads out for all the big games! My uncle Pat (Gately) was another stalwart, he played for Aidan’s into his 40’s, so when Dad started to devote his time to the club, he was pushing an open door at home.
John started by helping out with coaching, not to mention packing out the car with plenty of passengers for the seven-mile trip from Mount Talbot to the club grounds in Ballyforan (“more often than not you might have to travel in the boot, there’d be so many lads picked up in Four Roads along the way”, recalls Shay!) but as a very well-respected member of the community, it wasn’t long before he moved into the committee room, and Shay himself got brought on board.
“I was only 18 or 19 when Dad brought me along with him when he was chairman, I was assistant treasurer at the time. Give it another couple of years and I was playing with the intermediates and maybe a selector or coaching with minors or the juniors as well, so it was busy out!
Shay, along with his brothers Noel and Sean, picked up intermediate medals in 2001 but never quite made the breakthrough at senior, the same year that the man that was to become their brother-in-law, Roscommon midfielder Fergal O’Donnell, captained Roscommon to Nestor Cup glory.
“Dad would have been a big Roscommon supporter as well all along, he was county board delegate for the club for ten years for one thing, but once Marie started going out with Fergal, it brought the interest to another level again. I ended up chairman myself for six years, Sean and Noel would be very active club men as well in the boardroom and coaching too, and this year I took over as county minor board chairman, and I’m looking forward to trying to help out in that way now.
“When you grow up in a family like ours, in a club like St. Aidan’s, club and family blend into one.