A look back at John Horan’s historic final year as GAA President

Gareth Lyons

From Nixon’s forced resignation as a result of the Watergate scandal to Trump’s nonchalant reaction to the storming of the Capitol, it is undeniable that the final year of a president’s tenure is often the determining factor in regard to how their presidency is remembered. 

John Horan’s final twelve months as GAA president will undoubtedly go down as one of the most memorable years in the history of the organisation, as the Dubliner’s astute leadership provided both clubs and counties nationwide with the opportunity to compete, despite the arrival of Covid-19.

An association for all

July 31st, 2020, will go down as a pivotal landmark in the history of the GAA as the association truly embodied its mantra that it is ‘Where We All Belong’.

In line with the government regulations of that time, 200 members of the Muslim community were presented with the extraordinary opportunity to safely partake in the celebration of Eid Al Adha on the iconic Croke Park surface. 

In an interview with The College View, Horan reflected on the manner in which Ireland’s largest cultural and sporting organisation truly epitomized the Irish phrase, céad míle fáilte:

“I think we have gone very much along the lines of everyone belonging to the organisation. It was a public statement that people of different religions and creeds are all a part of the GAA,” said Horan.

Another progressive step in the association’s history that occurred under Horan’s leadership was the GAA’s inaugural support of Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign.

During Mayo’s All Ireland SFC semi-final battle with Tipperary, a number of players from the two respective sides donned the laces, as did referee David Gough and his team of officials.

The purpose of this statement was to encourage LGBT+ members to view the GAA as a safe and welcoming environment for all.

Combating Covid

One of the unforeseen positives of the pandemic in Horan’s eyes was the sense of community which came to the fore within GAA clubs across the nation.

At one point, an astonishing 20,000 members of the GAA community were servicing 35,000 households, whether that be looking after shopping or collecting medicines from pharmacies. 

The GAA’s efforts to put in place the adequate safety protocols to allow its Cúl Camps to take place was another highlight of 2020 for the former president.

“More than 70,000 kids went through our Cúl Camps and there was only one Covid incident and it originated outside the camp. I think that gave people confidence in terms of children going back to school,” he said.

Horan’s decision to drop the backdoor and persevere with the provincial championships in response to the emergence of Covid-19 was logical as it removed the need for inter-county panels to travel up and down the country during such a precarious situation. 

“People criticized us for not having a straight knockout competition between all counties, but when you look back at the outcomes, Cavan won an Ulster football title and Tipperary won a Munster football title.

“That’s one of the great arguments for keeping the provincial system, that those things can actually happen,” Horan commented.

Bloody Sunday

To mark the 100-year anniversary of when 14 Gaelic football fans were tragically shot dead in Croke Park, the GAA placed an emphasis on actually knowing, identifying and relating to the individuals who died that day.

In a poignant moment, Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton laid a wreath in front of the Bloody Sunday tribute monument in Croke Park following his side’s 10th Leinster Senior Football Championship title success in-a-row.

“I think in a strange way the empty stadium brought a kind of silence around the place. If there was a full stadium you would have still gotten that silence, but the Saturday evening and the darkness certainly did add to the occasion,” Horan reminisced.

The image of the Tipperary footballers wearing commemorative jerseys as The Premier County claimed its first Munster SFC in 85 years will live long in the memory of everyone who witnessed the remarkable feat. 

“The irony of it all is that 100 years ago the four provincial winners were the exact same four. Could you have written the script? If you had you’d have cleaned the bookies out,” Horan laughed.

The Road Ahead

In 1963 John F. Kennedy said: “Every president must endure a gap between what he would like and what is possible.”

So, what would Horan like to see for the GAA in the future?

“A stronger closer relationship with ladies’ football and camogie is a thing that we need going into the future. I think we’ve challenges in terms of refereeing as an organisation. They to me are two big challenges ahead of us,” said Horan. 

In a world where vile abuse is constantly being spewed at sportspeople online, the now-former GAA president is hopeful that social media sites clamp down on such incidents to help protect both GAA players and staff members.

Horan himself made the decision not to engage with social media in any manner during his time as president.

“You have to be conscious of the fact that as an individual you have a family and that it can impact on their lives if you’re getting trolled or hammered on social media,” he said.

“I think the people driving social media, those who control it, they need to act in a responsible manner, and I think stuff needs to be screened and vetted in some way.”

In relation to when we may see a return to action, Horan was eager to share a cautiously optimistic outlook.

“Coming up to Christmas we were operating with kids in pods in clubs in a very safe manner. Approximately 145,000 health questionnaires were being completed each week. That was having a huge social, physical and mental benefit for young players and it would be great if we could get that back,” he said.

“When the vaccination programme is at a higher percentage in terms of the population, we have plans in place for larger stadia… to bring people back into them,” explained Horan. 

“I don’t think you’re going to see 82,300 people in Croke Park this year, but hopefully in 2022 we might. A venue like Croke Park could cater for thousands of people if social distancing was still a requirement, so I would see larger stadiums like Croke Park, Thurles and Páirc Uí Chaoimh having spectators this year,” he said.

When we review Horan’s time in office, the less fondly remembered moments of the Na Fianna man’s presidency utterly pale in comparison to his exemplary leadership which guided the GAA through a truly unprecedented time.

New York’s Larry McCarthy became the 40th president of the GAA on 28 February 2021 and will lead the GAA until 2024.

Gareth Lyons 

Image Credit: Tom O’Hanlon/Inpho