North Tipperary Man President of G.A.A. in Australia

The Nenagh Guardian, December 15th, 2007


With the G.A.A. Congress scheduled for Sligo at Easter, one,man who will be attending will be Seamus O'Sullivan, originally from the borders of the parishes of Lorrha and Carrig/Riverstown, who has been representing Australia at Congress for many years. He emigrated from England to Brisbane in 1972, with his wife, Julie, who was a nurse and came from Castleblayney. His mother had died when he was a baby and his father had just died. Julie's parents had also died recently so emigrating was breaking a link with the past and establishing new roots.

Seamus has remained in Brisbane since his first day there. It wasn't easy to get work when he arrived as he had no trade. There was no difficulty about visas as both of them were emigrating. Julie was accepted straight away because she was a nurse and soon had a job.

Early the following spring, having moved into a house, they had to get a pest control man in. He was a Carlow man by the name of Gerry Daly who, sadly, passed away this year. The talk got to hurling and as a result of the contact Seamus, who had retired from games at the time, started playing on Sunday mornings during the summer of 1973.

There was no formal organisation of hurling or football in Brisbane in 1973. The only activity was an occasional get together for a match to raise funds for some community cause. Such occasions were also an excuse for a few beers. There was no drinking on Sundays at the time so the players bought a keg of beer and had a few after the game.

As a result of Seamus's involvement a couple of teams were formed, Young Irelands and The Alliance. The latter was a pub run by a Laois man, Dominica Kelly. It must have been the only team in existence based on a pub. The teams played each other and at a later stage a third team was affiliated from the local soccer team. By this stage hurling was abandoned and football was the game. At the same time Brisbane G.A.A. came into existence.

Seamus and the others who were involved had no clear plan on where they were going. One such was John Halpenny from Fermanagh, who was married to Emily. They later became the parents of the famous O hAilpín family. Another person was Enda McDonnell, who now lives in Templemore and is chairperson of the county ladies football board.

In 1975 Brisbane affiliated with the national body in Australia under the name Queensland G.A.A. and two years later hosted the national championships at Brisbane. The national championships are hosted by a state every year when each state sends the winner of the state championship to compete for the national trophy. This is a costly exercise for teams. Brisbane representatives in the 2007 All-Australian Championships had to pay A$1,050 -per person for travel and accommodation. Food and other expenses for the three days were extra.

Progress continued with the development of the game in Brisbane but not as qucikly as Seamus hoped for. In 1981 the local committee took a stance to develop the game further. The total panel of players in the city was split four ways, North, South, East and West, and sent off to develop full panels. They succeeded so two teams became four and while the North disappeared at a later stage, three new clubs were formed to bring the full strength of the game to six teams in the city. Most of these teams had at least fifty-percent native Australian players. The expansion couldn't have taken place if they were depending on Irish born players.

While still playing, Seamus had become involved in administration. Already in 1973-74 he was elected president of Brisbane, later Queensland, G.A.A., and he remained in that position until 2001. In 1978 he was elected National President of Hurling and Football in Australia, and he still retains that position. The fact that he has been re-elected every three years is an indication of his popularity and standing on the continent.

He has been very much involved in the development of physical structures for the game in Brisbane. For many years the game had no permanent home and was forced to travel around looking for venues. In 1981 they applied to Brisbane City Council for the lease of a ground. They were successful in their application and began to develop the new grounds. This increased Seamus's workload. In centenary year they built a new toilet block and and dressingrooms on the grounds. In 1990 a clubhouse was completed and this has bar facilities which are used on Sundays, the only day games are played, and they might have seven or eight games on a day. The place was floodlit in 2004 for which they received a grant of €10,000 from Croke Park. They got a grant from the State Government for the clubhouse.

Seamus is high in his praise of the outstanding work of volunteers in the building of their facilities. They would not have been possible without this help. Many tradesmen came on board and did outstanding work in the development of top class facilities.

Today the club caters for six senior men's teams and six under-18 teams. Women's football commenced in 1997 and today there are six teams playing. Over ninety percent of the men playing are Australian and virtually all the women are native born.

Seamus is of the opinion that the powers that be at Croke Park don't know the wonderful game of football they have and how widespread its appeal can be among non-Irish. He cites the popularity of the game in Australia and it has taken off nearly as strongly in Canada. If more support were to be received from Croke Park the game could be promoted even more effectively.

He is critical of the support of the compromise game with the Australian AFL. His point is the folly of supporting a game that nobody plays between tests, when they have a real game of football that men and women all over are willing to play. He cites the case of the AFL pouring 40 million Australian dollars into the promotion of their game in schools during 2007. According to him gaelic football could similarly be promoted, but it is very difficult to compete for players at the moment with so much money available to Australian Rules.

If football were encouraged and supported it could become an international game. He draws attention to the fact that the European G.A.A. are proposing that ladies football be entered for the Olympics by 2016. There is no reason why this shouldn't be so but it is up to Croke Park to push the matter forward.

As a result of much agitation over the years Croke Park has begun to support the game in Australia. Headquarters now fund the position of national secretary, so that he can be a full-time official. The province of Australia is now twinned with Leinster so there is a flow of assistance from that source. In fact over the last two years the support of Leinster Council chairman, Liam O'Neill, and Overseas Chairman, Seamus Howlin, is really starting to bear fruit, especially their commitment to youth development. Hopefully, this will allow the organisation in Australia to develop players at a much younger age. There is also funding possible through the cultural arm of the Irish Embassy at Canberra.

It is hard for us to comprehend some of the difficulties the organisers of the game in Australia, and presumably in other overseas units, have to face in the organisation of the games. The Parish Rule, which is the backbone of the game in Ireland, has no part to play in a place where the base of a club might be a pub. Also, in order to get accreditation from the Australian Sports Council the G.A.A. in Australia had to incorporate rules relating to drugs, discrimination, race, sex, etc that the original rule book never catered for.

At the moment the overseas units of the association are hoping for more liaison between headquarters and them. More formal structures must be set up. The parent body in Dublin needs to know more of the crises and difficulties their far-flung children have to endure. They want to be consulted by the parent body, asked what their requirements are. They want Croke Park to move across the Irish Sea and the Atlantic and embrace the game in the world. They want as much hands-on involvement as the G.A.A. have been affording the AFL for many years now.

Seamus O'Sullivan has been bringing his message to the G.A.A. and to Congress for many years now. He'll be there representing Down Under once more in Sligo next April. His mission will be the same, the promotion of the game in Australia, the mission that has been constant since he arrived there in 1972.

Before that he had spent six years in Coventry having emigrated from Croghan, between Rathcabbin and Riverstown in 1966. While in Coventry he played with St. Finbarr's and won a couple of championships with them. Earlier he had gone to school in Killeen and played with Carrick & Riverstown. During his young years he took up Irish dancing and danced with the Birr Troupe of Dancing for about seven years. His father was from Borrisokane and his mother a Rafter from Rathcabbin. He has no memories of her as she died when he was a year and five months old. He had no brothers or sisters.

It's been a long journey from Croghan, where he was reared by the Hayes family, through Killeen N.S. and the Vocational School, Birr, through work in Birr Shoes in Springfield, and later the Jackpot Factory in Cloghan, emigration to Coventry and later Australia and during all these moves and journeys, Gaelic Games have remained a constant in his life. At the moment his dream is to see a motion from Australia G.A.A. to the 2007 Congress become a reality. It stated that it was time for the G.A.A. 'To become an international organisation in its own right, playing our own games internationally.'