There is a lot of water under the bridge since the founding members of the Gaelic Athletic Association met in the now famous Hayes Hotel in Thurles back in 1884. I don't think Michael Cusack, Maurice Davin and his associates who gathered on that momentous occasion could ever in their wildest dreams have envisaged how significant an association they were just about to form and what an impact it was going to have on the people of Ireland.
The GAA has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Many changes have taken place both on and off the field down through the years but the fundamentals remain the same. The core values that have made (in my eyes ) hurling, football and camogie the greatest field games in the world are still intact despite challenging times over the years. Handball and other elements of the activity side of the association are also in a healthy state. This year is the 125th anniversary of the association and therefore it’s a perfect time to both celebrate how far we have come and to reflect on what has been achieved by great men and women that have gone before us.
Maybe it’s down to my age and that I'm coming to the end of my playing career that I find myself more and more reflective about the good days that I've had over the years. Being brought up in Gowran in Co Kilkenny during the seventies and eighties there is only one sport that was ever going to dominate my time, and for the life of me I can never remember not having a hurl in my hand. A lot of it was probably down to my late father Jim and his brother Charlie senior who gave me and all my cousins plenty of encouragement.
I must say rural Ireland seemed a very innocent place back then; there were no Nintendos, computers or 900 Sky channels that we have today to distract us. I reckon I was no different to any other young lad of that era.
Depending on what county you came from, we all probably threw the bag in the corner when we came home from school and picked up the hurl or football and pretended to be one of our heroes from that time. In my case Eddie Kehir, Pat Delaney, Fan Larkin and Chunky O'Brien were my heroes. When they retired, men like Ger Henderson, Liam Fennelly, and Christy Heffernan and many more from that era would have taken their places.
At that stage I never would have thought that I would have the honour of later playing with some of these men. As I said before a lot of things have changed down through the years but I reckon this is the one element that hasn't changed.
Youngsters will always look up to their idols, I'm sure that there are plenty of Henry Shefflins, Tommy Walshs, JJ Delaneys, and Joe Cannings in the school fields at lunchtime every day. You can picture a young lad standing over a free, thinking he was Henry, or over a line ball calling himself Joe Canning, and once that remains, the game is in safe hands.
There is no doubt that the association is having to compete more and more with other sports nowadays. Soccer and rugby are just two sports that have raised their profiles over the last two decades. The GAA will have to keep the finger on the pulse in terms of development at underage. Plenty of revenue was generated from the opening of Croke Park and it is imperative that some of this revenue finds its way down to underage because at the end of the day it is the youngsters who are the future of the association.
Underage coaching and encouragement from parents are also paramount to the future success of our games. You can have your successful intercounty and club teams but if you don't have a good coaching strategy at underage level, the interest and success will quickly evaporate.
The school teachers, club coaches and parents’ role can never be underestimated and without their voluntary commitment the GAA would quickly go into decline.
The formation of the summer camps was a great idea and it’s a week the kids look forward to immensely. I had reason to be at an underage football final recently and to see the excitement generated was heart-warming. The thrill of playing in one's county ground for the first time is still as big as it was in my time.
I was lucky to have played with Kilkenny and it is something I will always treasure but hand on heart I know if I didn't receive the coaching and encouragement when I was young I would have never got to live my dream, so that's why it is so important to keep the fundamentals strong.