Mary Coughlan: From the Dáil to Donegal GAA - how the county’s new chairperson will tackle the job

Donegal GAA chairperson Mary Coughlan
Cabinet reshuffle Donegal GAA chairperson Mary Coughlan (Niall Carson/PA)

In the native Gaelic tongue of her people, she would be known as Maire Bán or fair-haired Mary.

And that she certainly is, as the one and only Mary Coughlan strides into the Abbey Hotel in Donegal Town, once owned by her late uncle Dom Breslin, on this raw winter night.

Barely through the door and she is already having the craic with the receptionists, back on familiar territory as she washed dishes, cleaned floors and did just about everything from she was a “wee girl until I became a TD at 22 in 1987.”

Mary Coughlan has been commanding a room for many years and it is easy to see why.

The newly elected chairperson of Donegal County Board stands around six feet in a long black coat and has the natural gravitas and a grounded grace, ready laugh and effortless common touch that instantly connects with people.

Her DNA is ideal for a really tough job of leading the county after one of the worst years in living memory, for she is the of the hardy breed of the Coughlan clan from the mountainy townland of Cashelard between Ballyshannon and Belleek.

They were farmers and teachers and her mother’s people were Breslins and Granny Campbell on her father’s side, who have the dealing gene for a few generations.

Add in some natural people skills and you can see why she rose in the shark-infested waters of professional politics to becoming the second most powerful woman in the land under a Fianna Fáil government when Brian Cowen was Taoiseach.

Who is Mary Coughlan?

Coughlan was Tánaiste from 2008-2011 and she also served as Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Minister for Agriculture Fisheries and Food, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Minister for Education and Skills and Minister for Health and Children, the latter at a time when the economy crashed and her Fianna Fail party got a drubbing from a disgruntled electorate in 2011.

She lost her seat but had a much greater tragedy in September 2012 (the year Donegal won their second All-Ireland title under Jim McGuinness) when her husband David passed away the day before Mayo beat Dublin the All-Ireland semi-final.

A young widow with two young children, which must have been very hard, she plunged herself back into her community by becoming secretary of her local St Naul’s club, a post she held for the next 11 years right up until she was elected unopposed to become the first ever woman to hold the position of county chairperson.

The county has turned to a really serious player in their hour of greatest need and while she is very keen to emphasise the very different roles that she and charismatic Jim McGuinness will have, a success starved county is already thinking of them as the ‘dream team’ to bring Donegal right back up to where it belongs.

Politics aside, Mary Coughlan is steeped in the GAA as she fluidly describes over the course of an hour on this wintry night in the Abbey Hotel, the spiritual and social home of so many Donegal teams over the years.

Cathal, her late father was big into athletics and her uncles Clement, and the colourful Austin were very much involved in the GAA with Austin serving on one of Brian McEniff’ management teams.

“The Coughlan family came from Behy near Cashelard and my grandfather’s name was James Coughlan and he was a school teacher,” she says.

“Granda married a woman who was called Campbell from Frosses and they had a shop and a Post Office and they had an electrical shop as well and in that house the women were the entrepreneurs and they were strong women.

“His siblings were Michael, who was also a school teacher, James, Vincent, Dan, Annie and Joe.

“On the other side of the house, my mother was Marian Breslin, a sister of Dom’s, who used to own the Abbey Hotel and the business gene was there and my mother was a psychiatric social worker and she owned Drumbeg Hotel in Inver.

“We were steeped in St Naul’s and all my brothers and my sister and cousins played football and I can still see the late Willie O’Driscoll with ‘about three million in the car’ and it almost touching the ground bringing boys to matches.”

Coughlan was sent to the Ursuline Convent in Sligo as a boarder in 1978. She played basketball and hockey but fondly remembers one great day on a miserable day in November 1982 when she and her friend Ashling Hayes were taken out of boarding school to see Donegal U21s win the county’s first ever All-Ireland final in Carrick-On-Shannon on a most wintry day by her late father Cathal Coughlan.

“We went to the game, but it was fantastic, and we knew a lot of the lads who were playing but we were not allowed to come back to the homecoming and we were just ripping,” she said.

“They all landed back to the Abbey where I worked since I was 11 years of age and even when I was a politician, I was expected to do a few things if necessary, but everyone in our house served their time in the Abbey Hotel through Uncle Dom.”

She became a TD in the Dáil in 1987 and had been very much involved in student politics where politics in UCD was also part of her degree after her dad Cathal passed away in 1986.

How does Coughlan plan to help Donegal GAA?

Last month she was the unanimous choice for to lead Donegal GAA so how has all this vast professional political experience help her in her new role?

“I suppose it is about managing people and being able to be fair to people and you have to make decisions that people are not going to like and I don’t know yet what they might be but at least if everybody is part of the process and people are given a fair opportunity to express their views it is a huge help.

“I am not going to be able to change the world and GAA is dominated a lot by rules and regulations and by men, so you have to work within that.

“We all talk about the county board, but it is really the clubs who make the decisions.

“We are the ones that are elected to it but everything has to go back to county committee and that is the body that makes the ultimate decisions.

“And it is very important that the clubs are told by their delegates as to what is discussed or coming up and that clubs the chance to talk about any matter that comes up so that they have a point of view or perspective on important issues.”

Coughlan’s political world came crashing down in 2011 when a tsunami of discontent put her party Fianna Fail out of power and she lost her seat and suffered greater pain when her husband David passed away in early September of the following year.

But she showed true resilience in bouncing back and got involved with her native St Naul’s club.

“A vacancy came up for secretary in 2012 and I was asked to be secretary which was a big change as I knew nothing about it.

“I said I would stay for a year or two but that did not work as I stayed for quite a while,” she laughs.

“It was a learning curve and totally different from politics and there were deadlines and you had to know when you put in certain applications for playing and registration and in my first year Noreen Doherty gave me some tips a meeting in Ballybofey around a decade ago.

“I really loved the interaction with people, and I did everything, and you always need to be able to talk to people.

“We have a very good committee in St Naul’s and last year we had a new chairperson, Catherine Deely who was the first woman chairperson of our club and we are an old club.”

There had been a number of rumours about Coughlan being approached for the chair and ex-Donegal GAA great Pauric McShea was way ahead of the posse when he wrote a lengthy piece in his Donegal Post column saying why Donegal badly needed someone of her calibre at the helm.

“I was asked in the past by a few clubs, and I said I did not have enough experience and I don’t know enough about it.

“I did not think I would have time to do it as I run my own business as well as consultancy company mainly involved in legislation so it is mainly agricultural and waste matters and I am also chair of the Local Link bus link and I am also a member of the British/Irish Trade Alliance and I was also very involved in a company in Sligo and I thought I just did not have the time.

“I was never going to sit at home and look out the window and I am very involved in my community, the hall committee, the church and the school and anything that was going.

“But I had a little more flexibility than most as I was working from home, and I could float about a bit more.”

Donegal manager Paddy Carr together with Paddy Bradley selector and Aidan O'Rourke (head coach) before Carr stepped away before the NFL concluded Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.
Donegal manager Paddy Carr together with Paddy Bradley selector and Aidan O'Rourke (head coach) before Carr stepped away before the 2023 NFL concluded Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.

Coughlan sees it as giving back to the community who had supported her so much over the years.

“Last year was a difficult time in the county board and a lot of people were concerned about what was happening and it is over now and we are moving on but people were anxious that there would be some kind of change in the overall context of the board.

“I was approached again if I would consider as were my club man Cieran Kelly and Four Masters club man Sean Dunnion.

“I had a good chat with my own family, club and other people and I said I might consider it and spoke to a lot of people and then found out that I was nominated by a lot of people outside of my own area.”

How is it going so far?

Coughlan has been in the hot seat for around six weeks and believes she has a “very good team.”

“They are enthusiastic and want to do their work and are moving on now from the work that was done last year, and I want to pay particular tribute to Fergus McGee, the former chair for the gracious way he handled a very difficult year, and he is an absolute gentleman.

“Some people are starting from absolute scratch because they would not have been involved in the county board before or the executive, so they are going to need times to get into their brief.”

Coughlan is a proud Donegal GAA woman so it must have been pretty galling for her to learn that the affairs of her county were virtually being overseen by Croke Park against a background of a pretty damning report on how aspects of the GAA were being run in the county?

“I suppose that some people found it very difficult having them in but when you look at the outcome of the report it said that a lot of the things that were needed were in place anyway. It was just the methods by which they were implemented that was at issue.

“It was critical of certain aspects, so you learn from that and there has been a lot of work done since last year addressing those concerns and there are one or two things that have to be finished off and we were in Croke Park last weekend, and you learn from that too.

Donegal's Karl Lacey.
Donegal GAA was plunged into turmoil last year when Karl Lacey stepped down from his position as head of the county's academy and several other coaches resigned in solidarity

Will Jim McGuinness’ return affect her decisions on the county board?

Before Coughlan’s elevation to the chair, the whole county rejoiced in the return of the Jim McGuinness so was that a factor in her decision to go for the chair.

Coughlan admits that McGuinness’s track record of success will be a huge benefit to the county and his return has given Donegal a lift but says it did not necessarily shape her thinking on getting involved at the highest level.

And she dismisses the idea and that Jim McGuinness over the senior football team and Mary Coughlan chairing the county board is some sort of ‘dream team’ however some might see it.

“No, Jim is going to running the football team and I going to help to run the county,” she said.

“I am not going to be running the team and Jim is not going to be running the county and everybody has their own job to do.

“But people have been very disappointed in that last while that we were not successful and now, we seem to be improving.

“But you have to manage that expectation as there is no way that Jim McGuinness and all those lads are going to win an All-Ireland this year.

“If they did. it would be great but that is very unrealistic of an expectation on those young people.

“It’s a young team coming through working very closely with the U20s and the U20s are working closely with the younger teams.

“The same is happening with the hurlers and we support the hurlers equally and it will take time for some of the clubs to expand into hurling and it is a very skilful game, and I was there to see them win the Conor McGurk Cup in Belfast recently.”

How does Mary view the development of young players after last year’s controversy?

When asked about developments in last year’s ill-fated Academy where the departure of Karl Lacey sparked major discontent and cause a mass exodus of coaches leaving in support of Lacey, Coughlan said that Games and development were paramount.

“That is what the GAA is all about and not rules and regulations,” she said.

“We have a new Games Development Officer in Declan Bushell and a new Coaching Officer in Damian Diver, and we are recruiting a part-time post in the Academy.

“So, we need to develop our own coaches and see how many are available and of course we have the linkage with the department of Sport in ATU Letterkenny which is hugely important and that will all build and develop and give the best opportunity to our elite players.

“But it also has to give opportunity and access to our clubs and our club coaches, so you don’t lose the better players to the elite academies, and it is important to find the right balance in all of this.

“Not everybody is going to make it on to a county panel or a development panel but young people need games and it has to go both ways and some children may also be late developers physically, emotionally and skill wise.”

One of the other things Mary Coughlan stressed when elected was it was very important from a woman’s perspective and there are five women on the county executive in Mary, Mary Kelly, assistant secretary, Grace Boyle, Treasurer, Sinead Breen, PRO and Catriona Sweeeny as Oifigeach na Gaeilge and not forgetting the redoubtable Noreen Doherty who is the County Administrator.

“It’s very important and nobody was elected there because they were a woman, they were elected because people thought they were going to be the right people for the job,” Coughlan said.

“We will all complement each other on the board, and we have a nice balance there and everybody is very enthusiastic, and we need to be build, and develop on that.”

And the new boss will not “suffer fools” according to Jim McGuinness who said in a recent interview.

Mary Coughlan’s reaction to this pretty strong reference is to laugh and say “you better ask Jim.”

“That goes back to experience of life and politics and being in the chair, I am representing everybody else, and I am not representing myself.

“This is not about Mary Coughlan it’s about Donegal GAA.

“It is that collective that is very important, everyone is equally important.”

“At its best the GAA is all about community and identity, part of what we are but we need more volunteers.

“It is a great social experience and the glue that holds a lot of communities together.”

Yes Minister.