Football

And the rest is history... Peter Quinn's rise from the family farm to top office in the GAA

Peter Quinn goes back to his roots at Teemore Shamrocks. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Peter Quinn goes back to his roots at Teemore Shamrocks. Picture by Hugh Russell. Peter Quinn goes back to his roots at Teemore Shamrocks. Picture by Hugh Russell.

The son of an illiterate farmer from rural county Fermanagh, Peter Quinn was blessed with a heavyweight IQ and a passion for Gaelic Games. Despite poor health until his mid-20s, he rose to become a leading academic, President of the GAA and oversaw the rebuilding of Croke Park. Andy Watters met one of the most influential and capable Gaels in the Association’s history...

A LANTERN lit the way on winter evenings as he made the daily walk across the yard on the family farm in Teemore, county Fermanagh.

When he reached the byre, Peter Quinn, future President of the GAA, placed his bucket, sat on a stool and began milking the cows.

It was farm work first and, when it was done, school work.

His father Hugh, who’d lost his own father in infancy, had been running the farm since childhood and rarely went to school in his day. He could neither read nor write and hadn’t much time for education but Peter, the eldest of his two sons (Sean is three years’ his junior), was a gifted student.

His mother Mary - “she could be an awkward woman but she was a great influence” - spotted his potential and decided that he would go on to secondary school. And so Peter sat the entrance exam for St Michael’s CBS, Enniskillen before he’d reached his 10th birthday, passed and was a first year before he turned 11. He was the youngest in the school by nine months.

Despite constant bad health he flourished and qualified for Queen’s University where he graduated in Maths and subsequently added a diploma, then a Masters, then a Doctorate.

Hugh Quinn didn’t have much time for Gaelic Football either (although that changed) but Peter was drawn to it from his earliest days. Fate had decreed that he was born in staunchly GAA territory.

Before partition, Teemore was part of Ballyconnell Parish which included south Fermanagh and north Cavan. In 1885, Ballyconnell was the first place in Ulster to form a GAA club and the county Cavan outfit still proudly bears the name Ballyconnell First Ulsters.

A century ago, the border split the parish and a new club, Teemore Shamrocks, came into being on its northern side. By the time Peter was growing up, the Shamrocks’ home was a meadow beside his home which had been sold, a little reluctantly, to the club by his father.

His poor health (more on that below) was a hindrance but Peter was a gifted footballer who rose through the ranks with the club to the fringes of the Fermanagh panel.

But it was as an administrator that he made a lasting impression. He graduated from club to county, county to province and province to nation when he was elected the 30th President of the GAA in 1991.

His three-year term was an era of unparalleled success for Ulster football and he presented the Sam Maguire to Paddy O’Rourke (Down), Anthony Molloy (Donegal) and then Henry Downey (Derry). Later he went on to oversee the building of the Croke Park stadium we treasure today.

The path to all that started the first time he left his house, crossed the Mountain Road, jumped the stream and walked the 40 yards to the Teemore pitch.

“My father wanted me to work on the farm but he had no objection to me playing football,” says Peter (77).

“He didn’t go to many matches until Sean started playing. Sean was a better player than me but, then again, I spent my life on penicillin injections until I was nearly 25.”

Peter’s health issues began when what should have been a routine procedure to remove his tonsils went horrifically wrong. ‘The surgeon “mucked it up”, in Peter's words, and dug in too deep with his knife on one side of his throat. On the other side, he failed to remove a portion of the infected tonsil.’

“It poisoned me,” says Peter.

“Many a time the principal of St Michael’s, Fr Paddy Mulligan (later Bishop Mulligan) had to pack me into the car, drive 16 miles to Teemore and land me at the front door to my mother and say: ‘You’d better get a doctor for this guy!’ I used to be in bad shape.”

Daily penicillin injections and days, even weeks, in bed became the norm. Between those bouts of illness he lived a relatively normal life but gradually the walls would close in again and he’d be off his feet again.

Sometimes he could be tempted out of his bed though...

“One day I was in bed, I wasn’t well and I got a penicillin injection in the morning and Teemore had a match against St Pat’s, Donagh,” Peter recalls.

“At half-time, two of the players arrived at our house to my mother to see if I would play the second half. She says: ‘The doctor’s after giving him a penicillin injection two hours’ ago’. They said: ‘It doesn’t matter, he doesn’t have to play; he only has to take the frees’.

“She said: ‘Yous may go upstairs and sort it out with him but as far as I’m concerned he shouldn’t be going’.

“They begged me to go so I put on the jersey and went up to the field. I scored seven points in the second half – four frees, two sidelines and one from play!

“A fella called Louis Leonard, a butcher by trade who was shot dead in his shop and left in his fridge years later, was marking me. After the match I went home, had a shower and got back into bed. In our room you could hear people talking out on the road.

“My father was going down to feed the cattle with hay on his back: ‘Well Louis,’ he says: ‘How are things?’

“Louis says: ‘They’d be a lot better if that fella of yours had stayed in his bed!’”

By the time he’d reached 24 he’d had enough of the penicillin and the constant bouts of illness. He called on a doctor from Cork he knew, an ex-county hurler.

“I can’t go on with this – weak in bed four or five times-a-year and taking penicillin injections,” he told him.

The doctor said he thought the problem was curable and he called 10 days later to let him know that he’d booked an operation on his throat for the following week.

“I haven’t had a cold since,” says Peter.

By that stage, younger brother Sean was in the Teemore team and his father had been converted from sporting atheist to born-again GAA zealot. The transformation came when his cousin (also Hugh who had played for Fermanagh in his early days) called to the house before a match and asked him to go along to the ground.

He declined the offer but the cousin persisted: ‘Ah come on, sure you have two sons playing. Did you ever see Sean play?’

“My father and Sean were very close but he had never seen him play,” Peter recalls.

“Anyway, my father went to watch the match and he hardly missed another game until the day he died.

“No matter how badly you played - and if I played badly I wouldn’t have been in great form - he would say: ‘There was worse than you out there’. He would never allow you to believe that you were the worst – he was never hard on us.”

Hugh Quinn passed away at the age of 67 after suffering his 16th heart attack. The first had come when he was 49. He passed before his time but he lived to see his children achieve things that he probably couldn’t have imagined were possible.

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PETER progressed from St Michael’s to join the first wave of Catholic students who’d made their way to Queen’s University. He studied for a degree in Maths but stumbled into accountancy after ‘The Geek’ Murphy was beaten in the final of the university’s annual snooker competition.

“Me and another fella (Kevin McLoughlin) were supporting Murphy but he was getting beat so we went down the town,” he recalls.

“McLoughlin said he was going to meet someone about the Institute of Chartered Accountants, he was thinking of doing accountancy. I says: ‘What the f**k is accountancy?’

“Anyway I went with him to the office and after a while this lady asked us: ‘What religion are you?’ I said: ‘What difference does that make?’

“She says: ‘Sorry but I thought, by your names, that you might be Catholic and most of the offices in the city don’t take Catholics’.

“On the way home on the bus, I turned to McLoughlin and said: ‘I’m going to do accountancy.”

He says: ‘What are you on about? Sure you didn’t know what it was an hour ago! I said: ‘If those bastards have it sewn up it must be a good racket and I want into it’.”

It was typical of him that he viewed a closed door as a challenge that he had to open.

And he did.

He applied to various accountancy firms and eventually one made him an offer. Three months later he started work in the office and quickly discovered that it wasn’t for him.

“I absolutely hated it but I was determined I was going to pass the exams,” he said.

“I did nothing in the office – they thought I was useless – but I went home and did three hours’ work every evening.

“At that stage the pass rate was about 16 per cent but I was determined to pass and I did. I put a lot of work into it and the people in the office couldn’t believe it because I was useless as an accountant!”

A brilliant academic, he was determined that his future would not be in accountancy and so he enrolled in a business studies course, won the coveted Sir Charles Harvey award and went on to complete a Masters. He insists he was “useless as an accountant” but was good enough to take up a position lecturing in accountancy at Queen’s.

A few years later, he was head-hunted by the Irish Management Institute and moved to Dublin, then Galway and then back to Fermanagh where he established a successful business as an economist.

The Teemore Shamrocks side that won the Fermanagh senior championship in 1969
The Teemore Shamrocks side that won the Fermanagh senior championship in 1969 The Teemore Shamrocks side that won the Fermanagh senior championship in 1969

THROUGHOUT his student days and into his working life, GAA never strayed far from Peter’s thoughts.

Teemore remain Fermanagh’s most successful club but 14 out their 21 county titles were won by 1935. Emigration hit the area hard and young men left for England and New York in search of work meaning teams often couldn’t be selected until after the second Mass on a Sunday.

“We didn’t know who had gone from the previous week,” Peter explains.

“That went on for years. It was a very poor area and the only thing that kept the community going was the border – smuggling. Anyone with a few bob was smuggling cattle (mainly) but they smuggled all sorts of things.”

The greatest day in Peter’s footballing life came in 1969 when Teemore bridged a 34-year gap and won the county championship again. Not only did he win it, he was captain and not only was he captain, he scored the winning point in the final minute.

“It’s like it happened yesterday,” he says, smiling.

“In the last minute we got a free just under 50 yards out. I would point one 50 out of 10 – I just didn’t have the power in my legs for the extra five yards.

“This was about 45 yards out and the referee placed the ball: ‘This will be the last kick of the game,’ he says.

“I hit it and it got over the crossbar by about three inches. The ref let them take the kick-out and then he blew it up… Ah it was pandemonium! I remember Paddy Drumm came over, he was a small fella but he lifted me clean off the ground!”

Amid all the “pandemonium” Peter gathered his thoughts as he went to reclaim the long lost trophy. Little did he know that the speech he made that afternoon would shape the rest of his sporting life.

“I’d never heard an acceptance speech before and I presumed the speech was made in Irish,” he says.

“I’m an Irish speaker so I spoke in Irish for about 90 seconds and said how proud I was to bring the cup back to the Mountain Road and then went on in English.

“It turned out nobody ever spoke Irish. The Fermanagh county secretary was there. He was becoming the treasurer of the Ulster Council the following year which meant there was a vacancy on the Ulster Council for a Fermanagh representative.”

A couple of months later, nominations went in for the vacant position and the name ‘Peter Quinn’ was among them. When he became aware of that, his first reaction was to pull out of the running but he was encouraged to let his name go forward and, lo and behold, he came second in the poll which meant he had a place on the Ulster Council.

“In a way I was pleased, in another I didn’t really care – I could take it or leave it,” he says.

“I was on the Council for a few years and then I got nominated for treasurer (Gerry Arthurs was behind that). I was in my 30s then and that was it. The rest is, as they say, history…”

GAA President, building Croke Park, Dublin dominance, the fall of the Quinn Group, the future of the GAA… Part Two of Peter Quinn’s story is in tomorrow’s Irish News