By John Twomey
Widespread interest and debate has preoccupied the GAA fraternity and further afield on the proposition to rename Pairc Ui Chaoimh. A very lucrative sponsorship deal is in the pipeline with local Cork Supermarket Chain SUPER VALU. The man commemorated by this stadium, now among the finest in Europe, is Padraig O' Caoimh an iconic figure within the GAA locally and nationally. The Carrigdhoun Weekly ran an extensive article on this famed Gael in their Christmas issue of 2021, which we are now republishing.
The Man And His Stadium In Cork
In the year 1976 the old Cork Athletic Grounds underwent a major revamp and development to bring it into the then modern era with a capacity for 50,000 spectators. It also got a new title and name. It re-opened as Pairc Ui Caoimh the new headquarters of Cork GAA.
What’s In A Name
Cork County GAA Board gave time and thought into choosing a name for this historic location in the Southern Capital. The choice, was perhaps, an obvious and very good one. They honoured a former giant in the GAA world, both locally and nationally. Paddy O’Keeffe had been an outstanding former Secretary of the Cork Board and of course a wonderful and dynamic General Secretary of the GAA based in Croke Park. He died in 1964.
Padraig O’Caoimh 1897-1964
He was born in the village of Ballinagare, Co. Roscommon in 1897 where his father, a Limerick man, was based as a member of the RIC. His mother was a Mayo woman who sadly died in 1899 giving birth. Shortly after his mother’s death, his father resigned from the RIC and the family moved to Cork City where he got a job in a shop in the Queens Old Castle in the Grand Parade. He received his early education in the North Mon, which was then a Rugby playing school. His next stage in education was spent in Presentation College on The Western Road, then a prominent Hurling and Football playing school. There were some outstanding teachers in Pres. And Paddy learned much about his country and the changing times where there were growing aspirations for Home Rule and Independence. Having completed his education in Presentation College, he went to Strawberry Hill College in London to train as a Teacher. Having qualified he came back to Cork and particularly Cork City, which he loved very much. The Principal in Presentation College offered him a Teaching Post which got his career on the road. He often watched young Corkmen training to be volunteers in the cause of freedom and heard much about Sinn Fein and its founder Arthur Griffin. He had learned much about Ireland’s sad past from Christian Brother colleagues and the great desire and hope for a future which would have Irishmen ruling and guiding Ireland.
An Irish Volunteer Freedom Fighter
Paddy was very much taken in by the cause for Irish freedom and independence and he joined the local volunteers where he undertook many tasks without fear for life or limb. He had seen the fallout from the 1916 rising and the bitter and cruel recriminations from the British. Much of his work was secretive and under cover, smuggling guns and ammunitions, hiding ‘men on the run’. He often dressed men in clerical garb, borrowed from his Christian Brother friends in Pres. He risked his life day and night and his smart thinking and intelligence made him a key figure in the ranks of the volunteers. He would have made visits to Dublin too, closely working with Collins, Brugha, Boland and Griffin. His views and contributions were much appreciated and valued by the leaders in the Capital. He befriended another well-known Cork Volunteer Paddy O’Donoghue with whom he carried out many dangerous engagements. He saw the murder and looting carried out by The Black & Tans and The Auxiliaries, the burning of Cork City, the murder of Lord Mayor Tomas McCurtain, and Fr. O’Callaghan. Of course, the death of Lord Mayor Terence McSweeney through hunger strike in Brixton Prison was another savage cut inflicted on the people of Cork City by the British. McSweeney’s funeral was a massive event where thousands lined the streets of Cork and it was Paddy who took charge of the burial firing party at the cemetery. In the month of December 1920 himself and another volunteer Toddy O’Sullivan were intercepted by Crown Forces on Parliament Bridge, carrying guns and a bomb. They were tried and Paddy got ten years in jail. He finished up serving his time in Parkhurst Prison in The Isle of Wight. The Catholic Prison Chaplin was Fr. Dominic OFM Cap the very same Priest who was with Terence McSweeney during his hunger strike in Brixton Jail. He was released in January 1922 after the signing of the truce and he came back to his beloved Cork City by the Lee. Ireland had now achieved some independence and a new era, despite the civil war, beckoned. Paddy O’Keeffe was not going to put his feet up and reminisce.
While attending Presentation College he got very interested in Hurling and Football. He received great encouragement from his teachers and played on the school team against the likes of Farranferris and St. Colman’s. He played both hurling and football and got great enjoyment from the games and he understood fully what the GAA stood for. He had a great love for our language, songs, poetry and traditions. Along with his brother Willie he was among the early members of a new Club called Nemo and was on their Intermediate side that won County honours in 1918. Later Nemo amalgamated with a football club called Rangers and we had the birth of the modern day Nemo Rangers. Apart from playing he also served as a Club Officer. He was a very serious and dedicated working member of the GAA.
In 1920 the then Secretary of Cork County Board, Tom Irwin, was intimidated by the IRA and given an ultimatum to leave Cork. His departure created a vacancy and Paddy was encouraged to allow his name to go forward. On July 22nd 1920 he was elected at a Board meeting. He was formally proposed by the Shamrock Club Delegate Michael Henry Murphy and seconded by the St. Finbarr’s Delegate John Lynch. A new era and phase of Paddy’s life dawned. He immediately got down to business and proved to be a huge asset to the Cork Board. He became a very active referee and officiated at several County Finals, Munster Finals and an All-Ireland Final. He moved Cork forward and more games were being played at all levels. He was there for Cork’s first ever National Hurling League game in 1925 against Laois and had to play in goal as they were short on the day. Paddy was a man for all occasions. He was one of the people who promoted the playing of the National Leagues, The Railway Cups and the Minor Inter County Championships. He was now commanding much respect throughout the GAA nationally, and his views and philosophy were much heeded.
GAA National Secretary
In 1929 the then National Secretary of The GAA Luke O’Toole died. Cork had a most credible candidate in Paddy O’Keeffe. The vacancy attracted much interest with eleven candidates on offer. On August 31st 1929 Paddy was appointed as the successor to the late Luke O’Toole. A huge job of work and a massive challenge lay ahead for Cork’s adopted Gael. However, the new appointee was a realist, a visionary and had faith in people to see his goals and targets reach fruition. The GAA was still only in a stage of development, it was only 45 years in existence having come through a very difficult time through English rule and the war of independence. Great numbers of the GAA played very significant roles in the struggles for freedom and independence. Now there was a real opportunity to move the Association forward and manifest the ideals for which it was founded in a developing new nation. He deeply felt that the story of Ireland must be the story of the GAA. In 1929 the GAA was not a large organisation and there was a real need for development within itself, better communications and preserving the clubs with the founding of many new ones. Croke Park Stadium had a capacity then for 30,000 people with 1100 seats. It was old and rusty and required huge improvements. Despite difficult economic times and World War 2 Paddy led an initiative to improve Croke Park. 1937 saw the completion of the Cusack Stand followed by the Canal End and the Nally Stand. The Hogan Stand was redeveloped into a new double decker stand in 1959. Seating was now at 23,000 and the total capacity of the grounds was 85,000. Paddy travelled the country extensively and used every opportunity to visit clubs, firstly to listen and secondly to offer advice and guidance. As a result, club numbers nearly doubled and more of them became owners of their grounds and facilities and had them vested in the GAA. In 1947 It was decided to play the All Ireland Senior Football Final between Kerry and Cavan in New York. He was shouldered with the planning and all the logistics of this unprecedented event. It was a huge showcase for the GAA in front of the American people. History was made and its success had Paddy’s organisational skills behind it. He had to employ extra help in order to get the huge workload carried out. One of the first people was his wife Peig, when much of the work was done from home in Drumcondra. His first full time employee was Brid Ni Mhuireartaigh who served for 34 years rendering outstanding and faithful execution of her duties. He later employed an Assistant Administrator by the name of Sean O’Siochain from Killnamartyra. Sean was truly a genial and gallant Gael who would succeed Paddy later. As the years progressed the GAA expanded and commanded greater appeal among the public and the media in particular. There was little to match Inter County championship games and All Ireland Finals broadcast on Radio by the late Micheal O’h-Eithir. The advent of television served the Association and games well and of course spread the ‘gospel’ and drew in thousands of new members. Paddy make sure the GAA moved with the times. The GAA was playing a very prominent part in the life of the Irish nation. Paddy could find time for everyone, but he always found time for those less fortunate and in need of some help or advice. He never abandoned his old ideals and values. Padraig O’Caoimh was called to his reward on May 15th 1964 leaving his family and The Gaelic Athletic Association much the poorer with his passing.
Paddy – The Family Man
Paddy met his wife Peig at a camogie game in the Mardyke. Peig, who was a native of Ballynoe, was a prominent member of the UCC Senior Team. She won two Ashbourne Cup medals, being Captain in 1922. She studied Commerce and after graduating she took up a teaching post in a Vocational School. They were married in the month of November 1929 and spent their honeymoon in Gougane Barra. They later had a family of six girls and one boy. The family grew up while their father was busy in his Croke Park posting. They got to know so many GAA personalities as their home was frequented by visitors from all over the country. While rearing a young family, his wife Peig found time to help Paddy with office duties and many other undertakings. Paddy and Peig loved to holiday around the country in a caravan. They adored the fresh green airy countryside, swimming, picking blackberries, getting fish from the local fishermen, and experiencing some of the wonderful sights. They called and enjoyed local games and an odd Ceili too. Paddy would call on many of his GAA friends when passing and Peig and the children were entertained and welcomed too. These trips and family togetherness meant so much to him and enriched his busy life. On his holiday trips he also renewed acquaintances with many of his old comrades with whom he served in the war of independence. His children’s names were Maura, Nuala, Noreen, Peggy, Brid (who died at the age of one), Aoibheann and Padraig. They were a happy family thanks to their wonderful parents.
Paddy died in 1964 and his passing send deep shockwaves and outpourings of sympathy throughout the GAA world and much further afield. One of the great leaders and architects of the Association since its foundation in 1884 was called to his reward. His funeral drew huge numbers including the highest Civil and Ecclesiastical people in Ireland. Archbishop Morris of Cashel and a patron of The GAA led the funeral service along with many other senior clergymen including Cork’s Bishop Dr. Cornelius Lucey. Eamon de Valera led the state leaders and politicians. Former GAA Presidents and probably every other senior elected GAA official in the state attended. It was a sad and a long goodbye to a truly great and true Irish patriot. An avalanche of tributes poured in from all corners. “I never met anyone like him”, By any test, by any standard, Paddy O’Keeffe looms out like a bright beacon”, His fitness for high office was never doubted”, He was a national leader with courage, strength, perseverance, agility of mind and dedication”, A man of intense dedication, foresight and fortitude”. There were countless others too.