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Luke O'Toole, General Secretary of the GAA, 1901-1929

In 1901 Frank Dineen announced to the GAA’s Annual Congress that he was unwilling to continue as Secretary of the Association for another year. He recommended that Luke O’Toole, the Wicklow delegate, succeed him. Michael Cusack and Burke were also nominated for the post but on a show of hands Congress rejected Burke’s nomination. O’Toole won the ensuing poll and was duly elected Secretary of the GAA.

Immediately after his election a motion was passed by Congress criticising the recent operation of the Association and hoping that the ‘revision of the administration would obviate this in the future’. O’Toole remained as Secretary of the GAA until his death in 1929, during which he oversaw some of the most dramatic events in the history of the Association.

Following his election O’Toole made numerous visits to various parts of the country where the GAA was either weak or non-existent. New county boards sprang up and affiliated while boards that had lapsed now re-formed. Perhaps these travels were on O’Toole’s mind when he convinced Central Council to procure offices at 68 Upper O’Connell Street, at the annual rent of £15. This move helped centralise the administration of a nationwide organisation.

Although named in honour of Archbishop Croke, Páirc an Chrocaigh (Croke Park) is as much a legacy to the efforts of Luke O’Toole. While the 1913 Central Council minutes credit Kenny and Crowe as being the first people to suggest the purchase of a stadium, it was O’Toole who was directed to make all necessary enquiries, reports and arrangements.

Within the space of four months (July 27th- December 1st 1913) O’Toole visited and selected possible grounds, drew up and presented feasibility reports on these grounds, negotiated prices downwards and completed the transaction of the stadium; all to the satisfaction of a somewhat sceptical and conservative Central Council. What is even more remarkable is that he did all this at a time when the GAA was not legally constituted to borrow money. One of the outcomes of these negotiations was the formation of a limited company, Cumann Lúthchleas Gael Teoranta (CLG Ltd.).

Just as the purchase of Croke Park was to be a career highlight for O’Toole, it was also to be the location for the most dramatic day in his 28-year tenure. As manager of the stadium the decision to hold, postpone or cancel games lay with O’Toole. On November 21st 1920, on learning of the previous night’s assassinations of the British special agents (by Michael Collin’s “Squad”), should O’Toole have acted earlier and cancelled the infamous Dublin v Tipperary challenge match due to take place later that day? In all the official records held by the GAA Museum Archive, Bloody Sunday is not mentioned once - there are no debates, no motions at Congress or letters of protest - so unfortunately we will never know O’Toole’s reasoning on the day.

O’Toole had the unenviable task of guiding the Association through both the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. Throughout both O’Toole had to carefully balance the needs of the Association with the wishes of its members; the two were often not synonymous. When O’Toole visited the Irish Parliamentary Party MP’s in Westminster (seeking the restoration of normal rail services) and the Commander-in-Chief of the British Military (seeking to have the Association exempt from Entertainment Tax) he was severely censured at the 1918 Annual Congress. O’Toole was now in charge of a non-political organisation full of radically politicised members.

A further delicate ‘balancing act’ had to be carried out during the Civil War when former team mates found themselves on opposite sides of a bitter war. O’Toole had to keep the Association from splitting along Civil War lines. The end of the conflict brought no respite as teams started refusing to play high profile matches as a way of protesting against the continued imprisonment of anti-treaty prisoners. O’Toole guided the Association through these troubled times, keeping it intact.

It was O’Toole who oversaw the GAA’s involvement in the Government-led 1924 Tailteann Games. Again his long-term thinking and business acumen shone through when he quickly acted on Government promise to provide funds for the refurbishment of Croke Park. While one of the conditions of this grant was that no entrance fee could be charged into the stadium; the loss in gate receipts was off-set in the acquisition of the Hogan Stand and the purchase of the left-over ‘trestle stand’ at the much reduced price of £60. Both of these stands out-lasted the Tailteann Games.

O’Toole continued in his role as Secretary up until his death in July 1929. Reporting on his death The Irish Times, in its edition of July 18th 1929, reported that O’Toole died ‘rather unexpectedly yesterday morning at Croke House. He had been in indifferent health since attacked by influenza last spring. A holiday to his native County of Wicklow recuperated him but a relapse had a fatal termination’
In paying tribute to the late Secretary, Sean Ryan, President of the GAA, remarked that during O’Toole’s long term in office the Association had grown from a small organisation to the ‘great national organisation in the country today’. The GAA took the decision to pay all his medical and funeral expenses and a sub-committee was appointed to ensure O’Toole’s children were looked after.