One of Antrim’s best known and longest serving referees, Jarlath O’Donnell has called it a day after 46 years of service to the GAA.
The Con Magees, Glenravel man took up the whistle way back in the 70’s and has been an ever present since, officiating at games all over the county and further afield. When I spoke to him recently he told me how his refereeing career began.
“It was back in 1975 and it happened by chance. I was Club Secretary at the time and another Club referee asked me if I could cover a juvenile match for him. I agreed and the rest is history. Believe it or not, back then, clubs seemed to have a great number of referees. I know my own Club, Con Magee’s Glenravel, had five or six referees and four of them would have been in their early to mid-20s”
As we chatted Jarlath rolled back the years, recalling his first game. “Yes, it was an Under 15 match – Dunloy v Rasharkin in Dunloy. I cannot remember who won, but back in those days there was great rivalry between those neighbouring clubs at all age groups. I was nervous before the game but as we all know that isn’t a bad thing and it all went well for me”
Jarlath recalled how his long and eventful career progressed. “I played reserve football for Con Magee’s Glenravel and over the first fifteen years I was substituted at half time so as I could go and referee a Senior game at another venue. I hadn’t any big aspirations regarding refereeing, I just loved all the GAA had to offer, let it be in administration, Scor, playing or refereeing games. After fifteen years I received a letter in the post from Ulster Council (no e-mails back then) inviting me onto the Ulster panel. So, after fitness test and written examination on the rules, I was successful”.
I asked Jarlath about the highlights of his refereeing career and he diplomatically replied “Truthfully every game you go out to referee is a BIG game let that be under 13s through to senior. If you don’t treat it as such you could have problems. If I was to refer to the biggest profile game then I would pick two games played in 1990. They were the Minor football league final Cavan v Armagh played in Ballybay, Co Monaghan and the Ulster minor football championship semi-final, Cavan v Derry in Casement Park. Back then the minor championship was played before the Senior games and that day in Casement there were around 20,000 people. It was just a fantastic atmosphere”
He then added “This may be hard to believe but I also won an Ulster championship and two All-Ireland 7s playing for Antrim referees. We won the Ulster Final, down in Cavan, playing against Cavan. This was after defeating Monaghan in the earlier round in Casement. We won the All-Ireland 7s two years in a row. They were played on the eve of the All-Ireland football final”.
How has refereeing developed and progressed over the 46 years you have been involved, I asked him and his reply was both interesting and informative “There have been massive changes over the years. When I first started there wasn’t even a referee’s kit. After a couple of years, I was given an Antrim jersey to wear. In the South West the home team was supposed to pay the referee their expenses. Needless to say, after many games that was forgot about. Then a few years later referees’ courses were introduced and they covered fitness and rules. The level of fitness and the pass mark for the rules test has increased over the years and rightly so, because if you were to take the last six years alone, there have been rule changes every year. When I think back to the early days it was not uncommon to find a goal keeper lying at the back of the net and I think of Michael O’Hehir’s commentary where he would say It’s a goal, it’s a goal and he has got man ball and all. Thank God that rule has changed. Other courses referees must cover nowadays are Health & Wellbeing and Child protection courses. The introduction of the red, yellow and black cards is another major change. Another big development that has happened is the referee’s academy. There now is a progression ladder for young referees. Look at what Sean Laverty of St Ergnats Moneyglass and Colum Cunning of Cuchulains Dunloy have achieved so far. They are two great examples for all young referees to aspire to. Antrim now have a number of referees on the ladder and I wish them every success”
“The question was how has refereeing developed over the years well I want to add that refereeing develops the person as well. The referee has to make quick decisions and tough calls. This stands to the referee in many walks of life especially their work place. I found it helped me greatly during my working career”
I then asked Jarlath about the low points-hairy moments during his career and he diplomatically answered “There are not too many low points to recall. However sometimes going out to referee a game (especially those agreed at very short notice) and then taking abuse makes you think – why am I doing this? But on the flip side, an enjoyable game makes it all worthwhile. Of all the games I have refereed there are only a handful I would wish to forget” He continued “I read in a paper that during the course of an Intercounty game a referee may have to make up to 1000 decision so it is not humanly possible to get them all correct so players mentors and spectators should show more restraint” I heartily agree with his comments.
As our conversation progressed I asked Jarlath about the many committees he has served on over the years. “As I said earlier, in my young days I loved all the GAA had to offer so at age eighteen I became Con Magee’s Glenravel Club Secretary. During part of that period I was also South West secretary. When I stepped down from the South West Board I became the North Antrim Secretary for a few years. For the past four years I was back on the North Antrim Board as Fixtures Secretary, but I retired from that at the 2020 convention”
I went on to ask. “Refereeing, I’m sure has been a rewarding career and you have given sterling service to the GAA. Do you see yourself continuing in some capacity, perhaps as a refereeing mentor or an assessor?
“No not for the moment, at my age, I want to do things in my own time without restrictions”
Intrigued by our conversation to date I posed the question “Tell me about the referees you have worked with and the people you have met and become friends with over your refereeing career and how they may have influenced that career?
“I will start with two referees within my own Club who had a big influence on me. They are Jimmy Brown RIP and Sean Higgins. Jimmy helped me in my early days as did Sean. Sean was greatly respected not only in Antrim, but also throughout Ulster. They were Con Magee’s Glenravel senior referees when I started. I must also mention my fellow clubman Aidan Higgins who was on the Ulster referees’ panel at the same time as myself. I felt very proud to be a Con Magee’s Glenravel member on the days when both Aidan and myself were out refereeing Ulster games at the same time. Aidan had great success covering both Ulster and National games. Within Antrim I must mention referees like Hugh McPoland, John Gough, Gerry McClory, Ray Graffin and Terry Cormican, to name but a few. I would also have got constructive advice from Sean McGourty of St Galls. Now I only accepted that advice as long as I wasn’t refereeing a St Galls game”
“I also want to thank the current Antrim, South West and North Antrim referees’ committees for all their help. They have been of great assistance to me and the work they do within the Antrim County has to be applauded”
“On the managerial end there were the likes of Chris Brown and Gerry McNamee from Doire. I would also like to mention people like yourself whom I could talk to and ask for advice. I would talk to all of these people and so many more, for hours constructively about games”
“Another great man I met on my journeys was the commentator Michael O Muircheartaigh. I was doing the line at the Ulster minor final in Clones and met him before the match. He recalled the day he spent up at the Con Magees Glenravel club. This man is a true ambassador for the GAA”
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank all who umpired for me over the years. Their efforts helped me greatly and there are far too many of them to mention.
Going back to where it all began and my introduction to the GAA I have to pay tribute to my late father Cahil who did a lot of work for the club. I cannot let it pass without also paying tribute to the late Kevin Carey. Kevin was a tireless worker and fund raiser and he had a great vision for the club. That vision is now what you see at Con Magee’s Glenravel today. Mind you when it came to referee’s I did not ask Kevin for advice. That was sure to end up in an argument. I also thank Seamus Scullion. Seamus moved into our club from Doire. As well as playing he also got involved in administration and he had a great influence on me on the early part of my administrative years”
“I also thank sincerely my wife Catherine and our children – Sean, Niall and Kate, for the support they have given me as well. I know without their support I could not have continued as long as I did.
It has been a great privilege to have represented Con Magee’s Glenravel and Antrim as a referee”
As I reflected on this interview I could not be anything else but impressed by the honesty, enthusiasm and sincerity of a man who has given a lifetime of service to the GAA. I’ve been on the line on quite a number of occasions when the Glenravel whistler has officiated and his honesty and integrity has always shone through.
Men like Jarlath O’Donnell and his refereeing colleagues make our games possible and without them they could not proceed. We should have nothing but gratitude for the man in the middle but unfortunately that doesn’t always seem to be the case.
Instead it is more popular to shout abuse and make derogatory comments and I’m ashamed to say, I’ve been guilty of such comments in the past in my role as a team mentor.
Today as I sit along the line at games taking photographs or making notes for reports on this site I am often appalled at the level of abuse referees still suffer and I would appeal to all concerned to desist from that abuse. In the meantime I wish Jarlath O’Donnell every happiness in his retirement from a job well done. For nearly half a century he has served the association with distinction and I’m sure this dedicated Gael