by Daragh Ó Conchúir
Brendan Kenny speaks with an infectious enthusiasm. It becomes clear very quickly why he was appointed as a Growth and Participation Officer by the Camogie Association, taking charge of a pilot scheme in Meath and Kildare which if successful, will be rolled out in time throughout the rest of the country.
With Kenny at the helm, you reckon there's a very good chance this will be the case and that as a result, Camogie will see its footprint increase significantly in the next 10 to 20 years.
Athletics was his passion for many years, as a former cross-country champion in Kildare. In time, he brought many of the principles he learned from that sphere to Camogie, with both his club Naas and the county.
A former Kildare development officer, he proved himself an ideal candidate for that job, and his new one at national level, when overseeing an almost 1,600% growth in participation at Naas during his tenure as chairman, from 20 players to 316. He is now tasked with doing something similar in Meath and Kildare.
"The GAA has produced very good demographic reports in both counties and one of the things that jumps out is that over the last 50 years or less, the urban-rural divide has changed. It was 70:30 rural-urban and now it's split the other way" explains Kenny.
"Now you have large towns and large clubs under significant pressure because they can't find places to train, because it's buildings all around. In the more rural parts clubs are finding it hard to survive because there's no people. These are the challenges.
"I was involved in a committee that was looking at Kildare and Meath already as development officer in Kildare. One factor that stood out was that in the north and east of Meath, there was no Camogie. It was all in a south west triangle in the county. In Kildare, the south of the county had very little - there would be small pockets - but in general, the Camogie would largely be in the north. So I've looked at those areas and am trying to get more of a presence for Camogie in those areas."
So Kenny is currently putting an initiative in place in six schools around Kildare town, Monasterevin and the Newbridge area in Kildare, and six more in similarly highly-populated towns in Meath such as Bettystown, Kells and Oldcastle.
"What I'm trying to do and what the Camogie Association is moving towards, is to put in a sustainable model… to put in the structures, put in the people, the resources. I ran a course in both counties and I'm running similar in March for schoolteachers in those areas, as well as people in rural clubs that are under pressure, to skill them up so they can coach and lift the standards."
Schools are central to any progression, and it is no surprise to learn that targeting primary schools initially, and then as things grew, secondary schools, was at the heart of the phenomenal progress made by Naas. An improvement in coaching standards at the club complemented that approach and is essential to survival and then growth. The feedback in the Meath-Kildare schools has been extremely positive.
"The schools we've targeted are schools where there has been willingness, have tried or are trying themselves internally. I have found in the past, if the school was devoid of willingness, you're throwing resources at it that won't stick. If the willingness is there, you just need to provide the contact. They're looking for that support and that's what I'm trying to provide. So I'm engaging with schools.
"I am engaging also with the GAA, particularly on the hurling development side, because in many of the schools that we would be approaching, they would be mixed schools so we would equally do hurling and Camogie and the GAA has offered to reciprocate in schools that they would approach."
That clever strategy is about making the optimum use of all available resources, something he is well accustomed to from his 18 years as an officer in the Irish Army. Problem-solving and working with people at home and abroad meant the Defence Forces provided an ideal training ground for his current role. So did his subsequent career in human resources, which is all about motivating people, training, learning and developing on a continuous basis.
In particular, he has derided tremendous satisfaction from watching young people develop and facilitating that process, and is excited by the possibilities in the Meath-Kildare region, which was selected for this programme because of the boom in population and similar profiles in terms of development in the past decade.
The difference between the major senior counties and the rest is the number of clubs and it is a stronger base Kenny is trying to provide in Meath and Kildare, and that the Camogie Association ultimately hopes to install nationwide. Both the Kildare and Meath County Boards have been very involved in the establishment of this new role and will be crucial along with clubs and volunteers within both counties in supporting Kenny in his role and in rolling out various programmes.
Kenny is using the National Development Plan as "my Bible" - pinpointing coach development, increasing participation and retention, and the recruitment of past players on the coaching/development side. Ultimately, it is about providing support and guidance to the volunteers.
The job is for three years and Kenny has been given carte blanche to devise a plan, so he has spent his initial few months drawing up a programme.
"I want to put sustainable structures in. I want to bring Kildare and Meath forward on a very strong platform. It will take time before the fruits of a lot of the work will manifest itself. It always does. If you look at the Dublin football team now, that comes from work that went in 15 years ago.
"I want to see more clubs, more girls participating, higher skill levels and good coaching. In athletics we used to talk about laying the base of the triangle first and then you climb and I want to lay a very strong base."
The positivity flows. He is emboldened by the enthusiasm he sees around him and draws on an experience he had in Ethiopia last April, when he made a trip as chairman of ChildFund Ireland, the charity he was chairman of for five years and will remain on the board of for another two years.
Kenny was joined by two of the greatest goalkeepers the sport has ever seen, Mags D'Arcy (Wexford) and Aoife Murray (Cork), and RTÉ's Nationwide captured events for posterity. It was exhilarating.
"If we got Camogie into Ethiopia, and the kids in Ethiopia can get enjoyment from it, we can surely get Camogie into places in Kildare and Meath!" smiles Kenny.
You can't argue with that.