There was a very special evening in Croke Park’s All Star Suites last night as friends and colleagues gathered to mark the impending retirement of Damien O’Neill from Allianz.
There are some people in life that you become immeasurably richer in spirit and decency through having the privilege to know.
Damien is among that rare breed and while it is great that he will get to spend more time with his wonderful wife Breda who organised last night’s surprise celebration, and his children and grandchildren, the rest of us will miss him hugely.
Since a way back in the days of Church and General he has been an advocate of, and significant supporter of sporting projects from the higghest level to perhaps the most impactful.
The Allianz Leagues have grown hugely in significance in recent years, down to the unstinting support from the sponsors and a willingness to support the GAA in what their ambitions were.
Peter McKenna represented the Association last night and handed over a specially commisioned statue from the maker of the All Star Awards to mark the deep respect with which Damien is held at Croke Park.
John Fulham, Chair of Paralympics Ireland was there and former CEO Liam Harbison spoke warmly of the strong relationship which Damien and Allianz have forged since the start of this decade with the Paralympic movement.
The Allianz Cumman na mBunscoil games were remembered by many of us there as being among the best sporting events we had been involved in, Diarmaid Murphy remembered going along to Croke Park as his first job working with Padraig Slattery, and the links with Damien have stayed strong down the years.
Andrew Watchorn has been a right hand man to Damien throughout. Making sure that ideas were translated into reality, dreams into magic.
His love for the Arts was also represented in dramatic fashion with a soaring performance from the Arís Choir, another project that was brought to a higher level by his passion. Business to Arts, an organisation which Allianz have backed through their prestigious Awards for nearly 20 years were there as well.
Of course those at Allianz with whom he has worked down the years were theire to pay fulsome tribute. Brendan Murphy and Sean McGrath have backed his instinct and been rewarded with a business that stands out for doing the right thing.
Sinéad Kane, the Blind runner and her guide John O’Regan starred in one of their most memorable ads down the years and were also in the room.
And so were we. In looking back over the history of Sport for Business Damien has been a constant inspiration and support. One of our first major interviews, back in June 2012, saw him say that “Sport is the greatest way to build a community.”
He has been there throughout for us, unwavering in his support for our Sport for Social Good initiative that touches on areas of such importance and which goes from strength to strength.
He has also backed us as we sought to expand into Entertainment for Business.
Time spent in his company was always rewarding. He spoke with passion and genuine affection for the people he helped to support.
Integrity was the word that kept coming through in all the tributes that were paid. A simple word but a complex concept which all of us try to live by and for whom Damien will always stand out as best in class.
It was a pleasure to be there, an honour to know him and a privilege to have had him play such an important part in what Sport for Business is.