Past and present members of Donegal Town Rugby Club gathered in the Abbey Hotel on Saturday night to celebrate the club’s 40th birthday.
It was on a freezing night on 15th February 1973 that local men Roy Irwin, Jack Ramsey, Alrick Thompson and Charlie McGinty held an impromptu meeting in the old cinema rooms, to search the locality for possible players with an ultimate view to setting up the county’s first rugby club.
A team comprised of several gaelic footballers and those who had attended secondary schools where rugby was on the sports curriculum was assembled. Club colours of red jerseys, red socks and white togs and an historic debut challenge match was arranged against Sligo Grammar School which the Donegal side lost. Several challenge games were to be played against Connaught sides before being accepted by the Ulster Branch.
The first Home game in 1973 in a grazing field at Ballydevitt where the changing and shower facilities was the side of the ditch complete with stagnant water to clean the mud of yourself. The ‘pop up clubhouse’ was the bar of the local National Hotel where the inebriated singsongs were memorable and at time robust, especially to the ear of the somewhat sober audiences.
Eventually on the 22nd May 1974 the official launch of the club and affiliation to the Ulster League took place with the Rev Alex Stewart as President; Roy Irwin and Alrick Thompson were elected captain and vice captain; John Hamilton secretary, Derek Little treasurer; committee Charlie McGinty, Jack Ramsey, David Bustard, Pat Quinn and Niall Fitzpatrick.
In the 1970s the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ were foremost in everyone’s minds and for a ‘raw’ young Donegal team, every second Saturday to venture into and be well received in age old Northern clubs was a testament to the character and resilience of this then fledgling rugby club.
In the 1970s Donegal RFC was seen as something new, a sport that drew all denominations together in a friendly and sporting spirit and very much promoted then badly needed ‘Cross Border’ relations which still flourish to this day. Soon the club was going from strength to strength, making more conversions than branches of the Mormon Tabernacle.
But wandering from one rented playing field to another, from the likes of the Hospital Field (now Donegal FC) to Drumrooske, Drimlaght, Killymard (where as Club secretary one time I spent several hours negotiating and trying to reassure the old lady who owned the land that rugby players were not a herd of stampeding elephants as was told to her by her farming neighbour who also had his eye on the field).
By now year after year Donegal RFC were steadily gaining a respectability from established clubs and in 1977 in a home derby against Letterkenny, who were also founded in 1973, the home side captured the much coveted ‘Boyle Cup’.
In one of the most unusual of the earlier games, Donegal against Armoy, no referee turned up and captain of industry, the late Howard Temple of Magee fame, offered his services. A bad move, as the rules had changed a lot since Howard’s days and the mother of all rows broke out with the game eventually abandoned. To make matters worse, his son Lynn, now the new captain of local industry, was playing for Donegal!
By the late 1970s converts to the game of rugby were also becoming firmly established in both Donegal Town and Letterkenny and it wasn’t unusual to see rugby games billed for ardent GAA homes like Ballyshannon, The Rosses, Inishowen, Glencolmcille, where Donegal Town always featured as the promoting team.
In 1979 Donegal Town had now at last gained respect of both opposing Ulster teams and also the Ulster Branch for the Tirconaill men’s playing ability, skills and social outlook which saw the team going through that year’s League programme with only one defeat and that was in extra time. Donegal were rewarded for this and to this day hold the honour of the first County Donegal team since its initial inception to win promotion to a higher rugby division.
Not content with side of ditch and running streams changing facilities, in 1980, through loans, land was purchased at the Holmes overlooking Donegal Bay. A vigorous fund-raising campaign ensued and within two years Donegal Town had their own clubhouse, changing, shower facilities for Home and Away. And of course a fine bar and dance floor where the memorable Christmas parties for children and indeed at times some rather ‘flutered’ adults all sat on Santa’s knee which was attached to the late Francis Dinsmore, a real club stalwart.
The coming years were to see Inishowen, Ballyshannon and even certain secondary schools joining the ranks, with the sport of rugby steadily maturing and gaining respect throughout the county.
Donegal Town RFC’s floodlight pitch and training facilities were much used and appreciated by the County GAA All-Ireland winning team of 1992 in their run up to their big day.
Over its 40 years Donegal RFC has taken numerous league titles with First, Seconds and Thirds teams. They have tasted successes at Belfast’s Ravenhill grounds as winners of Ravenhill Cup 1981, Harden Cup 1988, Forster Cup 1989 Dooley Cup - City of Derry 1990,Waterson Cup Omagh Sevens.
Even in a county GAA Sevens tournament they came through the qualifying rounds beating ‘Four Masters’ in the semi-final to be narrowly beaten by Kilcar, in a long drawn out and very heated controversial final.
Throughout the years the club has produced many talented rugby players. ‘Prop’ Eamon Friel and ‘Back’ Jim McLaughlin on two occasions were capped by the Ulster Juniors.
Wandering around Donegal RFC’s clubhouse and grounds last Saturday, this groundbreaking club has certainly come a long way since those four men met in 1973, whose mantle of work and the promotion of rugby was taken up many years ago and still dedicatedly ongoing by the likes of Eamon Friel, Victor Kearney, Laurence McCarroll, Sean Gillespie and (Big) Charlie McGinty.
No major debt, with three playing pitches, teams at under age right up to 17 years, a recently formed Ladies team, mens seniors First and Seconds.
All those years ago starting from the very bottom of the Ulster League, the club steadily promoted and are now in ‘Qualifying 3 League’ just three steps away from playing in the senior All-Ireland League. This is testament to this unique football sporting club that is Donegal Town RFC which has successfully broken down religious, social and sporting barriers that has been the curse of Irish society for generations.
In all it caters for a total of approximately 250 children and adults each weekend. On the downside, even though a major development plan for the area with full planning permission is in place, it cannot proceed due to lack of funding from any government or sporting agency and has been left in abeyance.
In writing this it is only right and correct to remember the club’s great friends and team mates such as: Liam Brown; Frankie McMullin; Paul McGovern; Joe Harte; Connie O’Donnell; Michael Sinclair; Pauric Gallagher; Francis Dinsmore; Ivan Bustard; Peter McGettigan; Roger Hutchings; Capt James Hamilton. May they all rest in peace.