Colaiste Na Carraige are back on top of the pile in Donegal schools football. On Tuesday last, the Carrick nursery claimed a fourth Donegal senior schools championship in five years with a comfortable 12 point final victory over Carndonagh C.S.
It is a remarkable story, and a great record for any school, but even more remarkable in that Colaiste Na Carraige is the smallest of all the schools competing in Donegal schools’ competitions.
The school currently has just a little over 200 pupils (boys and girls) on its roll book. Carrick Vocational School, as it was formerly known, has always had a proud Gaelic tradition and has produced many great players down the years.
It holds the distinction of being the only Donegal school to win an Ulster Senior Schools Championship (Markey Cup).
That was back in 1985, and 1992 Donegal All-Ireland winners John Joe Doherty and Noel Hegarty were influential members of that all conquering team.
But that 1985 team apart, the school’s raid on Donegal silverware was random and of the occasional variety rather than that experienced in the last five years.
The school is blessed with a pool of talented players drawn from two of the county’s proudest clubs Kilcar and Naomh Columba.
But it is no coincidence either, that the current golden spell has coincided with the arrival of one Neilly Byrne as school coach.
Neilly, a native of Glenties, and a former Glenties and Kilcar player - with whom he won three senior championships - is a coach of some renown in underage club and schools’ football.
“I was asked back in 2008 by Padraig O’Leime, to come and do some coaching and lend a hand. Padraig was the vice-principal at the time, and has since taken over from Tony Bonner as principal, and I have been there ever since and I have to admit things have gone well for us,” said Neilly, who is also coach to the schools U-14s and U-16s as well as seniors.
“There is a huge interest in sport and especially football in the school and there is a great tradition of football at the school going back to Barry Campbell’s time and the team that won the Markey Cup.
“The teachers are brilliant and really very committed. Noel Ward manages the seniors, Gareth Doherty is the manager of the U-14s and Paddy Boyle is manager of the U-16s. They are all very interested and give a huge commitment and are just as enthusiastic as the players.
“They stay back after school, and never miss a training sessions.They even give up some of their holiday time and that kind of commitment rubs off on the players and plays a big part in our success.”
Of all the last five school years, the 2009/10 season has been the most successful when it comes to achievements for one year’s football. In 2009/10, alongside Noel Ward, Neilly masterminded and Colaiste Na Carraige completed the clean sweep of Donegal schools’ championships.
“2009/10 was an unbelievable year alright. We won the county U-14, U-16 and senior and reached the U-16 Ulster final and senior semi-final, losing the senior to Castewellan who went on to win the All-Ireland and the U-16 to Holy Trinity, Cookstown.
“It was disappointing at the time to lose the senior semi-final to Castlewellan and the U-16 final to Cookstown. But when you consider that Castlewellan were the All-Ireland champions and went on to retain the All-Ireland and that there was only a point in it at the final whistle, it underlines how good and close we were.
“And when you consider the size of Holy Trinity (Cookstown) there was no disgrace in losing the U-16 to them either. I remember reading in the programme at the time that they had 11 feeder clubs to our two. I often say reaching that final was like Leitrim reaching the All-Ireland.”
Colaiste Na Carraige have Ulster and the Markey Cup, in their sights once again, and will be aiming to take their first tentative steps on the road to another Markey final when they face Southern College, Newry, next week.
And with Neilly on the side line and calling the shots along with Noel Ward, one thing’s for sure, they will make the most of the opportunity and don’t rule out another good run for boys from the south west.