Martin Carney pictured with Clement Gallagher and Frank Browne at recent reunion
Like every school in the 1960s, St Eunan’s college could accurately be described as a place that was not for the faint hearted.
For prep boarders, in particular, away from home for the first time, it was a pretty daunting experience. Meal times were always welcome, though, and on the left-hand side of the refectory in a towered annex we gathered on three occasions daily at a table presided over by a Leaving Cert student, Colm Ward. A tenacious half back from Downings he was a stalwart on the school’s senior football team. We listened wide-eyed and perplexed to his tales of derring-do and in particular to the heroics of the senior team, who annually participated in the Mac Rory Cup football championship.
Firmly in the crosshairs of every St. Eunan’s player at the time was St. Columb’s College, Derry. As the first team from west of the Bann to win the coveted Mac Rory Cup, they went one better in 1965 and added the Hogan Cup to their list of achievements. To say they were feared and jealously admired was reasonably accurate.
From our very early days, one of our teachers in the college, Michael Cullen, encouraged boys to get involved in sporting activities. Without fail he trained teams evening after evening either on the Prep pitch or on the adjoining pair across from the college.
No words of mine are adequate in conveying a sense of the time and energy he expended in attempting to bring the best out in every pupil under his care on the football field. His passion for field games was infectious and his willingness to infuse Gaelic training with ideas from Association football was ahead of the time.
He also regarded St. Columb’s highly and the quality of our performances against them was used as a barometer to gauge our own potential. Maybe it was because of their proximity but we played them on a regular basis. In my first four years in the College we competed with them but I’d have to say successfully on only the odd occasion. A young lad from south Derry, Martin O’Neill, was their talisman and remained so up to the time he changed schools and led St Malachy’s, Belfast to Mac Rory success in 1970.
Getting into Derry during those transformative years in Northern Ireland was quite an experience. In 1968 I saw at first hand a Civil Rights march that meant little at the time but with the benefit of hindsight I now realise I was witnessing a seminal moment in modern history. My great friend Clement Gallagher reminded me recently that the opportunity of purchasing a stock of Mars Bars in the city rarely went abegging as the commodity hadn’t by then hit the shops south of the border.
In the late 1960s St Colman’s, Newry assumed proprietorial rights on the coveted trophy. Their successes mirrored the overall healthy state of Down football at the time. Having stepped down a grade in 1968, St. Eunan’s won the Mac Larnon before renewing acquaintance with the premier competition in my last two years in the college. By that time a combative core built around the likes of Clement Gallagher, Eugene Fox, the Crossan brothers, Eamon and Mickey, Charlie Byrne and Mickey Sweeney, improved standards and generated greater levels of optimism.
In our final year Holy Cross College, Falcarragh, secondary school appeared on the horizon and for the first time two Donegal teams competed in the Mac Rory cup. As fate would decree, we were drawn to play one another with O’Donnell Park providing the venue for one of the most testy and challenging games that I can recall in my time in school.
None of us had experienced before then the atmosphere generated by both sets of supporters on the day but their noise and passion certainly provided a fitting backdrop. Unfortunately, I cannot recall many of the names on the opposing team but their centre-back Louis Walsh, Anton Coll and Michael Carr were particularly prominent.
One distressing incident that I won’t forget was the horrible leg injury sustained by Cathal James. After a lengthy treatment period he was removed to hospital but if there was a consolation it came with the satisfaction of winning the game by 1-12 to 3-3 in a great encounter.
Our progress in the competition eventually came to an end when we were beaten by a Peter McGinnity inspired Enniskillen team. In reaching three finals in a four-year period they came closer than most to winning the big prize.
I can honestly say that the experience I gained by competing in this competition whetted my appetite for the game. All of us lucky enough to participate will fondly recall games that went a long way in forming character, strengthening friendships and seeing parts of the province that up to then were unknown! Participating in games at venues like Celtic Park, Pomeroy, Irvinestown, Coalisland and Cavan opened up landscapes that hitherto in our imagination belonged to the stars of the senior intercounty scene.
Since it’s inception St Eunan’s have contested the final on three occasions only. It’s baffling that in a county which has won the Sam Maguire twice and Ulster senior championships on numerous occasions, a Donegal team has yet to win the Mac Rory Cup. This weekend in their clash with St. Patrick’s Dungannon, St Eunan’s have an opportunity to redress this statistic and move a step closer to changing the script. Apart from possessing the required skills arsenal, I think that if an outfit is sufficiently motivated, able to stay in the contest and really believe in themselves, everything is possible. Without wishing to burden the players the incentive of becoming the first Donegal school to win the cup should inspire everyone involved and generate a special performance. Here’s hoping that all concerned find something special on the day. Above all get out and enjoy the occasion.