Tom Comack firstname.lastname@example.org @dgldemocrat
In the 1970s and ‘80s the sport of squash in Donegal was on the crest of a wave and the county had a vibrant squash club scene.
There were squash clubs in Ballyshannon, Donegal Town, Letterkenny, Rathmullan and Buncrana with Donegal clubs competing in the Ulster and Connacht squash league.
At a conservative estimate in the mid to late 1980s/early 1990s there was in the region of 1,200 players playing the sport in Donegal.
But those heady days are well and truly gone and there are currently no active squash clubs in Donegal.
And at best there are only a handful squash players still playing the game in the county, former player, Joe O’Grady, from Donegal Town, told the Democrat.
“I’d say there are two to three players playing squash here in Donegal Town,” said Joe.
“The club in Donegal was formed in the early 1980s, shortly after I moved to live in the town. I had played some squash so I got roped into the club and started playing.
“The club really took off and at a peak there we had 150 members, all playing on a regular basis.
“We played in two courts in the St John Bosco Centre. The courts were situated behind the stage which wasn’t a great location and were always very cold.”
One of those courts is still intact but as far as I know it is not used.The other is used by the St John Bosco Boxing Club, who use it as their gym.
Squash players regularly featured among the award winners at the Donegal Sports Star awards.
Bryan Harkin from Letterkenny was one of the top squash players in the county and was the Donegal Sports Star squash award winner.
“People think of squash as a minority sport but in 1985 there were over 700 members in two clubs in Letterkenny,” Bryan Harkin, who played the game for the best part of 40 years, told the Democrat.
“One was operated by the Rainey brothers, Karl and Dermot, on the Port Road and the other was in behind the Downtown Bar on Main Street.
“Rainey’s had 500 members and the Downtown Club had 200 members.
“We played in an Ulster Squash League where there were 200 teams.
“I was initially a member of the Rainey’s Club; it survived for five year before it was closed and when it did we moved to Downtown.
“Downtown closed in the year 2000 after property developers moved in and built a wall up through the middle of the court.”
“I played squash until my squash partners started to die off on me. One of my partners was the late Eamonn Harvey, and myself Eamonn played every Sunday morning for 28 years.
“For the last 15 years of my playing days after the Downtown closed, I played either in Derry, Brooke Park, Strabane and Castlederg.
“It is just one of those sports that existed for one generation.”
Paddy Keaney and his wife Deirdre Dillon moved from Sligo to Donegal Town in the 1980s. They both played squash to a high standard and Galway native Deirdre was a Connacht Inter-provincial.
“During my time, we joined forces with Ballyshannon and played in both the Connacht and Ulster Leagues,” explained Paddy Keaney.
“Mick Whelan, PJ Patton, Danny Downey and Liam Gillespie were from Ballyshannon and Sean Stewart, Joe O’Grady, myself and Deirdre were from Donegal Town.
“In the Ulster League, we played against Letterkenny, two teams in Derry City, Coleraine and Magherafelt.”
Michael Gallagher from Ballyshannon also played the game during those years, too, and as he told the Democrat, often twice a day.
Michael, who was a keen badminton player before taking up squash, also coached the game after receiving a crash course in the basics of the game from a visiting English scuba diver.
“Michael Moss was his name. He was working in the area at the time. He was here for six weeks and I played him literally every single day he was here.
“He was a very good player and I learned a lot about the game from him,” said Michael, who also played regularly against from members of the Irish Air Force during their stay overs at the nearby Finner Camp.
“The first few times I played he beat me well and really whipped me but by the end of the six weeks the games were a lot closer.”
There was one court in Ballyshannon, it was situated in the Mercy Hall and was in constant use.
But that is no longer the case. The court is still there all right but is now the property of Colaiste Colmcille and due to accessibility and insurance difficulties is not used for squash.
However, Michael Gallagher, who still feels there is an interest in the sport in the area, has been assured by the school authorities if the club was reformed and is affiliated to Squash Ireland, the court will be made available once again.
There were also courts in Rathmullan and Buncrana, neither of which exist anymore. And the first ever squash court in Donegal was in Fort Dunree, outside Buncrana.
There are varying views as to what caused the demise of the game in the county. They vary. Bryan Harkin feels it is just a generational thing and that there was a generation of people that were interested in the sport and when they moved on and retired the interest waned.
Paddy Keaney feels that a lack structure and proper coaching did not bring young people through and ultimately there was no one to play the game.
Joe O’Grady feels competition from other sports and the development of Leisure Centres also played a part in the decline.
“Take Donegal Town here, for example, you have Gaelic football and hurling; you have soccer, rugby, athletics and cycling, which is very big now, and squash lost out.
“You also had hotels building new leisure centres which provide more and better facilities and people who used to play squash to stay in shape started going to these leisure centres with squash losing out again.”
This is a view shared by Paul Nugent, the Chief Executive of Squash Ireland, who insisted that the game had not got any less attractive but it was a case of people having more variety once leisure centres came on stream.
And the CEO also insisted that the game can still thrive and is thriving in other areas and other parts of the country.
But whatever the reason, squash is no longer the game it was in Donegal.