GAA Football

Past students of St Mary's/ St Joseph's looking forward to 'Ranch' reunion

With their extraordinary Sigerson Cup success still fresh in the memory, St Mary's are delving further back into the past to celebrate the university's rich history of Gaelic games. Kenny Archer spoke to St Mary's old boy and former Armagh captain Jimmy Smyth about passing the flame...

The 1945 intake of male students outside St Mary's.

FOR gentlemen of a certain age an enjoyable form of exercise is jogging memories.

The recollections have been racing back for alumni of St Mary's teacher training college in Belfast due to the work going into a forthcoming celebration of the history of the GAA there.

The 'Passing of the flame' event will take place at the Falls Road campus on Saturday September 9, where more than 500 items of memorabilia will be on display.

One of the organisers is former Armagh captain Jimmy Smyth, who started there in 1968 when it was still St Joseph's (amalgamation with St Mary's came in 1985).

Somehow, precious jerseys are among the items to be viewed, Smyth recalling with a chuckle: "We were part of what I call 'The Brian Hanrahan era': he was a news reporter during the Falklands war and he stood on an aircraft carrier and said of the planes involved `I counted them all out and I counted them all back' – so it was with jerseys, you never got to hang on to one."

The tight-knit nature of the small college meant that students played the shirt off their back for the team.

The bonds made last long and stretch far. Malachy McAfee, a Derry star of the 60s and 70s, is coming home from Australia, and many other former 'Ranchers' will be back there too next month.

The legendary `Gentleman' Jim McKeever became a lecturer at St Joseph's in 1957 and stayed until 1992, Smyth stating that "his mark on the Ranch was totally phenomenal.

"It didn't sit well with Jim that we weren't allowed to play other universities.

"When I arrived in '68, the Ranch was playing universities football – but we didn't realise this was the first year they'd been allowed to do so. We didn't know all the work that had gone on to pave the way, by the likes of Harry Chivers, Derry man of note."

The footballing talent at St Joseph's was impressive, Smyth remembers. "We joined up with the likes of Colm McAlarney – who had just won the All-Ireland with Down - Malachy McAfee, Tom Quinn, who'd won the All-Ireland U21 with Derry that year."

St Joseph's promptly won the Freshers Football League in 1968/69 (the trophy also called the McKenna Cup) and were beaten in the Ryan Cup Final [the universities League].

"In that time we won two Ryan Cups, two McKenna Cups, and did very well. It emphasised that Jim McKeever had been right all along, that the place for us was in with the universities.

"We still couldn't get into the Sigerson, didn't actually get in until the year before they first won it. We were still in a sort of sub-group, alongside Drumcondra, Military College, and teams like that.

"We took it very bad. We had some fantastic footballers – McAlarney, McAfee, Seamus Lagan, Seamus Donaghy, it was just unreal.

"We appeared in three Ryan Cup finals in a row, beat UCD in two finals, beat Queen's along the way.

"They kept the flag flying by winning Ryan Cups [in 1977/78, 80/81, and 82/83] but the Sigerson was the big thing, the unattainable prize.

"We were envious that we couldn't get into it, felt we should have been in it. Limerick were pushing too, eventually the dam burst and these teams were admitted.

"When they did get in, 20 years on from 1968, they reinforced that this was their rightful place by winning it in their second season, 1989."

Those 1989 winners would have been centre stage next month, but happily there'll be another prize exhibit, the Sigerson Cup itself, after the astonishing triumph by St Mary's this year, under the guidance of Paddy Tally.

"This idea came about last March [2016], with the plan to hold the event in May of this year – then the next thing these young cubs of the Ranch went and won another Sigerson," laughed Smyth.

Collecting the cup was all the more remarkable given that St Mary's beat the three original Sigerson participants in doing so – NUI Galway (formerly UCG), UCC (in the semi-final), and holders UCD in the decider. They also beat a star-studded DCU side in the quarter-finals.

* Anyone who wishes to attend this event in St Mary's should contact Eilis McAteer on 028 90 327678 as soon as possible or email e.a.mcateer@smucb.ac.uk

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