Queen's remember first northern winners of Sigerson Cup
AS this year’s Sigerson Cup reaches its climax, members of the first Ulster team to win the competition will re-kindle the memories of the breakthrough success 60 years ago.
The 1958 competition eventually finished in February 1959 as Queen’s University claimed the biggest prize in university football for the first time.
GAA President John Horan will be the special guest at a reunion dinner later this month at the university to celebrate the milestone of six decades since that famous victory.
It is perhaps poignant that one of the stars of the team has passed away on the week that marks the anniversary of the final replay win over UCD. The late Frank Higgins had already enjoyed back-to-back Ulster championship success with Tyrone before his Sigerson achievements with Queen’s and was a formidable presence at centre-forward for the Belfast college as they finally claimed the silverware in Ballybay on 15 February 1959.
Queen’s had competed in the competition from the early 1930s but had made little headway against the three rival colleges from Dublin, Cork, and Galway during their first 25 years. In what was a far slimmer version of the cup competition than exists today, Queen’s had tended to be the poor relation against the might of UCD, UCC, and UCG and had only reached the final twice by the time the 1958 campaign came around.
Despite losing heavily in the semi-final the previous year, there was a sense of expectation among the players as the '58 campaign came into view. They had been bolstered by the arrival of a precocious talent in Down’s Sean O’Neill and could also boast a handful of established inter-county stars. Derry had reached their first All-Ireland final in September and the likes of Phil Stuart, Leo and Gerry O’Neill, Peter Smith, and Tom Scullion were now ready to make another push for national honours with their university team.
It is hard to understate the contribution of Antrim man Paddy O’Hara, an innovative coach who had a hand in developing a number of inter-county teams in the Fifties and Sixties. His arrival to the Queen’s camp would be a turning point, and it reaped immediate success.
Having overcome UCG by 2-9 to 1-7 in the semi-final in Galway, Queen’s found themselves 11 points down at the interval in the following day’s decider against reigning champions UCD. They somehow managed to haul themselves back into contention and a late point earned a draw and a second chance.
The replay took place in Pearse Park, Ballybay and the northern side was left with a mountain to climb by half-time yet again. But again they managed to rein their opponents in and a last-gasp score from Scullion pushed them in front. It proved to be the winner and, amid wild celebrations, the Queen’s captain Hugh O’Kane finally had his hands on the cup.
It was a milestone achievement, and one that inspired other sides from the university and beyond towards success at the highest levels. Within 19 months, Down and Sean O’Neill were celebrating a famous first All-Ireland victory for a northern county. In the 60 years that have passed Ulster sides have won the famous cup on 14 occasions, including another seven for Queen’s.
There were also links to future teams. Mick Brewster, who played at full-back, was father to former Fermanagh stars Paul and Tom. Paul captained a Sigerson winning team in 1993 and Tom was a significant figure on the Queen’s side that won in 2000. Frank Higgins’ son James was chairman of the Queen’s club when they enjoyed success in '93.
The Reunion dinner will be hosted by the Queen’s University GAA Past Members’ Union. John Devaney, QUB GAA PMU Chairman, said: “The players on that team became iconic figures for the Queen’s club and their achievement did inspire the many others who represented the university in the decades after.
"We are delighted to once again have the opportunity to celebrate that success and to do with the surviving members of the team and family representatives of those who are no longer with us”.
Devaney added: “The Sigerson Cup has been a special competition for players and has always had a bond that maintains friendships among those who played together and those they played against. We always hope that that can still endure among our present teams.”