‘I love to see the Armagh ones ruffle us, and us ruffle the Armagh ones - it gets the craic going’: Donegal piper Christy Murray

Christy Murray loves nothing more than whipping up the Donegal crowd before big games – and they don’t come much bigger than Sunday’s Ulster final showdown with Armagh. But, as Neil Loughran finds out, the journey hasn’t been without bumps on the road...

Donegal piper Christy Murray will enjoy the occasion in Clones on Sunday when the Tir Chonaill take on Armagh. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Donegal piper Christy Murray will enjoy the occasion in Clones on Sunday when the Tir Chonaill take on Armagh. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

THERE were buy-in-bulk bottles of Prime on offer at stalls around every corner last year; cherry freeze, ice pop, blue raspberry - take your pick. It may be luke-warm courtesy of the sun soaring overhead, but it’s all there.

That fad now feels very 2023, when thirsty teenagers begged bewildered parents to pay over the odds for the latest must-have.

On one hand, a sports drink endorsed by a couple of mouthy American YouTubers could hardly feel any more at odds with the heart and the history of Clones on Ulster final day. On the other, pretty much anything goes when the big show comes to town.

The walk towards St Tiernach’s Park has brought vuvuzelas, loom bands and fidgets through the years, while bucket hats bearing county crests are now snapped up en masse. Somehow, those small evolutions of landscape add further colour to the chaos.

Yet, for as long as Clones holds off Casement Park’s claim to the provincial showpiece, the constants will remain - shouts of ‘hats, scarves, headbands’, the smell of Bulmers and burgers drifting through the air and, when Donegal are there, Christy Murray touring around with his pipes.

Since 2011, and the era of Jim McGuinness 1.0, that has been more often than not.

Of the 13 Ulster finals since, the Tir Chonaill have appeared in 10 – with the 2020 ‘Covid Championship’ defeat to Cavan at an empty Athletic Grounds the only one the Raphoe man couldn’t attend.

“My wife is the local pharmacist,” he smiles, “she would’ve killed me.”

With McGuinness back at the helm, leading Donegal’s class of ‘24 into Sunday’s showdown with Armagh, excitement and anticipation have ramped up on a journey that has already delivered victories over neighbours Derry and Tyrone.

Murray’s Ulster final routine is a little different to the players, though.

On Saturday night he will spearhead a seisiún in the Diamond Bar until whatever hour they see fit. Even as his 62nd birthday looms, and a year after suffering a heart attack, living life off the cuff is all he knows.

Some will lay on the following morning, but not him. Murray used to regularly run marathons and ultra-marathons. During lockdown he collected four tonnes of litter around Raphoe over the course of five months, just for something to do.

He has recently completed a diploma in Irish, and is already on the look-out for a new project. Restless energy is his fuel.

On Sunday morning he will already be fully decked out in green and orange garb by the time he joins St Eunan’s choir for 10am Mass. Time has got a little tighter on that end; the split-season hasn’t only affected those crossing the white line, y’know.

“It’s hard to prepare for every game now, they’re coming at you so fast.

“I have a whole routine getting the uniform and the pipes ready, it used to be no bother because you had a few weeks between, but not any more. You should see me, dressed up in my gear, in charge of a choir and heading off halfway through Mass to get on the road and get there on time.

“Thankfully the priest is used to it by now.”

Along with sister Anne – “my bouncer; she’s my peripheral vision on matchdays” – and a couple of friends, Murray and co will enjoy the best of craic on that familiar trip to Clones.

Once in situ, he will tour the streets and the pubs playing - more welcome in some than others, depending on the crowd, though the banter is mostly light-hearted.

A few hours before throw-in, Murray will make his way up the hill towards the ground. For a while he might even stand high up on the grass outside the community centre, piping away, throwing in a rendition of ‘The Boys of the County Armagh’ to keep the Orchard fans happy.

“I love to see the Armagh ones ruffle us, and us ruffle the Armagh ones, in a very sporting way of course.

“It gets the craic going...”

But his heart will always belong to the Hills.

That’s why, every so often, whether looking down on the crowds making their pilgrimage or walking through the stand, Christy Murray can’t resist – torso twisting back, eyes closed, an impish smile upon his lips as both barrels are unloaded.



PLAYING football was never really for him. Dad Barney would have loved that but, once the rough and tumble began, there would be no going back.

Besides, by then he had already discovered his lifelong love – even it had to be kept a secret from his family initially. Barney and Margaret Murray had moved to Glasgow in the 1950s to work in the potato fields, and so the first six years of Christy’s life were spent in Scotland.

That influence, and the music that found its way to his young ears, would never leave. Upon the family’s return to Donegal, he started a paper round but would often find himself hunkering down on the street listening to the sounds of Raphoe’s two pipe bands.

“One was Catholic, one was Protestant, I didn’t know the difference - I just heard music and that was it.

“My father was in Scotland and my mother was on her own, so our house would’ve been a bit all over the place... sometimes I would sit outside until midnight or after.

“Neither of my parents had any interest in music, nobody in the family at all. If my father had heard I was doing music he’d have nearly chased me out of the house - he was one of these macho, sporty tough guys.

“So for four years I played the tin whistle in secret.”

Curiousity bloomed into something so much bigger. After the whistle came the piano, then the pipes, sometimes the bodhran. After joining a pipe band, he started teaching music at an evening class. On the first night, 55 children attended.

“Honestly,” he smiles, “that just blew me away...”

From that class came a marching band competing in fleadhs and competitions up and down the country. As their success grew, so he was sought out by others, always happy to lend a hand.

By then, though, football had also laid claim to Murray affections – and he has a family from Convoy, the McCaffreys, to thank.

Spending the summer working on their farm, he was asked along to the 1982 All-Ireland U21 final in Carrick-on-Shannon. The final scoreline – Donegal 0-8 Roscommon 0-5 – doesn’t suggest a classic.

But the young man was entranced by the shouting, the passion, the sound of the drums. The theatre of it all grabbed him and wouldn’t let go.

“I played a wee bit underage but I wasn’t strong enough, so when the hard hits came I thought ‘to hell with this, music’s safer’.

“But this was like a holiday to me, going off somewhere. Then as soon as I walked through the gate and saw the crowd, I was hooked.

“After that I started taking my father to all the games with me - he was a typical Irish father, he never actually told me his own father played for Donegal minors in the ‘40s. Only for I saw a photograph in Castlefin, and there was my grandfather in the middle of it, I’d never have known.”

It was in 2002, around the same time Murray started teaching music at the Central School in Raphoe, that Murray’s inextricable link with the county team was forged - a National League game in Ballyshannon proving the catalyst.

“We won by a point, but there was this Dublin piper, he had no uniform - he was just in civvies - and he was soaked, but I thought ‘there’s something I could do’.

“That was that. The first game I played at, no uniform, just the Donegal headscarf, was against Armagh. I didn’t realise the reaction I would get... it was great fun. Coming out, it was like going through the orange sea.

“So I went and got a uniform from a boy in Cullybackey I had met at a pipe band competition in Letterkenny. He said to call up, I’m looking at all the murals on the way, the red, white and blue kerbstones, thinking ‘this could be fun’.

“He asked what colours I wanted - ‘bright green and bright orange, as bright as you get’. I was explaining what it was for, that it was because I supported Donegal, so it was no problem.

“And I’ve still the same one now, it goes to the dry cleaners every couple of years. The buttons are a bit more snug now than they were, but sure...”

Yet, for all the adventures it has brought him on, there has been the odd hairy moment - some opposition supporters not enjoying the spectacle, and the repeated refrains of ‘Upppp Donegaaaal’, as much when pre-match nerves, mixed with pre-match imbibing, take hold.

“It’s been mostly good but some bad things have happened over the years as well... I’ve been attacked a couple of times, never seriously where I could be injured. But drink is usually involved.

“I remember one time down in Louth I got attacked with sandwiches and cans – it was around the time those vuvuzelas were going in Africa, the weans all had those around me. I was loving it, it was wild craic, so I was encouraging them to keep it going, then next thing this sandwich went flying past me.

“Before I knew it then cans and sandwiches were flying at me from a couple of older men... I couldn’t hear what they were saying but you could see the faces on them. My brother, he went to jump a couple of seats at them but I called him back.

“The weans were getting hit too. It was too much.”

Jim McGuinness got the better of Mickey Harte once more as Donegal defeated north-west nei.ghbours Derry on Saturday night. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
The return of Jim McGuinness to the Donegal sideline has brought an added layer of excitement this year. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

There has been the odd clash with officialdom too, most notably a 40-minute stand off at Croke Park ahead of a February 2020 League clash with Dublin, when Murray was asked to asked to put his pipes in a secure hold on the premium level.

He made it in, but was informed by security personnel that would be the last time. It wasn’t, although there was a similar interrogation going into last month’s Division Two decider against Armagh.

And then, as he toured the periphery of the Celtic Park pitch before Donegal’s Ulster semi-final with Tyrone a fortnight ago, Murray found himself in the eye of the storm once more.

“If I’m at the match early I’ll go around the pitch perimeter and pipe - most of the times I’m allowed to do that, but I have been put off a few times.

“You do get the odd steward where a bit of power goes to their head, or maybe they work in a nightclub and just approach you the same way, but it was the crowd’s reaction [in Celtic Park] I was a bit worried about.

“Donegal were there early, in big numbers, and he came over saying get off the pitch and all this here – I said ‘come down a level, sir’. If somebody asks me to get off the pitch, I always respect that, but he was roaring at me for some reason.

“I heard the crowd boo and I thought I have to get off here in case a bottle or something flies, you don’t know what’s going to happen.

“You couldn’t say anything to him but I don’t get too het up about it any more. I used to years ago but I’m near 62 now; I just want to enjoy the day out.”


PERSPECTIVE has helped him do that as the years rolled by.

After their mother suffered a brain hemorrhage in 1987, Christy Murray and his family spent 24 years tending to her every need. When she passed in 2011, he decided to make the most of every day he had left, and never to take a thing for granted.

“She never spoke again from she had that. That changes your outlook.

“I was 25 when it happened, and you don’t realise what’s ahead. You realise the responsibility, you grow up a lot because you have to. There was a lot of self-pity at the start, like any young fella, but love is driving you.

“We could tell through her eyes how she was feeling, or through her skin for her health. If you roared at her, she might grunt back at you... there was one funny day I was trying to move her around the bed, she was very tense, and I said ‘for God sake mum, will you just relax!’ You do get desperate at times.

“Anyway, out of nowhere she just lets out this ‘f**k!’ - that’s the only word I got out of her in all those years! But we treated her like any other person. Some people would come in and talk over her, but we knew she was picking stuff up.

“She died in 2011, then dad died in 2012, three months after we won the All-Ireland. That was a big change for us all.”

From there, the away days Murray hadn’t gone on for so long were enjoyed to the full, with fond memories of seisiúns across Ulster, out west and or down in Cork and Kerry.

“There was a time one of the Kerry underage teams got me to come in and play at their disco... I lost a couple of buttons that night, my hat went missing for a while too.

“Thankfully it was at the breakfast table the next morning.”

It could be a similar scene in the Creighton on Sunday, irrespective of the result.

This is what all football supporters live for – Christy Murray is no different, even if it his music that provides the backdrop to some of the most eagerly-anticipated days in the GAA calendar.

“People think you’re only there to perform, but none of what I do is official and never has been.

“People say ‘do they pay you?’ Naw, the players do with what they give, I really do appreciate that. Those young boys bust their ass - I know what a big demand it is, and the hold it has on their life.

“Somebody of my vintage would’ve seen a fair few barren times, so you try to tell the younger ones to enjoy it. I’m enjoying every game, we have a half a chance in the final now, so... up Donegal!”