Fermanagh’s field of dreams – how Ederney became a home from home for ambitious Ernemen

Ahead of Sunday’s Division Two clash with Cork, Neil Loughran talks to former Ederney chairman Sean Donnelly about the strides made on and off the field that helped bring these days about...

St Joseph's Park has become a home from home for Fermanagh during recent years, and Kieran Donnelly's men will hope to maintain their 100 per cent record in Ederney when they face Cork on Sunday
St Joseph's Park has become a home from home for Fermanagh during recent years, and Kieran Donnelly's men will hope to maintain their 100 per cent record in Ederney when they face Cork on Sunday

EDERNEY is fast becoming a home from home for the Fermanagh footballers – just as it has been for Sean Donnelly in the 15 years since putting down roots in the Erne County.

The redevelopment of Brewster Park saw St Joseph’s Park host its first-ever National Football League game last year, with Longford the visitors on the opening weekend of Division Three action.

Victory that day proved the launchpad for a promotion push towards the second tier, with a dramatic last-gasp win over Down in Ederney igniting a campaign that would finish up with Kieran Donnelly’s men top of the pile.

On Sunday the Ernemen welcome struggling Cork, the Rebels making the five-hour trip to this north-western corner of the county desperate for points after opening defeats to Donegal, Louth and Cavan left them facing the prospect of relegation and Tailteann Cup football.

Although a ‘blow-in’ from Beragh, there will be few more proud than Sean Donnelly when the ball throws in at 2pm.

That occasions of such significance should come to Ederney would have been unthinkable not so long ago, but it is the vision and endeavour of people like him that has helped bring the club – and the county – to the forefront.

Yet, while Gaelic football was always in the blood, Donnelly travelled a couple of back roads before finally finding home.

His brother Paul was a tough tackling defender with Tyrone during the 1990s, and a substitute for the 1995 All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin. Sean played alongside his sibling as Beragh reached the heady heights of Division One football - the last time they did so - before a cruciate ligament injury all but ended his playing days at the tender age of 22.

Fermanagh's Josh Largo Ellis and Darragh McGurn celebrate Sean Quigley's winning goal for Fermanagh in a thriller against Down at St Joseph's Park, Ederney. Pic Philip Walsh
Josh Largo Elis and Darragh McGurn celebrate Sean Quigley's late winning goal in last year's League win over Down in Ederney. Picture by Philip Walsh

Work took him to England and America before 10 years spent in Dublin. Wife Maria - one of the McGrath clan and a cousin of Ederney stalwart Marty, always had designs on a return.

Her father, Leonard, is one the longest-serving club sponsors in the county, having backed the St Joseph’s for over 30 years. Mum Patricia is one of the Donnellys from Trillick, and an aunt of Tyrone stars Mattie and Richie - both Patricia and Maria are Irish language officers with Ederney.

First, though, another family connection led to an unlikely attempt at spreading the GAA gospel into the capital’s rugby heart.

“Donnybrook Gaels,” says Donnelly, “unfortunately they don’t exist any more.

“We lived in Ballsbridge, Maria’s uncle lived in Donnybrook and tried to set up his own club, but it petered out after four or five years – they merged with Fontenoy Gaels, which is still going.

“You’re in total rugby country there, we couldn’t get the youth going... it’s very difficult in D4 to get GAA going. But that was me started in club administration, for my sins.”

Eventually the pull of Ederney would prove too much, though, and soon the Donnellys were on the move once more.

“It was a bit of a change of pace alright,” he smiles, “but we were always probably going to go back to a rural area.”

Other than Maria’s family, he didn’t know a soul in the village.

It wasn’t long before that would change – “as soon as you landed nearly there was a knock on the door” - and he dived headlong into the inner workings of the club, first as secretary, before a decade served as chairman.

With a young family of his own, coaching inevitably became a part of that journey. Son Lughaidh is currently part of the Fermanagh U20 side, alongside club-mates Shaun McCarron and Shay Deazley, while Donnelly also managed the minor team that boasted talented forward Sean Cassidy, and was assistant manager to Michael Cassidy’s county championship minor side that contained the likes of Conor McGee.

Since Sean Quigley decided to step away from the inter-county scene, Cassidy has filled his boots in impressive fashion, bagging goals in the draw with Meath and victory over Kildare, as well as three points in Saturday’s defeat to Donegal.

McGee has also become a regular as the Ernemen have made a solid start to life in the second tier. And, alongside Fermanagh captain Declan McCusker, all three Ederney men will run out at familiar surroundings to face Cork on Sunday.

“It was very obvious with Sean - when he was eight years old it was obvious, he’s a very talented guy. The same with Conor.

“It was just clear they had something special and, probably more important, they had a great attitude.”

Cassidy and McGee were still teenagers when the club ended a 52-year wait for a Fermanagh senior title in 2020 – the image of Marty McGrath clasping the New York Cup capping an unforgettable day, in an unforgettable campaign.

“We had a batch of footballers there who just stuck at it,” said Donnelly.

“I saw it with Beragh - we had a very good batch of footballers, got to a Championship semi-final against that great Errigal team. We probably had a team good enough to win a Championship, but that’s the furthest we got, and Ederney faced a similar dilemma.

“Like, we’re a very small club, about 125 in the primary school and we feed from that. We would struggle to field a lot at youth level a lot of the time... our minors were amalgamated with Coa for three years there.

“Small clubs might get a batch of players once a generation, and if you don’t do it, you have to wait another generation. There were so many disappointments, so to land that that title was great.”

And for all the strides made on the field, they have been more than matched off it during the past decade.

With Donnelly well versed in finding potential funding avenues, the club managed to draw down around £1.2m and, aided by its own fundraising, was able to realise the dream of developing a 200-seater stand, a second pitch, new changing rooms and a gym.

It won’t stop there either, with further ambitious plans already in the pipeline.

“We have plans to double the size of that stand, and a new 10-year plan also includes a community hall. Thankfully we have a very strong committee - youngish, very motivated and hard working.

“We’ve done a lot of development, we’ve probably had about £1.7, £1.8 million put into the club... we’ve done quite well on that end of it, so much so that we’ve managed to get county games now.

“We’re very proud of that - it brings great pride to the club and the community that we’re able to host the likes of Down and Cork here.

“And it’s a great surface, we have a very good grounds team. They go down and meet the guys in Abbotstown who do the Croke Park pitch, to try and learn from them, so it’s like a carpet.”

Sean Donnelly (left) with Joe Prunty, Donal Gormley and Francis Gormley at the opening of the new field at St Joseph's Park in 2021
Sean Donnelly (left) with Joe Prunty, Donal Gormley and Francis Gormley at the opening of the new field at St Joseph's Park in 2021

And Sunday promises to be another special occasion.

With a win, a loss and a draw so far, Fermanagh will hope to take advantage of Cork’s struggles and get their own campaign back up and running after last weekend’s let down in Letterkenny.

For the people and the parish of Ederney, they can’t get enough of days like these.

“Deccy’s going to be captain on Sunday, leading the team out, and then you have the other two boys. For a small club, we do produce a lot of guys who have gone on to represent the county - we had Chris Snow there for a long time, Marty, Paul McCusker...

“The three lads, all their families will either be stewarding, car parking or serving tea on Sunday. They are all hugely committed, their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters will be there. They all come from core GAA families within the club.

“I’m coming from Tyrone, 54 clubs, big dominant county, and you do realise in Fermanagh how much they punch above their weight. It’s something I’ve had my eyes opened to. They’re very committed Gaels and very ambitious Gaels.

“Now whether that’s looking over their shoulder, I don’t know... in north Fermanagh we’re squeezed between Donegal on one side and Tyrone on the other, and looking over your shoulder at your neighbours always drives you on.

“For us, we’re right beside Trillick and right beside Dromore, so we would fully expect to be able to do what they can do.

“But our guys are very comfortable in Ederney, and would be fully expecting to beat Cork. They will not be lacking confidence in any way.

“And sure Fermanagh have a 100 per cent record in Ederney – hopefully that’s still the case when all is said and done on Sunday.”