You’ll never take Armagh out of the man... 23 years in Donegal hasn’t dulled Barry O’Hagan’s passion for Orchard County and the Clans

Armagh All-Ireland winner and Donegal resident Barry O’Hagan looks ahead to the Ulster final

Manager Barry O'Hagan during this year's Dr McKenna Cup game against Donegal. Photo Evan Logan
Manager Barry O'Hagan looks on as his Armagh U20 team play Donegal in this year's Dr McKenna Cup. Photo Evan Logan (©Evan Logan)

YOU can take the man out of Armagh…

Talking about loyalty to your club and county is one thing, but a season or two of long drives, late nights and escalating diesel bills puts it to the test. After a while something has to give and it’s a choice between a transfer and retirement.

Well, that’s how it usually goes but not with Barry O’Hagan.

The Armagh All-Ireland-winner turned 50 last week and he’s been living in Donegal for the guts of 23 years which is almost as long as he resided in his native county. Never mind tyres, ‘Bumpy’ has worn out engines travelling back home for training and games since 2001. However, he remains as devoted to Armagh and Lurgan’s Clan na Gael as ever.

His wife is from Derry and he works for Derry City and Strabane District Council but they settled on the other side of the border. Nine years ago the O’Hagan family moved into their newly-built home in Newtowncunningham (between Derry and Letterkenny) so it looks like they’re there to stay but Barry’s heart will always be Clans and Armagh.

That’s just the way it is.

For context is should be noted that the O’Hagan’s are blue-blooded royalty in Lurgan. Barry’s dad Noel (the original ‘Bumpy’) and his uncle Jim are club stalwarts who were All-Ireland finalists with Armagh in 1977. Noel managed the Clans to their last county title in 1994 with Barry and his former next door neighbour Diarmaid Marsden stars of that side.

“When you’re invested in something it makes no difference where you’re living,” says Barry.

“It’s no different to lads who are living in Dublin coming back to train and play with counties and clubs all over the country.

“Even back in my day, Geezer, Andy McCann, Paddy McKeever, Des Mackin… They were all living in Dublin and coming up and down. Mayo and Galway guys do it. If you’re so invested and involved in your club and county it’s difficult to do anything else.

“We played Donegal quite a bit when I first moved up here. We were at the top of that rivalry but Donegal had been beating Armagh for a few years there until Clones a couple of years ago so I was sort of keeping the head down.

“There’s always a bit of banter about it but it’s not a bitter rivalry like Armagh-Down or Armagh-Tyrone during my playing days.”

And the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Barry’s son Brendan, also a talented boxer and an Ulster champion with Oak Leaf ABC in Derry, played at underage level for the local Naomh Colmcille (Barry won a junior championship with the club in between retirement and a comeback for the Clans) and with Donegal underage teams but he always viewed Clan na Gael as his club and Armagh as his county.

He played for the Clans in last year’s county final against Crossmaglen and scored three points from centre half-forward when Armagh U20s met Donegal in the first round of the Dr McKenna Cup in January.

Barry O’Hagan and Kilcar joint-manager Conor Cunningham. Photo Evan Logan
Barry O’Hagan and Kilcar joint-manager Conor Cunningham. Photo Evan Logan (©Evan Logan)

THIS year was Barry’s second season as Armagh U20 manager and over those two years he was able to combine that county role with being joint-manager of Donegal’s Kilcar alongside Conor Cunningham.

From their spectacular Towney Park base overlooking the Atlantic, Kilcar won Division One in 2022 and reached the Championship semi-final but lost by a point against St Eunan’s.

“Kilcar is a great club with great people,” says Barry.

“It’s a small area but they produce brilliant footballers with loads of pedigree and not just Paddy McBrearty and Ryan McHugh. There was Mark McHugh, Eoin McHugh, the McCleans (Matthew and Andy), Stephen McBrearty, Ryan O’Donnell… I could speak nothing only positive about my time with them.

“They’re striving to get another county title but unfortunately they remind me a wee bit of my time with the Clans, we won a couple of championships but then a great Crossmaglen team came and we were second best to them no matter how hard we tried. Kilcar are the same with Glenties.”

Kilcar celebrate winning Donegal Division One title in 2022. Barry O'Hagan is back row, third from right
Kilcar celebrate winning Donegal Division One title in 2022. Barry O'Hagan is back row, third from right

Ryan McHugh missed most of last season for club and county but he has returned brilliantly this year. A fearless campaigner who is businesslike in all he does on the field, Barry says the long-serving Donegal talisman is “just a phenomenal football player”.

“What I found about him was that he understands a game,” he says.

“You’ve seen him against Derry and Tyrone - he knows when to play on the front foot and to gamble and be on a break ball and be lightning-fast in transition. At other stages of games he’s dropping back to the corner-back spot and getting on the ball, slowing it down when Donegal need to take the sting out of it.

“I’ve never seen anybody – in all my time watching and playing Gaelic Football – as good under a break ball. When the ball is being kicked out to Ryan’s side of the field and he commits to a break you see him coming away with the ball. His timing, his understanding of where it’s going to be… All of a sudden he’s 10 yards away. Great feet, a great passer and a real nice lad as well who just loves playing for Donegal.

“Paddy McBrearty is the same. In club football in Donegal, Paddy is just out of this world. Some of the things I’ve seen that man do for Kilcar… He’s something else, a terrific footballer with an unbelievable left foot and he’s a lot bigger than people think.

“He’s 6′1″ and brilliant at winning his own ball and he’s carried that Kilcar team for a number of years. This season he’s probably been a bit disappointed in himself – he missed the National League final with injury and didn’t train for a few weeks. He maybe got one session in before the Derry game so Paddy will be looking to get a bit of rhythm – he’ll be glad to have got two weeks’ training in for the final.

“He’s a top player and I can see why Jim McGuinness made him captain.”

Glory Days. Lifting the Sam Maguire in 2002
Glory Days. Lifting the Sam Maguire in 2002

O’HAGAN and Donegal manager McGuinness are of the same vintage. They played against each other many times at college and county level. McGuinness - “A hell of a footballer” - scored a brilliant individual goal in the 2002 Ulster final but Armagh went on to win the Anglo-Celt and then the Sam Maguire.

The following year the Ulster rivals met in an All-Ireland semi-final and again the Orchardmen had the upperhand.

“They were always close games,” says Barry.

“Donegal had good players but we always seemed to come out on the right side of it. There was a confidence with Armagh, we won big matches without playing very well. Once we started winning big matches in Ulster that confidence grew and we probably beat them a couple of times without playing overly well. We had a bit of psychology over them, they probably didn’t really believe – deep down – that they were going to beat us.”

Donegal wandered in the wilderness last year until their Messiah McGuinness agreed to a second coming. If they lacked belief in the early noughties, they don’t lack it now and a Division Two title and Championship wins over Derry and Tyrone makes them favourites for Sunday.

“You wouldn’t hear a whole pile about what’s going on in the camp,” says Barry.

“I know Jim from playing against him and I know him on a personal level – he’s a very intense, driven individual. Everybody can see that.

“It’s the standards he sets – you hear stories about the pre-season he did. It’s not complicated, the training is ferocious, it’s not overly-fancy from what I hear but he expects a serious level of workrate, athleticism and fitness and mastering the basic skills.

“He has that aura about him, he brings that bit of mystique. He brings that intensity to every session and if you’re doing that for six or seven months and the players are following the journey then you can’t do anything but improve.

“He’s a very clever man tactically in terms of how he sets teams up, exposes the weaknesses of the opposition and playing to Donegal’s strengths.”

IF McGuinness is a “very intense, driven individual”, the same sort of language has been used to describe Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney over the years.

‘Geezer’ had more success as a player, McGuinness has found silverware easier to come by as a manager. However, Barry says his former county skipper has had to work harder to build a panel capable of challenging at Championship level.

“I watch quite a bit of Donegal club football and I go and watch a good bit of Derry and Tyrone club football and Armagh as well,” he explained.

“It’s fair to say the quality of club football in Armagh would be nowhere near the other three at present. Tyrone is the most competitive and the highest standard because there’s 10-12 teams can win a county championship. In Derry there’s less teams competing but the top six are phenomenal and in Donegal the top four would have been Glenties, Kilcar, St Eunan’s and Gweedore for the last couple of years and it’s a very, very high standard.

“Crossmaglen are the standard-setters in Armagh and Maghery had a good team for a couple of years but none of them have punched any holes in the Ulster club championship. I think that makes where Armagh’s county team is at all the more impressive in terms of the panel that’s been put together.

“I’m not saying everything has been perfect – there has been disappointing days – but (McGeeney has) built a team that is challenging for the Ulster title, playing Division One and pushing the top teams in the All-Ireland series and you have to factor in the standard of club football in Armagh.

“You have to factor in that we’ve had little-to-no underage success in Armagh for the last 15 years (the last Ulster minor was 2009, the last U20 2007) and I’ve been part of that, I’ve been managing the U20s for the last two years and it’s been disappointing. We’ve had no real school success either over the last period of years so that’s the context of trying to run a county team.

“If you’re Derry you’ve had underage success and school success – the same with Tyrone. Donegal have been competitive at underage level and have a strong club scene. That’s not to say there aren’t games we’ve left behind us on the big stage – we should have beat Monaghan last year but at various points of that game we didn’t play the way we can, same in the Ulster final, we left that one behind too.

“But the panel of lads have been very good to get to where they are, they are a very consistent team. Armagh supporters want silverware and they want you to win the big games but, fair play to this panel, they keep coming back year-on-year and there has been improvement this year on where they were last year and they weren’t far away then.”

Armagh's Barry O'Hagan leaves Derry's Henry Downey in his wake during the 2000 Ulster final at Clones. Picture: Ann McManus
Armagh's Barry O'Hagan leaves Derry's Henry Downey in his wake during the 2000 Ulster final at Clones. Picture: Ann McManus

LAST year proved Armagh can compete but that they cannot afford to switch off on Sunday.

They created winning positions against Derry and Monaghan but with the finishing line in sight they faltered and lost on the lottery of penalties.

Barry wants the Orchardmen to go all-in this time.

“You’ve seen glimpses from Armagh and the supporters all know what the team can do so I would love for the players and management team to put 70-75 minutes together like that,” he says.

“Nobody could say that these Armagh players don’t leave everything out on the field but it’s just their decision-making and dropping off at times…

“I have a sneaking feeling that we’ll do it. I look at ‘Soup’, Grugan, Forker, Murnin and they’re great servants and unbelievable footballers for Armagh and haven’t won any silverware. I think this is a time when their backs are against the wall and they have to come out and go and win this match no matter what.

“It can’t be Monday morning thinking: ‘I wish I’d have done this, or that…’ And not just the older lads, the two O’Neills, Aaron McKay. Paddy Burns… All of them. I’m just hoping they’re saying: ‘We need to win this game, we can’t have any more hard luck stories about penalties or losing by a point’.

“As a supporter I’m hoping we’re at that stage but it’s 50-50. In every big game, the team that makes the least mistakes in front of the posts will win. I hope it’s us.”

…but you’ll never take Armagh out of the man.