‘I’ll think back to my father’s words – ‘If it’s worth doing, do it the best you can’ - legendary St Patrick’s Maghera coach Paul Hughes

Appointing Derrytresk man was one of my best-ever decisions at St Pat’s - Adrian McGuckin

Paul Hughes
Legendary coach Paul Hughes finishing off his 39-year career on the training fields at St Patrick's College, Maghera. Picture Margaret McLaughlin (MARGARET MCLAUGHLIN PHOTOGRAPHY )

PAUL Hughes was sitting in the reception area of St Patrick’s College, Maghera waiting to be interviewed for the vacant PE job.

It was 1985. He was 22-years-old. Fresh out of St Mary’s University, the Tyrone native was eager to throw his hat in the ring for the role but not with any great expectations.

As he sat there, all he could hear were Derry accents.

“I’m thinking: ‘What am I doing here? I’m an absolute fraud.’”

While shifting nervously in his seat, Paul noted each candidate that had disappeared into the nearby room to be interviewed by the late Fr Devine, school principal at the time, and Adrian McGuckin, head of PE, were in there for an average of 12 minutes.

Paul was completely daunted by the prospect of staring across the room at McGuckin.

“I was in awe of Adrian McGuckin because a brother-in-law of mine would point him out at Ballinderry games that we’d have gone to. He was a bear of a man. Everybody knew Adrian McGuckin.”

Paul reckoned if he could somehow breach the 12-minute mark, he’d escape the room and be happy. And that would be the end of that.

“There was no Board of Governors or anything like that back then,” Paul says.

“I realised I was in there for about 25 minutes. I couldn’t believe I talked for that long, couldn’t even tell you what I talked about.”

“I must admit, the interview was more of a hunch,” Adrian McGuckin recalls.

“Paul seemed a very humble lad, didn’t seem to be pushing himself forward, he had a good application and got good results out of St Mary’s.

“He came across as a very caring person and a person who wasn’t going to be afraid of work. And that certainly turned out to be the way with him. Grainne [Paul’s wife] was identical. They were two givers, so generous, especially with their time.

“You have all these mission statements in the school where ‘Every Child Matters’. To them, every child really did matter. Every child was important. Paul and Grainne were so loyal.”

When the young lad from Derrytresk left the interview room, Fr Devine and Adrian looked at each other and knew they had the right person for the job.

That Friday night Paul received a phone call telling him that his interview had been successful.

Appointing Paul Hughes to the PE department was “one of the best decisions I made in the school,” Adrian says.

More recently, Adrian received a WhatsApp message from his friend and former teaching colleague telling him that after 39 years he was retiring from St Pat’s, Maghera.

Adrian, who retired from St Pat’s himself in 2006, said: “I must admit I felt a bit emotional when I read Paul’s message. I was telling my son, Adrian, that night Paul was retiring – and he turned around and said: ‘He was the best coach I ever had.’”

Paul Hughes
Paul Hughes holds court Picture Margaret McLaughlin (MARGARET MCLAUGHLIN PHOTOGRAPHY )

Last Friday afternoon, Paul and Grainne – who’d given a combined 79 years of service to the children of St Patrick’s College, Maghera – left the place for the final time.

End of an era – four words that don’t nearly compute the void they leave behind.

As a first year, Connor Carville didn’t know where to turn when he first heard Master Hughes’s “big, booming voice”.

It was during his own training sessions for the Dalton and Corn nan Og Cups, he’d hear Hughes bellow to the MacRory Cup lads down at the back pitches: “Stanchion, boys! Stanchion!”

It was their cue to run from one pitch to the other. Hard, punishing, perpetually long runs.

“I remember Chrissy McKaigue was at the front of the runs, and the back pitches were three or four pitches – huge – and they were running from one stanchion to the next. Paul’s teams were always very fit,” Carville says, who won MacRory and Hogan in 2013 and is now an All-Ireland Club SFC captain with Glen, Maghera.

“Your whole school year would have revolved around sport. There were so many teachers who had an interest in football. I remember it had been a while since we’d won MacRory and we would’ve been pulled into classrooms just for a chat about the football – Paul Hughes embodied that and drove the whole thing on.

“It was an unbelievable time to be involved.”

Carville’s year swept the boards. O’Farrell, Dalton, Corn na Og, Brock, Rannafast, MacRory and Hogan.

Sean Marty Lockhart and Martin McConnell were over the class of 2013 - but the coaching lines were so often blurred, to the extent where the mentoring, guidance and coaching of the players was a collective effort by everyone.

Water boy. Umpire. Putting out and lifting cones. Adviser. Encouraging from behind the wire. Every role had purpose.

“St Pat’s, Maghera was like a club where everybody pulled together,” Carville says.

Of course, not every team was blessed with silverware at the end of the school year.

Gerard O’Kane’s year, for instance, couldn’t buy a win right up to fourth year – and yet they went on to claim a MacRory and Hogan Cup double in 2003.

“I remember getting beaten 26-0 in a Dalton Cup quarter-final,” says the Glenullin man who went on to represent Derry with distinction between 2002 and 2016.

“In Corn na nOg, we lost five-out-of-five. It just turned around in fifth year and Paul was with us all the way through. He never put prominence on any one player – he was very much about everybody in the team has a part to play.

“He treated the goalkeeper exactly the same as the lad at number 30 who maybe didn’t get game-time.

“In the Hogan final,” O’Kane adds, “we were losing to St Jarlath’s, Tuam by three points with three minutes left and our last act as a team was to pull that game out of the fire. We kept going to the end and that was Paul Hughes’s mark on us.”

Derry's Gerard O'Kane pictured raising the Tom Markham cup as captain of the 2002 Derry All-Ireland minor winning side. (Picture: Hugh Russell)
Derry's Gerard O'Kane pictured raising the Tom Markham cup as captain of the 2002 Derry All-Ireland minor winning side. A year later he guided St Pat's to a MacRory and Hogan Cup double (Picture: Hugh Russell)

Mr Hughes doubled up as O’Kane’s PE and Irish teacher. O’Kane still remembers his first teacher-parents meeting and his mum and dad queuing up to meet him.

Their 11-year-old son was apparently flying in PE. ‘Sport seems to be Gerard’s thing. Keep the head down and keep working hard’ was the encouraging message.

“And like a flick of a switch, Master Hughes talked about Irish, and he said: ‘I’m not so sure about Gerard. He just seems to act Jack the Lad a wee bit, he has an answer for everything…’

“I was 11, but he was letting me know coming to the big school you couldn’t be a ‘smart Alec’. He was very good at that. He was trying to build my character and you could see that as I went through the school.

“He was just being straight with my parents. So, I reined it in a wee bit in the Irish class.

“All through the years, Paul treated you with respect, especially as you got older.”

St Patrick's College, Maghera have been serial winners for the last number of decades under the guidance of Paul Hughes and Adrian McGuckin who went before him
St Patrick's College, Maghera have been serial winners for the last number of decades under the guidance of Paul Hughes and Adrian McGuckin who went before him

IT’S gone past home-time on this sunny Monday afternoon at St Patrick’s College, Maghera. The last couple of buses slope out of the school grounds and the teaching staff can breathe out.

I’m sitting in the same reception area where a young Paul Hughes sat back in 1985 hoping to get a job as a PE teacher. He leaves in four days’ time after 39 years – 23 of them spent as the school’s Director of Sport.

Catriona Scott is head of PE and still hasn’t come to terms that her friend and mentor will be leaving on Friday for the final time.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do without Paul,” she says. “Do you know he’s won 130 Ulster and All-Ireland titles as head of sport here?

“What’s your number? I’ll WhatsApp some pictures to you. And your email address?”

A few days later, a deluge of photographs will land in my in-box from Catriona.

Paul arrives in reception and we walk along what can only be described as a sporting hall of fame before we reach the boardroom to try and make sense of 39 years.

The framed magnificence of the class of ‘03 has pride of place; a fresh-faced Gerard O’Kane lifting the Hogan Cup in Breffni Park, young Liam Og Hinphey breaking a tackle. Mark Lynch. Michael McCann. Johnny Bradley. Eoin McNicholl. Joe Keenan... Forever Spring heroes of Maghera.

Along the same wall are the Mageean and O’Keefe (hurling) winners of 2011, led by Karl McKaigue.

There’s a young Gerald Bradley, top scorer Shane Farren, Cormac O’Doherty, Marty Johnston and Oran McCann of Creggan Kickhams, and Brendan Rogers.

This was a band of brothers that is particularly close to Paul Hughes’s heart.

In a short space of time, the school had lost a number of its teachers with a background in the small-ball code - and Mr Hughes was thrust into the middle of it.

“I was about 21 years in the school and it was the first time I took hurling. I can honestly say I didn’t know all the rules!”

Paul Hughes
Paul Hughes bows out of St Pat's after 39 years along with his wife Grainne who gave 40 years of service (MARGARET MCLAUGHLIN PHOTOGRAPHY )

Leadership groups within teams were a big part of Paul’s approach.

Karl McKaigue of Slaughtneil was not only an accomplished hurler, but he was also mature and knowledgeable about the game beyond his years.

“We never won anything coming up through the grades,” McKaigue says.

“That same year we went out of the MacRory quite early in a play-off game with ‘Convent’ and didn’t qualify for the quarter-final games after Christmas, so that freed the whole thing up for hurling that year.

“The year before, Paul actually made me captain as a lower sixth, and he would have trusted my opinion on things...

“He very much would have involved me in panel selection, team selection, even training input, and I was only 16 or 17 at the time.

“What Paul lacked in hurling knowledge, he wasn’t afraid to admit it and went out and got some heads in.”

Kevin Hinphey and Brian Og McGilligan came into the school and took some coaching sessions and St Pat’s looked as surefooted as ever at hurling.

“Paul knew how to coach a group of young fellas, knew how to get effort out of them: discipline, motivation and it all came together because we won everything that year [2011].

“From an energy point of view, he brought it to every single training session...”


SCHOOL principal Katrina Crilly kindly lands some cupcakes and coffee on the oval-shaped table in the boardroom.

You get the sense Paul Hughes is ready for retirement. His wife, Grainne is too.

Leaning back in his chair, he says: “What I’ve found over the years is that kids give you life. One thing that might be a bit scary [about retirement] will be missing that banter of a changing room and being among a group…

“If sport teaches you anything, you live in the moment. You enjoy the moment; you don’t plan too far ahead.

“I’ll probably look back and say I did it the best I could’ve done. Others might think differently. But I’ll think back to my father’s words – ‘If it’s worth doing, do it the best you can.’

“I know I’ll be able to look at it that way. I’ve been here 39 years, I met Grainne here, we’ve lived through the place, had our family, we’ve grown up with the school.

“It will always have a special part in our lives simply because we’d put so much into it. There’ll be part of me that will feel it’s a wrench; it’s going to be so different, and it’s probably something that Grainne and me will have to grow into and learn how to handle and do things differently because we aren’t dictated to by bells and deadlines anymore.”

The life of Paul Hughes is a vast subject. He talks about the selflessness of his colleagues more than anything he’s done for the kids of St Patrick’s College, Maghera.

He rhymes off so many names, among them are Martin McConnell, Sean Marty Lockhart, Dermot McNicholl, William McAteer, Ronan McDonnell, Catriona Scott, Colm and Emer Lavery...

“I look at Colm and Emer and I see Adrian and Vera again in them… Colm will take any football team that needs taking and he’ll do it brilliantly.

“Emer will work with camogie teams relentlessly. These are people that have three kids under 10 in the house. They are the type of people that will lift you up if you’re having a bad day…”

But from the first minute he stepped onto the holy ground of St Pat’s back in the summer of ‘85, it was Adrian McGuckin who inspired him and gifted him the bug of MacRory football.

He soon realised that nothing nourished the competitive soul quite like the MacRory rivalry between St Pat’s, Maghera and St Colman’s, Newry.

The south Derry students had won four-in-a-row (1982-85). St Mary’s, Belfast beat them in the ‘86 decider.

A semi-final loss followed in ‘87 and Maghera came out on the losing end of an epic three-game final in ‘88 to eternal rivals St Colman’s.

Despite those defeats, Paul Hughes was completely consumed by MacRory.

“Adrian said to me: ‘You have to be around here when we win one…’”

Twelve months later, St Pat’s avenged that bitter defeat – the ‘89 final where James McCartan scored 3-2 for Colman’s and still lost.

Ballinascreen’s Eamon Burns hit his third score of the day late on to put St Pat’s ahead for the first time in the game.

“Colman’s still had one more attack and they lobbed the ball over our ‘keeper,” Paul says.

“I remember Adrian saying if the ball was going inside the post he was for kicking it away because he was at the post. The ball trickled wide, and our goalkeeper [Barry McGonigle] was setting it up.

“Adrian McGuckin was a different level even in the heat of battle. He called Anthony Tohill back.

“He was shouting: ‘Leave it be. Anthony, Anthony - kick it as far as you can put it, son.’

“Adrian knew Tohill’s kicking prowess and that it would take Colman’s two kicks to get it back in. Big Anthony thumps this kick-out, the final whistle goes, and I get to experience what it’s like in Maghera to win a MacRory Cup. Incredible times, and Adrian went on to win the school’s first Hogan that year as well.

“There were so many things about Adrian McGuckin. He was so bloody professional, but it was his capacity to connect with boys and bring them along with him. He pushed boys hard, but they loved it.

“He had them in the palm of his hand. Call it sports psychology, Adrian just had a fantastic capacity to connect with people – and he would have helped kids out of school that had long gone because he had a soft spot for them.”

A bit like when Adrian McGuckin retired in 2006 and so new leaders must emerge in St Patrick’s, Maghera to oversee the continued pursuit of sporting excellence.

When the school’s history is written, Paul Hughes will be a man who made a difference to the lives of so many he worked with and the thousands of kids who came through its doors.

He scorched their hearts and minds in the most uplifting way possible.

“It’ll be a difficult phase,” says former teacher Martin McConnell, “because Paul was Maghera sport. He was Director of Sport in the school. And when I say sport, people automatically think Gaelic, but I’m thinking of athletics, Ladies football, camogie, hurling… He’s just a good person. He really cared about people.”

And as Grainne and Paul Hughes grapple with the next chapter, they leave in the knowledge that St Patrick’s, Maghera was as generous a soul as them.

As Paul said himself: “Kids give you life.”

Never a truer word was spoken...

Paul Hughes oversaw over 130 Ulster and All-Ireland titles during his time as Director of Sport of St Pat's Maghera
Paul Hughes oversaw over 130 Ulster and All-Ireland titles during his time as Director of Sport of St Pat's Maghera