‘Lads going out of their way to pass themselves, that’s enough for me’ - Tyrone U20 boss Paul Devlin on his Derry connections, Heaney, the Dubh Devlins and new realities

Tyrone are not gone away by any means but Derry have sneaked in and sat in their seat

Tyrone U20 boss Paul Devlin was impressed with Down's win over Fermanagh in the Ulster preliminary round clash
Dooking about: Tyrone U20 boss Paul Devlin.
EirGrid Ulster U20 Football Championship Group A: Derry v Tyrone (Wednesday, Celtic Park, 7.30pm)

PAUL Devlin’s people were all eel fishermen on Lough Neagh. His father ended up a processor, buying the fish off the others to sell on.

He is one of the Dubh Devlins, derived from the Irish for ‘black’ but long since Anglicised to the Dooks.

“I’m nearly sure Seamus Heaney’s wife was Devlin of the Old Cross. Her father was Tommy Devlin, they were the Dook Devlins too. That’s the same connection.”

Heaney immortalised these people in his seven-poem collection entitled A Lough Neagh Sequence that he penned in the mid-1960s while he was courting Marie.

He became fascinated with the work and could often be found in Tommy Devlin’s pub in Ardboe, serving at the bar with an open ear for the fishermen’s ways.

Paul Devlin’s own paternal connection was very much of Kinturk, just the Tyrone side of the Ballinderry crossing.

“There just was that many Devlins, they had to identify them.

“Fay Devlin and them from Ardboe would by the Og [Ogg] Devlins. Then you’d the Mór Devlins and the Robin’s Devlins. “I think the Robin’s Devlins would be a connection of the Dooks Devlins. One of them was born with red hair and that’s how it finished up being the Dooks.”

When his father’s parents bought a small farm on the Mullan Road, their allegiances became muddied. The boys ended up playing underage for Ballinderry before migrating back towards Moortown, with whom they’d have been more commonly associated.

“An odd time growing up as a cub, you’d have been down the home house and they’d be arguing about football or politics or fishing, the row would have went out among them. Awh! And Granny in the middle, trying to settle the whole thing down.

“And then they went out the door and if anybody had said boo against them, it would have been hell for leather.”

It might be his own memory or it might be from the often he heard the stories but Tyrone’s long-serving U20 manager harks back to when his uncles were playing for Moortown against Clonoe in a carnival cup semi-final, knowing they’d be facing the infamous Windmill if they qualified.

The prospect of murderous violence with those two paired in a final would draw a crowd of thousands.

“I remember Henry [his uncle] coming out with the ball at full-back and hit like a drop-kick. Mickey McClure was playing for Clonoe at that time, whatever happened, he ended up with a broken jaw.

“Then Harry came in ‘til do a bit of boxing. Another uncle of mine, Eamon, he lives in New York now, he’d be the youngest of them.

“I’d say about eight Clonoe men come steady at him, he stood up.

“You hear the story, they come one at the time and he couped them all. Eamon was a tight boy.

“They got the Windmill in the final, you can guess what that turned out.

“Them days is gone. Maybe for the better.”

And then back to the connections. His mother was McMurray from Castledawson, reared in Girvan’s old house in the Broagh.

His grandmother was Ferris from Ballymaguigan, a neighbour of Eamonn Coleman whom he got to know well.

Paul is a first cousin of former Derry players Coilin and the late Aaron, and their eldest brother Ronan, currently in charge of Antrim champions Cargin.

“There’s plenty of Derry blood in us as they’d say.

“My Da would have been a big follower of Derry if Tyrone weren’t playing. Even myself, when Derry won the All-Ireland, boys landing and you’re seeing them coming home with the cup and all.

“Don’t get me wrong, you wanted to beat them when you’re playing them ourselves. But lads beside you, you want to see them doing well. Tomorrow night will be a different story, I don’t want them doing well.”

His wife Fiona teaches in St Colm’s Draperstown, where she has coached camogie teams to All-Ireland glories herself. “They treat her like a lord up there. Great people.”

The team he inherits for year seven in the Tyrone U20 hotseat lost an All-Ireland minor final by a point three years ago.

Whatever pressure comes attached with that, he doesn’t feel.

But he’ll know better where they’re at after Wednesday night in Celtic Park.

Derry have sped the conveyor belt up. Half-a-dozen of last year’s All-Ireland minor winning team have already graduated straight into the U20 line-up.

“We had the same thing two years ago when we won the All-Ireland [at U20].

“We had six or seven lads came through the from the 2021 minors, Michael Rafferty, Ruairi McHugh, Gavin Potter, Odhran Donnelly, them lads all came in really quick and adapted.”

For the first quarter of this century, Tyrone have been regarded as the benchmark. Everyone else was desperate to know their secrets, to follow their trends, to catch up.

They’re not gone away by any means but Derry have sneaked in and sat in their seat. Two All-Ireland minor titles, a run of seven Ulster finals in nine years at the grade. Those intent on copying don’t know whether to look right or left from the lough.

“Derry got their house in order in a lot of places, not just on the football field. No point me saying anything different. They seem to have a lot of stuff in place, regarding facilities and different things.

“Now Derry, whether people like it in Tyrone here or not, they’re the top team in Ulster. We just have to keep working at what we’re at and producing lads for that next level at senior, and get back on track with things again.”

You dial Paul Devlin’s number for the bog-standard quotes piece on an U20 game against Tyrone tonight and that’s the conversation that transpires.

He’s never tried to be anything other than what he is.

It is by that authenticity of the lilty loughshore personality that he is guided.

This is year seven in charge of Tyrone’s U20 side.

When Dermot Carlin and Owen Mulligan couldn’t commit he considered stepping down himself, but the last conversation he had with Art McRory two weeks before he died turned his mind.

“When Art says something, you have to go by it,” he says, his use of the present tense a sign that McRory’s presence will continue to linger for a long time yet.

“I took my time and thought about it. Do you stay and give a hand? It’s easy jumping and saying that’s me done, but you’re thinking of the bigger picture and lads involved with ye that’s there and going through in the system.

“When I go up to Garvaghey any night, the boys I’ve had there the last seven or eight years, they wouldn’t pass ye. They’re always shouting. I get Dook from them, that’s all I get.

“This year I’ve Cathal McCarron from Omagh, Conor O’Donnell from Omagh, Diarmaid McNulty from the CBS, and it’s nice to see the lads going out of their way to pass themselves. It’s nice to see that.

“I’m one of these coaches that doesn’t take nothing for it, it’s all voluntary to Tyrone, everything I do.

“Lads going out of their way to pass themselves, that’s enough for me.”