We want St Mary’s CBGS, Belfast to be a GAA centre of excellence: Principal in waiting Brendan McComb

‘The pursuit of excellence through Gaelic Games is really empowering and inspirational for other pupils’

St Mary's Glen Road, Belfast
St Mary's CBGS, Glen Road captains Padraig Kelly, Jack Ward and Conal Dempsey Picture: Kevin Herron

THE pursuit of sporting excellence at St Mary CBGS, Belfast continues at a pace after the west Belfast students claimed an incredible three college ‘A’ hurling titles out of a possible six this year.

Under the tutelage of ex-Antrim ace Paddy Cunningham, the Year 9s scooped the McNamee Cup back in November, which came hot on the heels of the Year 11s claiming the Leonard Cup under the watchful eyes of Tony Austin and Dermot McVeigh, and earlier this month Conor Hynds guided the Year 10s to Gallagher Cup glory to make it a brilliant hat-trick of ‘A’ titles in the small-ball code.

The school’s athletic development model appears to be bearing fruit and Brendan McComb’s hopes are that he can continue to build on the solid foundations left by principal Siobhan Kelly and vice-principal Fiona Crookes who both will be retiring at the end of this academic year.

As 41-year-old Mr McComb is looking forward to the “privilege” of leading the Glen Road school come September, he paid a warm tribute to the work and legacy of Ms Kelly and Ms Crookes during their time at the helm which included navigating a way through the COVID pandemic years.

“All we’re doing is building on what they have left,” he said.

The principal in waiting also heaped praise on the commitment of all the staff at the school in their collective bid to make St Mary’s a GAA centre of excellence in the coming years.

The capture of the McNamee, Gallagher and Leonard Cups provides further fuel to the fire among the teachers there.

St Mary's Glen Road, Belfast
The St Mary's CBGS students celebrating their 'A' colleges silverware this year Picture: Kevin Herron

“What we want to do is make St Mary’s a GAA centre of excellence in west Belfast,” said Mr McComb, who is a member of Lamh Dhearg GAC.

“This is the first time we’ve picked up ‘A’ colleges silverware in a number of years and we want to be winning them on a regular basis.

“We’re not where we want to be in terms of football but we want to put huge emphasis on our football programmes, we want to invest in strength and conditioning infrastructure in the new sports hall that we hope will come to fruition during my time too.”

A key element of the school’s success both in the classroom and on the sports field has been the creation of an athletic development programme where the pupils arrive in school early for coaching sessions before their studies.

“What we’ve started to do increasingly is run sessions at 7.45am,” Mr McComb explained.

“Coaches getting in at half-seven before school and making parents and pupils realise the value of being truly committed and dedicated to their craft.

“After their training, our canteen provides them with a nutritious breakfast to set the pupils up for the day and they’ve got their training done.

“We’re finding that we’re getting better numbers in the morning than we are after school and we’re obviously benefiting from our new ball-wall facility.”

The great and the good of the local sporting world, including former pupils of the school and GAA President Jarlath Burns, were invited to celebrate the opening of the new ball wall last October – another signpost of where St Mary’s wants to go.

“We view our pupils very much as student athletes. The student comes first as they need to be committed to their studies and they also get the opportunity to represent the school on the sports field as well because we regard them all as role models.

“One of the initiatives we introduced in order to celebrate the success of our pupils was a St Mary’s Ambassador Award - former pupils that represented the county or country with distinction whether it was golf, basketball or soccer as well as our traditional games.”

The current senior football and hurling panels are littered with former alumni: Declan Lynch, Patrick McBride, Marc Jordan, Dominic McEnhill, Cormac McGettigan, Conor Hand, Gerard Walsh, Caolan and Daniel McKernan, Michael and Aaron Bradley and Stephen Rooney among them.

All this allows the St Mary’s pupils to see the pathway in front of them towards reaching their sporting goals.

“From my own experiences and immersing myself in the GAA from a young age, I look at our pupils and specifically those pupils who have won the various competitions this season and it resonates deeply with me because I know what I got out of the GAA; the life lessons, to be part of a team, to build resilience, to overcome adversity, to deal with knock-backs and disappoints – and you have far more disappointments than you have successes in team sport.

“I see the level of commitment that our pupils are making on a daily basis and their pursuit of excellence through Gaelic Games is really empowering and inspirational for other pupils in the school as well.

“But this comes from the dedication of our staff. In post-COVID, our school hit the reset button – people like Tony Austin, Dermot McVeigh, Paddy Cunningham and Conor Hynds and other dedicated coaches – they’ve taken their dedication to a totally different level over the last couple of years and it’s reaping results.”

St Mary’s are a glowing example of how a successful clubs-school link can reap dividends, and how ‘Gaelfast’ – a GAA-funded coaching initiative designed to increase participation in the city – can enhance those links.

“We want to compete not only at Mageean but McLarnon level and invest further and work closer with Antrim GAA in terms of supporting us in any way they possibly can,” Mr McComb added.

“Only through clubs, schools and the county working in unison can we really drive our county on to the levels where we think we should be.”

St Mary's Glen Road, Belfast
The pursuit of sporting excellence at St Mary's CBGS, Glen Road Picture: Kevin Herron