GAA Football

How St Columb's Derry became surprise Hogan heroes in 1965

The St Columb's, Derry squad which won the MacRory and Hogan Cups in 1965.
Séamas McAleenan

“IF there were any Oscars, All Star awards or other special trophies at my disposal this week, I would award the lot, without the slightest hesitation, to one team and one team only, the boys from St Columb’s College, for their unprecedented achievement in winning the All-Ireland Colleges’ football championship. By winning last Sunday, this St Columb’s side proved that a good team makes its own traditions.”

So wrote Pádraig Puirséal in his weekly column 55 years ago after watching St Columb’s Derry come from “nowhere” to collect the Hogan Cup – then only the second Ulster school to achieve that feat.

One of those Hogan heroes, Bellaghy’s Chris Brown, recalled that campaign this week in a conversation with Séamas McAleenan.

“WE were certainly a good team alright, but Fr Iggy McQuillan played it down to the outside world. Pádraig Puirséal, and most other people, didn’t know how good we were until we had won the Hogan.

“Fr Iggy was a football genius, but he was also a brilliant psychologist as well. He was ahead of his time in a lot of what he did with us. He was able to get inside your head and make you believe in yourself away before that was heard of in Gaelic Games.

“He had plenty of good men around him as well.

“Sean Moynihan was a Kerry native. He had spent some time in South Africa before coming to teach in St Columb’s. Sean played a lot of rugby, in Ireland and in South Africa, and he gave us a toughness and a bit of an edge.

“Then you had Charlie Gallagher, who was a brilliant footballer from Cavan. He was a dentist in Derry and he took Wednesday afternoons off to come to our trainings. Our captain Paddy McCotter has acknowledged elsewhere that Charlie really helped him with his free-taking technique.

“Raymond Gallagher was a music teacher and he was a great motivator and then after the MacRory Fr Iggy brought in Paddy O’Hara who had worked with Antrim and Queen’s and Paddy made a big contribution at half-time in the replayed Hogan final.

“Fr Iggy had played full-back for Fermanagh, under an assumed name of course (Sean Maguire) since priests wouldn’t have been allowed to play in those days. From all accounts he was a tough customer. I remember him playing in carnival matches in Bellaghy and he had to be in his 40s at the time and you got nothing handy off him.

“After we won the MacRory, he wrote to Croke Park requesting the Hogan semi-final to be played at an Ulster venue on the basis that we were a new team with no hope of winning, up against St Jarlath’s Tuam who had won three of the last four Hogans. The game was fixed for Ballybay.

“He had also watched St Jarlath’s in Connacht and reported back to us that “none of them are dirty”. We were probably a physically tough team to play against, because we had adopted a “no quarter asked or given” approach and a team like St Jarlath’s suited us.

“He trained us in the Bishop’s field between the Brandywell and Celtic Park and sometimes up in Termonbacca, which is maybe a half-hour walk from the school, and he had us running backwards up ploughed fields.”

ST COLUMB’S Derry wasn’t exactly a GAA nursery. The school that produced Nobel Prize winners John Hume and Seamus Heaney as well as other greats of the arts including Seamus Deane, Brian Friel and Phil Coulter was more associated with soccer as indeed was the city itself.

But the country boys, the boarders, favoured gaelic football and Chris Brown feels that the school authorities changed their attitude towards gaelic during the 1960s.

“Bishop Farren was a big soccer man and his nephew was the Principal in St Columb’s.

“During that time south Derry clubs like Ballinascreen, Bellaghy, Kilrea would have been well organised at underagelevel. At school, we would have played both games, but there was a Saturday morning nine-a-side gaelic league. I remember well those games. Sean Bradley, a former Derry chairman, starred in it, so too Paul Brady, the singer from Strabane, who had a sweet left foot.

“I would say that Fr Iggy, a GAA man, had picked up on the potential and helped push gaelic more into the consciousness of the college.

“There were successes as well. St Columb’s won the MacLarnon Cup in 1963 and then later that year the Rannafast Cup. We played in the MacRory Cup in 1964 and reached the semi-finals where we were beaten by Abbey CBS Newry.

“We didn’t score at all in the first half and only four points in the second. We just couldn’t work with Val Kane that day. Abbey went on and won the title.”

THE two Newry schools (St Colman’s in 1949 and Abbey CBS four years later) had broken through to win maiden MacRory titles and they dominated from 1957-1969 winning nine titles between them.

St Patrick’s Cavan were still a force and collected back to back titles in 1961-62.

None of these schools in fact reached the semi-finals of the MacRory Cup in either 1965 or 1966, when St Columb’s retained the title.

Indeed there was going to be a new name on the MacRory Cup after the 1965 final on Sunday March 14th when St Columb’s faced up to St Michael’s Enniskillen in O’Neill Park Dungannon.

“At the time, we would have had two “big” games to play,” says Chris who would later go on to win titles with Derry and later return as a coach to take the Oak Leaf to two more minor finals.

“Playing the CBS was a derby game. Now we generally won that game, but they would have tested you.

“Then there was St Eunan’s Letterkenny whom we would have played in challenge games at the start of the year, one in Derry and then a return game in Letterkenny. St Eunan’s had lost three MacRory finals in four years some time earlier and they were regarded as strong competitors.

“I think that we met CBS and St Eunan’s in the actual MacRory itself and then we also beat Omagh CBS and St Colman’s Newry to reach the semi-finals.

“Then we beat St Macartan’s Monaghan easily in the semi-final although Fr Iggy would have warned us about them. Macartan’s had won titles in the past. In the other semi-final St Michael’s beat St Patrick’s Downpatrick who had boys like Colm McAlarney, Ray McConville and Mickey Breen.

“We were in control of the final from the start and Eamon Small scored a goal in the second half to put us 1-7 to 0-4 up. We went on to win 1-13 to 0-4. So it was handy enough in the semi-final and final.”

Now they were through to the Hogan Cup semi-final to play St Jarlath’s Tuam, “the Man United of schools’ football” as Chris called them. The comparison is appropriate given that soccer would pose a serious obstacle to the team’s preparations.

The following is an extract from a letter written by Fr McQuillan in 2013.

“We had first to overcome a threat from a leading GAA official that we would lose an objection if we did not exclude two of our team who had been playing soccer, Tony O’Doherty with Coleraine FC (and subsequently as a Northern Ireland international) and Joe Cassidy, a Youth International.”

McQuillan was not going to be easily deflected.

“I took the stance that any official game must be open to all pupils in the school. Besides, I judged that St Jarlath’s, then the leading team in the country, would not, in the unlikely posibility of being beaten, even consider objecting.”

Chris Brown remembers the situation well.

“You wouldn’t have contemplated playing without Joe and Tony. There certainly was a bit of panic among us players. But Fr Iggy played his cards well.

“He played the equality card first and then he called their bluff. St Jarlath’s with three out of the last four titles would not have objected. It would not have gone down well.

“Meanwhile he wrote to Croke Park to get the game against us “minnows” played in Ulster. I told you the man was cute.”

The game was played in Ballybay and St Columb’s won by 3-9 to 1-11 with O’Doherty hitting 2-3, Brown grabbing the third goal and points from Paddy McCotter, Brendan Mullan, Peter Stevenson and Seamus Lagan.

“No, I cannot remember the goal. But I remember the performance. We knew about this wonder-kid they had Jimmy Duggan, who had scored six points in the final the year before and who would win an All-Ireland senior with Galway later on that year and again in 1966.

“He scored eight points against us that day. Malachy McAfee was marking him and Malachy also had a brilliant game. So too Brendan Dolan and Tony O’Doherty would have been Man of the Match.”

The “minnows” had beaten the “masters” claimed the Irish Press the following day!

Many of the names in the St Columb’s line-out would become familiar enough in the Oak Leaf teams over the next decade and a half.

Six of them started in the All-Ireland minor winning team later that summer – Malachy McAfee, Tom Quinn, Michael P Kelly, Colum Mullan, Seamus Lagan and Brendan Mullan – while Chris Brown played until injured in the Ulster campaign. Four of those would add under 21 All-Irelands three years later.

“Malachy was a fine footballer, he used to drink a pint of milk before every game “to settle my bad stomach”. Tom Quinn who captained the college to a second MacRory title in 1966 was another great.

“Seamus Lagan was super, a tall player who was effective at both centre and full-forward. And Brendan Mullan was only 15 years of age on our team, but he never played like a 15-year-old.

“Then you had Peter Stevenson, as hard as nails. And the ‘Screen boys, Mickey Troland and Michael P Kelly. They epitomised the phrase “no quarter asked or given”.

“There were two Tyrone lads on the team and they were great players, Harry McGill from Donemana at midfield and Brendan Dolan from Aghyaran at full-back.”

“Poor Brendan died far too young. He became a teacher and was on his way to school one morning when his car crashed and he was killed.

“To compound the tragedy, we were all up at his wake when news filtered through that Colum Mullan was also involved in a bad car accident on his way to the wake. Colum ended up in a wheel-chair for the rest of his life.

“There had been fantastic players there before us like Phil McCotter (Paddy’s brother), Felix Quigley from Fermanagh and Jim O’Kane from Swatragh, but we had so many who just came together at the right time.

“Paddy McCotter, the captain, was also a fine leader and that certainly came through in the Hogan final. It is a pity he left the country as he would have been an asset to later Derry teams as well.”

The Hogan final was against Dublin school Belcamp OMI and played on May 11th in Breffni Park with Derry playing Cavan in the Dr McKenna Cup in the opening game. The Hogan final ended in a draw.

“I remember that Paddy McCotter and I were interviewed by RTÉ’s Mick Dunne before it. We hadn’t a clue really, Paddy spoke in an Elvis accent and mine was something like one of the Beatles.

“The training session they filmed was also rubbish, but Fr Iggy was happy because it played into this myth that he had created that we were real outsiders, minnows.

“Paddy took a massive blindside hit in the first half of that game and it should have put him off the field. But he stayed on and scored six of our nine points. Frank Cummins the future Kilkenny hurling midfielder fisted the equaliser for Belcamp.

“They weren’t really a Dublin team. They were a boarding school and I found out later that they had players from 11 different counties on the starting team.

“The replay wasn’t for another four weeks, May 9th. I don’t know why. But Cummins was injured and couldn’t play. That game was back in Ballybay on a very hot day.

“By this time, not only had we caught the imagination of everyone in the school and many in the city, but a lot of south Derry clubs ran buses to it and there was a huge crowd in Ballybay.

“We played poorly in the first half and were three points down at half time. That’s when Paddy O’Hara made an impact. I remember clearly what he told us sitting on the grass outside the changing rooms in Ballybay that afternoon.

“You guys have made this game extremely difficult for yourselves .... you fellows are in a hole .... you dug that hole yourselves and fell into it. Now you have to get yourselves out of it.”

“And we. We won 0-11 to 1-7. Our defence was superb, held Belcamp to three points in the second half.”

St Columb’s won a second MacRory the following year with five or six survivors from ’65 augmented by younger stars like Anthony McGurk, but the school quickly disappeared from the MacRory scene afterwards, occasionally re-emerging to win a few MacLarnon titles.

Chris Brown reads their decline in direct proportion to the rise of St Patrick’s Maghera.

“Boarding was soon phased out in St Columb’s and that meant that there were no players from south Derry or up in Tyrone there, who were being well-coached in the skills before they went into St Columb’s.

“St Patrick’s Maghera was only newly opened (1963) and they catered for all that football interest in south and mid-Derry, even part of west Antrim and their star rose significantly over the next decade. Their record since stands scrutiny against any college in Ireland.

“Nevertheless I am glad for Fr Iggy McQuillan’s sake that he won a second MacRory in 1966. That cemented his reputation. He deserves to be known as one of the great GAA coaches.”

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