Kicking Out: LYIT's Sigerson adventure about more than just football

Maxi Curran is in charge of LYIT's Sigerson team as they face NUIG today for a place in the semi-final.
Maxi Curran is in charge of LYIT's Sigerson team as they face NUIG today for a place in the semi-final.

AS the squeezed calendar has tightened the walls around the Sigerson Cup, lost have become the stories like Letterkenny IT.

Last Wednesday, the Donegal institute cut the legs from under heavyweights UCD.

It was the first Sigerson Cup game ever played in Donegal and their first ever win over a university side (the rest had been against fellow ITs).

Tellingly, for one of the UCD management team, it was the first time he’d ever set foot in Donegal.

In late 2018, Donegal icon Michael Murphy was brought in to coach LYIT’s senior team. In his first year, they beat Oisin McConville’s Dundalk to win the Trench Cup.

In the second year, they stepped up to Sigerson and reached the semi-final.

Today they’ll face NUI Galway for a place in another semi-final.

Whereas the NUIG squad includes players from Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo, Donegal, Wexford, Laois and Kildare, all but two of the Letterkenny panel are from Donegal.

Michael Murphy was last year promoted to Head of Sport and Maxi Curran was brought in to coach the Sigerson team, while county minor manager Luke Barrett was placed in charge of the Freshers.

Donegal star Katie Herron spent a bit of last year playing WAFL for the Western Bulldogs and a bit finishing her Masters in Sports Performance Practice at LYIT. She was instantly acquired to oversee the ladies’ team in the college.

They have Karl Lacey lecturing in the college too, something that attracts the sporting-minded youth even if he’s not directly involved with the Sigerson team.

Throw into the mix the local St Eunan’s College in the town stepping up into the MacRory Cup in recent seasons, you have evidence of a strengthening depth of resource.

The real success would be for both institutions to become as important to the prosperity of Donegal as a county as it is to Donegal as a footballing superpower.

If there’s been suffrage to endure, Ireland’s forgotten county has endured it.

Partition left Donegal out on its own. Too far north for Dublin to care about, too far west for Stormont.

They feel abandoned by the powerbrokers in the Dáil, with good reason.

As they’ve watched Belfast, Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway get their motorways linking them to Dublin, the last piece of the spoke of the wheel tying in Donegal remains unfinished.

Would, for instance, the Mica homeowners have had their proper redress by now if those houses were on the wealthy streets of south Dublin?

The county’s history of emigration is double-edged. While it ravaged Donegal of so many sons and daughters, what it also did was create a diaspora around the world that few places can match.

Look at the fundraisers in Boston which helped contribute $120,000 to victims in Inishowen whose homes were devastated by flooding in August 2017.

Hit hard again during the recession, emigration has slowed up in recent years, aided by the pandemic.

“We’ve dealt with the brunt of emigration, which has been a very difficult thing. But we’ve relied a lot as well on those emigrants that went to Glasgow and London and New York and Boston,” says TD Joe McHugh.

The former Education Minister was born the year Letterkenny IT was built, 1971.

His father, Denis, was a blocklayer and farmer who put his own hands to work that year on the institution that has fought its way front and centre.

That was the same time Donegal footballers were starting their ascent under Brian McEniff.

One of the greatest barriers he’d face over the next 25 years was to instil some self-belief and a sense of self-worth in his fellow countymen.

When they won their first ever Ulster title in ‘72, they played Offaly in the All-Ireland semi-final. One man turned to Pauric McShea as they were ready to exit the changing room and said ‘Pauric, you’ll keep the goals out today’.

“I turned and hit the door a f***ing kick. I said ‘there’ll be no f***ing goals’.

“There were lads on the team that no matter what I did, they just didn’t believe,” McEniff recalled in 2020.

Football has since then helped the psyche of Donegal people. 1992 and 2012 convinced them that they were as good as anyone else on the island.

The visionaries of Letterkenny IT felt they had the same potential when they appointed Michael Murphy.

Maxi Curran’s current squad has half a dozen business students, a couple doing agriculture, a few more at engineering, a handful at construction.

Three of their four inter-county players, Peadar Mogan, Conor O’Donnell and Caolan Ward, are among the 18 on a Sports Studies course.

When the Fruit of the Loom factory collapsed two decades ago, 3,000 people in Derry and Donegal were left out of a job overnight. Many of them had left school at 15, attracted by the big money.

Insurance company Pramerica and health care outfit Optum were among the multinationals to come in and bring fresh prosperity, while there’s Seagate just across the border, and LYIT had been critical in helping rebuild the workforce for a different future.

“A lot of people went back and did computers,” recalls McHugh.

A study on the socioeconomic profile of Ireland’s third level students in 2020 found that people from more affluent parts were twice as likely to go into third-level education.

Yet 25 per cent of Letterkenny IT students came from disadvantaged backgrounds, compared with 10 per cent nationwide. That’s the reality of life in a lot of parts of Donegal, but also an indication of their want to find a way to a better life.

LYIT will join up with Galway MIT and IT Sligo later this year to form a new multi-hub Atlantic Technological University.

Having a university on their doorstep will add to the attractiveness of staying at home. And when it comes to the lure of inter-county football, Donegal’s re-emergence in the last decade leaves them in a strong place.

The onset of hybrid working offers further hope that the need for rural people to migrate towards cities for work could be at an end. That represents an enormous opportunity for the GAA in counties like Donegal.

“From a sporting perspective, people talk about Dublin and the money and population and how that’s their leg-up,” says Maxi Curran.

“But geography is their biggest asset. Nobody leaves Dublin for anything, ever. Everyone can train every day of the week.

“Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Cork, everybody else has kids that travel for work or study.”

Gaoth Dobhair, whom he trained last year, had ten players working in Dublin. One-way, they’re four hours apart at best.

If Dublin is home to natural advantages, then Donegal is the birthplace of the natural disadvantage.

When Declan Bonner was in charge of the county minors, they needed three busses every night. Some of the players had four-hour return journeys just to train.

But in the spirit of the Tattie-Hokers, who for generations left their impoverished native land every summer in their thousands bound for the Scottish lowlands to earn a living from picking potatoes, they find ways to survive.

“There’s no direct translation for ‘resilience’ in the Irish language, the closest is teacht aniar – ‘coming from the west’,” says Joe McHugh.

“If you survive in the west, and particular the north-west, then there’s a resilience in you.”

The more Letterkenny IT improves on the football field, the more attractive it becomes to the next band of young men and women seeking a third-level education.

The more of them that stay home, the stronger the county becomes as a whole.

There have been very few lifeboats sent up to Donegal. If it was up to the governments either side of the border, the north-west corner of Ireland would have been happily sawn off and left in the Atlantic, written off as coastal erosion.

Whatever the people have, they’ve built with the most minimal of help.

Sport is at the very centre of the identity of their people.

It’s what allows them to push their chests out and feel proudest at showcasing the fruits of Donegal’s unique self-help model.