Hurling & Camogie

Red High's date with destiny has been decades in the making

St Patrick's, Downpatrick has had a rich hurling tradition for decades, but remarkably will only compete in the Mageean Cup final for this first time on Friday night. Seamas McAleenan, a past pupil of the Red High, looks back at the hurlers who have gone before the current crop as the school prepares for their big night...

Front, from left, Terence O'Toole, Sean McFall, Timothy Horgan, Rodney Coffey (captain), Barry Breen, Paul McGrath, Lawrence O'Hare Middle, from left, Paul Coulter, Martin Kelly, Brian McCreanor, Sean Coulter, Noel Sands, E Keaveney Back, from left, Finbar Keaveney, John Kelly, Ciaran O'Conboirne, Paul Evans, Seamus Dorrian, Con McMenamy, Colum Smyth
Front, from left, Terence O'Toole, Sean McFall, Timothy Horgan, Rodney Coffey (captain), Barry Breen, Paul McGrath, Lawrence O'Hare Middle, from left, Paul Coulter, Martin Kelly, Brian McCreanor, Sean Coulter, Noel Sands, E Keaveney Back, from left, Finbar Keaveney, John Kelly, Ciaran O'Conboirne, Paul Evans, Seamus Dorrian, Con McMenamy, Colum Smyth

IN THE summer term of 1982 the two schools that will meet in an historic Danske Bank Mageean Cup final on Friday evening at the Dub Arena met in another equally historic final.

Almost 40 years ago, they were both known as St Patrick’s High School, one in Downpatrick and the other in Maghera, and there were two governing bodies for post primary schools’ hurling in the province, the Ulster Vocational Schools and Ulster Colleges. Maghera and Downpatrick played under Ulster Colleges.

As a consequence of the low number of schools playing hurling, there was just the one grade at each age level, invariably dominated by the Antrim colleges of Cross and Passion, Ballycastle, St MacNissi’s, Garron Tower and especially St Mary’s CBGS in west Belfast.

The 1982 Gallagher Cup threw up a novel pairing for the final - Maghera v the Red High. Neither had been in a colleges’ final prior to this and one of them would therefore become a first-time winner.

That honour fell to St Patrick’s, Downpatrick, a team that featured in their ranks future Down hurlers Rodney Coffey (captain), Noel Sands and Paul Coulter as well as John Kelly and Barry Breen who would each go on to collect two All-Ireland senior football medals. Maghera also featured a future All-Ireland winner in Seamus Downey.

While the Red High successfully defended their title the following summer (with my brother Brian included and Coffey once again captain), it was to be the school’s last top flight hurling title while Maghera went from strength to strength.

Downey was to complete his education on the Coleraine Road with two Foresters’ Cup and three Mageean Cup titles, the third as captain, and the usual array of football memorabilia. I joined the staff in 1983 and would enjoy many successful days over the next 14 years at the side of pitches all over Ulster and even in Croke Park.

St Patrick’s, Maghera became one of the power bases in Ulster schools’ hurling and now hold 13 Mageean Cup titles and two All-Ireland crowns.

St Patrick’s High School was established by the De La Salle Brothers in Downpatrick and opened its doors for day pupils from the east Down area in 1934.

While there was always an interest in hurling among students, there were seldom the numbers to field at inter-schools’ level. Indeed it was not until its expansion to an 11-18 years school in the early 1950s that enough players were available.

Former Down GAA secretary and Ombudsman Maurice Hayes was a past pupil and when he returned to teach in his alma mater in the early 1950s, Gaelic games in general and hurling in particular were very prominent on the curriculum.

Monsignor Sean Rogan was a student in the Red High during the 1950s: “Maurice Hayes took us for hurling for three years, 1951-54, before he moved on to another job. He was very enthusiastic and organised. I can still recall him shouting “ground hurling, lads” at the training sessions.

“We played some games against other schools. I wouldn’t be sure in what age groups. The hurling was hard and tough. But we were not really very competitive. Some of the more experienced of our hurlers couldn’t stay after 3.30pm as they travelled by bus and/or the ferry.

“I remember players such as Tommy Connor, Pat Higgins, Owen O’Connor, Seamus Dorrian, Pat Watterson, Willie Savage, Sean Keating, Joe Martin from Newcastle, Denis Kearney from Castlewellan and Charlie Keown from Liatroim.

“On my last day in school before I left for St Peter’s in Wexford to study for the priesthood, Charlie handed me his hurl saying 'you’ll find good use for this where you are going'."

St Patrick’s continued to participate under Brother Catagon who took over from Maurice Hayes as the main promoter of hurling before the arrival of the much-loved Brother Charles Purcell, a quietly-spoken Limerick native who died in April 2020 in his 90s.

There were always enough to field in football at all levels and the school reached the 1966 MacRory Cup final with players such as Colm McAlarney and Ray McConville (incidentally a future principal of the school) who would become All-Ireland medallists just two years later with Down.

Hurling was much more dependent on the ferry bringing enough players across from the lower end of the Ards’ peninsula. Yet Brother Charles enthusiastically ran his lunch time puck abouts regardless of how many were interested.

I was a student there from 1970-77 and in that time I only represented the Red High once in an inter-schools match, probably a Mageean Cup game around 1974 or 1975. Yet I remember 40 or 50 students every lunch time lifting a many-times-repaired hurl out of the tea-chest kept in caretaker Seamus Cope’s work shed and heading up to join Brother Charles on the top pitch.

The 1969-1970 year group achieved the most at Mageean Cup level for Brother Charles, defeating St MacNissi’s, Garron Tower who only needed to avoid defeat to win the title. Sadly, St Patrick’s lost their final league game against St Mary’s CBS and a three-way play-off resulted with St Mary’s again emerging champions.

Those back-to-back Gallagher Cup titles of the early 1980s should have led to a breakthrough at an older age group. They didn’t because a number of the 'pure hurlers' left the school early while Pat O’Hare harnessed the athletic talent of the group to collect three Rannafast Cup titles in four years.

With the introduction of graded competitions a couple of decades ago, the school on Saul Street found its level in B championships and they have won titles at all age groups including the Casement Cup on two occasions in the past decade.

There was another appearance in a Gallagher Cup final in 2010. That team featured current Down players Conor O’Neill and Eoghan Sands and was captained by Gareth O’Neill whose brother Ryan will play at full-back against Maghera on Friday

The Red High contributed significantly to An Dún teams that competed in the Mageean Cup for several years until they won it in 2018.

Amalgamations are no longer permitted. If they were allowed, would the Red High have gone alone this year in the Mageean or thrown their lot in with the county group? An interesting point to discuss with the current management team of past pupils Darren Swail and Danny Toner and former La Salle player Sean Paul Gibson.

An rud is annamh is iontach. What has unfolded since Halloween has warmed the hearts of all of us past pupils of the Red High who carried hurls up the path to the pitches with Bro. Charles, his predecessors and his successors.

We dreamed of having enough hurlers to get our chance to wear the maroon and gold at senior level for the school. We wouldn’t dare dream of actually winning a Mageean Cup title.