The birth of the MacRory Cup: How Ulster schools' top prize was shaped by revolution

It will soon be 100 years since the first match in the MacRory Cup was played. Author and historian, JA Walshe traces the origins of the competition from an annual soccer match between two schools, to the most coveted trophy in Ulster schools’ Gaelic football

The St Patrick's, Armagh team which were the winners of the first MacRory Cup played under Gaelic football rules in 1923-24
The St Patrick's, Armagh team which were the winners of the first MacRory Cup played under Gaelic football rules in 1923-24 The St Patrick's, Armagh team which were the winners of the first MacRory Cup played under Gaelic football rules in 1923-24

The year 2023 marks the centenerary of The MacRory Cup. From its beginning, comprising of friendly matches  between two colleges, it is now a competition which involves a playing cohort of 16 different second level schools encompassing all of the nine Ulster counties.

The draw for the 2023-’24 competitions will take place on Wednesday. Schools will be divided into four groups of four leading to three league games in term one. Twelve teams progress to the knockout phase in term two.  The remaining eight teams contest the semi-finals with the final scheduled for February.

Its status is such that over 20,000 spectators attend MacRory Cup games with as many as 7,000 regularly attending the final. It remains alongside the Ulster Senior Championship and Dr McKenna Cup as one of the foremost football competitions in Ulster.

In its 100-year existence, 14 different schools have held the cup while another seven have been losing finalists. It has a reputation for fast, open and free-flowing football and this has largely been preserved in this era of negativity.

Its origin can be traced back to the early years of the 20th century when the playing of association football (soccer) was the favoured sport in the leading Catholic seminaries, most especially in Ulster.

Within some elements of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and among priests trained in Maynooth College, there was a reluctance to countenance support for the recently founded Gaelic Athletic Association with its perceived links with republicanism.

Within the two largest seminaries in the northern part of Ireland - St Patrick’s, Armagh and St. Macartan’s, Monaghan - association football was particularly popular among  the students..

Beginning in 1903, a series of friendly matches between these two rival educational institutions would eventually evolve into what we now know as The MacRory Cup competition

The catalyst for this was a visit by Canon Mulhern, the President of St Macartan’s with a group of his students to St Patrick’s College in 1902. Impressed by what he saw and with the blessing of the College President Fr Carrighy, it was agreed that the boys of the two colleges should meet each year ‘in a friendly football contest.’  It became an annual event played on a home and away basis.

Detailed accounts of each match can be found in the St Patrick’s College, Armagh archive. The Armagh side lined out in black and white striped jerseys while the Monaghan boys wore red and black.

An interesting aside was the presentation of caps to those players chosen to represent their college as evidence in this photograph of the Armagh college XI.

By the year 1916, 12 matches had been played under association football rules, the last of which took place at St Macartan’s grounds on Tuesday April, 11 1916 (14 days prior to the Easter Rising) in conditions which were not conducive to good football

‘The state of the field was such that for an entire hour both teams were like pigs wallowing in the mire.’

Each college had its own ‘reporter’ covering the games and the Monaghan scribe on this occasion expressed delight at his side’s performance:

‘From the first moment we could hardly breathe with excitement. Time after time, our men raced up the field, pierced the Armagh defence and bombarded the goal. A blinding sun and a strong gale made accurate shooting almost impossible.

'However, at the half-time the score was 2-1, Joe O’Halloran and Jack O’Neill each scoring a goal. Five minutes after the resumption, Phil Marron increased our lead with a beautiful centre. George Dunne banged home another goal. Later P Daly sent a long pass to Deery who feigned a pass to his wing, side-stepped and banged the ball past the goalie!’

The final score of 6-1 in favour of the Monaghan College was the highest recorded in the series. The teams lined out as follows:

St.Macartan’s – Nick Hardy; Tom Maguire, Jimmy Keenan, Peter Daly capt., Patrick Daly, Peter Conlon, Joe O’Halloran, Jack O’Neill, George Dunne, Peter Deery, Phil Marron.

St. Patrick’s –Oliver Maguire;  E.McEntaggart, P Crawley, J.McConville, J.Devlin, J.McNamee, H.Laverty capt., J.Heron, P.McGillion.

Two names  are missing from the Armagh side.

The 1908 St Patrick's, Armagh team with their 'caps', awarded for playing in the annual soccer match against St Macartan's, Monaghan
The 1908 St Patrick's, Armagh team with their 'caps', awarded for playing in the annual soccer match against St Macartan's, Monaghan The 1908 St Patrick's, Armagh team with their 'caps', awarded for playing in the annual soccer match against St Macartan's, Monaghan

‘Everything is changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born.’

These words of WB Yeats in his poem Easter 1916 impacted on this annual Armagh-Monaghan fixture. News of the events in Dublin helped create a realisation that it was time to change and introduce the Gaelic football code.

WJ O’Riordan, a professor in St. Patrick’s College at this time, in an article The Birth of the MacRory Cup puts the introduction of Gaelic football down to the fact that ‘a vote was taken in the College by boys, in number between 50 and 60, on the question of changing over from Soccer to Gaelic football in 1917 and the result was overwhelmingly in favour of change.’

Commenting further,  he notes that ‘towards the end of the college year we abandoned “soccer,” which seemed to savour of Anglicisation and we started to play Gaelic. As it was from a national point of view we began it, we played “with heart, and hand.” Monaghan and all the other Irish Seminaries began it at the same time.’

The ‘13th Match’ 1918

The ‘13th Match’ as it came to be known, was indeed significant. It was the very first in the series to be played under the rules of Gaelic football between the two colleges. Armagh exacted revenge for the 1916 thrashing with a 4-4 to 0-1 victory. T

he goals came courtesy of Hughes, Conlon and Jack McKeever. Ardee-native McKeever had the honour of scoring the very first point of the new series. Additional significance was also attached to the occasion as, shortly afterwards, the news broke that Bishop Joseph MacRory, Bishop of Down and Connor offered to donate a cup to be played for in a competition ‘among Secondary Schools in Ulster playing Gaelic.’

This cup, soon to be named ‘The MacRory Cup,’ did not see the light of day for another five years. Only in May 1923 does it arrive in Armagh, evoking much pride in the fact that St Patrick’s College is chosen as its base.

With the Cup on the ‘premises,’ St. Patrick’s argued that it belonged to them, not on the basis of matches played in the 1922-’23 season but rather on the fact that ‘it is the proud privilege of the Alma Mater of the distinguished donor [Dr.MacRory] to be the first to attach the shield of the winner to the plinth.’

It was further stressed that Armagh’s right to be the first name on the trophy is in acknowledgement of ‘those whose efforts brought us honour [and] no longer here and the Cup must not leave the shadow of this old hill without the sturdy and determined resistance of our best.’

But challengers to this claim had already begun to emerge. St Malachy’s College, Belfast were the first to enter the fray on November 15, 1922.

A well-experienced side in Gaelic football, for over a decade, they had played in the South Antrim minor football league. The minor football final in 1914, in which they lost to St Gall’s, was a match ‘of fine football science, and clear, clean kicking…the best we have seen this season.’

A report of the S Malachy’s v St Patrick’s game by the Armagh analyst noted how ‘for the first time in history St Malachy’s  Belfast is invading Sandy Hill (St Patrick’s playing pitch) and our warriors are girding themselves for the fray...but we succumbed to a side who appeared to have a decided advantage in height and build.’

St Colman’s College, Newry were next to come on board in April 1923. It was a less than auspicious beginning with the match report describing the result as ‘a howling success for Sandy Hill, the score surpassed all records.’ It would be another three years before the Newry side would return.

Three teams - St Partrick's, Armagh, St.Macartan’s and St Malachy’s - now participated in what became known as the Ulster Colleges Gaelic League  and the trophy at stake was the recently-donated Archbishop MacRory Cup.

The original MacRory Cup trophy, which was presented to the winners of the competition between 1923 and 1961
The original MacRory Cup trophy, which was presented to the winners of the competition between 1923 and 1961 The original MacRory Cup trophy, which was presented to the winners of the competition between 1923 and 1961

A particularly significant meeting took place in St Patrick’s College, Armagh on Saturday, November 10, 1923 to make rules and fixtures for the upcoming competition.

Representing St. Malachy’s was Fr P McGouran and the St Macartan’s delegate was Fr H Finnegan. Fr Tom Rafferty (St Patrick’s)  took the chair and, with the support of his colleague  Fr H Murray it -  was agreed to run the competition on a league format – home and away matches between each of the participating colleges.

The students competing should be of Intermediate standard. Matriculated students were to be excluded. No smoking was allowed on the premises of the college to be visited. Students were not allowed to meet the visiting team on its arrival or accompany it to the station on its departure.

Finally it was the duty of the home team to procure a neutral referee.

With everything in place, the very first match in this new competition for the MacRory Cup began on November 21, 1923 when old foes St Macartan’s and St Patrick’s went head-to-head on the slopes of Sandy Hill.

The home side emerged victorious on a score of 3-3 to 2-2 and immediately topped the league table with two points. One other fixture in 1923 saw Macartan’s have their only success in the league with a 1-2 to 1-1 victory over St Malachy’s.

When the competition  concluded on  April 5, 1924, St Patrick’s emerged as champions and the first holders of the MacRory Cup.

They had played four games, won all four and topped the league table with eight points. Macartan’s and Malachy’s tied with two points each, with the Monaghan side’s better scoring average making them runners-up.

The founding of the Ulster Colleges’ Council

The committee established in November 1923 with representatives from the colleges involved in MacRory Cup competitions was almost solely a fixture-making body, as indeed was the case in the other provinces where colleges’ competitions were organised on a county basis, but over a period of time, Provincial Colleges’ Councils had been established.

Leinster had been up and running since 1919, while Munster had established its Colleges’ Council in March 1924.

There was also an over-arching body called the Central Colleges’ Council based in Croke Park which had come into existence on St Patrick’s Day, 1927 and which had ‘supreme control over School and College GAA.’

Connacht joined this body when it established its own Provincial Council thanks largely to the work Dr Eamon O’Sullivan the Secretary of the Provincial Colleges’ Council.

O’Sullivan then wrote to the MacRory Cup Committee with a view to forming a Provincial Colleges’ Council in Ulster. Receiving a favourable response, he further suggested that Dr MacRory be made patron of this new body.

The meeting in the Catholic Club, Armagh on Friday, January 13, 2024 subsumed the existing MacRory Cup Committee into a new body which became the Ulster Colleges’ Council.

It was affiliated to the Ulster Council of the GAA and became  the controlling body for all colleges’ GAA games in the province. Fr Tom Rafferty, was the first secretary and Dr MacRory was chosen as patron.

From now on, it would be tasked with the job of dealing with the financial issues involved in running competitions, the provision of medals, the affiliation of new teams into the MacRory Cup competition, deciding on  age limit for players and the organisation of a Colleges’ team to represent Ulster in the recently formed Colleges’ Interprovincial competition.

The remaining years of the 1920s decade saw a gradual increase in the number of teams, indicating a willingness to be involved in the MacRory Cup competition.

The 1926-‘27 season saw St Colman’s College, Newry formally enter. The driving force behind St Colman’s involvement was Fr Colleran from the Diocese of Anchonry, who had been sent ‘on loan’ to the Dromore diocese and brought with him his love of Gaelic football.

Back in Armagh, the college annualist records that this move was greeted with an attitude of defiance:

‘For us [St. Patrick’s] the way is clear-we hold the Cup and it must be a better team that will wrest it from us.’

In September1927, Fr Patrick V Rudden, St Patrick’s, Cavan, wrote to the MacRory Cup committee expressing an interest in joining the competition but had reservations about the age limit of players. He favoured a limit of under 19 in August of the year of the competition.

Rudden did not get his way. At a meeting of the newly formed Colleges’ Council in 1928, it was decided that ‘the maximum school-age for competitions under the Colleges’ Councils to be under 20 on 1st August.’  Fr. Rudden relented and Cavan joined in the 1928-’29 season.

Nevertheless, a certain degree of reluctance also existed among other colleges proposing to join the MacRory fold. St Eunan’s, Letterkenny, were willing to enter but travel and age difficulties were a matter of concern.

By 1927, St Columb’s, Derry had become actively involved in Gaelic football at club level, becoming one of the leading sides in the Derry city league. This did not result in any move towards joining up with the other diocesan colleges in this period and it was almost 40 years before they would entered the MacRory competition.

Christian Brothers School, Derry was quite clear about its attitude towards entering. The school was actively involved in playing both football and hurling, but were not willing to enter the Ulster Colleges’ competitions unless an u16 competition existed.

Divis St., CBS (later St Mary’s Glen Rd, Belfast) came on board in 1928 and on their first league outing, succumbed to a12-point hammering from neighbouring St  Malachy’s College.

The decade ended with a total six schools playing for the most coveted trophy in colleges Gaelic football. The MacRory Cup competition had come of age.