From changing behind hedges to an All Ireland title - the Magee GAA story

The successful Magee University GAA team, winners of the Corn na Mac Leinn Cup at the weekend. Front centre is captain Darren Kelly. DER0815MC021
The successful Magee University GAA team, winners of the Corn na Mac Leinn Cup at the weekend. Front centre is captain Darren Kelly. DER0815MC021

Two weeks ago, Magee won the Corn Mac Leinn trophy, a national trophy for third-tier university and college teams. It was a milestone for the college and in this article, Cathal Harkin, looks back at the GAA in the campus over the last 20 years and the problems it continues to face to ensure the GAA plays prominent role within Magee . . .

Despite this, the Derry City campus finally got its name on a national trophy in Cork in February, under the guidance of former Steelstown Brian Ogs senior manager man Hugh McGrath, who has been in charge for the past three years.

“I got involved when I took over at Steelstown, literally to keep an eye on what my own boys, to monitor their workload,” explains McGrath,

Gaelic games are in the blood of McGrath, who hails from Saul, Co. Down. He represented Down minors and Under 21s and played for Queens. In his coaching capacity, as well as taking Queens freshers, he has coached Derry U17s, Steelstown underage teams and the senior team. During his tenure with Magee, he has experienced first hand the unique problems associated with student football at a small university.

“We have ladies’ and mens’ Gaelic footballers, hurlers, camogs and the newly (re)formed rugby team with no suitable pitch to train or play home matches on,” he laments, “Yet there remains a fantastic sense of community in Duncreggan and sport can be an even bigger part of that. “

It is a sentiment echoed by current Magee captain, Darren Kelly.

I have captained and lifted many cups at underage level, but none ever felt that sweet

Current Magee GAA captain, Darren Kelly

“The camaraderie within the club is our biggest asset,” agrees Monaghan native Kelly, “It somewhat compensates for our lack of facilities. With Magee being a relatively small university, a few of our players would be on the same course and they socialise and train together. Spirits are very high at the minute after the All Ireland win and long may it continue.”

Even two weeks on from the final whistle in Cork against the Royal College of Surgeons, the centre-half back still struggles to believe it.

“I was hit with a wall of emotions - joy, relief and shock. I have captained and lifted many cups at underage level, but none ever felt that sweet.”

The GAA club at Magee was formed in 1991 and togged out in green with a white hoops. Their first ever victory came against Queen’s Thirds. Pearse Cullen was a new student from Eskra and one of the main drivers of the new club. Not only was Cullen a former player, but he went on to sponsor and manage Magee on two occasions.

“I played for Magee in 1991 when I arrived from Jordanstown; the set up in Magee was reminiscent facilities you would have seen in the late 70s or early 80s. A few lads were interested in getting the GAA club up and running and, under the stewardship of Dominic Maguire, we agreed to try and fulfil our fixtures for the year.”

The playing pitch was at Duncreggan but there were no floodlights or changing rooms.

“We changed in the hedge at Duncreggan Road and had to go home to get showered,” Cullen recalls. “The pitch was a quagmire and it often meant we had to go to local clubs. We were like nomads wandering from one pitch to another.”

In 1993, Magee qualified for the prestigious Trench Cup weekend in Dublin and Cullen recalls that team fondly.

“We had Gerard Deegan from Downpatrick, Tommy White from Claudy and the McGeown brothers from St. Peter’s in Lurgan, plus a splattering of good club players. We lost to the Cadets in the semi-final after extra-time but it was a fantastic experience.”

Cullen lives in Ballinderry now were he does sterling work in the fund-raising department of the south Derry club.

The Magee team that won their first ever game in 1991 against Queens III were (Not in any particular order); Gavin Flynn, Niall Curran, Phelim Sands, Dermot Sands, Alan Kelly, Pearse Cullen, Sean Cunningham, Feargal Keenan, Gregory McCloskey, Gavin O’Brien, Terry McCrory, Gerard McKernan, David Bell, Colombo McMenamin, Marty Kelly, Eoghan O’Donnell

There are four GAA clubs presently at Magee: men’s football, ladies football, hurling and camogie. They train within the confines of the student flats on Duncreggan Road and split their training between the soccer pitch and the floodlit 3G pitch. There are no GAA posts on either.

Over the years, Steelstown have been very accommodating with their pitch, as have Sean Dolan’s while Celtic Park has also been made available though Templemore Sports Complex became ‘home’ for the majority of games.

For years, Magee took part in the GAA’s second tier University competition, the Trench Cup, without success. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, their colours changed to blue with a yellow band and it was mainly local men who took charge of the university men’s football team: Eamonn Burns (Ballinascreen); Pearse Cullen (Eskra/Steelstown); Hugh Hegarty (Sean Dolan’s); Jim McGuinness (St. John’s/Steelstown/Sean Dolan’s); Danny O’Connor (Drumsurn); Cathal Harkin (Steelstown); Niall McCarroll (Eskra/Steelstown) and Hugh McGrath (Steelstown).

When the competition set-up was restructured after colleges gained entry, Magee were re-classified into the third tier competition, the new Corn Mac Leinn. They have stayed there since.

The university season begins in October when teams compete in the league section against teams from within their own geographical location. There are normally between four and five teams per group with one emerging for the knockout stages.

This league is normally wrapped up before the Christmas break. The draw for the championship takes place on the first week of December and the action begins on the third week of January. This is a knockout competition with the four semi-finalists progressing to the Sigerson Cup weekend.

While the football team has been the more prominent of the GAA clubs in Magee, the hurling team has been making huge strides in recent years. It was reformed by Swatragh man and current university vice-president, Mickey Quigg who was ably assisted by Cormac Flannery (Antrim) and Ronan McCusker (Fermanagh).

The club was going for a number of years in the early 2000s, under the stewardship of Michael Shine (Fermanagh) when it joined up with Coleraine before falling away in recent years. In 2012 they began to play challenge matches but it wasn’t until 2013 that they re-entered structured league and championship competitions.

“This year was very successful for the club with Chairman, Liam Mulvena (Antrim) taking over and outside manager Brendan Cassidy (Drumsurn) doing some fantastic work with the boys,” explains Quigg, “They got to the semi-final stages of the league only to be defeated by GMIT Letterfrack and in the Championship they lost out to their rivals Coleraine at the quarters.”

Although the club failed to reach the latter stages of the championship, this is still progress and with a strong committee behind the team next year, the future is bright.”

Success is different to many teams: fielding a team, winning ‘A’ championships or simply being competitive in every game. Down the years, the bar of success has remained the same for the GAA club in Magee; field a team and compete but what happened within the club this year has changed everything.

Despite the lack of proper facilities, the hurlers competed with Letterfrack from the hurling-stronghold of Galway and were unlucky to lose to Coleraine in the championship.

The footballers have won a national title and now compete in the Trench Cup for the first time since reclassification where they will meet the likes of Letterkenny IT and Coleraine. The ladies and camogs are continuing to improve. With success, comes success.

“Hopefully, due to this year’s success, the club’s reputation is growing and it will no longer be seen as merely a way to kill an hour,” adds Darren Kelly, “If the facilities where improved, even slightly, that could contribute to more members joining the club and boost the morale of existing members.”

The players and committees have shown the way forward and not always with the help their efforts have deserved. Expansion remains the ‘buzz’ word at Magee and hopefully one of the most progressive clubs within the campus can benefit from the latest plans. Their efforts certainly deserve it.