The birth of hurling at ‘The Tower’

A few weeks back Sean McGourty of Ulster Colleges annouced plans to write a history of the Mageean Cup, the trophy which is presented to the winners of the Ulster Colleges Hurling Championship. There were suggestions that Ulster Colleges Hurling started when the cup was first played for in 1963 but there were a few ex pupils from Garron Tower who were quick to point out that there was colleges hurling played in Ulster for a good few years before that, and that the Garron Tower had won titles long before the Mageean Cup was in existance. One of those ex pupils, Denis O’Hara, put pen to paper to set the recored straight.

By Denis O’Hara

THE BIRTH of hurling at Garron Tower can be attributed to the singular influence of Fr Patrick McKavanagh.

A master of music, and a genius in the organizing of concerts, the hugely popular light opera arrangements, and penning songs and poems, entered a St MacNissi’s College hurling team in what appears to be the first series of the old Ulster Colleges Senior Hurling League.

From the start of the 1951-1952 campaign the opposing teams were St Malachy’s College (Belfast), De LaSalle (Downpatrick) and the two Belfast CBS units of St Mary’s (Barrack Street) and Hardinge Street.

Affectionately known as ‘Kipper’, the dedicated Fr McKavanagh quickly went about gathering a squad of potential players to kick-start the adventure.

A few seasoned scholars , those who were transferred from St Malachy’s College, and knew a thing or two about wielding a caman – especially Peter Sharpe of Glenariffe and Brendan Macaulay of Cushendall, would become part of the spine of the burgeoning team.

Another key component was crisp-striking defender Neil Francis McKillop of Glenburn, Cushendall, who spent one year at St Mary’s CBS, when the grammar school was at Barrack Street.

He was almost instantly honoured with a place in the 1950 Belfast Schools’ team to play a Dublin Schools Select.

McKillop holds a key to the start of the Ulster Colleges’ Hurling League.

After switching from St Mary’s to join the new St MacNissi’s College, he was again selected in what appears to be a fledgling Ulster Colleges’ hurling team to play Dublin Schools.

McKillop remembered going to St Mary’s CBS at Barrack Street in 1950 ‘because I couldn’t get a place in St Malachy’s. It was full up at the time, and when St MacNissi’s opened in September 1951 I moved there.

In Belfast I played hurling for St Mary’s – and was picked as the fullback on the Belfast Schools’ team that played Dublin Schools in Dublin.

The St Mary’s team hurling trainer was Brother Brendan Murphy from Cork.”

McKillop brought the Tower a first honour in hurling, when named in an Ulster Colleges’ hurling team. Born in 1938,he remembered: “When I joined Garron Tower in September 1951, I was a second-year student, I was picked to play for an Ulster Colleges’ team against Dublin students on the late October Oireachtas Cup hurling final Sunday in Dublin. Fr McKavanagh took me to Belfast in his wee Austin Seven car for a trial match at St Malachy’s pitch. I remember lining out at centre three-quarters against a strong centre half representing St Malachy’s – Alex O’Hara of Cushendun.”

The Tower’s first team goalkeeper was Neil’s namesake, Denis McKillop, a future county minor goalkeeper from Glenaan,Cushendall, who said: “All I can recall is playing behind some very big men. I was quite small then. The team had tall hefty players like Brendan Macauley and Peter Sharpe. I think we first played against St Malachy’s College, but my memory is a bit muddled about those days.”

Frank Smyth, a three-time Ulster Colleges’ senior title winner with St Malachy’s College, generously shed some light on the birth of Colleges hurling. “I believe the 1951 match that Neil McKillop was involved in was against a Leinster Colleges or a Dublin Colleges select and with the age limit at 18. Belfast Schools teams were at Under 14”

Smyth, a St Gall’s GAC club hurler who later became the Antrim Hurling Board secretary and also county minor team player in 1956, said: “When I was joined St Malachy’s College I was still eligible to play for St Kevin’s Primary in the Under-14 league. I played for Belfast Schools, at left back away to Dublin Schools and also a home game at MacRory Park.

“I am of the opinion the Ulster Colleges Council, occupied in the running of MacRory Cup football, I felt, let the hurling start and be run by a few enthusiasts, let them get on with it – and supplied medals and that big Shield for the winning team. I wonder where that Shield finished up. “

I also ponder on the Shield’s whereabouts.

It significantly surfaced in the photograph of the winning 1963 St MacNissi’s team of the newly established Mageean Cup..

The image of the Shield alongside the newly donated Cup suggests a seamless handover from the age of the founding Fathers and Brothers.

An early Garron Tower team with our writer Denis O’Hara in goals

Following the extremely disturbing decision to airbrush the name of St MacNissis’s College into the ether, and the name change to St Killian’s instead of letting it sit as a firm memory by using Garron Tower as the everlasting name, a snub to the sacrifices of Fr McKavanagh in establishing the purple and gold-rigged hurling teams is completely unacceptable.

While limited to guesswork it would appear Fr McKavanahh joined forces with like-minded hurling mentors such as Gerry McDermott and Jackie McManus of St Malachy’s, and a host of Christian Brothers including Br Brendan Murphy of St Mary’s CBS, the cornerstone to Ulster Colleges hurling was set.

The Ulster Colleges hurling scene started as a humble affair.

As they say in boxing parlance – you can only meet and beat what is placed in front of you, and providing the foundation to the new Ulster Hurling League was the entry of teams from St Malachy’s College, St Mary’s CBS, Hardinge Street CBS, St MacNissis’s College and De La Salle (Downpatrick).

De La Salle and Hardinge Street had recurring problems in finding sufficient numbers to field teams, and subsequently dropped down to compete for a short period in the U-15 Junior League that began in 1954, with the age limit raised to U-16 a couple of years later.

Towards the close of the 1950’s decade there appears a hurling team entry by Derry CBS,playing against St Malachy’s.

The patiently assembled first Tower team failed to make any impression in the opening season. Still, there was great excitement for the wide-eyed young hurlers when taking part in an organised competition that included trips to Belfast. The down side was having to endure some beatings.

Those stirring practice matches on the old humpty dumpty playing field at the north side of the College grounds remain in the misty memory. I recall a few pain games, a lot of blood spilling onto the grass, and a lot of it pouring from the head of John Black of Carey Faughs.

He was a first-year boarder. Born in 1938, and residing in Ballycastle, he doesn’t need reminding of sore heads from hurling combat: “I stayed just one year before switching to study at Ballycastle High School. I remember some tough training games on the old pitch, and taking a whack on my head. I lost a lot of blood, and had to have five stitches inserted in the wound. The scar is here to this day. I also recall taking a thump on my nose from the stick of John McKay of Loughguile. It was the first time my nose bled.”

In the Tower’s starting year I was a day student, and remember staying after class to participate in the training, as did Patsy Black of nearby Glenariffe. After training Fr McKavanagh would drive us home in his Austin Seven two-door vehicle.

Patsy lived at the top end of Glenariffe Glen, and my home was at Knocknacarry..From second year onward I was a incarcerated, a reluctant boarder.

Every team requires a few individuals who can inspire with their skill and tenacity, and there was no better leader than Wlllie Devlin of Armoy. Later to be Head Prefect, he was the Tower’s first player to be named in an Antrim Senior hurling team while still a student, at half-back in 1955. Without argument Willie was a ‘tower of strength’ during the many memorable hurling campaigns.

Like the rest of us, he had to prove to Fr McKavanagh a worthy selection for the inaugural nervous assault on the new Ulster Colleges Hurling League, and recalled those formative days: “I can still see John McKay of Loughguile arriving onto the Old Field training ground with this very heavy hurl, maybe a homemade stick. I don’t think he made the first team. We had, I believe, our first game in Ulster Colleges hurling against St Malachy’s on the Glenariffe pitch. We then traveled to Belfast to play St Mary’s CBS and Hardinge Street CBS, at MacRory Park.”

To get the team going Kipper named Denis McKillop in goal. The other players to kick-start the hurling programme included the Gillan brothers, Dan and Tommy, Brendan Macaulay, James Brown, David Anthony Mulvenna, Neil McKillop, John McBride, Arthur Rowan, Peter Sharpe, Alex McCollam, Denis O’Hara and Patsy Black. We also had some players with apparently little background in hurling such as Mickey Young of Newbridge, Francis MacRory and Patsy McGuckian of Ballymena and Stanley Parfitt of Belfast.

After a poor start the new boys did a bit better in the second year, but still not good enough to beat the top side, St Malachy’s College. For whatever reason Kipper selected me as goalkeeper, and involved in tough tests against the still dominant St Malachy’s,St Mary’s CBS.Hardinge Street and an embarrassing loss to De La Salle, Downpatrick, on an absurdly horrid cow patch pitch off Belfast’s Shaw’s Road, known as Bullock’s Field.”.

Fr McKavanagh would not be denied. He willingly invested a lot of his free time to promote hurling at the College. Sifting around he discovered more students who could play reasonable hurling, and others who could adapt football skills to the game.

Into the swing of things came Fermanagh footballer Jim McGrath from Beleek, Liam Vaughan, a Schools High Jump champion from Ballymena, Danny Delargy of Antrim, Barney O’Kane from Coleraine and Barney McGuckian of Cloughmills. Gradually a solid team was starting to gell.

I’m risking overlooking a name or so. I hope my fading memory cells don’t let me down.

Helping out is Francis MacRory, who spent one year at St Malachy’s: “Hurling at The Tower was the game, and Fr McKavanagh was the man. There was mild interest in gaelic football – until Fr Dominic ‘Sticky’ McHugh of Portstewart was transferred from St Malachy’s College in 1952. He was the football man, yet always gave his full support to the hurlers, and came to all the matches.

“The hurling action was in the spotlight, and my abiding memory of that time was when we played St Malachy’s. There were stand-out battles in the midfield when Barney McNally of Randalstown, the top player for St Malachy’s, collided with Willie Devlin.”

MacRory, who became Antrim’s senior team football goalkeeper while a club player with Kickham’s, added: “Those were crunch meetings. Willie and Dan Gillan were our two outstanding hurlers in the early days, and then we we managed the breakthrough with a first title win in the third year of the Tower.”

Thankfully, after having to endure a few beatings in 1953, we matured enough to turn the corner in 1954.

At the start of that season Kipper brought in a team coach – Antrim and Ulster hurler Bobby McMullan of The Bay,,Glenariffe, to try and fine tune the squad. Match tactics were chalked up on a classroom board. That was revolutionary stuff for us. Bobby, who was skipper of Loughguile’s 1956 Championship winning side, shaped the team into better understanding on the pitch, switching the play quickly all from one flank to the other, creating space when not having the ball. The man with fresh ideas proved Fr McKavanagh’s gamble well worthwhile.

Paving the way to that first title victory was a massive win against St Malachy’s at Waterfoot.

By then we had another established power player in the side, Jim Mitchell of Glenariffe, whose uncle, Dan McKillop played in the Antrim 1943 All-Ireland senior final team.

Then it was the big showdown for the 1954 title, against holders St Malachy’s – a proud day for Fr McKavanagh and The Tower.

Our confidence grew. I was moved outfield from goalkeeper to left back. Anthony Logan of Dunloy proved to be an excellent net-minder, and along with Willie Devlin, Dan Gillan and Patsy Black was named in an Ulster Colleges team.

In the Ulster final at Corrigan Park on an April Saturday, the Tower beat our arch rivals St Malachy’s by 5-3 to 3-1, and with Willie Devlin firing over the three points from 70-yard frees.

My direct opponent was Eddie McCormick, a canny winger from Loughguile who was later joined the teaching staff at St MacNissi’s.

The teams that locked horns were: St MacNissi’s: Anthony Logan, Jim McGrath, Brendan Macaulay, Denis O’Hara; Jim Mitchell, Neil McKillop, Patsy Black; Willie Devlin (Capt) and Carl O’Neill; Jimmy Brown, Francis MacRory, Dan Gillan; Liam Vaughan, Barney O’Kane, Stanley Parfitt.

The St Malachy’s formation: Eamonn Brennan; Frank Crummey, Terry Savage, Peter Golden, Tom Toner, Gerry Oates, Eddie McGrattan; Barney McNally and Danny Owens; Dan Crummey, Danny Burns, Frank Smyth; Eddie McCormick, Sean O’Boyle, Frank Connolly.

Incidentally, 1954 was also the year Fr McKavanagh entered a Junior team (U-15), and this meant five senior members eligible to participate in both competition

An Ulster Colleges team from the early sixties that included a few Garron Tower players, incuding Eneas Black, Eddie Donnelly. PJ Hill of Carey Faughs in front right.

The old hands who had to play two matches on the same day, with the first fixture at senior level, were Tom Gillan, Jim Mitchell, Anthony Logan, myself and Patsy Black. The slightly younger bloods included Mitchell’s wee brother Joe, Alex McMullan, Niall Wheeler, Aidan McCamphill, John McDonnell and Antrim minor football team goalkeeper Brian Linehan

Future Antrim and Ulster’s first All Star Hurling replacement, Niall Wheeler of The Bay, Glenariffe, said: “I have to say Fr McKavanagh, who drove us back and forth from matches and practice in his new VW Beetle car, was the inspiration that made sure hurling prospered at The Tower. I was three years a student, and envious in my opening years I was not selected to the senior team. I was considered too small, and had to stick at Junior hurling level. I really enjoyed playing alongside Jim Mitchell in the midfield. He was the Junior team captain. He was very strong, and played both junior and senior at the time.”.

The Colleges title was retained in 1955, but in controversial circumstances as St Mary’s CBS turned down a deciding match against us – because of cutting across summer examinations.

Neil McKillop was eligible but not involved. He had to withdraw from all hurling activity, following serious knee ligament damage, and packed the game in for good..

The new generation Tower team included Danny McAlonan of Dunloy, future Antrim senior footballer Paddy McGuckian of Massereene, Sean Feeney of Portstewart, county minor footballer Alex McDonnell of Portglenone. New goalkeeper Alex Thompson of Cushendall, took over from Anthony Logan, now outfield.

The 1956 campaign, my last year at the Garron Point seat of learning, saw the action completed before Christmas, and with St Malachy’s back on top.

The irony in that series was a heartbreaking loss at home to St Malachy’s. The Tower players led into the closing seconds until Glenravel-born Mel Duffin banged home a shock goal for the Belfast team to win by one point.

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