Updated: May 17th, 2024

A Champion of the People

Meet Gearalt Ó Mianáin.





Poc Fada Champion.

Gearalt and Pádraig Ó Mianáin on An Carn at the Derry Poc Fada Final 2024

On An Carn mountain, Slaughtneil, May 2024, Ó Mianáin surveys his competition for the Derry ‘Long Puck’ title.

Having won it the previous year it’s a crown he guards closely – and with good reason.

“I’m fifty next month and I’m looking around at these young fellas on the mountain. Some of them would be playing hurling along with my nephew, Ruairi Ó Mianáin, one of Derry’s current midfielders. I’m thirty years older than these lads but I’m thran like that.

“I’m thinking: ‘If they want to beat me they’re going to have to work for it’.”

Thran is a great word. Like Gearalt Ó Mianáin, it’s of its place. Baile Mhic Robhartaigh, Na Magha, Doire Cholmcille.

The Ó Mianáin family have been involved in the GAA in Derry since it started. Records show the name ‘Meenan’ on the teamsheet of the first Derry team to play at Jones Road (later Croke Park) in the 1909 All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Derry and Kilkenny.

“I think we’re into the fifth generation at this point” explains Gearalt. “But we came from Gweedore. My father Proinsias Ó Mianáin was a printer by trade and a Bogside man by birth. He moved to Dublin for work, where he met my mother, Róis, through Irish language organisations and shared drama groups.”

The couple moved north to Gweedore in 1972, with Gearalt born two years later. Life in the Gaeltacht naturally meant that Irish was his first language.

“We moved back to Derry when I was nine,” says Gearalt. “We were homeschooled. There was a green out the front of our house in Ballymagroarty and that was where we took PE, I suppose. It was hurling non-stop with myself and my brother Pádraig.

The welcome laid on by the local community for the young returning family is something that rests deep within Gearalt Ó Mianáin.

“The first people we met were Brendan Quigley senior and Sean Mellon, and then following that, the likes of Barney McFadden, Hugh Breslin, John McCloskey and Charlie Bonner. Those were the role models we had, and they were like family to us.

“We had no car. We didn’t come from money. If it wasn’t for the likes of those men, we would never have got the opportunity to play Gaelic games, because you’d have been struggling to get to the matches. They were always very kind and generous.”

Hugh Breslin kept the brothers well stocked with hurls, but with a twist.

“Hugh would bring us any hurls that were chipped or had bits broken off them,” laughs Gearalt.

“They were more like hockey sticks in the end with a small, narrow boss. That’s why I have such a good strike! We had to practice with the broken ones. When Pádraig and I got our hands on the big goalkeeper hurls we never looked back”

Beating Wicklow to win the All-Ireland B Championship with Derry in 1996 is a treasured memory for Gearalt Ó Mianáin. With Pádraig in goals he had to settle for a place on the bench but the prize was the same. It sustained a career that saw him play the game into his forties for his beloved Na Magha.

“My knees are gone,” he proclaims. “And the last time I helped the senior team out they were short a goalkeeper. I broke five bones in my left hand and have had two pins in it since. But it was a great save!

“If I can still stand and hit a ball in a Poc Fada that encourages some of the younger boys to get involved in the game, then I will continue. That’s the reason I do it.”

If hurling and the Irish language are pillars of the life of Gearalt Ó Mianáin, then music is a close third.

Along with Tomás Ó Coigligh (vocals and guitar), Stiofán Ó Cearraláin (accordion and vocals) and Seán Mac Lochlainn (base and vocals), the sound of the men from Na Magha will be familiar to Derry supporters.

When Dublin visited Celtic Park in 2023 for a league game, it was possibly the most electric atmosphere ever witnessed at the venue. Energy crackled around the ground from hours before throw-in with the help of the traditional music group.

It was a poignant occasion for Ó Mianáin.

“My mother died three days before that game. She was from Dublin. Ballybock and then Finglas.

“If it wasn’t for the love of Gaelic games and culture, especially the language, instilled in us by my mother and father, we wouldn’t have what we have today.

“We named the band Cairde Róis that night, in her honour.”

Members of the Na Magha band with Vincent McAnespie at Celtic Park for Derry v Tyrone, February 2024.

The group have played in venues across the city for many years, regularly the heart and soul of Peadar O’Donnells on Waterloo Street. But the Celtic Park gig was new, the brainchild of Charlie Bonner.

“We do it to provide a service for what we believe in and celebrate the ethos of the GAA,” says Gearalt. “The camaraderie between different sets of supporters is unique to the GAA. There’s banter and you do songs from Dublin, you do songs from Derry. It creates a carnival atmosphere and gets people into the ground early. You have to tailor it to the occasion and try to connect with the people. Otherwise you might as well stick on a CD!”

One of Gearalt’s closest friends, Eamon McFadden, passed away at forty-seven years of age in 2007. He was Na Magha chairman at the time of his death. A son of Barney McFadden, one of the original welcoming party for the young Ó Mianáin family, the friendship between Eamon and Gearalt is one that endured with a legacy that still lasts.

“One of my best memories of Eamon is when we organised a Poc Fada up Scalp Mountain in Burnfoot, Donegal. Myself, Eamon, Larry MacGowan and Declan Foley, who was about ten at the time, organised it. I’ve done Poc Fada at Derry, Ulster and All-Ireland level but that course over Scalp is still my favourite.

Cormac McAnallen passed away three years before Eamon McFadden prompting Ó Mianáin to create Campa Éamoin, designed to welcome children to the Na Magha club.

It’s not the only link, as he explains:

“Mickey Coleman, the Tyrone player, came to the Cultúrlann in Derry and sang a song ‘The Bantry Boy’ about Cormac. I sat at the concert thinking Eamon McFadden was our ‘Bantry Boy’. I couldn’t sleep that night. I got up at 7am the next morning and drove to An Grianan Fort and sat and wrote my own song about Eamon to the tune of Back Home in Derry.

“Everyone has a hero in their club and I think it’s so important to remember people like Eamon McFadden. Last year when I won the Poc Fada I wore the Campa Éamoin jersey. This year it was a jersey in memory of my mother that I had designed for the U15 and U17 hurlers. She made the first Na Magha flag. It was a double sided sown flag with the old Gaelic lettering on it. It has a séimhiú (dot – softening of the letter h) on it as my mother had orginally designed. That same lettering appears on the jersey I wore this year in the Derry final.”

The original club flag made by Róis Ó Mianáin forty years ago.

Gearalt Ó Mianáin is a man who acutely understands his role in the GAA and the role of the GAA in society.

The influence of his mentors – men who welcomed a young family into their area – is evident at all times.

Perhaps none have had more influence than Sean Mellon.

“He was the godfather of hurling for us here” says Gearalt.

A Mellon inspired connection with the Blackrock club in Cork has endured. Coaching sessions were enjoyed with Cork stars like Jim Cashman and Dermot McCurtain, as well as the great Christy Heffernan from Kilkenny who played for the Leeside club.

Teams from Na Magha and Blackrock regularly visit each other, often staying for a week at a time. It’s work that is more vital that it first appears.

“Sean Mellon was working with kids in an area of Derry where there was high unemployment, addictions and social problems.

“I am one hundred percent sure that if it wasn’t for Sean Mellon and other people like him that a lot of boys would not have lived past eighteen or nineteen years of age. I don’t think people quite understand that. People like Sean Mellon thought on a different level about their community and how to give people something to be proud of.”

Gearalt Ó Mianáin is a man determined to make his people proud, and in turn, they are proud of him. He is Derry Poc Fada Champion for 2024.

Perhaps the bigger picture is that Gearalt Ó Mianáin is a champion of his people and a champion among his people.