Updated: January 13th, 2020

Derry GAA: A Pocket History

By Bernie Mullan

Four years after the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Thurles, some 250 miles away the first County Board was set up in Derry. The chairmanship of that first board alternated between Patrick Bradley and James Doherty from 1888 until 1891.

The position of secretary also alternated between Patrick Campbell and Edward McGeoghehan. All four were from the City area. James Doherty and Daniel Farren alternated the treasurer’s post. It is interesting to note the professions of that first county committee; Patrick Bradley stonemason, Patrick Campbell clerk (tailor made for secretary) James Doherty butcher, Charles McGrory coachbuilder, Charlie McDermott labourer, George McLaughlin labourer from Claudy, Bernard McElhinney farmer from Portlough and Edward Hasson cattle dealer from Foreglen.

It is believed that St. Patrick’s Waterside was in existence even before the County Board was formed but the first club to affiliate to the GAA was Desertmartin in 1886 but there is no record of them ever playing any games. Six clubs attended the first county meeting to form the board and the following year 1889 the numbers had risen to thirteen and the only two to exist to the present day are Claudy and Foreglen although some clubs in the city may have merged with others over the years.

The first recorded game involving a Derry team was between St. Patrick’s Waterside and Burt at Lifford. The report concludes that after two hours of a fast and furious game the only score registered was a point by Burt.There was a great effort made by the City clubs to raise the profile of hurling and football as tournaments were organised’ A team from Louth named as Dundalk Emmetts came by train to the city to play Hibernians in a challenge game at Rosemount close to the present Celtic Park. A crowd of 3,000 attended and watched the Dundalk team win by 0-5 to nil. In those days the teams were 21 a side. There were two bands with the Dundalk team and a ban had been imposed only allowing them to play at the match venue but in good Irish tradition they started to play at the Waterside Railway station guarded by the match crowd and a ‘general melee erupted as the police baton charged the crowd’

It is noteworthy that St. Patrick’s Waterside had their own club rooms at that time and they sent 53 of their players and officials out to Claudy for a challenge game on 18th September 1888 and that was the day that the present Claudy club was formed.The same day St. Patrick’s had enough players to take on Emeralds at Corrody(Waterside) in both hurling and football challenge games. That day this flourishing club had well over eighty players in action.Ordinance survey records of the 1830’s does show an early form of hurling called commons possibly caman using a knot from a mountain ash as a ball and a caman formed in most cases from a whin. The areas where this rudimentary game was is recorded in the Survey as Aghanloo(Limavady), Ballyrashane (Coleraine) Desertmartin, Desertoghill(Garvagh) Dunboe (Castlerock) Magilligan, Dungiven, Killowen(Coleraine) Magherafelt and Tamlaght O’Crilly.

For centuries there was a Christmas tradition in Dungiven for the tenants of Baron Tyrone and Colonel Carey to play each other in various sports including ‘commons’. Was this the start of the Derry-Tyrone rivalry?!

For the first half century of the Association the activities were mainly confined to the City and surrounding areas like Claudy, Foreglen, Strabane and pars of Innishowen and East Donegal. There appeared to be no particular county boundary at that time.Even until the early sixties teams from Burt, Muff, Inch and Donemana would have played in some of the City competitions.

The Association had its ups and downs in the county dying out at times due to condemnation by the clergy who were against playing sport on a Sunday and infiltration by the Irish republican Brotherhood and AOH which caused splits and divisions. Both tried to take control and at times they would set up rival Annual general Meetings.

At a meeting of Central Council in 1888 Derry were one of only eight counties to pay their affiliation fees.Despite the interference fourteen clubs entered in the 1889 competitions, they were John Mitchell’s Claudy, O’Brien’s Muldonagh(Foreglen) Burt Hibernians, Killea Hibernians, Portlough Harps, St. Patrick’s St. Columb’s, Hibernians, Emerald’s, McCarthy’s, Eire Og, Bright Stars, Sunburst’s and Erin’s Hopes.

Hurling was the main game and the first county championship was played in 1889 and won by Hibernian’s from the city.Teams form the city travelled as far as Dundalk and Dublin for challenge games in 1890. By then things had got into a bad state as the clergy denounced the GAA for Sunday games and rough play. Frank B Dineen, the man who bought the Jones Road site (now Croke Park) for the GAA came to Derry in an effort to sort things out.

After eleven years of decline when the GAA died out in Derry and Ulster things began to move in the new millennium and by 1903 a new hurling club was formed in Limavady. That year the first Ulster Council was elected and the secretary was a Derry man L.F. O’Kane. On 18th October 1903 Derry won their first Ulster title when they beat Antrim in the hurling decider by 2-7 to 2-5 at Corrigan Park. One of the players on that Derry team was Thomas Mellon father of the late Derry Chairman Tommy Mellon. In the All Ireland semi final played at Dundalk almost a year later Dublin had a resounding 6-17 to 0-6 victory. Derry again won the Ulster hurling championship with the 1908 version being played at Clones on 9th May 1909. Derry beat Cavan by 2-7 to 0-2 with the same Thomas Mellon still in the half back line. Also in the defence was William Kelly whose son was PP in Desertmartin for many years. Derry’s second semi final was also a chastening experience losing to Kilkenny by 3-17 to 0-3.

In 1911 there was a move to get things operating outside the city and Moneymore O’Cahan’s, Killybern Hibernians and Lissan Rory Og’s played in a league of teams from East Tyrone and South Derry. Handball was particularly popular in South Derry in the first quarter of the last century with teams from Moneymore, Magherafelt, Ballyronan, Castledawson and Rosegarland competing With Nationalist fervour beginning to come to the surface due to the possibility of Home Rule it was back to business in the city and at county level Derry lost to Cavan in the Ulster football championship at Newbliss Co. Monaghan in 1913 and had an overnight stay in Clones. The senior football league that year shows some teams having –played as many as sixteen games.

The First World War brought about travel restrictions and this led to another brief decline but there was an Ulster club tournament in 1916 named the National Aid Tournament and in the final Sarsfields qualified for the final with a 2-0 to 0-1 victory over Cavan Rory O’More’s but they lost in the final to Castleblaney Faughs by 2-5 to 2-1. Teams like St. Columb’s College were playing in the league in 1917. St. Patrick’s became the first club to complete the hurling and football double, they won the hurling league and defeated Glenkeen(Ardmore) at Celtic Park in the football final. In 1918 the British Government in an effort to check the rise of the GAA banned all public meetings and playing of games in public unless a permit was received from the RIC. That idea backfired and new clubs sprung up all over the country and by 1921 there were seven teams in the senior football league, twelve in the junior league, ten in a minor league and five in a schools league all in and around the Derry City area.

The game began to spread outside the city and in 1922 and a North Derry league showed Dungiven, Foreglen, Glenkeen, Glack, Park, Dernaflaw, Ceeggan(Faughanvale) Claudy and Slaughtmanus taking part and most had completed their eight games.Derry reached their first ever Ulster football final in 1921 and the final was set for The Brandywell on Sunday 15th January 1922. As Monaghan travelled through Dromore Co. Tyrone ten of the party were arrested by the B Specials and taken to Derry Jail where they were held for six weeks and the rest ordered to go back to Monaghan By the mid 1920’s clubs began to form in Glenullin, Magherafelt Newbridge and Ballinderry, the late Sean O’Maolain after whom the Glenillin club was named was a driving force at that time holding the position of County Secretary and at the 1926 Ulster Convention in Clones he was made his way to represent Derry and was behind the organisation of an exhibition game between Tyrone and Antrim at Magherafelt to renew interest in the Association in the Oak Leaf County.

By 1933 the county was on a pretty strong footing after the promise of the late twenties but four years previously the county had reached the Ulster junior final only to be beaten 3-14 to 1-2 by Armagh at the Brandywell.That team was made up of players from the City, North and Innishowen areas. Among the players were Hugh Arthur Mullan Glenullin, Harry Owens Limavady, and James O’Hagan Glenullin the grand father of current Derry player PJ McCloskey and in whose memory the James O’Hagan Cup is played annually.By the mid thirties Gaelic football was flourishing in South Derry with Ballinderry, Desertmartin, Ballinascreen, Glenullin, Lavey, Maghera St. Lurach’s Ballylifford Sarsfields, Loup and Magherafelt all taking part in the league.

It was in 1933 that Derry first played in the National Football League when they lost to Tyrone by 0-12 to 0-7 at Stewartstown. That historic team was Pat McNicholl Glenullin, John McGuckin Ballinderry, Harry Owens Glenullin, John Wilson Ballinderry, Barney McPeake Newbridge, Barney Murphy Newbridge, Frank O’Neill Loup, Mick McGuckin Ballinderry. John McGrogan Newbridge, Frank Cassidy Ballinderry, John McNicholl Glenullin, Gerry Conway Ballinderry, John Joe Donnelly Ballinascreen, John McErlean Lavey and Barney Heaney Newbridge. From there on it was progress with county championships involving all teams in the county and organisation was on a high scale in the three districts South, North and City who all had their own boards but overall control was in the hands of the County Board who ran the county teams and general affairs.

The impending 1939-1945 war slowed progress a bit with travel restrictions but on the inter county front Derry were beginning to make an impression winning the Dr. Lagan Cup in 1944 and 1946 with the McKenna Cup and that famous National League win against Clare in snow laden 1947.

After a number of Ulster junior titles 1950, 1953 and 1955 it was soon the seniors who were catching the eye losing narrowly to Cavan and Tyrone in Ulster finals before making the breakthrough in 1958 beating Down at Clones before shocking the mighty Kerry in the semi final with a late Sean O’Connell goal to reach their first ever All Ireland final.

Derry as we all know lost to Dublin in the final but it was the beginning of Derry as a major force in football. They met Kerry in the 1960 and ’61 National league finals losing both. In 1965 an exceptionally talented Derry minor team beat Kerry by 2-8 to 2-4 in the All Ireland final. Three years later they beat Offaly in the All Ireland Under 21 final.In the mid sixties hurling was staging something of a revival and a lot of hard work over the years culminating in the county bridging a ninety plus year gap by winning the 2000 and 2001 Ulster championships.

New club grounds were beginning to spring up everywhere and in a short space of time Derry had some of the best club facilities in Ireland. Club football was strong in the seventies with Bellaghy winning the All Ireland club title followed by Lavey in the nineties and Ballinderry a decade later.

The winning of the 1993 All Ireland title will forever be etched on the memory of all Derry Gaels and the county was buzzing with excitement.The redevelopment of Celtic Park and the purchase of Owenbeg was a further boost to the county. Owenbeg had been purchased by the then Finance Committee chaired by the late Johnny Burke and they left the £1 million facility debt free to the county in 1998. Thousands of young hurlers and footballers get to sharpen their skills at Owenbeg and with the county having a well organised coaching structure its onwards and upwards with Gaelic games in the county.

There is a link between one of the GAA founders and Derry. One of the men at the meeting in Thurles was a 22 year old Thomas St. George McCarthy an RIC man who was a noted cricketer and rugby player. Due to RIC men being banned form the GAA a year later McCarthy was unable to take any further part in the Association. However he was sent to Limavady as a District Inspector six years later where he remained for six years. He died in 1942 and two years ago the GAA erected a plaque at his grave in Dean’s Grange Cemetery in South Dublin.

The GAA in Derry has been kept going by volunteers and founded by volunteers, times may have changed but the ethos remains the same – Irish games based around communities of people working for the development of the youth of our society. Long may it continue.