Hurlers from St Finbarr's
In the 1960's St Finbarr's, Loup were back to back senior hurling champions in Derry. They faded and after a brief return they disappeared again. But now they are back, building from the foundations up. Club PRO Paddy McCann spoke to Michael McMullan, to trace their steps back into the world of club hurling.
As a new decade turned earlier this month, Slaughtneil took the aristocrats of club hurling – Ballyhale Shamrocks – to the pin of their collar.
Following the dramatic conclusion to an equally epic encounter, the Emmet's narrowly missed out on qualification for Sunday's All-Ireland final. But it was the subplot that struck an equally loud chord across Ulster.
After the game, Ballyhale's players and their iconic manager Henry Shefflin were swamped by fans in search of autographs and selfies.
A genuine outpouring of passion mixed with adoration. The glee etched across youngsters' faces spoke volumes. In the recent past, it's, perhaps, the biggest sign that the pockets of hurling across Ulster are alive and well. Bursting to get out. Witnessing it first hand was inspiring.
Last November , another Kilkenny icon was in Ulster. It was a different brief entirely.
Martin Fogarty coached many of the hurling's greatest. But in his role as hurling's National Development Manager, he was up in Drummullan to present medals to the underage players of St Finbarr's hurling club.
Two years after their return from the hurling wilderness, the club's U13 team won the Ulster shield. They now unveil their plans for registration evenings later this month, giving Ireland's national game another opportunity to spread its wings.
And in the north of the county, Claudy are putting their roots down in search of another success story.
For St Finbarr's, they have a heritage. In the late 1940s hurling was played in the Loup area before the club was formed around the turn of the 1960s.
Of the three county finals they competed in the took the title in 1963 and 1964. They had quality players in brothers Liam and Colm Hinphey. John James McPeake, Sean and Francie Smith, M and Brian Mitchell. Patsy Donnelly. Joe McKee. S McGrogan. Henry McGlone.
They also had Cork man Pat Russell in their ranks, who hailed from a club of the same name on Leeside.
After the initial burst, St Finbarr's disappeared. It reformed later for a short time in the early eighties but 'ran out of steam' before the newest dawn, when the wheels were set in motion for the club as it currently exists.
Kilkenny man Brian Waldron, from Freshford, married Sheila Devlin and in recent years they settled in her native Loup. Their sons Odrán, Cian and Naoise hurled with Cuala and won Nicky Rackard Cup medals with Derry two years ago.
In Meadowbank, before we stopped before Christmas, we had two of the big pitches filled and two of the small pitches at the back. Paddy McCann
Brian, now the St Finbarr's Chairman, has hurling in his blood. He was involved with Kilkenny minors in the early noughties and, since his return to Derry, has been coaching in seven of the local schools in the Loup area...spreading the gospel.
The interest morphed into an informal meeting in January 2017, that included Derry's Regional Hurling Development Officer Kevin Hinphey and Dunloy native Seamus Kane, who now resides in Loup. Kevin's father Liam was part of the 1963 St Finbarr's winning team.
“Brian went around the local schools coaching and developed an appetite for hurling,” recalls St Finbarr's PRO Paddy McCann, one of the six at that initial meeting.
“There was a group of us there at the start. Niall Lagan was there as well, his father also played on the 1963 St Finbarr's team.”
And so it began.
Following Ogra Colmcille's withdrawal from the Derry junior league, they reached out to St Finbarr's, offering their premises base to help them build an identity. They are 'indebted' to Ogra and to St Patrick's PS Loup, where they host meetings.
“The first night at Drummullan, it was like the 'build it and they will come' sort of idea,” explains McCann of the new dawn in May 2017.
“We didn't really know who was going to turn up and when they called it (first training) there was the guts of 70 youngsters...it was fantastic.”
Now the club has over 130 members with 70 playing junior members. The players come from a variety of parishes in the South Derry and Loughshore area. The formation of the club has ensured access to hurling for all children in the area. It began with U10s and earlier this month that cohort, mainly still U12s, fielded the club's first U14 team.
“We would be expecting to field at U14, U12 and at the younger ages. In Meadowbank, before we stopped before Christmas, we had two of the big pitches filled and two of the small pitches at the back,” McCann adds. “That would have been from U14s, U12s, U10s, U8s and down to U6s.”
Their growth has been helped by Brian Waldron's brainchild, the St Finbarr's Cup. A tournament played between the schools within their catchment area. Some field two teams, with eight or nine players in each. It's all about participation.
“It is part of Brian's work going around the schools, he organises it in Meadowbank and all the schools he was at would come in and play,” McCann explains.
“It feeds into all the schools and for anyone showing promise and an interest, we can get them to play for St Finbarr's.”
The U10s and U12s have had the privilege of playing at Croke Park in Go Games for the last two years. The youngsters are competing well and are going from strength to strength.
The club achieved their first on field victory in October 2019, when they won the Ulster U13 Regional Shield played against 'very competitive' Letterkenny and Slaughtneil sides at Dungiven's Kevin Lynch Park.
At the presentation night, Martin Fogarty offered advice to carry on into this season, as they strive to grow. He emphasised the pride the club should take in passing on skills to the children and promoting hurling in the area. They had a blueprint for others to tap in to.
“He spoke well about the club and he said he had heard about us,” McCann recalls of Fogarty's address on the night.
“Other clubs he goes to, that are struggling for numbers with one or two people doing the work and getting burned out, he was using us an example for other clubs.”
Already this year, St Finbarr’s has made further strides with entry in the U12 North West indoor league. They have also entered teams into the U13/U15 Tain Óg regional leagues run by Croke Park, as well as U14 league and Féile.
In their recent historic debut at U14 level, they gave 'a good account of themselves' in a blitz that included
Tyrone clubs Naomh Colmcille, Fintona, Belnaleck of Fermanagh and Dungloe. All with a panel back-boned by U12s.
In any club, the people are the real assets. St Finbarr's are no different. Kevin Hinphey and Colm Dillon helped steer the coaching in the early days. The club described the input as 'immense' but now the aim is to become self-sufficient.
“Seamus (Kane) and Brian (Waldron) are great for bringing people in. At our AGM, there were people volunteering that never played hurling to get doing coaching courses in it.
“There is a lot of good will and parents are really buying into it. Some of the people are not really from GAA backgrounds.”
It ensures that the future looks bright and their door is open to all new coaches and players, of all abilities. Everyone is welcome and there is always something to aspire to.
Two years ago, three of the club's U12 players represented Derry at half-time in their game with Down in the Christy Ring Cup.
“They are holding their own. You would know they have started a few years later than other clubs but their skill levels are coming up,” McCann explains of how their oldest underage stars have progressed.
Other clubs he goes to, that are struggling for numbers with one or two people doing the work and getting burned out, he was using us an example.
“There are a couple of guys and their skill levels are right up there with what other clubs have. We just don't have enough yet to be competing across the team but I can see them moving right up.”
A club with championship tradition dating back to the 1960s is back on the map. With continued efforts and promotion, maintaining their drive towards U16 and adult hurling is a target.
As well as getting players through to Derry's Celtic Challenge team...and further. It would signify payback on a bigger scale and a chance for their club to grow further.
For now, the Gaels in this corner of the county will continue to raise the bar.
St Finbarr's registration for the 2020 season takes place in Meadowbank on Tuesday, January 28 and Tuesday, February 4 at 6.00.
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