28 May 2022

The building of a tradition - The St Patrick's Maghera camogie story

How the journey to 17 Ulster titles began

The building of a tradition - The St Patrick's Maghera camogie story

St Patrick's Maghera - 1987 senior champions

St Patrick's Maghera lead the way on the Ulster Schools' camogie scene with 17 titles. Michael McMullan caught up with former coach Ann Kelly to look at the origins of their success.

Champions always find a way to win. That's what sets them apart and the 2020 senior final was the classic example. A second-half St Louis Ballymena goal had St Patrick's Maghera clinging to their 17th senior title with all their might.

When Clare Gunning levelled matters and St Louis had a late goal ruled out, it all came down to extra time. As they emptied the tank and stretched every sinew, it was Maghera who finished strongly to land a senior first title in four seasons.

They followed a long and decorated history of what went before them, with coaches Catriona Scott and Niamh Donnelly holding a baton that has been handed down from generation to generation, with the next crop.

But every journey starts with a single step, even one that has enjoyed a meandering path along the upper echelons of Ulster camogie.

For over 35 years, Ann Kelly was a central figure in the sporting landscape of St Patrick's Maghera. The hurl and sliotar has now been swapped for the golf course.

Her mother Brigid Kelly from Straw, was a camogie player of note and her father Hugh, from Moneyneena had played football. And coming from a sporting background, when Ann went down the teaching route, it was always going to be PE.

“It didn't matter if it was a tennis racket or a camogie stick, I was always into sport,” began Ann, who played for Ballinascreen and holds an Ulster Junior championship medal with Derry.

A past pupil of St Mary's Magherafelt, she joined the staff in Maghera in 1970 in the days when boys and girls were taught on different sites.

In 1963, St Patrick's High School opened in the town to cater for boys from 11 to 16 years-old and a year later St Mary's on the town's Glen Road opened its doors to girls. They'd later amalgamate in 1978 as a co-educational High School, with the original St Mary building used for first and second years.

The Saul House camogie team winners of the Tom Glass Cup at St Mary's Maghera.

“There were something like 12 local primary schools in the Maghera, Lavey, Swatragh and Kilrea areas,” outlines Kelly of the early days.

The 120 girls enrolled and pupils were divided into 'houses' and there were inter-house competitions across sport and a range of other extra-curricular activities.

Miss Maureen McGranaghan, a native of Donegal, was the school's first Principal and had a staff of six teachers as the school first found its feet.

“PE was always part of the programme,” points out Ann, who was the fourth PE teacher when she joined, while also teaching Geography and would later serve as Vice-Principal for ten years.

There was pressure to have camogie as part of the furniture in school, but, at first there was nobody to take charge of the teams.

Later, Sr Philomena – who turned 100 recently – became the school's Principal. Based in a convent in Kilrea, she'd travel with when Helen McMullan (née Mullan), from Rasharkin, who joined the staff as a commerce teacher. Helen became the school's first camogie coach

“She'd have played for her own club in Rasharkin and was the one to get camogie started,” Ann adds.

“They had practices twice a week and sometimes during school time as transport was limited for getting kids back home again, but they were keen to play.”

The school was fortunate to have the support of the local clubs, something Ann was keen to stress as an important factor in the growth of camogie in school.

“The clubs definitely helped us and I'd like to think we helped develop their players in return,” she said.

Dan McCrystal, a local camogie enthusiast from Lavey would weigh in with support on coaching the basic skills.

”We knew him as 'Mr Camogie' and he'd come in from Lavey and help Helen,” Ann explains.

“He had a mantra that I have never forgotten...'play the ball on the ground and pull on any ball that comes near you', that's how he got his point across.”

The coaching was backed up with internal camogie games as part of the inter-house competitions, where points would accumulate over the school years. The winning house would get a surprise trip at the end of the school year.

There were challenge games with local team Slaughtneil and Helen would line up matches with Rasharkin, all to help translate their coaching into competitions that would follow. When Ann joined the staff, in 1970, camogie was passed over to the PE Department.

“I was able to help Helen develop camogie within the school,” she points out.

In terms of getting official games, the junior and senior championships were in place for the established grammar schools and it wasn't until the Cavlan Cup – donated by Dungannon man Frank Cavlan - came into vogue in 1967, to cater for all the secondary schools that camogie began to spread over Ulster.

The competition was organised into regional groups, to limit travel time for games. Maghera were in with St Patrick's Dungiven, St Mary's Limavady and St Mary's Clady, who were the dominant team at the time.

Sometimes the games were played during school on a home and away basis. The classrooms along the front of the St Mary Building looked down on the pitch, allowing everyone to have a full view of the action.

“We didn't have a lot of success and didn't often win out of our groups, but it was matches and it was competition and that brought more experience,” Ann admits.

By 1973 she was joined by Goretti McKenna who was brought into teach Maths and PE, while becoming another driving force behind camogie in the school.

Also that year, the Ulster grammar and secondary competitions all rolled into ones, involving 55 schools across all nine counties. The aim was to try to broaden the horizon of the game, raise the standards and the quality of performances.

Maghera were only in the junior competition and despite not making it out of the division, were making good progress.

“Glen and Swatragh were also developing their camogie at that time and, like the other clubs, were a great help over the years,” Ann adds.

“In 1975, we made the breakthrough and we reached the Ulster semi-final against St Columban's and it was played up in Ballygawley. We didn't win, but it was great to get through to that stage.

“The team was well represented by all clubs and the captain was Anne McKenna from Swatragh. There was learning in it. Every time you play against somebody different, you will learn something new and it will give that extra experience.

“We soldiered on over the next number of years in the competitions and as the clubs got stronger, we got more competitive.”

St Mary's Maghera, 1975 Ulster junior camogie semi-finalists.
BACK (L-R): AM O'Kane, B Kelly, R McMaster, A McNeill, M McEldowney, N Shaw, A Kearney, RM McMullan, M McEldowney. FRONT (L-R): S Higgins, E McQuillan, A McKenna (Capt.), P Quinn, H Flanagan, S McKenna.

Then St Mary's and St Patrick's amalgamated in 1978, it helped swell the numbers and with more subjects on offer, it attracted more pupils. It took time, but eventually it allowed a senior camogie team to take shape for the first time.

”On a Wednesday, we had a sports afternoon and it allowed us to get the Sixth Form girls involved in camogie. We worked away with the girls to get them up to the standard,” Kelly continues.

In the background, the junior teams were battling away and reaching finals, but were never able to get their elusive first Ulster title.

“We beat Loreto (Letterkenny) up in Cherryvale (in 1980) and they had stopped us in previous years. We had players from across the county and that was camogie getting off the ground in St Patrick's,” Ann said.

In the All-Ireland series that followed, Maghera went down to Munster champions Presentation De La Salle Hospital of Limerick.

On the face of it, 1980 will be remembered as a the breakthrough year, but it sparked the start of a glorious era for camogie in the school.

St Patrick's Maghera, 1980 Ulster junior camogie champions.

A first senior title arrived in 1987 thanks to goals from Anne McGrellis (2), Denise Stevenson and Deirdre O'Doherty in a commanding final win over St Mary's Magherafelt.

The junior title also returned to Maghera that season, with St Paul's Kilrea and St Patrick's Dungiven each winning it twice since Maghera's 1980 success.

“That was the start of camogie beginning to rise in St Patrick's and, later on, the teams would have more success,” Ann adds.

It began five in a row at junior level, while St Patrick's Keady, in 1989, presented five successive senior titles in the same window.

At the same time, competitions started in Ulster at U14 and First Year level, as well as the Ulster Sevens.

“There was myself and Goretti in the PE Department, but it got to the stage where you needed more personnel involved,” Kelly stresses.

In the same manner that local clubs helped raise the standard, Ann insists that the help and support she received from staff across the school played a huge role in the sporting family.

Looking back, there is a regret that the school failed to get over the line at All-Ireland level despite a handful of breakthroughs at the semi-final stages.

“We came across the likes of Loughrea, Charleville, Callan (Kilkenny),” Ann said. “Galway manager Cyril Farrell was with Loughrea, Anne Downey was in charge of Callan you'd always have plenty of former county players involved with the Cork teams.”

The dominant emotion is one of pride. When asked if there is a moment that stands above the rest,

“It would've been reaching first Ulster junior final, getting to the first senior final and through for the first time to All-Ireland finals,” she said.

“The first is always the best, but for each group of girls coming through to get to a final or win, that's their first and it was always really special to them.”

Another barometer of success, was the the array of memories. Meeting some of the past pupils in later years, Ann recalls hearing how vividly they'd recall their times travelling across Ireland in the name of St Patrick's Maghera. That was also special.

There was also a special word of praise for those under her watch over the years, something she echoes a few times during our conversation.

“The best would be the sheer determination of the girls to go out and play and always give of their best. As a group of people in the school, you couldn't ask for better. The girls were all great,” comes her reply, with that proud tone that comes from years at the coal face.

Yes, there'd be the odd raise of the voice, but the players that went through the school teams under her watch were 'great' ambassadors.

She jokes of the days before fake tan or tracksuits, those days out in the cold. All in the name of sport.

“They tried their hardest and gave their all,” she added. “They'd see a different side of you and you see a different side of them and they'd put their trust in you in so many ways and you hope you'll not let them down.

“They were always appreciative of the efforts taken to help take them through. They always responded. Yes, you'll have an off day and they'd have to take the defeats with the successes that they had.”

With 17 senior and 12 junior Ulster titles on the roll of honour, there have been more good days than bad ones.

Nights like January 2020 and the extra time win over St Louis, in front of a bumper crowd, when all seemed lost. A night when winners find a way over that line.

The 2021 season was confined to the Covid-19 vacuum, but when the 2022 campaigns begin, the corridors in the heart of St Patrick's Maghera will beat with excitement and purr with an expectation of success.

It's an expectation that comes from tradition. But, without Helen McMullan or Dan McCrystal Goretti McKenna or Ann Kelly, or any of the coaches' input down the years, that tradition wouldn't exist.

St Patrick's Maghera's Ulster senior camogie winning captains

1987 Mary Hegarty
1988 Deidre O’Doherty
1990 Patricia Cooke
1991 Shauna O’Doherty
1994 Margaret McAtamney
1998 Claire McNicholl
1999 Paula McKenna
2002 Kathy Doherty
2003 Ceara Cushnahan
2004 Aidene Mullan
2005 Michelle McManus
2010 Siobhan McKaigue
2011 Grainne McNicholl
2012 Rebecca Ferguson
2013 Aoife Ní Chaiside
2016 Ciara Mulholland
2019 Ceat McEldowney/Laura Scullion

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