The Glenullin senior football squad which won the Derry senior football championship in 2007.
ONE remarkable aspect of the GAA is that you do not have to be from a heavily populated area to be successful. And, unlike most other sports, you cannot transfer players to boost your chances of success.
It has been proven that if you build well at under age, success will follow at adult level in a decade or so. Glenullin, over the years, have profited from good juvenile teams. Lean years have been overcome by the work put into these fledgling teens by willing coaches like the late Danny McIlvar.
From half a parish they have built a very strong and vibrant club that has won three county senior titles, three minor and one intermediate, as well as a variety of other competitions including two Ulster senior club leagues.
Glenullin is an area rich in history, myths and legends. They had their early form of Dracula in the townland of Slaghtaverty, The Giant’s Grave, The Errigal (Roman) Bridge, The Dane’s Hill and Churchtown Graveyard where people came from all over the county to be buried in bygone days.
Glenullin, ‘The Glen of The Eagle,’ is situated to the south of the Parish of Errigal. It was named after Saint Errigal Adamnan born in Gartan, county Donegal, in 624. He built a church in the area in the seventh century. It is said that when the church was being built the walls kept falling down overnight. Then, as St. Adamnan was having a doze, an eagle came and picked up his prayer book. It was then dropped still intact and the church was built where the book fell. Thus ‘The Glen of the Eagle. Once named Glenullor, or Glenuller, it has now settled on the name of Glenullin.
It lies to the south of the parish with local rivals Ballerin occupying the northern half. Legend has it that when the Vikings came up the River Bann about the tenth century and fanned out into the countryside looting and pillaging they came to a halt in Glenullin. The people there protected their church and defeated the invaders. This was the first indication that Glenullin would always be difficult to beat at home!
Until 1937 they played in the South Derry competitions but as the number of clubs in north began to grow they threw in their lot with the North Derry Board.
Not alone have they produced good footballers but they have also produced good county officials including two county secretaries and a county chairman. They have provided a number of Derry captains including two for All Ireland winning minor teams. They have had two All Stars including Paddy Bradley one of Derry’s highest ever scoring forwards. The other is Dermot McNicholl, the youngest ever player to win this award. Both captained their club to county final success. A former Glenullin player Declan McNicholl was voted the best ever North American Gaelic footballer.
Under the drive and leadership of chairmen like Martin Mullan, Danny O’Kane and Gabriel Bradley they have built state of the art facilities and created a few firsts. The first club to build a GAA Hall and the first to have floodlights.
Like most rural areas Glenullin has been hit by the scourge of emigration, mainly to America. When they won the John McLaughlin Cup in 1985 with a young team they looked set for a long stay at the top but, within a year, they had lost a third of the team to various parts of the world. Clubs like Glenullin do not sit and moan of what might have been. They just dust themselves down and go again. If you looked at a team list with O’Kanes, McNicholls, Raffertys, Mullans and Bradleys it would not take a genius to figure out that it was Glenullin.
1925 and the country was still reeling from partition, a civil war and dire poverty. People needed something to cling to and the formation of a GAA club in Glenullin gave the community of the area something to focus on. Sean Mullan, who was the first Derry county secretary on an all county basis, was to the fore along with James O’Hagan in getting the club up and running as well as a number of McNicholls. It is known that both men encouraged surrounding areas to get involved in fielding teams with Drumsurn answering the call.
With communication and transport at a premium the organising of competitions was a set back. Sean Mullan continued to do sterling work to get the GAA on a firm footing in the county. He travelled alone to an Ulster Council meeting in Monaghan and persuaded a Cavan man, Benny Fay, to get involved in promoting the Association in Derry.
The Glenullin pitch now bears the name of Sean O’Maolain Park. He was secretary from 1926 to 1928 and his brother Pat held the post from 1965 to 1980. Both were fluent Irish speakers. Sean Mullan emigrated to America like many a man from the area before and after.
The first major achievement was the county title of 1928. A year later Derry beat Antrim 1-4 to 1-3 in the Ulster junior championship. There were five Glenullin players on the team including James O’Hagan and Harry Owens. Also there was Hugh Arthur Mullan, believed to be the first Derry man to play for Ulster. At that stage he was with a club in County Down.
In the ‘hungry’ thirties the lack of funds to run a club was a big problem. A local barn was used for a fundraising dance but the decision was taken to build what would be the first GAA Hall in Derry. A committee of 20 men good and true were to be the guiding force of the proposed construction. A building company was sourced and it was officially opened in October 1935 by Harry Diamond, a prominent GAA man from Belfast.
As Irish dancing was part of GAA culture, classes were organised and funds raised to keep the club going. The debt was cleared seven years later and the hall was widely used by people of the area.
The new community centre opened in 1987 under the chairmanship of Gabriel Bradley and is now the centre for Scor competitions in the county where the club is prominent at county, provincial and All Ireland level. The Boylan family were to the fore in much of the success.
After a dip in action following the 1928 county title, Glenullin were ready and willing when the competitions started. They won the Dr. Kerlin Cup with a walkover against O’Connor’s Limavady in 1938 and a year later beat Foreglen in a high scoring final by 0-18 to 0-12. They won again in 1945 but remarkably did not reach another final until 1964 when they beat Foreglen by 2-8 to 1-4 with Dessie Rafferty’s goal long remembered.
Later on, they appeared in many finals but found it difficult to finish in front. Back to 1937 and they also won North Derry’s Neil Carlin Cup. The players on that team were James B McNicholl, Pat Hagan, Danny Hegarty, John McNicholl, Paddy McIntyre, Josie McNicholl, Patrick Higgins, James Rafferty, Barney McNicholl, James McNicholl. Jimmy McCloskey, Henry O’Kane, another Barney McNicholl, James O’Kane and John McNicholl.
On the championship front they won North Derry titles in 1940, 1942 and 1944. The 1942 county final ended in a draw with Magherafelt. The most curious incident ever in a county final took place in this game at Dungiven. County secretary Paddy McFlynn was playing for Magherafelt. The game was refereed by county chairman Paddy Larkin. The chairman sent the secretary off and had to travel back in the Magherafelt bus but arrived safe and well.
The replay was set for Magherafelt and awarded to them on the basis that Glenullin refused to travel. Glenullin did dispute Magherafelt having home advantage but claimed that they did not get any notification of the replay which sounds the most plausible explanation. With the possibility of a county title you would travel anywhere! That Glenullin team included John Eddie Mullan who five years later was a star of the Derry team that took the county’s first ever National football league title with a 2-9 to 2-5 victory over Clare.
In 1944 when they again won the North Derry title the team included B McNicholl, D McNicholl, J.B. McNicholl, J McNicholl, J.P. McNicholl, B.A McNicholl, P McNicholl, J.N. McNicholl, W McNicholl and D.J. McNicholl. The other five were Tommy Mullan, Henry O’Kane, James Rafferty, Jimmy McCloskey and Frank Dillon.
Into the fifties and it was a struggle at times with the Rafferty and McNicholls keeping the club in motion as emigration began to bite again. With no underage teams they were kept going for a spell by players from Drum but as the decade progressed they improved dramatically and saw young players like Donal Mullan, Noel Mullan, Anthony Burns and Patsy Bradley emerge as leaders for the future.
The minor county title of 1962 was to be the brightest spark in the club since 1928. They made a clean sweep of North Derry titles and caused an almighty shock by beating Ballinascreen in the county final before a big crowd at Magherafelt.
Pat O’Kane, who had played with the club in the thirties but was now trainer of Garvagh soccer team along with club senior player Finbar O’Kane, took charge of a very promising team. Dinny Mullan’s mini van was central to the transport system.
It was the clash of two unbeaten teams but Ballinascreen were red hot favourites. They soon got a shock when the Glen bagged two goals in the first ten minutes and went on to lead by 2-1 to 0-5 at half time.
In the end they had eight points to spare on a final score of 4-6 to 1-7. Sean Higgins, a future Derry goalie, excelled with his kicking out and smart saves. Fonsey O’Kane, the captain, was dominant at midfield. This team that was to produce senior players for the next decade like John B O’Kane, Cathal Mullan, Chris McNicholl and Seamus Mullan and Fonsey O’Kane captained Derry minors for the next two years.
In 1968 they won Division Two of the All County League and got promoted to the top division and progress was being made. Into the seventies and the club began to make an impact in the GAA social competition of Scor. Danny McIlvar was quietly preparing the youth of the club without fuss or favour. Danny was a great coach and referee. Players like Gabriel Bradley, Gerard O’Kane (sen) and Declan McNicholl were representing Derry at minor and under 21 level.
On 11th September 1977 their improving team beat Desertmartin in the county Intermediate final at Swatragh by 1-5 to 0-5 with Gerard O’Kane scoring 1-2 from the half forward line. He was one of a number of players still there eight years later when the senior title was annexed.
The Eighties was an outstanding decade for the club. In 1985 they collected their second Derry senior title, nearly 60 years after the first, but they had to do it the hard way. With former player Patsy McGilligan in charge and Dermot McNicholl, the youngest ever All Star footballer as captain at twenty years of age, they beat a fancied Ballinderry in the final.
It is noteworthy that their 1985 and 2007 victories they beat the two most prolific championship winners Ballinderry and Bellaghy. Both captains - Dermot McNicholl and Paddy Bradley - also were All Stars.
The opening round resulted in a narrow win over one of the big boys Lavey. Next up was a clear cut win over Newbridge. This set up the semi finals with Glenullin taking on reigning champions Dungiven and Ballinderry facing Castledawson. After the first game had been drawn at Ballerin it was clear cut next time with Glenullin winning by five points. Ballinderry had just scraped home against Castledawson in the other semi final.
With Dermot McNicholl bouncing off some fierce Ballinderry tackles and his cousin Declan scoring 1-5 the Mitchel’s were in control for three quarters of the game. The Shamrock’s had a player sent off when they were six points behind but a converted penalty put them back in contention. Glenullin held off the rally to win by three points. The team line out was Noel Trainor, Jim Bradley, Gabriel Bradley, Ephriam Bradley, Donal McNicholl, Colm Rafferty, Gerard O’Kane, Dermot McNicholl, Danny (Tam) O’Kane, Dominic Bradley, Cathal McNicholl, Declan McNicholl, Ronan Bradley, Colm McNicholl and Raymond Conway. The bulk of the team were brothers and cousins.
The action was not all confined to the playing field. Dozens of volunteers were busy building a new community GAA club hall. It was officially opened in May 1987. The programme for the event listed 18 players who had represented their county at various levels in the previous decade. Chairman Gabriel Bradley led the way.
Danny McIlvar’s well coached young players were beginning to show real quality when they won the 1978 county under 14 title, Danny had future county chairman Gerard O’Kane as his co-pilot. That was the year that their new club ground was officially opened and named in honour of founder member Sean O’Maolain.
Two years after their under 14 success they won the county under 16 championship with a stunning 5-14 to 0-3 victory over Lavey. One noted writer suggested that this Glenullin team with power and pace all over the field was probably the best seen at this level in the county. The two McNicholl’s - Declan and Dermot - were in devastating form, scoring 3-4 between them.
It was inevitable that a minor would follow but that actually won two in 1981 and ’82. In the ’81 final they prevented Dungiven from winning three in a row winning by 0-11 to 0-7 in the final at Ballerin. They also went through the North Derry league unbeaten.
A year later it was the same pairing in the final again this time played at Swatragh. In very windy conditions Glenullin won by 0-6 to 1-2. It was their fifth year in a row to win a county under age title.
From there until a few years ago Glenullin were a serious force in Derry football. Dermot McNicholl, who later had a spell in Aussie Rules, captained Derry to the 1983 All Ireland minor title.
Nine years later another Glenullin player Gerard O’Kane (junior) captained Derry from full back to beat Meath in the All Ireland minor final. He did similar earlier that year when St. Patrick’s Maghera won the Hogan Cup.
All the time Glenullin were gathering momentum in club senior football with Liam Bradley as manger. Paddy Bradley was now established as one of the best forwards in the game continually setting scoring records. His younger brother Eoin was also cutting defences open with his searing pace and deadly finishing.
The third senior title came in 2007 with a replay win over Bellaghy who had claimed the title three years previously. A defence consisting entirely of O’Kanes and Mullans gave little away and in the middle of the field Ruairi Boylan and Neil Mullan were a strong pair.
A week after the drawn encounter at Celtic Park Glenullin, despite hitting 17 wides emerged with the much sought after John McLaughlin Cup. The winning team was
Shane O’Kane, Eunan O’Kane, Brian Mullan, Barry Mullan, Stephen Mullan, John O’Kane, Gerard O’Kane, Ruairi Boylan, Neil Mullan, Dominic McIlvar, Donal Boylan, Conrad Bradley, Damian Hasson, Paddy Bradley, Eoin Bradley. When they won the 1985 title Gerard O’Kane senior wore number seven. Twenty two years later his son also named Gerard also wore number seven in the final.
On their way to the final Glenullin defeated Lavey, Slaughtneil, Magherafelt and Ballinderry the reigning champions, a stiff passage by any standards. All four have won the county title at some stage. The team was managed by Liam Bradley, the father of Paddy and Eoin, with former Antrim player Kevin Madden with Glenullin connections involved in the coaching. Two Ulster senior league titles were to follow.
Back to what we said at the beginning, rural clubs will have their highs and lows. While they competed strongly until the last few years they are now a level below where they would like to be but the green shoots are appearing again. They are strong over the past three years at under 14, 16 and 18 level. Younger players are beginning to make their mark at adult level and the playing numbers at the lower age levels are increasing.
They have all the facilities a club needs with the addition of a well stocked shop for the local community on the club premises.
Just to recap the highlights enjoyed by the club over the past 95 years. County senior champions 1928, 1985 and 2007. North Derry champions 1940, 1942 and 1944, County intermediate champions 1977. County minor champions 1962, 1981 and 1982. County under 14 champions 1978, County under 16 champions 1980. Founded 1925, first hall built 1935, 1978 opening of new playing field, 1987 opening of new Community centre, 2016 supermarket opened.