Antrim’s West Wing

By Michael McMullan

GLENAVY’S Chapel Hill is a long way from Croke Park, but there will be an Antrim interest in Sunday’s All-Ireland final with former Saffron star Owen Gallagher in Pádraic Joyce’s Galway squad bidding for a first title since 2001.

Gallagher was brought into the Antrim senior panel by Liam Bradley in 2012 while still a pupil in Belfast’s Rathmore Grammar School.

He made his first championship start in their Qualifier win over Galway on Joyce’s last appearance in maroon, when a 10-minute cameo from the bench wasn’t enough to halt the Saffrons.

Gallagher tipped his toe into an engineering course at Dublin’s Trinity College, but it wasn’t for him. He wanted to follow in his parent’s – Owen and Catherine – footsteps and become a doctor like older brother Charles.

One of nine children, Owen headed to NUI Galway where he recently qualified as a doctor, with younger brother Anthony following in his footsteps.

Gallagher’s inter-county career was on and off. He signed off after Antrim’s 2015 Qualifier defeat to Fermanagh with a brief return in 2017 after his exams.

It was former Roscommon player Don Connellan, part of NUI Galway’s Sigerson setup who chipped away at him to make the transfer to Moycullen.

The bus journeys, including two changeovers, to play for Glenavy eventually took its toll.

Football was parked until Connellan eventually convinced him to make a fruitful step and join Moycullen as they went in search of an historic first Galway senior title.

Gallagher chipped in with three points as they saw off Paul Conroy’s St James’ side in the 2020 quarter-final.

He backed it up with 1-2 in their semi-final over Tuam stars and his two points helped sink a Mountbellew-Moylough side that had ended Corofin’s 49-game unbeaten run.

It would eventually lead to a call-up to the inter-county squad and after making his debut in the FDB League final over Roscommon in January, Gallagher has totted up 10 appearances in total (including five starts) with 1-5 to his name.

CUP OF JOY…Owen Gallagher (right), Tomo Culhane and Johnny Heaney celebrate with the Nestor Cup after Galway’s Connacht final win over Roscommon

The late Owen Ruddy holds Glenavy’s only All-Ireland medal with Antrim, from their 1969 u-21 win. Gallagher has a chance to join that club on Sunday afternoon.

Ciaran Hamill twice won the Railway Cup medals and holds a Sigerson medal, with his younger brother Ronan captaining St Colman’s Newry to the 1993 Hogan Cup title.

“The whole clan of them are all serious athletes,” Ronan said of the Gallagher family. “The older brothers (Charles and Dominic) both have Ulster Schools’ medals with Methody.”

Hamill was in the twilight of career as Gallagher was coming on the scene with the club. Summing him up, the terms “goal machine” and “athleticism” come to mind.

He was a pivotal part of Glenavy’s 2015 Antrim Intermediate Championship winning side – along with four of his brothers – under manager Francie Doone, who tragically passed away in the week after the final.

“He scored a screamer in Ulster against Irvinestown,” Hamill recalls. “He’d be bursting through the middle with a rasper that was his trademark…he was taking the net and goalkeeper with him.”

While Hamill isn’t surprised his former teammate has made it to the Galway senior squad, he felt the call may have come earlier in the season, putting the delay down to getting the final touches to his medical qualifications.

“He had all the talent in the world, but he has got into the right mix and has settled in,” he said.

“Owen always had a bit of a spark about him. It sounds like has got himself into a regime of training.”

Every year, Glenavy parish festival includes a seven-a-side football tournament, with the Gallaghers, Hamills, Nelsons and Philips among the families going head to head for the local bragging rights.

“There was a time when the Gallaghers had five county level players in the club sevens,” Hamill laughs.

“I had to pull in a few ringers who had a few tenuous links to our clan.”

Current Antrim player Ryan Murray played with Gallagher in school at Rathmore. Together, they were on the cusp of the 2011 MacLarnon Cup final.

The duo kicked seven points of a Rathmore tally that looked to be enough to see off a St Paul’s, Bessbrook side that included Jemar Hall and Ciaran O’Hanlon.

A 1-2 tally from Bessbrook substitute Paul Óg Grant ate into Rathmore’s lead before Caolan Trainer’s winning goal.

“That’s the memory we’ll always have, even though we got beat,” Murray said of his memories of Gallagher in action at school level.

Operating between the half and inside forward lines, it was his ability to move the ball at pace that set him apart as an “aggressive line breaker.”

Murray described how he had “mighty sidestep” for a player of his size.

“He was so powerful at breaking through challenges…it was the same with the Antrim u-21s,” he added.

Antrim were in arrears when a trademark Gallagher goal helped take Armagh to extra-time in a 1-20 to 2-14 cracker before Armagh edged the replay.

“I remember him picking up the ball in their half, broke a couple of tackles and banged it into the top corner,” Murray said of his wonder goal.

“Relaxed” and “chilled out” are how Murray describes his former wing man at school and county level.

“Owen would be happy to go where it takes him,” he said of how his journey dropped a Galway senior medal into his pocket, followed by a hand in the Tribesmen’s march to the top table.

“I am sure he has put in serious work behind the scenes to be playing at that level now,” Murray said.

“Down played Galway in the league and he got man of the match,” he said. “I hope he comes back up and plays for Antrim.”

Hamill speaks of the “many family connections” keeping an eye on Gallagher’s progress from Chapel Hill on Sunday.

Murray will be rooting for him too.

“With Owen there, I hope he plays a part, but if he doesn’t it’s still a great achievement and I think Galway might be able to create a wee upset.”

What about another Gallagher goal? It would be some story.

Receive quality journalism wherever you are, on any device. Keep up to date from the comfort of your own home with a digital subscription.
Any time | Any place | Anywhere


Gaelic Life is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. 10-14 John Street, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, N. Ireland, BT781DW