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In Focus: Eddie Donnelly – the life and career of the Antrim and Ballycastle player

A NUMBER of weeks ago, our GList feature considered who the best 10  Antrim hurling forwards were. The research into the selection  involved asking some of the most fanatical Saffron fans about the matter.

The conclusion reached was that Eddie Donnelly was at the top. This should come as no surprise to long-time readers of Gaelic Life. The Ballycastle man was awarded a Gaelic Life Hall of Fame award in 2015, which marked his performance for the McQuillan’s club from the 1960s through the 1980s. In that period he  won eight Antrim Senior Championships.

That Donnelly is still regarded as one of the best forwards that Antrim has ever produced, even though he put his stick away in the years before the county’s most famous hurling season in 1989, indicates the quality of the hurler he was.

So what drove Donnelly to play hurling, what was his motivation?

He said: “I was reasonably good at it. If I had been bad at it, I might not have enjoyed it as much.

“We had a bit of success too. If I hadn’t had the success I might have went off and tried something else.

“From a very young age I had a hurling stick in my hand.”

He was always destined to play hurling because he comes from a family of hurlers.

Eddie Donnelly’s great grandfather is one of the founder members of Ballycastle club. Eddie’s father did not play a lot, but  his uncles were important members of the club in the early days.

His uncle Brendan,  his father’s twin brother, was one of the great players back in those days. His other uncles were Paddy  and Dermot and they were also key players. Donnelly was born in 1947 and during the ’50s with all those men around him, he soon became aware of hurling.

“I would puck about with my uncles on the farm. We lived in the Diamond in Ballycastle. The team always met in the Diamond. Then someone would produce a ball and you puck about there.

“There were no cars then in the Diamond. Now you couldn’t get on it at all for it is like a car park.

“I would have been in the middle of them all. Then they would take me to the matches. They’d say ‘come on young Donnelly, you’re coming with us to the match’. I’d be going to Loughgiel, or Dunloy, myself and my brother Kevin.”

At home he was hurling, and the same was the case at the school he attended,  Garron Tower.

“I got good experience at the colleges. I played with  a lot of the fellas from north Antrim, from Glenarriffe, Dunloy, Loughgiel.

“We played St Peter’s of Wexford in an All-Ireland schools match. Aeneas Black was man of the match. Though we got beat. He was a terrific player.”

As a young boy, Donnelly just love playing matches. To highlight that, he even turned out to play Gaelic football.

“I never touched a football till I went to Garron Tower. We won the Rannafast  Cup. I think, still to this day, it is the only football title that Garron Tower have won. That was 1965, I got picked for the Antrim minor team. I was picked for one match and didn’t get picked again.

“I wasn’t much of a footballer. I could catch it and kick it.

“When I was playing for Glenravel. I got picked for the county senior team. I played one match, a challenge match against Dublin in Dublin. I knew I wasn’t good enough, but I went anyway.

“Then I wrecked my knee (in the mid ‘70s), and I gave up the football and concentrated on the hurling

“I enjoyed it at school.”

But hurling was his obsession. He realised that his chance to play for the senior team would come at the carnival matches that were played throughout Antrim and Ulster in the 1950s.

“Carnivals were big. They were big from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. There would always have been a dance. The showbands would have been at it.

“It didn’t matter if you weren’t big enough. If you were there you were playing. You could have got playing when you were 14 or 15.

“You played a match and if you got to the final everyone won a watch.

“The carnivals were a big thing and the crowds were big at it.”

Donnelly went along to as many carnival matches as he could, and he finally got his chance.

“The first time I ever played I was 14, it was at one of those carnivals.

“I went into goals because we hadn’t enough players. There was none of the restrictions that you have today.”

That was his first taste of senior action and he was hooked. The pride of playing for his club was fulfilling for Donnelly, but he was also following his uncles and his older brother Kevin.

Yet Ballycastle were going through a difficult time when Donnelly was trying to get onto the team. In 1964, Ballycastle were in Division Two. The had been relegated in 1963. So expectations were low.

“Ballycastle had been a great club in the 1950s but they had went downhill. Like a lot of clubs, boys emigrated, teams stayed together too long. Ballycastle went down to a low ebb.”

Eddie and his brother Kevin were on the senior team as teenagers but it was a remarkable year for Ballycastle as they won the championship in ‘64.

“I remember in 1964 myself and Kevin were getting ready for the final. My father was coming up through the farm. My mother was making dinner. Me and my brother sat down and we were eating dinner. My father said: ‘Youse are a pair of boys, going to play a county final eating a feed like that’. We were big and strong and eating a feed like that didn’t bother us. We could have played away.

“So then he says to us, ‘are youse going to win today?’. We said that we hoped so. He says ‘if you win come home and take a pound apiece’. Then he says, ‘there you go mammy, you hold the money, and if they don’t win you give the money back to me’.

“And a pound back then was big money in 1964, and me at 16 when I didn’t have a penny.”

Donnelly said that the support of his parents was very important in the early days.

“He went to the matches and he was very proud. My mother didn’t go to the matches. She was just worried that you came back in one piece.

“Parents were important. They kept you supplied with sticks and hurls.”

The details of the final in 1964 are a distant memory for Donnelly, but it is worth pointing out that the games back then were a lot less organised and structured as the modern game.

There were no managers back then. Teams had groups of selectors which included players. For Ballycastle in 1964, the selectors were made up of Donnelly’s uncle Brendan – who was playing as well –  Brian McShane and John Donnelly, no relation, from Ballintoy.

Donnelly said: “I don’t ever remember getting much direction. If we were playing against the breeze and I got the ball I was to run with it, and not look to pass it against the breeze. I had to hold onto it as long as I could.

“In the ‘64 final, we were playing Loughgiel. It was eight-one to us at half time. We played with the breeze in the first half. We thought that that wouldn’t be enough. It finished nine-three. We scored one point in the second half, they scored two.

“I remember, I was fit to run all day. I just had to hold onto the ball and run and run.

“In those days we didn’t play systems. It was 15 men against 15. It was a bit like (Brian) Cody in his great Kilkenny teams. He didn’t play systems.”

The 16-year-old who was part of that winning team couldn’t believe it. Donnelly will always remember that day of winning the final.

“I can remember coming home and then going to down to the sea front where Charlie McCay’s flat bed lorry took us up through the town. I thought it was wonderful. I couldn’t believe it, and all the adulation from the old men. I enjoyed every bit of it.

“Me being young, winning the county title in 1964,  I thought that they were going to be easy. But I was wrong. It wouldn’t be till 1975 that I got my next one having lost three final in between, 1969, ‘70 and ‘73.

“I was 27 by the time I got my second medal.”

Yet, there’s a feeling that Donnelly was happy just playing.

What Donnelly enjoyed was the challenge of testing himself against his opponents. He liked the one-on-one battles that defined hurling back in those days.

“I played against some great hurlers, like Arthur Connolly from Loughgiel. He  was a great hurler. I liked playing against Sean Burns too. They were hard men, but never dirty, you never worried about getting hit. Terrific players. They had great sportsmanship. If you got the better of them then you were doing rightly but you never got the better of them for the whole 60 minutes.

“I had plenty of bad days too. You can’t play well all the time.”

More often than not he played well and he came to the attention of the Antrim selectors. Donnelly played county minors and u-21s and made it onto the county senior team in 1969.

“Myself and Niall Wheeler were on the same team. He had been in Australia for many years. he had just came home and we were picked off an Antrim junior team.

“Niall and me roomed together when we were on the county team. He was 10  years older than me.”

Getting onto the Antrim team was an honour, though Donnelly was merely following in the family footsteps. His uncle Brendan was already a regular, and his brother Kevin was there too.

“I was proud to get on the team. My mother and father were delighted as well.”

In Antrim’s Intermediate-title winning season in 1970, Donnelly  recalls the clash with Galway in the semi-final.

“That was a tough, tough game but Antrim played well and we came through it. There wasn’t much in it. Galway had a fair enough team at that stage.

“We played Warwickshire in the final but that was probably one of the easier matches.

“I remember Niall scored a great point in Croke Park from 100 yards out on the Cusack  Stand side toward the Railway end (in the Intermediate final). I saw the ball coming in and it sailed over the bar.

“Around 2005 we had a reunion of that team. I said to Niall could you score a point from 100 yards now? He says, ‘now it’s 150 yards, two yards get added every  year.’”

They also won the Division Two National League and beat Kildare in the final.

Donnelly said that he admired the stronger players in the game. One of those lined out for Kildare.

“Pat Dunny of Kildare was a big strong player. He was a good footballer too. Cian Healy, the rugby player, reminded me of Pat Dunny. Pat was built like that. He was strong as could be and a terrific player.”

The Antrim team Donnelly played on included some excellent players. Donnelly remembers  Johnny Coyle, Sean Burns the captain, Aidan McCamphill and Niall Wheeler. Tony Connolly was in the middle. Up front was Brendan McGarry and  Seamus Richmond.

“Brendan McGarry was one of the best hurlers I’ve every seen. He  could have played the whole match and you would have known he was there, Seamus could be dead quiet and then in a 10-minute spell he would wipe you up. He did that to us (Ballycastle) in the 1970 county final. We had led  most of the way until Seamus took the game into his hands and then scored two goals.”

Another big player for Antrim around that time was Andy McCallin.

“He was a terrific, skilful player.”

There were great players in around the team. Willie Richmond, Chris Elliott, Aidan McCamphill from Dunloy were on the squad.

“Those great Dunloy players never won a county title. They had gone by the time they won. They deserved to win. They were great players but lost so many finals.”

In the mid ‘70s Donnelly felt that he enjoyed his most successful period as player. He was nominated four years in-a-row for an All-Star.

“That wasn’t easy for someone from Antrim. The All-Stars were generally only for those teams that played well in the All-Ireland final. Really back then there was only the All-Ireland final, the Munster final and the Leinster final. Connacht wasn’t really going back then. Galway were the only team ever to come out of Connacht.

“I wasn’t getting much chance (to impress the All-Star judges) except in the National League. I played against Cork, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Clare, Limerick, Offaly. I played against the big teams.”

Donnelly remembers one occasion when he was able to show off his great talent.

“In  1976 on my birthday we were playing Offaly down in Tullamore. They made me captain that day. We got a 21-yard free. I was taking it.

“Damian Martin was in goals. He was the first All-Star goalkeeper. I lifted the ball and miss-hit it. There were three or four men on the line but whatever happened it hit the crossbar and went in. I said to Damian afterwards, ‘I don’t know how that went in because I was going for a point’. He said: ‘I thought that.’”

However an injury would have a significant effect upon Donnelly’s future as a hurler.

“In the ‘70s I played my best hurling,  either at centre forward or centre half. Then I wrecked my knee in a championship quarter-final against Mitchell’s in 1977. And that curtailed me. I was out for the guts of the year. Then I came back at full-forward where I stayed.”

Then Ballycastle went on a big run. They were in all the finals from 1977 to 1984, and won again in 1986. However, they have not won the county title since.

In the 1970s  he was in his pomp. He was a regular in the top scorers list, and he was nominated for All-Star teams. He also played in interprovincial matches  and that gave him a chance to play alongside and against some of the best players in Ireland.

That included Brian Cody who Donnelly has had great respect for as a player and a manager.

“You never see him ranting or raving on the sideline. He doesn’t give much away. He’s very cool.

“Myself and my wife were going to get the boat to Rosslare to go over to France.

“We stopped in Kilkenny for the night. We went into mass in the morning, in a  wee chapel in James Stephens. Who came in but Brian Cody. It was nine o’clock mass. Kilkenny were playing Tipperary in the National League  semi-final I think it was. I went up to him and said hello and said that I had played with him in the All-Stars match.

“He said to me ‘Eddie are you down for the match?’

“I said ‘I am not, I am going to France’. I said ‘what do you think about today?’ He said, ‘I am not too worried about today. I am more thinking about the first Sunday in September.’”

Donnelly said his favourite Kilkenny player was Frank Cummins.

“I thought he was a terrific player. I only got to play against him in the Railway Cup. I aspired to be like him. He was strong and never seemed to have a bad game.

“Eddie Keher was a top forward. Pat Henderson was a great player a tough player.

“I played with Jimmy Barry Murphy in the shinty. He was a class player.”

Playing in those shinty matches against Scotland were an experience that Donnelly cherishes.

“That was good craic. I enjoyed it because they were tough as nails. It was exciting. It was all skill based. They were very skilful.

“We played them in Scotland and got a draw. Then they came over and played in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. We beat them five-one. They were tough guys. They enjoyed the craic as well.

“The one interesting thing was that their goalkeeper was allowed to use a hurling stick for his puck-outs and he was able to master it very quickly.”

Donnelly enjoyed his time playing in the  interprovincials.

“It was really only Antrim and Down players at that time. There was Hugh Dorrian, Hugo O’Prey, Paul Braniff, Noel Keith the goalkeeper. They were good players.

“We knew the Down players because the three clubs played in our leagues. We knew those players.

“Down, for having just three senior clubs, always produced great players.”

The presence of Down back then was important not only for the interprovincial team, but also for the challenge it presented to the Antrim clubs.

“Part of our problem up here is that we are isolated, in that we play matches against Loughgiel, Dunloy, Cushendall, Rossa and St John’s. You were meeting them at the carnivals and then you were meeting them in the league. The thing was incestuous. You were learning damn all. The Down teams were giving us a challenge.

“There was a proposal at one stage, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s,  to throw the Down teams out because of the travelling. I objected very strongly. I said if we were going to put ourselves in a corner and play ourselves then we won’t progress.

“The Down teams are still playing (in the Antrim leagues). It would have been a backward step to remove them.”

Donnelly thinks the problem carried over to intercounty level in those days as there were only two teams of note in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“For us to play a major county we had to travel to Dublin or to Offaly or to Galway. It was a weekend with all the costs. Waterford and all those places are all next to each other. They can play challenge matches against each other. We are isolated up here and it makes it more difficult.”

That they were able to be competitive without those matches is a credit to them.

Donnelly said: “The hurling was always strong in the Glens of Antrim.  There was no football. One of Antrim’s biggest problem is that there was no  great challenge come out of Belfast. Rossa and St John’s would have had good teams, but then there were the Troubles.

“In recent years we have not had a strong team coming out of Belfast. We just have had the four senior clubs ploughing a lone furrow.

“The Troubles contributed to it because it was harder to travel. It seemed to weaken the challenge coming out of Belfast.

“Now the roads are better. It used to be that if you were working in Belfast you used to go up and stay. Now you can go up and down.

“Take Dublin, it used to take you five hours or more to get to Dublin. Now you can leave Ballycastle and be in Dublin in three and a quarter hours.”

For a period of his life, Donnelly was working in Belfast and had moved down there.

He was met with a proposal to line out for some of the clubs in the city.

“I went to work in Belfast with the Northern Bank. I was approached by a couple of clubs. They asked if I would like to train with them. I was well warned by my brother if I went to play with anyone else then I had better not come home.”

Donnelly won his second Senior Championship title in 1976. A decade after he won his first. The turn in fortunes could be credited to  a few things. Donnelly had one suggestion.

“We had the street leagues starting in the town. We had far more young boys playing.

“We had a lot of them come through at one age. We had the Boyles for example,  Peter, Kevin and Stephen. Gerard McAuley, Brian Donnelly and Dessie Donnelly, Terence Donnelly, Seamus Donnelly, Michael Dallat and Peter Dallat. They were all within three or four years of each other.

“Kevin was the oldest on the team. I was full-forward in 1978. I was 31, and Kevin was 33. We stayed there right through to 1986 winning titles. It was a good blend of players.”

Donnelly says that it is families that creates success in the GAA. The families that provided players in the 1950s were again producing the good group for the club in the 1970s. They won titles in 1975, ‘78, ‘79, ‘80, ‘83, ‘84 and 1986.

They also won their first Ulster title in 1978 and backed that up with provincial wins in ‘79, ‘80, ‘83, ‘84 and ‘86.

The All-Ireland title eluded them but they did reach the final in 1980, when they met Castlegar, and lost.

Donnelly said: “That was the final when the seven Connollys played against the seven Donnellys. They said it was the nightmare game for the commentators.

“It was a big day for the club. But we lost by three points. Then Loughgiel came and won it in 1983. They beat us in the final in 1982, won the All-Ireland Club.

“We  beat  them in the  county final in 1983 by a point.

“My brother Kevin said that he always wanted to beat a  team by a point to win the championship. It was a bloody close thing. It’s not good for the heart when it is a couple of minutes to go and you are only a point in front.”

Donnelly is in a position to know that in hurling success can be cyclical. He has seen the peaks and troughs in Ballycastle. His career started with the high of the Senior Championship, a drought, and then a feast of seven titles.

He points out that swings of fortunes can happen anywhere.

“In the 1980 All-Ireland final we played Castlegar. They led the titles in Galway. They haven’t won a Galway Championship since 1984. Castlegar won the club title in 1980, Galway won the All-Ireland in 1980 and Connacht won the Railway Cup in 1980.

“The Connollys and Castlegar boys were on that team, but John Connolly will tell you that they just went downhill. I am almost certain they went into intermediate. They are still not the crack side that they were.

“Hurling has changed. Take Cork. It used to be Glen Rovers and Finbarrs and Blackrock but now it is all country teams. It is not the ones out of Cork city who are winning anymore.”

So he would say that you have to cherish those moments of success, which he certainly does.

“It is a great honour for the parish to win a county title. It is great for a small town or townland.”

Donnelly said that the lesson learned from his career was that players should know when to retire.

“We made the mistake and we stayed on too long. We maybe shouldn’t have stayed so long.

“If you look at any of Cody’s teams, the teams that got to All-Ireland finals. After four or five years, he has  a new team. Apart from Tommy Walshe  or Henry Shefflin,  he will have five or six players.”

That is hard to do, though Donnelly says that Kilkenny have an advantage.

“You can do it in Kilkenny because it is full of  hurlers. And they don’t play football either.

“I was talking to Joe Hennessey and he said ‘they play their football in the winter to get it out of the road.’”

Donnelly says that he thinks the current state of the GAA in Ireland is good. He thinks the improvements in facilities has been remarkable.

“Everyone thinks that their day was the best but that is not true. The one difference that makes today better is the pitches. You are never playing in the gutter. Everywhere has good pitches now.

“Even here in Ballycastle when we started playing we were playing in a farmer’s field with a single strand of wire around it. Nowadays every club in Ireland has a ground, and there are some terrific grounds. For an amateur organisation for the facilities that we have is a credit.”

The Ballycastle club had certainly changed dramatically for Donnelly by 1984 when he won his eighth and final Senior Championship. 1984 was the centenary year and Donnelly was captain.

A year later  Donnelly was asked to go back into the Antrim team.

“I had retired in 1983 but then Sean McGuinness asked me to come back. He had picked Ciaran Barr to be centre forward. Before the things started Ciaran got  injured. I am a good friend of Sean’s and I have a lot of respect for him. He said to me ‘Eddie would you come in till Ciaran is fit again?’

“I said I would. I played the National League. I think I scored six points from play against Roscommon. I stayed for that and then I retired.

“I played for the club till 1989. But I probably stayed too long. I should have quit when I quit the county. You shouldn’t really take a young boy’s position.”

Donnelly said that the years after he retired were different and sometimes challenging.

“I wouldn’t be a great watcher. It was hard on a Sunday afternoon when you don’t have to look for the bag. But that’s the way it goes. Every dog has its day.

“The first few years afterward it was hard, but I don’t mind watching now.

Donnelly imparted as much of his wisdom as he could to the players who came after him. But when he was coaching he noticed that the style of the game was changing. Hand-passing was becoming more prevalent and teams wanted to spread the play, and focus on where the ball was going.

“It was becoming more of a team game. In my day you just hit it. Everyone stayed in their position. It is a totally different game. The reason why you can do that is because of the pitches. There are no heavy pitches where you are running through gutters.”

With regards to Ballycastle, he understands that the gap from their last Antrim Senior Hurling Championship title is a long one, but he thinks the gap can be closed.

“Things come in cycles. We went from 1954 to 1964 with no wins. We went 11 years and won one. Then we won seven so I finished with eight. After that we have went downhill. We can give Dunloy or Cushendall a match but that’s it.

“Of course Dunloy did not win their first till 1990. Before that they were more successful as footballers.”

But Donnelly also said that the world has changed, and society has changed and perhaps that has affected the way hurling teams come together.

“Ballycastle has changed. Take our 1964 team, Kevin and myself were at school. The rest of the team were men working round the town. They were farmers, or brickies or painters.

“Right through the early years that was the way.

“Nowadays parents, quite rightly, say that you are going on to third level education. Young fellas at 18 to 19 are away to university. It used to be that the only universities would be Belfast or Dublin. Now they are going to lots of places. If they aren’t committed then they won’t be back.”

This is a worry to him.

“We have a quarter of a team in Australia. The financial crisis hit. Then you have these budget airlines which can take you to the other side of the world for very few pound at all.

“I could rhyme off names of boys who went away. They said they were going for a bit of craic and they would be back after a few years. That was five or six years ago.”

This is not an issue that is exclusive to Ballycastle.

“I was at the Féile a few years ago and I was chatting to the chairman of the club. He said to me, ‘we were hanging on to senior status. I can tell you now we just lost five of our senior players who are away to Australia. That is going to finish us’.

“There were tears in his eyes.”

Donnelly can clearly empathise with the story, and he feels it too as his family have a long history with the club.

Currently there is only one Donnelly on the Ballycastle team, Matthew, Brian’s son.

There are a host of Donnelly lads who are in far-flung lands. Dermot Donnelly, Fergus Donnelly, Eoin McLonan, James McShane whose mothers are Donnelly, are in either Australia or America.

“The world is a smaller  place now. Australia is a lot closer, and there is the lure of money, and work, and good weather and craic.

“The pandemic might change things. People are able to work from home now. You hear of people who are leaving London and coming home to get out of the rat race. So that might have an effect. Though it is going to change the way we live.”

Perhaps things will change, and Ballycastle will win a championship again. But Donnelly admits that the way that teams came together back in the ‘50s and ‘60s probably won’t happen.

“The world is changing.The town has changed. It has grown. A lot of people have come in from wherever. The parish doesn’t seem to have the same grá or feel for the hurling team as I think there had before.

“There is a soccer team in the town. There was two at one stage. That never happened in my day.

“A couple of boys were tempted by soccer with Coleraine. There is one young fella who is on the Ulster Rugby senior panel. That never happened in my day, It would never have been a possibility.

“It’s called  progress. You can’t change that.”

The town may change, but the records and the successes and the awards and the many, many memories that Donnelly has enjoyed as a player will live long in the memories, of all in the Ballycastle club.

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