A history of Ulster amalgamations

By Niall McCoy 

DERRY GAA recently published a coaching and development strategy for 2021-26 and in doing so, brought the issue of amalgamated teams playing in the Senior Championship back into the limelight.

The report from a special committee, chaired by Damian Cassidy, suggested that the Senior Football Championship grade be expanded to include four ‘district’ teams made up of intermediate and junior teams alongside the usual senior outfits..

It’s something that is alien to Ulster currently, but it is famously in operation in Kerry with the amalgamated East Kerry winning the last two Senior Football Championships. That also ensures that clubs outside senior level get to captain the Kerry team as the armband goes to a representative from the winners.

While it is not in operation in Ulster at the moment, it has been something that has been tried – and more recently that some may think.

The likes of Cavan and Monaghan for football and Antrim for hurling have tried different approaches to varying degrees of success.

It is also now 10 years since Down entered an amalgamated team into their Senior Football Championship, and one of the players from that side would like to see the idea reintroduced – but only if a two- or three-year plan was adopted.

Former Down player Mick Magee was part of the ASK Lecale side that was made up of Ardglass, Saul and Kilclief, and he feels that county boards have to be prepared to take a risk.

“There’s a lot of hidden talent in Down and across Ulster that will not get a look in unless they are on the main stage,” said Ardglass man Magee.

“I believe amalgamation allows these players a chance to shine. Surely in the end it can only benefit the counties that are brave enough to back it?”

Magee said that there was frustration that the experiment only lasted one year, although Kilclief’s Intermediate success later that season did throw a spanner in the works.

The player, who partnered Peter Fitzpatrick in midfield when Down reached the 2009 All-Ireland U-21 final, spoke about the excitement leading up to facing a recognised senior team – even if their opponents did change after a strange episode.

The original championship draw pitted them against Saval but it was then discovered that Tullylish had been left out of the pot. In the redraw, ASK Lecale were paired with Longstone.

“When the amalgamation was first talked about there was a real buzz in the clubs,” he said.

“Knowing we could pull the best players from our neighbouring parishes to form a senior team was exciting, to be honest.

“I was there, you had the likes of Liam Mullan and Stephen Deegan from Ardglass, Adam King and Philly Traynor from Saul and Ricky Kerr and Rosie Sloan from Kilclief.

“That’s a hell of a spine so we thought we could cause an upset but on the day we lost out to a very good Longstone team with the superb Ambrose Rogers and Mark Poland starring. We did give them a scare, we lost by five points and missed a late penalty.

“It’s just a pity the county board couldn’t back it into a second or third year so it would gain a foundation rather than being a one-act show.”

Cavan would embrace amalgmation concept more than other Ulster counties 

By Niall McCoy

A PERUSE of the Cavan U-21 Football Championship roll of honour demonstrates just how big of a part amalgamated teams have played – and the Breffni county have often flirted with the idea at senior level too.

Since the turn of the millennium, Cormore Gaels (Gowna and Arva), Ramor-Munterconnaught, Assan Gaels (Lavey, Killinkere and Cuchulainn’s) and Southern Gaels (Lacken and Gowna) have all won the u-21 title.

Paul Fitzpatrick, Anglo Celt journalist and Cavan GAA historian, has expanded on the history of amalgamations in the county and said that the Annagh team was the most famous of them all as they ended the longest winning streak ever witnessed in the Breffni county.

“The obvious one in Cavan was Annagh, which was Redhills and Belturbet, who won the championship in 1973,” he said. “That ended Crosserlough’s seven in-a-row. They were going for their eight title in succession but Annagh won the title.

“St Mary’s were an amalgamation that won it in 1976, that was Castlerahan and Munterconnaught. St Joseph’s was another long-running amalgamation, Killeshandra and Arva.

“So there was a good tradition of it then.”

That tradition may have died out, at senior level anyway, but the possibility reared its head again following the publication of the ‘Quinn Commission’ in September 2011.

This special investigation, headed by former GAA President Peter Quinn, looked at Gaelic games in Cavan and how the structures could be improved.

One option favoured by clubs was a revamped Senior Football Championship with the then group stage format not raising too many pulses.

In late 2011 clubs voted through a new structure that would see the tournament feature 10 teams and six amalgamated sides.

However, by the time a special county board committee met for the first time in October 2012 to oversee the implementation of the new format, the mood in the county had changed.

Then Cavan chairperson Tom Reilly believed that the changes would be introduced for the 2014 season, but they never came to pass.

“There was the push that came from the ‘Quinn Commission’ report in 2010, 2011,” Fitzpatrick continued.

“It was ratified at a county board meeting but then there was a kickback against it and it didn’t happen.”

Fitzpatrick said that the Kerry model appealed to decision-makers in Cavan, but for one reason or another they could never mirror the Munster county.

“In the early ‘90s as well there was an attempt to run a regional competition under Peter Brady, the chairman, and it was successful enough.

“The idea was that they would replicate the Kerry model but they just didn’t have the tradition of the amalgamations and it’s hard to create the tradition from scratch. That’s the problem they ran into.

“Where would you play it? Do you run a separate regional competition and try and squeeze it in somewhere or do you bring amalgamations into your senior championships?

“The problem with that is that it clashes with their own championships, the intermediate and the junior, so scheduling is a big thing.”

Fitzpatrick also said that one part of the county appeared more open to the idea than others.

“There’s always talk of it in Cavan, particularly in west Cavan,” he said. “You have a lot of junior clubs there.

“You have junior clubs elsewhere, little clusters of junior clubs here and there, and the theory is if their best players got exposed to higher-level football they might thrive and go on and be county players and bring up the standards in their own club.

“I’d say Cavan embrace the idea of it more than other Ulster counties, definitely.”

Monaghan combines made their mark 

By Niall McCoy

EVERY championship draw has plenty of interest, but it was greater than usual when Ballybay hosted the 1999 Monaghan Senior Football Championship launch event.

That was due to the fact that the county had opted to allow amalgamations to participate, although it was decided that the non-amalgamated team that went furthest would represent the Oriel county in the Ulster series.

In the preliminary round, two amalgamated sides were pitted against each other as Finn Valley (Clones, Currin and Killevan) were paired with Mid Monaghan Gaels (Ballybay and Rockcorry).

In the first round proper, Scotstown would face the amalgamation of Clan na Gael featuring players from Oram, Cremartin and Doohamlet while Carrickmacross would meet an Inniskeen, Killanny and Toome selection named Innishkiltoom.

That preliminary clash in Truagh turned out to be an entertaining affair with late scores from Mid Monaghan’s Mickey Conlon and Colin Malone forcing a replay.

The second match was equally exciting and required extra-time, but goals from Michael Quigley and Declan McKernan ultimately were enough to earn Finn Valley a 2-15 to 0-16 win and passage to the last eight after 140 minutes of football.

Innishkiltoom gave Carrick a real scare in their clash before losing out by two points.

The amalgamated side only met up for the first time the Tuesday before the clash in ‘Blayney but Toome’s Declan Hamill, who was the goalkeeper, Inniskeen’s Aiden Lynch and Killanny’s Fergal Duffy all performed well to ensure that they were in it all the way.

Clan na Gael also performed admirably against Scotstown although there was never really any inkling of an upset in their 2-14 to 2-8 defeat. Shane McManus and John Mone grabbed their goals.

The most impressive result of the amalgamated teams that season came in July’s quarter-final as Finn Valley earned a 1-11 to 2-7 win over Donaghmoyne.

It was a massive shock, but Valley were more than deserving winners with Donaghmoyne’s two late goals making the contest appear tighter than it was.

Declan McKernan was the star of the show while James McKernan and Ian Larmer also caught the eye.

That set up a semi-final meeting with Carrick and the senior team powered through to their first final in 50 years with a comfortable 1-14 to 0-8 win, although 17-year-old Dick Clerkin had done enough across the three games to earn a county call.

The experiment continued the following year with Clan na Gael now being made up of Doohamlet, Cremartin and Toome for their preliminary round clash with Donaghmoyne. The Fontenoy’s were much too strong though and progressed on a 2-17 to 0-13 scoreline.

St Enda’s were another new side as the Drumhowan, Rockcorry and Eire Og combination faced Scotstown. With county players Stephen McGinnity and Dermot McDermott amongst their ranks, the amalgamation was able to force a replay – and they completed the job the second time out.

That win ensured that an amalgamated side would be in the last four for the second year in-a-row as they were paired with South Monaghan Gaels – Corduff and Inniskeen – in the quarter-finals.

It was St Enda’s who advanced as they hammered their opponents by 14 points with McDermott, Pauric McKenna, McGinnty and Stephen Leonard excelling.

It meant that three of the four semi-finalists were looking for their first-ever final spot in the competition, but St Enda’s had the hardest draw of all as they were pitted against kingpins ‘Blayney. Aghabog faced Truagh in the other semi-final.

In the end, Blayney eased to a 10-point win after a tight first half with Truagh winning the other semi.

However, despite two semi-final appearances and some top performances, the experiment only lasted for two seasons. By 2001, the competition returned to a senior-team only format with a new backdoor system introduced.

Antrim hurling experiment gets a cold reception 

By Niall McCoy

ANTRIM introduced district sides to the Senior Hurling Championship in 2009, but the results were far from impressive and the experiment only lasted two years.

In August of that year, the South West Antrim, South Antrim and North Antrim sides lined up with the likes of Cushendall and Loughgiel.

South Antrim, who included the likes of Karl Stewart and CJ McGourty, were well beaten by Cushendall 4-9 to 0-9.

Ballycastle were even more comfortable against North Antrim as they won 3-15 to 0-8.

It was a similar story for South West Antrim as Glenariffe found the net seven times against them in a 17-point defeat.

The dreaded ‘DNF’ tag came into play in the 2010 season as South Antrim pulled out of their quarter-final clash with Loughgiel.

North Antrim went down to Ballycastle.

The sides trained very little in the lead up to their games and the experiment was soon ended.

St Jospeh’s side rules Donegal and Ulster

By Niall McCoy

PERHAPS the most famous amalgamation was Donegal side St Joseph’s who won eight county titles and a provincial title in 1975.

The amalgamation brought together Aodh Ruadh and Réalt na Mara in 1963 at a time when both clubs were struggling and needed something to kickstart things.

Their first county title arrived in 1965 when they defeated Naomh Conaill by four points.

They would win an unofficial Ulster title the following year and got the better of Crossmaglen in the 1967 version, which wasn’t played until March 1968.

That set up an All-Ireland final date, despite some Croke Park resistance to the tournament, against Conancht champions Dunmore McHale’s of Galway.

It was a two-legged affair with the first match held in Bundoran and the second in Tuam.

St Joseph’s won the first game by six points but even though they lost the second leg by four points, they won the title on aggregate.

The next time they reached an Ulster final was in 1973 and by then the competition was officially recognised by the provincial council.

It wouldn’t be their day though as they lost to the famous Clan na Gael outfit that dominated in Armagh at that time.

In 1975 St Joseph’s would over the line though when they defeated Monaghan’s Castleblayney in the Ulster final.

The sides separated into two entities in 1977 although Donegal would not win another Ulster Club title at senior football level until Gaoth Dobhair prevailed in 2018.

For and against in the Orchard County 


Firstly can you give me a background on your senior club career, has it been entirely at junior level?

All going well, I will be going into my 17th season with the senior team this year. This has been at junior level the whole time.

Why would an amalgamation appeal to you?

For me it would be great to challenge myself against players at senior level in the county. Anyone who thinks about their football seriously always wants to test themselves against the best players, I feel. Coming together with a group of players from other junior or intermediate clubs to compete at senior level would be a great incentive for players in my opinion.

How would you see it working?

Communication from the county board to teams at junior and intermediate level at the start of the years that this was going to be in place would have to be the first step.

Clubs would then be asked to nominate a maximum of six players who they feel would be up to the standard of competing at Senior Championship level. Players who want to play will always make themselves available.

Then it would come down to logistics and picking a team based on amalgamation of clubs from parishes or  clubs closest to each other distance wise in both the Intermediate and Junior Leagues.

It seems very simplistic, but again I feel you wouldn’t have to over complicate the selection process. If clubs do buy into it, then they will want to put forward their best players.

Even though you are in favour, what potential drawbacks would you see?

The potential drawbacks could be the picking of teams, there would always be that issue when players from other clubs come together. But with a good management team in place this could be rectified.

Do you feel it would benefit the county team?

I really do. It just means more players are getting exposed to better levels of coaching and games at senior level which, in turn, will develop a better competition for players to play in. That then leads to a larger pool of players for our county management to pick from.


Firstly can you give me a background on your senior club career, has it been entirely at junior level?

I played junior football for maybe six, seven years and then we would have been promoted to Division Three. Predominantly for the first 10 years of my senior career I played junior football bar maybe one or two years. The past nine years though has included two years at senior, four or five at intermediate and the last few at junior, although we are on the way back up again. The last 10 have certainly been better than the first 10. I have played at the bottom, got to the top, came back down but now we’re on the road up again.

Why would an amalgamation not appeal to you?

Even if you took away the logistical implications, which I think would be a nightmare anyway, it’s not what the GAA is about for me. I want to play for Forkhill, I play for the pride of the Forkhill jersey, to play with neighbours and relatives – that’s what the GAA is about, for me. Winning a Junior Championship with your club would mean a lot more than going and playing with an amalgamated side in the Senior Championship. It wouldn’t motivate me.

Why would you not see it working?

Take Forkhill as a prime example. People look at us and see that we have county players and say that the Junior Championship should be a cake-walk for us, but football doesn’t work like that. What we had last season was 12, 14, 16 weeks consistently having our county players at every training, every session. We had a consistency and that’s why we won the championship. That’s not the usual way of it and then you take that into an amalgamation and have 20 lads across seven or eight clubs and there are going to be issues.

On top of that, the top of junior in Armagh is not much different to intermediate, but there is a massive gap to the bottom part of junior so would those guys even get on? Okay, you could limit to three per team or something, but straight away you know it will be our three county men, but they are already exposed to top level football with Armagh so what is the reason for it?

Any other drawbacks for you?

I’m looking at Forkhill obviously, and other teams maybe have different arguments, but I would rather our county men Paddy (Burns), Jemar (Hall) and Stephen (Sheridan) were available for Forkhill league games rather than an amalgamated team playing in the championship. I would rather the calendar allowed them to play for us more rather than fitting in the five or so games that an amalgamated side might have to play.         

Do you feel it would benefit the county team?

I don’t know. It’s hard to judge. I don’t think there is much talent in Armagh that Kieran McGeeney hasn’t tapped into. I don’t see any hidden star at junior football that hasn’t gotten his chance. Any player with that ability will be playing u-17s, u-20s, college football. There may be someone here or there but not too many.

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