Cross and Passion College Ballycastle are eying a tenth Mageean Cup on Friday. It was former Antrim star Dessie Donnelly who captained their first winning team in 1977. He spoke to Michael McMullan
THE Mageean Cup final experience has changed completely since Dessie Donnelly made history by lifting the silver in 1977 as Cross and Passion’s first winning captain.
Now, it’s a permanent fixture under The Dub’s Friday night lights on the mouth of Christmas. There are glitzy photos. The livestream is a recent phenomenon. Ulster Schools have sold it brilliantly and the media attention helps make it an attraction primary school children want a slice of.
School hurling began in the early fifties with St Malachy’s, Belfast winning the senior shield. When the competition morphed into the Mageean Cup in 1964, it was St MacNissi’s, Garron Tower who were the first champions.
Dessie Donnelly’s college sporting career also took a few turns before hurling came along. The first three years in Ballycastle, he was one of a handful of hurlers trying their hand at hockey.
“That was the sport so you played it,” Dessie outlined. “In the summer, we played a bit of cricket and the hand-eye coordination was good for it as well.”
At the start of fourth year, he made the move around the coast to Garron Tower. With that, came his first recollection of school hurling.
“We had a 50-minute bus journey and if you stayed for training, you had to arrange a lift home,” he recalls of the next two years.
Break-time and dinner time, it was hurling, hurling, hurling. The handball courts were perfect for getting the eye in. Any chance they got, they’d be out on the pitch. Hurling was central to school life.
By the time sixth form study came around, there was a change in the Ballycastle area. Star of the Sea Secondary School and Cross and Passion Convent Grammar Schools became one and, so, Cross and Passion College was born.
Older brothers Kevin and Eddie spent all their school days in Garron Tower, but 1977 saw Dessie and younger brother Brian enrolled at nearby Cross and Passion.
“I tried them all,” Dessie now jokes about his moving of schools. “Brian and myself went to Cross and Passion when the new school was built.
“Under the auspices of Seamus Hegarty and Michael Dallatt, the school put a team together to play in the Mageean Cup.”
Hurling was always on the radar. When Kevin and Eddie Donnelly were training with Antrim on their way to the 1971 All-Ireland Intermediate title, the younger boys – Dessie and Brian – would tag along.
“That was my first introduction to hurling,” Dessie said. “To this day, I can still remember us going behind the goals to hit balls back out when they were training.
“Then, when it was our turn and we were on the county team, there were other boys there to hit the balls back out…but there are mostly catch nets to get the balls now.”
It was also around the time the u-14 Féile competition began. Ballycastle were involved and Dessie holds memories of winning it in the mid-seventies and the trip to Tipperary for the All-Ireland series.
“Going to Cross and Passion, we were a bit older and getting a bit more success,” he said of the team who went on to win the school’s first title.
“Seamus Hegarty was originally from Dunloy but was living in Ballycastle where he taught all his days. He came across from Star of the Sea and we had Michael Dallatt, both of them were very good.”
Dallatt’s name is still synonymous with Cross and Passion. There is indoor hurling every December where young hurlers are paired off in teams named after the various counties. Games are played off at lunch time with the overall winner presented the cup Dallatt donated when he retired.
For the final, the teams parade around the hall to The Sunday Game theme tune with referees and all kitted out.
It’s the tradition the school are growing and while a long way from the men of ’77, it’s no less important. It takes someone to cut the first sod of any project.
“On the first winning Mageean, the majority from Ballycastle but there were ones from Carey and Armoy and Loughgiel,” Donnelly said.
Now secretary of the Ballycastle club that feeds into Cross and Passion’s hurling and camogie teams, he’s well placed to speak on the progress. The school is double the size.
There are more schools competing for the titles. In ’77, they put seven goals past St Mary’s Belfast in a 7-10 to 3-4 win.
“I remember that St Mary’s game and the likes of Eddie McToal who I would’ve played with for the county minor team,” Donnelly said. “The majority of the Mageean Cup winning team, I played with about half of them at club level.”
The season continued with an All-Ireland semi-final Charleville at Croke Park.
“I remember it more than the Mageean because it was in Croker. Conor O’Donovan, who played full-back for Tipperary in the 1989 All-Ireland final against us, he was playing in that match and 12 years later we came up against him.
“He was playing for Charleville and there was myself, Brian and Olcan McFetridge, who played in that Mageean Cup team and we’d be up against each other with the county.”
Cross and Passion would retain their title 12 months later. There was a lull until the back-to-back success of 1993 and ’94.
The school is now well established and among the teams to beat every year, and the current team will have their eyes on the prize next week.
There are more feet on the corridors and a wider range of feeder clubs. There is also tradition. It won’t hit the ball over the bar but it helps.
“It’s like anything, you get cycles of players coming through and sometimes they click better than others,” said Donnelly, who tries to take in the school’s games when he can.
“The school has twice as many players. We had a panel of 17 when we won it the first time and you were going into 14 and 15-year-olds to get that 17.
“Any photo you see now, there are over 30 in the panel, so you are always going to be competitive. There are ones who want to go to Cross and Passion or Garron Tower to play hurling the same way the might want to go to St Pat’s, Maghera to play football.That’s part of it now.”
Back in the day, the Donnellys lived less than a quarter of a mile from the school gates. It was home at lunch, there’d be time for a quick bite before a dash back for a swing of the ash in the yard. Hurling was a religion. It still is.
“Nowadays, the sticks and balls are with them all the time and it is great to see,” Donnelly summed up. “The tradition has always been there as it was in Cross and Passion and Star of the Sea, that’s where it kicked off.
“It was a case of thinking we could go to the next level when we merged. It has carried on and every year the teams are competitive. Now, the boys and girls can’t want until they go back in September to get involved in the teams.”
Dessie Donnelly recited the names of the Ballycastle players in the current Cross and Passion team with the same ease he lists the names of his brothers. He doesn’t miss any of them. It’s the hallmark of a great club man. He knows his own.
Before a ball was pucked, Cross and Passion and St Killian’s were tipped to meet under Friday’s floodlights. He hopes for pleasant conditions, enough to let young lads express themselves.
For Dessie Donnelly and the men of ’77, they will watch on, tune in or check on the score by whatever means possible. That’s the thing about school sport. You may walk out the gates but you never fully leave.
Seamus McAleenan will deliver a talk on the history of the Mageean Cup on Wednesday, December 6 at 7.30pm in St Louis Ballymena