The Castle on the Hill

The bell tolls this week ahead of another year in the life of the recently formed Gaelcholáiste Dhoire. Their GAA story has been growing and Michael McMullan spoke to Róisín Ní Cheallaigh and Conor Mac Alasdair about their growth, a memorable year and life in the school.

BUILD it and they will come. We’ve heard this statement on numerous occasions, but it sums up Gaelcholáiste Dhoire.

In the summer of 2015, their first intake of 14 Year 8 pupils, boys and girls, were photographed on the steps of the iconic Dungiven castle.

They wouldn’t have been able to field a full GAA team, but have now turned full circle with over 300 coming through the gate for the school’s eighth year.

What began in the castle has grown with the opening last year of a new building on the site that houses 10 classrooms as well as suites for music, art and technology.

In a sporting sense, the early years saw them form an alliance with nearby St Patrick’s, Dungiven and St Mary’s, Limavady to form Coláistí Ghleann na Ró with amalgamation teams to allow players exposure to Gaelic Games.

“Susan Uí Mhianáin and Connla Ó Coinn started it all,” began Portglenone’s Róisín Ní Cheallaigh who joined the staff four years ago.

“The girls played in the boys’ competitions at the very beginning. That was how it started in the first year and there were maybe only friendlies rather than actual competitions.

“Susan and Connla really started the GAA here. They are involved in more senior roles in the school and we have taken over from them, but they started it all off with the foundations. It wouldn’t be in a strong place if they weren’t driving it from the start.”

The school community stretches as far away as Loup, Lissan, Strabane and Derry City, with Sleacht Néill, Ballinascreen and Dungiven as their three core feeder clubs.

The growing numbers have allowed Gaelcholáiste Dhoire to branch into ladies’ football last season.

With the exception of their junior and senior and camogie teams maintaining their link with Gleann na Ró, all their other teams – across all four codes – will play as Gaelcholáiste Dhoire and paddle their own canoe.

“This is the first year that has actually happened,” Sleacht Néill dual star Conor Mac Alasdair said of their boys’ teams.

Mac Alasdair joined the staff last year and shared the senior hurling coaching with Cuala All-Ireland winner Cian de Bhaldraithe who he hurled with for Derry.

“Last year the Year 13 and 14 boys were part of Gleann na Ró because we didn’t have the numbers at that age. As the years went on, the age groups have got bigger so we felt we had enough to form our team,” Mac Alasdair added.

When Ulster Colleges and Vocational Schools merged to form Ulster Schools, it rolled out a raft of different gradings allowing schools across the province to compete at their own level.

It was a huge success with smaller schools able to test themselves across Ulster with the chance to compete for silverware and leave players back to their clubs with more to offer.

Mac Alasdair, a football and hurling winner as a pupil with St Patrick’s, Maghera, is a fan of the new structure and what it can do for Gaelcholáiste Dhoire.

“It is a big factor,” he stated. “The ambition is to have your own standalone team. Gleann na Ró is fantastic when you don’t have the numbers and is mutually beneficial.

“In the long-term, you want your own team. We are not going to jump straight into ‘A’ grade but our ambition is to get as high up the grades as possible.”

In hurling, Gaelcholáiste Dhoire won three Ulster titles at ‘B’ level – the McFarland, Leopold and Kirk Cups – in Year 10, 11 and 12.

This year, they are in the ‘A’ Grade in Year 11 and 12 with the Forresters Cup hopefully the start of an avenue to the Mageean Cup at senior level.

Last year, they won the tier three hurling title at senior level and ambition is a word Mac Alasdair leans on as he looks into where the school can go.

“In football, it is a bit more difficult because we are starting a bit further down,” he added. “Our fifth years won a ‘D’ competition, the Pat King Cup, and three of them went on to play on the Derry All-Ireland minor winning team, Ger Ó Diolún, Finbar Ó Muirí and Deaglan Mac Con Mhide.”

CHAMPIONS…Ger Ó Diolún (11), Deaglan Mac Con Mhide (21) and Finbar Ó Muirí (3) were part of Derry’s All-Ireland minor winning football team

Ó Diolún was their leading scorer, Ó Muiri – his cousin – a key man marker with Mac Con Mhide featuring in all of the games and nailed a crucial penalty in their Ulster final shootout win over Monaghan.

“That is our objective, to grow our numbers and be a big hitter in Ulster Schools and to retain our players from Year 12. We want our best players coming back and representing the school,” Mac Alasdair added.


Ní Cheallaigh played camogie all the way through her school days in St Louis, Ballymena and looks ahead to the new season in Gaelcholáiste Dhoire with a bigger picture around the corner.

There aren’t the same number of camogie clubs in their catchment area but she remains optimistic about future growth with the aim to follow the other codes and stand on their own two feet.

“We will be having our own Year 8 and u-14 teams but we rely on Gleann na Ró for the junior and senior teams,” she said.

“The aim over the next four of five years is to have standalone teams in all of the grades. There are more numbers for ladies’ football, but it’s about retaining girls to play camogie.”


The camogs had Ulster junior success with Gleann na Ró in 2017, backing it up at senior level with All-Star Cliodhna Ní Mhianáin a focal point. Her brother Ruairí picked up back-to-back hurling awards in a time when the GAA buzz began to really take off.

“Last year was the first year it all came together,” Ní Cheallaigh feels. “The year before there were a few titles won.

“Last year with the senior boys getting to the All-Ireland semi-final there was a great buzz. Players were bringing in their hurls and wanting to play hurling so it created more of an interest…that’s what we are trying to keep.

“It just clicked and the players had been playing together for a good few years. Cian and Conor knew they had a good chance with the gradings they were in and it was time to push on.”

Mac Alasdair points to the input of Cian and Bliadhan Glas with the hurling teams. Connla Ó Coinn chips in with the football. Lámh Dhearg chairman Jim Ó hEaráin is in the school three days a week and puts his shoulder to the GAA wheel.

“The more help the better and you’d like to add to it but there is the buy-in from the staff,” he added.

“Chrissy (McKaigue) being in school helped as well, giving us a great foundation, the weans looked up to him as a role model and he was captain of Derry at the time,” he said of having the Anglo Celt Cup on the steps of the Castle after Derry’s 24-year Ulster famine.

There is also the acknowledgement of the efforts of clubs to instil the skills of the game. Without that grounding, the raw materials for building competing teams would be absent.

“That is huge and although they are all coming from different clubs, it feels quite tight-knit here,” Mac Alasdair added.

“They are involved in a lot of community work; they are involved in Gaeilge together and it feels almost like a club team.”

The summer is over and the free time turns into days ruled by the bell again, but he enjoys coming to work.

“It is a nice atmosphere,” Ní Cheallaigh adds. “Everyone calls us by our first names, we are Róisín and Conor, there is no Miss Kelly or Mr McAllister.

“Dungiven, Ballinascreen and Sleacht Néill…the culture in those areas is very strong. For children to be coming from Bunscoils, that’s why the GAA is strong here and we are lucky they can add to the school life here.”

Later this month GAA President elect Jarlath Burns will visit Gaelcholáiste as the guest of honour to celebrate the GAA glories of last year.

Silverware and medals constitute success, but this success story runs deeper. The 14 pupils who rocked up in September 2015 are into the world of further education and making life pathways for themselves.

Those who will follow in years to come will have the sporting opportunities for a diverse school life outside the classroom.

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