When we were kings: The St Tiernach’s Clones story

Fifty years ago, St Tiernach’s, Clones were MacLarnon Cup champions. Albert Fayne kicked eight points in the final and Gerry McMahon was joint manager. Later this month the squad will reunite to look back at the memories. Michael McMullan writes…

WHEN Albert Fayne retired from 44 years as an insurance broker, there was only one item vying for pole position at the top of his bucket list.

Half a century after the pupils of St Tiernach’s, Clones dispersed to the four winds, their MacLarnon Cup winning team have never been in each other’s company since.

Fayne found the number for one of the squad, punched it in and phone call by phone call he got cracking on the groundwork that will see them flock to Monaghan’s Hillgrove Hotel for a reunion later this month.

John Quigley and Francie Brogan have since passed away. The duo will be there in spirit as the memories are raked up of past glories and the banter.

Pascal Williamson, now living in Hawaii, won’t be there, but everyone else will be, including joint managers Gerry McMahon and Fr Gerry White.

There were two parts to the school. On one side was the Fr Damien Juniorate College, formed in the sixties, part of the White Fathers in Cootehill, a boarding college for up and coming priests. It was adjacent to St Tiernach’s School where everyone was schooled. To put their football success into context, the number of boys averaged 20 per year across five year groups.

Fayne, a native of Lanesborough in Longford, was one of the boarders. Others came from Roscommon, Galway and Donegal, with the local ‘day boys’ hailing from the local Clones, Ballybay, Killeevan and Scotstown clubs.

“I am a farmer’s son and there were six of us and my mother wanted someone to become a priest,” Fayne said of his move north.

“When I was in National School, two people came to our house one day looking for people to join the college and I was sent there in first year. They’d gone around to all the schools.”

Fayne didn’t follow the path his mother hoped. Instead of the priesthood, he headed for Garda College before eventually moving into the area of insurance sales.

“There were about 40 boarders across all the years and of the eight in our class, one became a priest, Pauric Lyons,” Fayne added.

For the last 25 years, the picturesque Cooley peninsula is home for Fayne where his family play for the Kickham’s club. Ten years ago, he was joint manager of the senior footballers as they reached both league and championship finals. A keen interest in football remains.

With the numbers dropping in the Juniorate College, St Tiernach’s were longer able to challenge at the top. The school was eventually merged with the local vocational school to form the Largy College that exists today.

When the class of ’73 meet on April 19, the memories will come flooding back of their golden era. Last week, St Michael’s, Enniskillen marked 50 years since their first MacRory Cup win.

In the weeks before St Tiernach’s played St Patrick’s, Armagh in the MacLarnon final, they ran Enniskillen to the kick of a ball. There were also games with St Patrick’s, Cavan to top up on the match practice.

“Eight of the players that played were from the boarding school,” Fayne said of their team, one Gerry McMahon watched blossoming as they made their way up the ranks.

Back-to-back Herald Cups were won and the O’Callaghan Cup, a Monaghan school championship without MacRory side St Macartan’s.

Boarding school is a challenge and a new beginning rolled into one.

Fayne knew “absolutely nobody” but sport and school life helped with integration and before long everyone knew everyone else.

“You only got out of the college at Halloween, Christmas and Easter,” he said. “We wouldn’t have gone home at the weekends, but there was very little club football at junior or u-16 or minor back in our own clubs.”

That would wait until the summer, but the fact that nine of the St Tiernach’s team played county minor that summer tells the tale of the talent on board, with captain Derek McDonald getting a call to the Farney senior team.

“I was always into football because I won an u-14 and an u-16 medal at home with my local club Rathcline,” Fayne said.

“There was always an emphasis on football and hurling in the college. Every evening after school, you went down to play football or hurling on the St Tiernach’s pitch in Clones and the main man behind that all was Fr Gerry White from county Offaly, he got everybody playing football.”

When the bell tolled at half three, the next hour was spent honing the skills and having fun. It was the outlet and there would be a game almost every weekend until a competition ended.

“A lot of us played minor football with Clones minor team in 1973,” Fayne added jokingly, not totally sure about the entire GAA legalities of it all. Enjoyment came first.

“I played in the first few rounds at full-back and was injured for the final.”

The turn of the seventies in a border region brought curiously and tales would have them exploring the Roslea and Newtownbutler roads scavenging for spent rubber bullets.

“The main thing was the education, which our parents paid for in the college,” Fayne said of the memories of living away from home.

“That was important but we all got great fun out of the football and the hurling. It was a great outlet and we were free most Saturdays and away to games.”

On the back of the Herald Cup success there was a whimper of entering the MacRory Cup, but in the end they’d ply their trade in the MacLarnon grade.

Picking from a small squad, the 13-a-side format of competitions was a help as Gerry McMahon and Fr Gerry brought the group together.

“They were an exceptional bunch of players at that time,” Fayne said. “The college had never won it before or they have never won it since.

“We bonded together over those couple of years and that’s what happened.”

Clones had in the region of 100 males pupils in the entire school an claimed a 3-15 to 3-8 win over St Patrick’s, Armagh, who had five times the number.

“For us, a small group of players from a small pool to beat a college with a huge pool of players, that’s what stood out,” Fayne summed up.

“We were underdogs all year. It only went as far as Ulster and in the next few years it went to the All-Ireland.

“If there was an All-Ireland, it would’ve been interesting to see how we would’ve fared.”

Gerry McMahon is modest about his input as joint manager with Fr Gerry White. Good players make all the difference.

He uses the example of Jim Gavin not winning Sam with Leitrim and the stacked Dublin dressing room.

Like the Clones minor team that won the 1973 title, the school team, the St Louis, Monaghan ladies team he steered to the All-Ireland in 1995 and the 1983 Clones seniors who made it to senior football – when you have good players, you must make hay.

“It was like coaching Ciaran Murray in the club and he went on to win Ulster with Monaghan and play for Ireland, I was lucky,” he offers.

McMahon’s football career ended prematurely after damage to a vertebrae sustained in club action saw him face 17 weeks of treatment. Without the confidence to return to action, he began coaching teams.

“I watched those lads coming up through the system,” McMahon said of the St Tiernach’s school team’s growth.

“They didn’t win anything but they came close enough, so I knew it was a special group coming through and it came together in ’72 and ’73.

“I was extremely fortunate to get such a talented group together and I couldn’t believe the quality of players we had and when you have the opportunity, then you take it and it went very well for us.”

For McMahon, they had the two key ingredients – skill and strength.

“They were a talented group and particularly strong around the middle of the field,” he said.

“Albert Fayne, he was an extremely strong and capable midfielder. We had a fella Donald McDonald, he made his county debut that year on the senior team….that shows you the quality.”

White and McMahon had their problems with injuries and unavailability coming into the final. The first move he made was stationing McDonald at corner-forward. Armagh knew about him, but were caught unawares by his new role and the 1-2 tally that helped them to victory.

There was another secret ingredient in 15-year-old Paddy Joe Fahy, a native of Galway who would go on to become a champion dog trainer with winners in the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish national finals.

“St Pat’s Armagh were coming back near the end and trying to catch us but this young lad (Fahy) got three balls, about 40 metres out and on his left foot and he struck them all over the bar,” McMahon said of another cog in their success.

“It was 13-a-side and if you lose two or three players, it suited us because we had a smaller squad, but he came in and did the job for us.”

When the chatter creeps through the Hillgrove Hotel, they’ll remember it all. The bond of a group who battled in the trenches never goes away. It’s that unwritten code.

Fahy’s points, the goal from McDonald, Fayne’s eight points, the craic around the streets of Clones and memories of victory bring it all back.

Clones is renowned for the tradition of Ulster final day, but for this band of brothers it will always mean school, football and standing tall, above the rest of Ulster.

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