St Colman’s walls of memories

St Colman’s Newry are set for a weekend to celebrate 100 years of football. Kevin Franklin and Cathal Murray are past pupils now teaching in the college. They spoke to Michael McMullan…

HOW do you wrap up 100 years of football in one night? That’s the conundrum St Colman’s Newry face this weekend as part of the school’s 200th birthday celebrations.

Past pupils across different generations will flock to Newry’s Canal Court Hotel on Saturday for a “celebration of football” and to renew old friendships forged on the playing fields of Ulster and across Ireland.

A mention of St Colman’s and their eight Hogan and 20 MacRory Cup titles spring to mind.

Below that, their success down the grades also marks them out. When they won the D’Alton Cup earlier this year coaches Ciarán Bagnall and Rónán McMahon followed on from their years as winning captains in 2012 and 1997.

Part of that winning group was young Oisin Morgan, son of 1998 Hogan winning captain Declan and Grandson of Ray, who led the school to much of its glory alongside Pete McGrath.

Saturday is about more than silverware. It’s about uniting those who donned the blue jersey down the years.

There will be memories of games, the tough training sessions and the togetherness from many of the squads having boarders in their ranks.

The values of work and discipline carried on into club and county careers. Saturday will be an encapsulation of all.

“It is something we haven’t really done before, in terms of trying to bring people together from different generations,” said Kevin Franklin, one of the event organisers.

Since setting the ball rolling on the preparations, they’ve delved into the photographic archives. That’s the legacy, decades of memories.

“When we started looking back through the history books, the first official football was in 1923, 100 years ago, so it’s a big landmark,” Franklin added.

“There are lots of different things going on in the school this year as part of the 200th anniversary, so we thought football is one of the big strands for St Colman’s College and one of the big draws for people.

“It is a very emotional thing for a lot of people; it is one of the things we are known for throughout Ireland.”

It was always going to St Colman’s for Cathal Murray. His uncle, Patsy O’Hagan, of Down 1960s fame, studied at ‘The College’.

Football is a religion. Murray uses the example of a past pupil dropping in to collect tickets for Saturday’s event.

“How are things going?” Murray asks for the question to be expanded.

“The football, what about the football? That’s the reason why we came here,” was the query in full.

“That’s what people want to know in here,” Murray continues. “There is such tradition with families. You have sons following fathers, brothers and uncles, that sort of thing, so naturally football means so much.”

Murray also tells the story of a recent intake of first years and how former winning captain Niall McParland sold the idea of coming to St Colman’s at a club summer camp. And, so the cycle continues.

Murray’s early MacRory memories come from an era of watching players such as Greg Blaney in full flow. Going to finals was about the whole package. The game, the craic and going to research chants that brought Casement Park to life.

“There was also a great link between Corn na nÓg and MacRory at that time” he adds.

The competitions were played at the same time of the year. The Corn na nÓg game would be first, followed by the MacRory team playing minutes later.

It was a case of racing back out to watch the big boys in action. There would be an affinity with the teams.

“We would’ve gone to the one venue. The Corn na nÓg team would’ve played before the MacRory game.

“For me, to be watching these guys, to be sharing the same facility…you play the game and you want to get out and watch the MacRory boys playing their football. The teams would share a bite to eat after the games.

“You think you are playing at a decent standard and then you see these beasts of men you are walking the corridors with and all of a sudden, they are wearing the same jersey you are wearing,” Murray said.

“That was a great drive for me to want to play MacRory Cup football as a youngster. That drove a lot of us on…you just wanted to be the big lads in the school and follow in the footsteps of these heroes of ours.”

Kevin Franklin is from a more recent era but still has the memories of St Colman’s success that inspired him.

An afternoon in Coalisland and Aidan McGivern’s points to clinch the ’93 MacRory final against Maghera are matched by Diarmaid Marsden hitting the net in the Hogan decider later in the year.

Another memory was the how the boarders fitted into school life, bringing scholars from outside the hinterland in search of an education and, very often, charmed by the footballing status of St Colman’s.

“You had that group of guys who lived in the school and got their breakfast and their dinner together,” Franklin recalls.

By half three, everyone was one as the whistle signalled the start of football training, Monday through Thursday before a Friday off ahead of Saturday’s game. That’s how it rolled.

Murray came to board for the last three years despite living “out the road” in nearby Hilltown.

The routine helped him focus on his books with over three hours of study every night.

Class. Bell. Training. Tea. Rosary. Study. Bed. That was the daily way of life.

“There were guys who came in traditionally at Easter time to try and fine tune things to help him get over the line (in exams),” Murray added.

“I can remember Benny Tierney coming in one time. Benny was a distraction more than anything else; he was in for the craic.”

The boarders brought an already tight bunch even closer. The five days a week for seven years always bring that.

Add in the coaching at club level and there is the perfect mix for moulding a team.

Then came the Ray Morgan and Pete McGrath axis that left an indelible mark on everyone that passed through. The football was shaped and the resilience was built.

“You were going to war for these men,” Murray said before outlining the standards of training.

With every reference, Franklin can nod in agreement. The hill in front of the college still leaves a mental imprint. The laps under the watch of Morgan and McGrath formed a foundation.

“That was something we all came through,” Murray said. “There were titles won on that hill and that’s one of my abiding memories, the work we did in preparation for games.”

It would be followed up with a team meeting on the eve of a game. Every player’s role was dished out. The opposition dangers were highlighted and pupils would feel they’d a 16th man almost, such was the preparation. No stone was left unturned.

“There was great discipline,” Murray added, remembering only two players sent off in his playing days with St Colman’s.

“Believe me; if you were sent off playing for ‘The College’, you paid the price.

“There was great discipline in the way we played football. We played hard football, we played fair football but there was a style to it and a style we try to maintain as far as possible, but obviously modern football is changing.”

The blueprint revolved around a direct kicking game played “proud and hard” with everybody tuned into what was needed for the team to fully function.

“Cathal was lucky in that he has a raft of medals and was in a generation of players who had success,” Franklin added.

“My generation went through and we didn’t manage to win anything. We got to a MacRory final and lost it heavily at the hands of Maghera.

“We still did the same work, had the same discipline and values instilled into us.

“There are five times as many pupils who have come through here and not win a thing, compared to those who have.

“The value people like myself have got out of it is the same as what Cathal has got.

“I might not have the medals or the pictures on the wall, but I’d like to think we carried it out of here into third level and into our clubs.”

Franklin recited the principles. Hard work and honesty. The basic skills needed executed to a high standard. A certain level of fitness was required. The “bells and whistles” surrounding the game nowadays, they didn’t figure high up the list.

Seated in the school now, Franklin and Murray speak with a genuine pride in their voice of being back teaching and coaching in the school.

“We are here every day, we live and breathe this place, it is more than a place of work,” Franklin said.

“You are standing out there on a Friday evening in the lashing rain at five o’clock or sitting in the middle of Tyrone on a Saturday morning.”

Both men are “fully vested” in the school and looking forward to this weekend. It’s the fruits of their committee’s year of planning.

Saturday will be a mix of men in their 70s and 80s right down to those only out the gate a matter of years. They will mingle in the Canal Court Hotel for one reason, football and memories it has radiated.

“We are really looking forward to the night, it is going to be something else,” Murray said.

There will be chat about wins and losses, laughter and tears. The greatest yardstick of all is the draw that brings everyone back.

There will be hope the current teams can walk in the shoes they did and the goal will always be the same – get their photo on the wall.

  • Check out the latest edition of Gaelic Lives for the full interview with Kevin and Cathal. Available on Spotify and other platforms.

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