Mighty Ruadh just another dish on a bigger menu


Sports clubs in the recession Part 2Aodh Ruadh were once one of Donegal’s top clubs but, in an era of increased choice for young people, the club is now just one option among many for the youth of Ballyshannon

It has been a hectic November for the Aodh Ruadh GAA club and on this wild midweek afternoon Betty McIntyre, the chairperson, is run off her feet. She has the fire lit in the living room and goes through the list of things she has to do. It seems endless. Tickets for a Strictly Come Dancing evening . . . boards to put up on the bridge to wish the senior team well in the Intermediate final . . . organise collection buckets . . . call Maurice McLoughlin, the senior manager, about training in Garrison.

“It’s the nitty-gritty. That’s what it’s about. Driving to Bundoran to pick up buckets,” she laughs.

The McIntyres live down the Mall in an 18th-century house in the heart of Ballyshannon, a town cluttered with historic buildings. Hugh Allingham, brother of the poet William, lit this same fireplace 130 years ago.

From the window in the living room can be seen a daunting looking building across the river bank on the Rock which was a fever hospital in a former life but will always be known as “The Brothers”, the De La Salle college which was a secondary school of unsentimental education and also the soul of Gaelic football in Ballyshannon.

Did the closure of the school in 2000 lead to the decline of football success in the town? Some would argue so.

In any event, this is the biggest month Aodh Ruadh have had in quite some time.

Betty McIntyre considers herself an accidental GAA woman. One evening in the street she met (the late) Jack Grimes, a neighbour and constant presence in the stand at Fr Tierney Park. He half-coaxed, half-scolded her into attending the Aodh Ruadh AGM in Dorrian’s hotel that evening.

“You’ve cubs involved now”, he pointed out. “Cubs” is the Ballyshannon word for boys: Betty’s twin sons were outstanding players on a strong underage team.

She was given a job and because she is brisk and energetic and organised, she is now completing her third season as chairperson. Her sister Catherine was roped into the club committee, and became treasurer. With Emma Gaughan as secretary, the three women form the administrative engine of the club.

Betty readily confesses she had little interest in football or hurling. Even now, her most pressing concerns are financial and organisational. The redevelopment of “Munday’s field”, the Workhouse Meadow where the first Aodh Ruadh team trained in 1909, brought a terrific all-weather training facility and a debt of €250,000.

They pay off €18,000 per year. Transport costs had spiralled out of control: the club spent €20,000 on buses last year alone. Fundraising is a 365 days-of-the-year task and as Tom Daly, the former president of the Ulster Council and Aodh Ruadh member, delicately puts it, “the culture of fundraising has changed”.

Embracing austerity

Still, Aodh Ruadh have the bingo franchise, and run Sunday night Lotto and periodic entertainments like the Strictly Come Dancing. Austerity has been duly embraced. Not one penny in expenses has been paid to any of the managers.

“I think they are fantastic,” Betty McIntyre says. “It is costing them more than just time . . . they are driving all the time, making phone calls. But they just get on with it. All they get out of us is tea and sandwiches when there is a game in the park. I think we are lucky to have them.”

It says something about the swiftness with which Aodh Ruadh’s stock plummeted that an Intermediate final in November has become so important. It is hard to overstate the club’s tradition.

“That’s all we did. We played football,” the actor Seán McGinley said on The John Murray Show last week of growing up in the town. “Morning, noon and night.”

Until last month, Aodh Ruadh were level with St Eunan’s on 12 senior county titles won, joint second on the county honours roll. But that figure comes with an asterisk because from 1965 to 1976, Aodh Ruadh and neighbouring club Bundoran conducted an experiment in unity which produced the best Donegal club side ever; they strolled to seven county titles and an unofficial club All-Ireland title in 1968 .

When an all-time Donegal XV was selected, Aodh Ruadh were the only club to feature three players – Pauric McShea at fullback, Michael McLoone at left half forward and current RTÉ analyst Martin Carney at right half forward.

Three generations of the McDermott family – Terry, son Jackie and grandson Tommy – all played championship football for Donegal. Brian Tuohy was captain of the first Donegal team to win the county’s first All-Ireland – at under-21 – in 1982.

Tuohy played on Aodh Ruadh minor teams that won four county championships in a row between 1979 and 1983, a Donegal record. From that team, Brian Murray, Sylvester Maguire and Matt Gallagher all played in Donegal’s All-Ireland in 1992 (Tuohy had unfortunately retired from intercounty football that year).

Tommy McDermott, arguably the pick of that bunch, would almost certainly have been on the All-Ireland team had emigration not taken him to London in the mid-1980s. “Jackie McDermott was running coaching sessions with us in 1976 that a lot of clubs in Donegal only started doing that in the late 1990s,” Maguire says.

“He was just very far ahead of his time. And that gave the club a basis and we had our glory run in the 1980s and 1990s.”

Maguire played on and later managed Aodh Ruadh sides that won five senior county titles, the most recent in 1998. Then it was as if the sky fell in. The club stopped winning at all grades and fell through the divisions – even this season they must win their last two league games to save a drop to the nadir of Division Four.

What happened to Aodh Ruadh?

“I think there are several reasons,” says Daly. “We held on to players through the 1980s recession but have struggled in the past few years. The employment situation has plummeted here. James Likely’s firm employed over 100 men until its closure. The tightening of the public sector employment means opportunities to stay around are fewer. We have six players of senior club quality playing with Western Shamrocks in Perth and two intercounty players with Donegal-Boston.

Tremendous service

“We have young hurlers and footballers coming through and then older lads who would have given the club tremendous service. But we are missing that gang in their mid-to-late 20s.

“Young people do have more choice now. But when our backs went to the wall this year, some of the guys who stepped back came in and said: ‘Look, we need to get this back on track for the club’.”

That was the most heartening aspect of this season: after a disastrous opening, players like Brian Roper (who played over 100 times for Donegal) and Barry Ward came out of retirement to add a bit of heft and help shape an unlikely progression to the Intermediate final.

Just over a decade ago, when Sylvester Maguire had to elect a “first 11” for the county board so the other squad members could play reserve football, he got a phone call from the county secretary complaining most of those he left off were either county minors or county under-21s.

For Betty McIntyre, the need to bring players through to senior level was one of the crucial aspects of her tenure.

“I think senior club people would admit themselves that once youngsters left the minor grade, there was a disconnect between that and the senior team. It is a dodgy age anyhow – drink and distractions and all of that. But if guys don’t get games, they get disenchanted and they walk away.

“There was maybe a tendency to focus on the GAA families in the town. It is a lot different now. Shane Ward and Gregory Sweeney are now managers of the reserves as well as being minor managers and these fellas have been brilliant for the club.”

In McIntyre’s house is a framed photograph of the Aodh Ruadh under-14 team who were county champions in 2000; her boys were on it. As she scrolled through the team, she reckoned just one was now playing senior football. Sylvester Maguire managed that team and remembers them as extremely talented.

He notes the Naomh Conaill team they beat in the final went on to win two under-16 titles, a minor title, three under-21s, two senior titles and played in an Ulster club final. Naomh Conaill also played in the most recent county senior final. So why didn’t Aodh Ruadh get more out of that 2000 team?

“That team . . . all I know is they got the best coaching we had available,” Maguire says. “I do think it is societal. I get in trouble for saying this but I do think the mammies of Ireland are spoiling cubs coming up.

“You ask lads to go out and train today – it is wet and windy in Donegal today – or would they rather go swimming or shoot hoops in the warm hall or go to the gym . . . they go for the easier choice. And by trying out a lot of sports, you don’t really have to commit fully to any one.

“I don’t think the raw passion we had is there. And we had that because we had nothing else. And then we became successful. And on it went.”

It is hard to argue against Maguire’s core point. There is a lot to do in Ballyshannon besides play football. You can surf. Every second youngster plays music. And Bundoran is a five minute taxi-ride away; you can party in all seasons.

Maguire is a teacher in the local school – the three long-standing schools of the Vocational School (“the Tech”), the Sacred Heart (“the Convent”) and The Brothers were merged into Coláiste Colmcille a decade ago. And Maguire has observed, with some distress, a softening in society.

Just another dish

It is something Betty McIntyre has also noticed in youngsters who go training; kids can take it or leave it. Aodh Ruadh is just another dish on a big menu: they pick and choose. And so they expect Pat Melaniff, one of the club’s longest serving members, to have the park opened and they expect the dressing rooms to be magically shining and the jerseys folded.

“Entitlement. Absolutely,” Betty McIntyre says. “And nowadays in particular. That was a problem Shane Ward highlighted in the coaching strategy he has devised.

“Kids are great but that old die-for-the-club ethos is not there anymore. You have no loyalty. You don’t have that in the town any more. The underage managers will tell you that – they have no loyalty. And the prestige of playing for the club is not there in the wider community. If the club were to fold tomorrow . . . I sometimes wonder how many people would miss it.”

But ask anyone involved from current president Jim “The Natch” Gallagher – whose father was among the founding members of the club in 1909 – to 13-year-old Nathan Boyle, who in October lifted the local Bakery Cup some 47 years after his father did, and they will bristle at the suggestion. The club won’t disappear.

In some ways, Aodh Ruadh are stronger than ever. Women’s football is flourishing. John Rooney, a one-man hurling dynamo originally from Galway, has established a steady flow of young hurlers. The club has a membership of 370 and a terrific website. The Strictly Come Dancing Night was a roaring success. And on a bleak Wednesday night last week, the biggest crowd Aodh Ruadh has drawn in years turned out for the Intermediate final against Termon.

Aodh Ruadh went down by a point in a floodlit thriller. But for a while, when the final was in the balance, it felt like old times.

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