St Mel's still fuelling Longford's fire


ALL-IRELAND SFC QUALIFIER LONGFORD v DERRYTHE MOST compelling qualifier match this weekend is Derry’s visit to Longford tomorrow evening. It’s a big match for Glenn Ryan’s team, squeezed out after a replay by Wexford in Leinster after a fine league campaign.

Longford have hosted Derry twice previously and split the outcomes despite the apparent gap in status. Longford’s renaissance is source of pride to the community and to one significant part of it in particular. St Mel’s College in Longford is one of those schools with a regional catchment and a substantial national profile.

Founded in 1865, the college has made a huge contribution to the GAA in the county and farther afield. Of the players, who played against Wexford in the provincial quarter-final, 10 were graduate as are 13 of the panel: Michael Quinn (who spent three years playing in the AFL with Essendon), Kevin Diffley, Seán McCormack, Pádraig McCormack, Paul Kelly, John Keegan, Colm P Smith, Peter Foy, Barry Gilleran, Dermot Brady, David Barden, Niall Mulligan and newcomer Pádraig Gill.

Two of Ryan’s management team, former county star Pádraig Davis and former county chair and Central Council delegate John Fay are also among the alumni.

Fay’s son Gearóid teaches English and History in the school and coached this year’s senior team.

“There’s good participation,” says Fay, “around 60 first years take part (out of an average per year of just under 100). We try to be as inclusive as possible and some of the lads who don’t make it at the early stages turn into late bloomers.

“St Mel’s is also the alma mater of a number of GAA administrators, most notably Liam Mulvihill (former director general), Peter McKenna (stadium director of Croke Park and commercial director) and Feargal McGill (director of games administration and player welfare).

“Mel’s has also a strong athletics tradition. Ray Flynn and Enda Fitzpatrick are former international athletes and Ray is still the holder of the Irish mile record. He has run 89 sub-four minute miles and was a double Olympian and was recently appointed director of the Millrose Games.”

The school stands joint third in the Hogan Cup (All-Ireland colleges’ football) roll of honour, with four wins, in 1948, back-to-back titles in 1962-63, and 1987 and has a massive 30 provincial titles, the most recent in 2003.

It’s not fanciful of the school to believe their record would have been even more formidable had the competition been founded earlier than 1946, as St Mel’s in the 16 years leading up to their inaugural success won the Leinster title on 14 occasions.

Fr Seán Manning, one of a number of priests closely associated with football in the college, guided many of the early successes (11 Leinster titles and the 1948 All-Ireland) and is commemorated in the name of both a club in Longford and an under-16 inter-county tournament for counties in the northwest midlands region.

Fr Jimmy McKeon trained the team which won those successive All-Irelands in 1962-63 and had been an outstanding player with the school a decade earlier, winning a Leinster title and representative provincial honours.

The fourth and most recent All-Ireland came in 1987 under the direction of Fr Peter Burke, another former pupil who had left his mark on the playing field.

Centre forward on the team that won Leinster in 1969 and narrowly lost, after a replay, an epic All-Ireland semi-final with St Brendan’s of Killarney, his exploits were recorded in this paper as follows:

“Peter Burke, a Westmeath minor who throughout the hour was the inspiration of his team had a personal tally of 1-8,” ran the report of the replay.

In the drawn match he had been “brilliant” and scored 1-6.

He had been marked for most of the two matches by future Kerry multiple All-Ireland winner and now Irish Times columnist John O’Keeffe, who was switched to centrefield towards the end of the second match. O’Keeffe would be fast-tracked onto the Kerry panel for that year’s championship and won the first of his seven All-Ireland medals as a replacement that September.

The school went through changes, most fundamentally in 2002, when it ceased to take boarders but the influence within the county has remained strong.

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