A Brief History of Donegal

As we head towards next Sunday’s All-Ireland football final it struck me that very little is known in this part of the country about Donegal, and Donegal football.

Cork people have strong opinions about other counties. In most conversations concerning the inter-county affairs of the GAA it is quite normal to hear phrases like “That’s typical of Kerry”, or “what else would you expect from Tipperary”. Obviously, some of these pre-conceived notions are misinformed, but it is also fair to say that as generalities go, they usually suit the flow of the conversation.

I would venture to say that until the Jimmy McGuinness led revolution of tactical play in Donegal last year, no football fan in Cork ever expressed an opinion about Donegal football. Since then most conversations that I have heard tend to condemn Donegal for their style of football. I find this amazing. Because from what I have seen and heard of this year’s county senior football championship, most of the teams remaining in the competition are playing a very poor brand of “Donegal” football.

But, I digress. The real reason why people held no opinions about Donegal as a GAA county until recently is that Cork and Donegal have rarely met in important championship games. Because no “history” exists between the counties, Cork people have no reason to like or dislike Donegal. Ergo, the county has generally been ignored.

This prompted me to do some research into the development of the GAA in Donegal. I was surprised by what I found.

Firstly, Donegal was a very strong hurling county in pre-GAA times. Actually the game that was played in Donegal was more a ‘hurling type’ game than actually hurling. It was however, played extensively both in the north and the south of the county. The game was called camán or commons. There appears to have been no handling of the ball allowed. Also, while the hurley they used could have been cut from any available type of bush or tree, it tended to be long and narrow in the northern end of the county and had a broader boss in the south.

Donegal was also the last county in Ireland to embrace the GAA as an organisation. There were many reasons for this. According to the book GAA, County by County by Cronin, Duncan and Rouse, “poverty, a dispersed population, an inadequate education system and an underdeveloped transport system contributed to the failure of the GAA in Donegal.”

Other codes of sport also played their role in holding back the GAA. The advance of soccer was one of the main reasons. The Donegal Football Association was founded in 1894. This is very early when you consider that the Munster F.A. was founded in Cork in 1901.

It was 1905 before the Donegal county board was established. Prior to that the majority of the clubs that did exist took part in the Derry county championships because most of these clubs were geographically near to Derry City.

The first Ulster hurling championship was played in 1902. Only three teams took part. Antrim, Armagh and Derry. The Burt club, a traditional stronghold of Camán, represented Donegal in the 1904 championship. Burt defeated the Derry champions and got a walk-over from Fermanagh before losing to Antrim 2-4 to 0-5 in the final.

Burt came back again the following year, 1905. Once again they lost the final to the Antrim champions. Then in 1906, the first year of the Donegal county board, Burt hammered Antrim 5-21 to 0-1. This game was played in Burt, which is on the southern end of the Inishowen Peninsula and very far away from the Glens of Antrim. Perhaps this had an influence on the result?

Sometime after 1906 the Donegal county board lapsed again. Emigration was cited as the main cause and it was 1919 before the board was re-constituted and affiliated to the Ulster Council. Donegal added two more Ulster hurling titles in 1923 and 1932. After that, it is fair to say that Donegal hurling lost its ability to compete. Once again emigration and isolation were given as the main reasons for this. Apparently, the county had a reasonably competitive county junior hurling team in the 1950s but this team was largely made up of Gardaí who had been transferred up from the south of Ireland.

The decline of hurling did nothing to help the cause of football in Donegal. The county had a few Ulster junior successes in the 1930s. In 1933 they defeated Cork in the All-Ireland junior football semi-final but lost heavily to Mayo in the final.

The 1950s were economically bad times in Donegal. By the end of that decade only 4,300 people were employed in manufacturing. In contrast there were nearly 3,000 people employed between Gouldings, Fords and Dunlops on the Centre Park Road, in Cork. Nevertheless, things were getting better on the GAA front. St Eunan’s College was making an impact on the MacRory Cup colleges football championship. The school supplied Donegal with 10 of the team that won the 1956 Ulster minor title.

When the under-21 championships began in the early 1960s Donegal won three of the first four Ulster titles. This gave them the impetus to launch an attack on the Ulster senior championship. They reached the finals of 1963 and 1966 only to lose both to Down. The 1966 final was particularly heart breaking as Down snatched victory with a last minute penalty.

The county’s first Ulster title came in 1972, and they picked up another one in 1974. There were no more Ulster titles until 1990 and then came the first and so far, only All-Ireland title in 1992 when Dublin were beaten 0-18 to 0-14.

Although Donegal reached the semi-final of the All-Ireland championship in 2003,l they have had to play second fiddle to both Tyrone and Armagh for much of the last twenty years.

All that changed last year when Jimmy McGuinness reinvigorated the county’s ambition and the Ulster title was regained after 19 years. Most people in Cork are nonplussed about next Sunday’s All-Ireland final result. People say they wouldn’t begrudge either Donegal, or Mayo for that matter, a win. I believe that is a sincerely held opinion. If Donegal continue their progress over the next few years and start beating Cork in championships, I think that sentiment would quickly disappear. And in terms of the Cork supporters opinions of the GAA, Donegal would finally be held in the same esteem as Kerry or Tipperary.

About Diarmuid

Hi, I am Diarmuid O'Donovan. I write a weekly column for the Evening Echo newspaper in Cork, Ireland. I hold an MA in Local History from UCC, Cork. This blog is an experiment which I hope to develop into a local history site. Meanwhile, I will post some of my columns for you to read. I hope you enjoy them, please leave some comments. Thank You, Diarmuid
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