Newry College Had Key Role In Founding G.A.A.

A NEWRY college may have played a crucial role in the founding of the G.A.A., which was launched by the legendary Michael Cusack. He helped to establish the unique Gaelic sports organisation, shortly after leaving the staff of St Colman’s College in the frontier town.

“Who can say that the seed for the national sporting body was not planted while Cusack was participating in sporting contests on Violet Hill’s pleasant meadows. Suffice to say that, two years after leaving St Colman’s College, he rang up the curtain on the G.A.A.”

So stated Gerry O’Neill, former coach at the Newry college, inter-county player, manager of an Armagh side, which reached the All-Ireland Gaelic football final, and brother of Glasgow Celtic boss, Martin O’Neill.

Certainly the spirit of Michael Cusack, - commemorated by the stand at Croke Park, - has inspired generations of young sportsmen at Violet Hill College. They have been tops in the North with successes in the Mac Rory Cup, and second of all the Irish colleges in gaining the prestigious Hogan Cup.

Meanwhile, past pupils have been spectacular in their All-Ireland achievements. Kevin Mussen was captain of the historic 1960 Down squad, while Joe Lennon led the Mournemen to triumph in the 1968 Sam Maguire Cup. James and Dan McCartan, Leo Murphy, Patsy O’Hagan and P.J. McElroy shared the glory of the early 60’s, followed by Peter Rooney, John Purdy and Larry Powell in 1968 and, finally James McCartan (junior) and Greg Blaney brought the victory trail into the 90’s.

Other counties have also gained from players, whose skills and spirit were honed at Violet Hill, such as Jarlath Burns, Diarmuid Marsden, Jimmy Smyth, Ronnie Moore and Leo McAlinden (Armagh), P.T. Treacy (Fermanagh), Dr Sean Gibson (Antrim), etc.

A teacher with a famous G.A.A. name, Fr Colleran, later Vicar-general of Achonry, had entered a college side in an Ulster championship for the first time in 1926. At the same time, a young pupil from Burren, (Fr) John Treanor was beginning his studies there.

Later a legendary coach, who became president of the college, one of three brothers who became priests, Fr Treanor recalled: “To our boyish eyes, the senior players seemed like giants, who could surely take on any team in Ireland. But it gradually dawned on me that there must be even greater giants at other schools, and we would have no hope of winning the Mac Rory Cup.”

Fr Treanor described how there had been no regular coaching or training at the college. The late Canon Pettit had taken charge of the squad, but P.E. classes were strictly drill, with no attention to football skills.

“Because of pleurisy at Maynooth, I was not allowed to play football. But I became deeply interested in the G.A.A., its high ideals and general support for all things Irish. Croke Park in Dublin was the mecca, rather than Wembley Stadium in London. I saw what a great game Gaelic football was, when teams were coached in its many skills, and given a chance to display them by competent referees.

“It was memories of wonderful Hogan Cup matches between St Patrick’s College, Armagh and St Jarlath’s of Tuam, and the lack of coaching during my days at Violet Hill, that made me give up so much of my free time over the years, since I joined the staff in 1942, so as to help St Colman’s College teams.”

And the veteran coach added: “We eventually achieved success in every competition, from the Corn na n-Og to the Hogan Cup. But we had no magic formula, - it was 99 per cent hard work and perseverance. Some boys had natural talent, such as Dr Jim Fitzsimons of Newry and Burren; John McClorey (Burren, Down and Ulster), Leo McAlinden Armagh and Ulster), Dan McGeown, P.J.Crilly and Henry McParland, who played for Armagh, as well as (Fr) Eddie Moore from Rathfriland.

Fr Treanor was later assisted by Dr Sean Gibson (Antrim and Ulster) and Dan Lavery from Ballynahinch. The squad included (Dr.) Martin Walsh, Sean Blaney (father of Greg), John Joe Sands, Dessie Caldwell, Paddy Dunphy and (Fr) Malachy Finnegan, later president of the college.

In 1945, they reached the Mac Rory Cup Final for the first time, but were defeated by the side from St Patrick’s College, Armagh, on which Iggy Jones was outstanding. The Dungannon defender later set a record for the longest solo run ever achieved at Croke Park. Then, at long last, the Newry college won the premier trophy in 1948, when Sean Blaney out-played the great Jim McKeever from Derry.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008