OLSPCK part of Belfast hurling's rennaissance
By Damian Lawlor
Antrim hurling has known its good and bad days, both at club and county level, but the last few years have been a real challenge.
Some heavy defeats, a fall down to Division 2A, which they now top, the stagnation of Casement Park, and falling numbers of small ball participants within Belfast and the county in general, have put the county’s bosses on red alert.
But there are clear signs of brighter times ahead.
Darren Gleeson’s senior county outfit are close to getting back to Division 1B.
Casement Park’s rejuvenation is firmly back on the agenda.
And the enthusiasm and vision shown by Dr Paul Donnelly has ensured that Gaelic Games are being rejuvenated throughout the county again. Donnelly is director of Gaelfast, a project started two years ago to breathe life back into GAA in Belfast and beyond and he is doing just that.
Meanwhile, on the ground, Our Lady and St Patrick's College, Knock (OLSPCK) are doing their bit. The school, while heavily populated by young Down hurlers, is just two games away from winning the Masita GAA Post Primary Schools Michael Cusack Cup (Senior C Hurling) final.
A victory for a Belfast school – despite the fact that there is only one Antrim player on the current side – would be huge in terms of enticing more youngsters from the county to fall in love with hurling again.
One of their players, meanwhile, Sean Hughes, is doing more than most to life the profile of the game in the county – the exciting young attacker was recently named on the Ulster Colleges 2020 All Star side.
All in all there are growing signs of progress being made.
Last year Gaelfast met 86% of targets set and agreed – that was a good impact.
“Our ambitions are unlimited,” said Donnelly.
“For example, the pilot of the new primary-school focussed GAA 5 Star Centre initiative involved 16 schools in Belfast and Antrim. It was so successful that the number of schools enrolling for 2020 has increased by more than 400%, to almost 80.
“Perversely, Gaelfast’s ability to punch above our weight has led to claims we’re growing too big, too fast. I make no apology for being effective and ambitious, Belfast and Antrim have a lot of ground to make up.”
Huge engagement has been undertaken in the first 12 months of the project and stakeholder sessions across the county attracted nearly 120 representatives from local clubs.
An online Club Membership survey received almost 2,300 responses.
A ten-year Gaelfast plan will now be launched before the summer.
“As days get brighter, we need more children out playing Gaelic Games. Gaelfast’s Gaelic on the Green last summer was a taste of things to come,” Donnelly added.
And while that project grows from strength to strength, and the journey to a new Casement Park steps up, OLSPCK are intent on doing all they can to win the Michael Cusack Cup.
They have a strong backbone for a start.
“The school won the Kirk Cup (U16 Competition) in 2017/18 season and this year replicated the victory at U18.5 level,” says mentor and Down camogie player Catherine McGourty.
“The school last won the Casement Cup in 2015 which was the first time they won the current trophy.”
And what a strong management team they have too.
Frank Wilson in the manager, and also manager of the Northern Ireland School Boys Soccer team. Wilson played soccer in the Irish league and also played Gaelic Football for Antrim.
Alongside him is Peter Kane, one of the members of staff that started Hurling in OLSPCK. A member of the Naomh Eanna Club in North Belfast, Kane has given many year of service to hurling in the school.
Conor McLornan is also in the backroom. A past pupil of OLSPCK and back on placement, he was on the last school team to win the Casement Cup and landed an Ulster College All Star in 2017/18.
Joe Shields is a new member of staff at the school and also plays hurling and Gaelic football for his club, Bredagh.
Meanwhile, Catherine McGourty is a well-known camogie player from Ballycran who has represented both Down and Ulster, wining an All-Ireland Premier Junior Title with Down in 2014.
Interestingly, Niall Murtagh is the only Antrim man in the team. Murtagh’s main club is St Bridgid’s but he plays hurling for St Galls.
Full-back Daragh Kelly is a busy man too – he played on Down Celtic Challenge team and various other Down underage teams and is also a member of the school rugby team that competed in the Schools Cup this year.
Ciaran McMullan also played for the Down Celtic Challenge team – his brother, Lorcan is currently on the Dublin senior hurling panel while Ciaran also plays senior football for his school.
With many of the team hailing from the heartlands of Ballycran, Ballygalget and Bredagh, OLSPCK look well placed to challenge Boyne CS hard for a place in the Michael Cusack final this weekend, most likely to be played at Silverbridge Harps GAA Club, Armagh, the venue of the original fixture which was called off due to poor weather last Saturday.