The remarkable success story of hurling in Dungloe
By John Harrington
As a Cork native living in Dungloe, County Donegal, Cormac Hartnett was keen to pass on his love for hurling to his sons Thomas and James even if he wasn’t quite rearing them in hurling country.
Pucking a sliotar around the garden was part of their daily routine, and after a while a few of Thomas and James’ friends started joining in the fun.
To further fan the flames of their growing interest in the game, Cormac entered his young group of U-8s in a five-a-side indoor hurling competition in Letterkenny.
Such was the buzz that both they and he got from the experience he began to seriously consider the prospect of setting up an underage hurling team in Dungloe.
There was no shortage of people in those days telling him he didn’t have a prayer of making that happen, but Hartnett persevered.
Fast-forward 13 years, and Dungloe GAA club now have hurling teams playing at U-8, U-10, U-12, U-14, U-16, Minor, U-21 and Senior level, as well as a recently established U-16 camogie team.
Last year was the first year they fielded as a senior team and they went all the way to the County Junior Final which they lost narrowly to Carndonagh. Thomas and James Hartnett featured on the starting XV, and Cormac himself was a member of the panel.
Not bad going for an endeavour that started life as a regular puck-about in the garden.
“It’s absolutely brilliant how it’s grown,” says Cormac. “We have nine or ten coaches which is still thin and it's something that we would hope to increase as we move along.
“But it's great to be at a stage where you can actually make that number of teams function. Are we where we want to be in terms of player numbers and coaches? No, we're not yet, but our profile is increasing and our social media presence is increasing and that is something that has really helped us.
“We brought someone in this year to take charge of the social media and that's certainly worked well in terms of new children, new players at adult level, even. And new people willing to stick their hand up and help. Hurling in Dungloe at the moment is certainly healthy.
“There's no tradition of it, or at least there wasn't, but what I always say to people, and I've said it through the years, we now have one years tradition or two years tradition or three years tradition. Now we have 13 years tradition, so we have tradition.”
It’s taken an awful lot of work to build up hurling in Dungloe to the relatively healthy state it’s now in.
At the outset, Cormac was the sole coach and driving force but over time he built a hard-working group of mentors and coaches including Kenneth Campbell, Tommy Grenall, Brian O'Hagan, Rob Ryan, Marian Sweeney, and Jenny Sweeney to name but a few.
Developing a vibrant club and school link was another vital step in the right direction. Club coaches Tom Hennessy and Paul McNally do great work in the local schools, and the Principal of Rosses Community School, John Gorman, and many of his teachers have also played a big role in promoting the game.
Hartnett has also made a point of developing strong relationships with other clubs in the area, and over the years have drawn in many players from Gaoth Dobhair and Naomh Muire.
Building a hurling/camogie club from scratch in an area with no tradition of the sport is no easy task, so clearly Hartnett and his fellow club members don’t lack for drive and ambition.
“In those early times you have to be prepared to be patient and just to persevere,” he says.
“You're going to have training sessions with five, six, seven or eight kids, sometimes even less than that. You're going to have little numbers, little coaching support, little club structure.
“So, they're all the challenges. But little is key. Because you have to work with little. Making sure they're having fun, making sure they have plenty of games.
“You have to be prepared to travel. Establishing links with other clubs is very important. You have to use your neighbouring clubs and just slowly build step by step on that.
“The club-school link is massively important in terms of a twin-track approach to it. So that you can move it on a little bit in the club, then start it in the school and move it on a little bit there. Then suddenly the two merge and you have a much stronger situation.
"But, you know, people are, I suppose, always a little bit suspicious of what's new. So when you introduce something that's new into a very proud and well-established football club, there's always going to be a certain amount of people who are suspicious of it because they're thinking, 'Is this going to interfere with football?'
“I think when you're the new kid on the block or the person with the new sport or person with the new idea you have to move slowly and be respectful of the status quo. It is a football club and you're stepping into that arena so you can't just barge in, you have to go move slowly.
“You have to be determined and stick with your beliefs, but, at the same time, you have to accept as well that you're in the minority and you are the person who's trying to gain the trust of the club and therefore you have to be respectful of those traditions.
“So it does take time. It's a slow burn, you're not going to create a healthy, strong hurling club in a year or two or maybe not even three.
“But, if you're willing to move at a slow pace, gain the respect of players, parents, and the club, then you get traction.”
There have been some tough days along the way. Hartnett has a vivid memory of the first ever U-16 match they played against Burt who are one of the strongest hurling clubs in the county.
Such was the drubbing Burt were handing out that their goalkeeper decided he wanted to get in on the act as well and so soloed the ball deep into Dungloe territory before lofting it over the bar.
Dungloe did manage one score themselves that day, Hartnett can’t quite remember if it was a goal or a point, but it was at least something they could comfort themselves with after a chastening day at the office.
The reason Dungloe have prospered is because they’ve learned from all of those hard days. Many of the players who suffered against Burt in that U-16 match are now more than holding their own as senior club hurlers.
What has sustained them at all times along the journey is the sense that they have always been making progress as a club over the course of the last 13 years.
“When you get an U-8 team and that develops into an U-10 team and then you've got and U-8 and U-10 team, and so forth and so on, that's massive progress,” says Hartnett.
“Progress is measured in lots of different things. So, when you see increased players, when you see a parent who suddenly puts up their hand and is willing to help you out, or you get a principal in a school who thinks hurling is great or that you've impressed him sufficiently that he's going to give it a go for six or eight weeks, that's progress.
“When you see all of those little things widening the net of potential players and coaches, that's really satisfying. Because then you know that people are listening and they believe to a certain extent in what you're saying and preaching.
“That's very satisfying, and that's what it's all about. At the end of the day it's about creating enough people to make it self-sufficient so that when you step to the side it carries on by itself. Very satisfying as well to see lots of lads make county squads, lots of lads get on development squads. Lads really progressing individually.
“And then, I suppose, in terms of games and winning games. Our first breakthrough came with our U-14 team in 2014. We won the U-14 'B' Championship that year so that was the first victory we ever had in an age-group. It had a huge effect.
“At the end of the day, lads love winning. And that really gelled that cohort of 20-odd lads. And I would say, seven years later, of those 20 lads probably 13 or 14 of them are still playing hurling.”
Those same U-14s would reach a County ‘A’ U-21 Final in 2019, and, on the strength of that achievement, Dungloe decided to field a senior team for the very first time in 2020.
“We knew there were probably a certain number of fellas in the area who would play hurling, who hadn't played in a couple of years or longer who would through their weight behind an adult team,” says Hartnett.
“We knew we had a strong backbone in terms of our U-21s, but we did at the same time regard it as something we would dip our toe into and see how we'd get on. It went very, very well. We topped our group and we won our semi-final and we got to the final.
“Unfortunately we couldn't finish it, it was a very tight game that could have gotten either way, but Carndonagh had it on the day and deserved it.
“As our first year, it was fantastic, great to field an adult team, great to see the structure that an adult team needs being put into place. Sponsors coming on board, great enthusiasm, great momentum and that carried us all the ways through the season, as short as it was, to the county final.
“It was fantastic, we were really, really pleased with our first year of adult hurling.”
Having a flag-ship senior team is the ultimate goal for all clubs that establish themselves at juvenile level first and then try to build the thing up through the age-groups year after year.
When you have a senior team it gives all the young players in the club something to aspire to, which in turn makes player retention an awful lot easier.
And when you’re trying to grow hurling in football country, the fact that you have a senior that was good enough to reach a county final in its very first year is a fantastic way to win over the doubters.
Dungloe Club Chairman, Enda Bonner, played hurling himself in Gormanstown College as a secondary school student and went on to represent Donegal at minor level so he’s always had a grá for the small ball code.
He doesn’t mind admitting that some people in the club were dubious about the merits of developing hurling in the area, but he’s confident that hurling and camogie are now here to stay in Dungloe.
“Our club has been mainly a football club for 100 years this coming year,” Bonner told GAA.ie.
“There was no hurling at all in the area until Cormac Hartnett arrived. He has a lot of help now which he didn't have for years. There's a lot of other lads who have come in to the area and helped him.
“When they went senior last year a lot of people had doubts about it. But they had to go, because a lot of lads had been with them for a lot of years and where were they going to go if there was no senior. They were quite successful last year and the club were fully behind them, particularly the officer board.
“Maybe a lot of the football lads are a bit sceptical because you know how hard it is to run a GAA club at the moment financially, particularly now with the lack of gates.
“But it’s clear now that Cormac has developed something for the long-term, he has nurtured so many coaches and mentors over the last few years and now a few other lads have come into the area that are very interested.
“So I think there's a very bright future for hurling in Dungloe.”
Dungloe are an inspirational story for any new hurling or camogie club that has established itself at juvenile level in recent years and has aspirations of some day completing the player pathway by fielding a senior team.
Hartnett doesn’t sugar-coat the fact that establishing hurling in football heartland can be a very challenging endeavour, but his experience is that if you persevere then the success that will eventually come is all the sweeter.
“It's been tough, there have been times when you'd literally want to throw your hat at it and say, 'I can't do this'.
“Nobody really wants me here, nobody wants to support me, I'm dealing with small numbers of kids, I'm dealing with hidings at every game we go to. We can't field an outdoor team. Well, so what?
“You have to realise that little is your strength. You can work with little. Find out what your core group is and look after them. Give them lots of time and games. Make sure they're enjoying themselves and having fun at whatever age-group that is. And work then at trying to expand upon that.
“Absolutely get involved with your primary schools and your national schools. But, starting off, you have to accept that if you're one or two people trying to start this movement there's going to be a lot of time and commitment involved. You're going to have to be very patient.
“You're going to have to be respectful of the existing structure of the football club that you're trying to introduce hurling into it. You're going to have to realise that you're the small fish in the pool and you're just going to have to try to work your way through that.
“But there's plenty of help out there and one of the key things is to make sure you ask for it. We've had so many different coaches come down to Dungloe simply because we asked.
“Everyone in Dungloe club bar a couple of us, be they players, mentors, or coaches, has no tradition in hurling. By, by God, they're passionate about it now. They love it now. They've got 13 years tradition now in Dungloe. So you create your own tradition, you create your own history.
“You start small and you just keep chipping away, chipping away. It's a slow burn and it will take time. While we're not there yet, we're definitely at a point where it's almost self-sufficient and that's after 13 years or so.
“The future definitely looks good, but you always have to keep your eye on the ball.”