The Cullen family continues to deliver for Donegal hurling

By Michael Devlin

Donegal captain Danny Cullen is indicative of the type of hurler who was born into the small ball tradition.

Cullen’s grandfather, the late Danny Sr, was instrumental in founding the Setanta club in Crossroads, in the far reaches of north Donegal, in 1979. From there, a strong hurling culture grew in the area, and the club progressed through the years, most notably winning the Ulster Club JHC last year with county skipper Cullen playing a key role.

In a predominantly football-oriented county, it’s from clubs like Setanta that the current Tír Conaill side draw from as they take on Warwickshire in Saturday’s Nicky Rackard Cup decider.

“When you grow up in a family that’s into hurling, you get involved yourself from no age,” the seasoned midfielder admits. “A lot of Donegal hurlers have come from that type of family tradition.

“We’re playing hurling in a football dominated county but at the end of the day, there are very passionate people there. There are small pockets around the county, but I wouldn’t change anything for the world. I grew up in the sport and I just love it. We are getting our day out on Saturday, and I’m looking forward to that.

“Club rivalry is healthy, but once we put on the jersey, you always push on to the one goal. Most of the best hurlers in Donegal will play for Donegal. There is revered passion and heart toward the jersey, players do enjoy it. You might lose the odd player here or there to football, but the majority of players will stick at it and give it their all. That has lead us to where we are now.”

Donegal’s league performances have Cullen in confident mood. Mickey McCann’s men have had arguably their finest campaign to date, notching historic wins over Ulster rivals Down and Derry, before defeating Armagh to secure their 2B status for the first time ever. Even the manner of their defeat to Wicklow, running the Garden County to six points, offers much positivity.

“Playing in a higher Division, it is probably one of the best seasons Donegal hurling has ever had. We beat Derry, Armagh and Down. Down was one of the big games, we’ve never beat them before.

“My first hurling game I went to watch in Croke Park was Down v Tipperary in the 1997 All-Ireland semi-final. That’s why beating Down this year was a big thing for me. It boosted our confidence so much.”

Donegal played in the 2013 Nicky Rackard Cup Final at Croke Park.
Donegal played in the 2013 Nicky Rackard Cup Final at Croke Park.

Comfortable wins over Tyrone, Leitrim and Monaghan have paved the way to the final of hurling’s fourth tier All-Ireland, and looking toward Saturday’s opponents Warwickshire, Cullen admits the Exiles will present the challenge of an unknown quantity of sorts.

“We haven’t really come across them much as they were playing a Division below us in the League, which was good for us. It’s very hard to know what they bring, they have a different influx of players from strong counties.

“Warwickshire won 3A and are now up in 2B, so it shows you the level they are at. There will be some very good hurlers there, the likes of Niall McKenna from Antrim, a quality hurler.

The buzz of lining out in Croke Park with silverware on the line, though, will be something to savour for Cullen and his team mates, and lifting the Nicky Rackard will cap off a memorable season for the hurlers of Donegal.

“It’s building up towards it now. Most of us have been in this kind of situation before so we know the story now. We’re looking forward to it.

“Walking the steps of the Hogan Stand, no matter what competition you’re in, it’s a privilege to do and it’s something you’d remember for the rest of your life, so hopefully we can get over the line on Saturday.”