Feature: Setanta’s hurling heartland

By Niall Gartland

NEVER standing still. That could well be the mantra of Setanta, who have blossomed into one of Donegal’s foremost hurling clubs since their formation in 1979.

Men and women of vision have propelled this club into the spotlight – they’ve won three of the last five senior championship titles in Donegal – and it’s only natural to wonder how hurling took root in the area, centred around Killygordon and Crossroads in the Finn Valley.

The founder members were Danny Cullen Snr (school principal at the local national school at the time) and Galway native Eamonn Farrell, and their ingenuity and diligence helped kick-start one of the big hurling success stories in the province in living memory.

There was already interest in hurling in the local area, but it was Cullen, Farrell and others who brought shape to their ambitions, according to club stalwart Patricia McGovern.

“Danny Cullen was a great man for promoting gaelic games and the Irish language. He came to teach in the parish and he decided he’d try to get hurling going at the national school.

“I remember it was like a site you’d see in Kilkenny nowadays. Every child went to school with their bag and their lunch and their hurling stick. There were three breaks during the day and all the children headed out with their hurley sticks and away they went.

“We also had the Curragh housing estate and that was a great nest for hurling, it was all the boys did since they got up in the morning. They may have broken the odd window but there was never any bother, and they help make up our first teams.”

The club was officially formed in 1979, and they had a clear vision of what Setanta was going to represent – open-mindedness and ambition.

“They called a meeting and locked heads over what exactly they wanted. For example they decided the hurlers would wear black rigs on their jerseys as it would make them look more imposing.

“They also wanted a lady president so Brigid Cullen was elected to the role, and they also decided Setanta would be open to people outside the club who wanted to play hurling.

“Eamonn Farrell was a Ballybofey man and played football with Sean Mac Cumhaills but they had no hurling and he joined us. Paul Duncan was the same, he was from Donegal town, so he came to us too.

“Everybody who wanted to play was afforded the opportunity to take part. The rules are different now but that’s the way things were at the time. That was in 1979 and we contested our very first senior championship final in 1979 against our great rivals Burt. We lost that day but made amends the following year with our first of 14 senior championship titles.”

That sense of accessibility and belonging has endured, and their vice-chairman at the moment is Donegal and Setanta hurler Declan Coulter, a native of Armagh. He’s married to Ciara Cullen, grandaughter of the club’s founder, and their two children, Lara and Thomas play with the club’s academy teams.

Coulter said: “The 2017 season was my first here and I was still playing at home. However, I’d been living in Donegal for a number of years before I actually transferred, and I knew from watching on that it was something I wanted to be a part of.

“There’s a great connection between everyone – it’s a typical country club in that everyone looks out for each other.”

“It’s the type of club where you could name 20 to 30 people who are putting their shoulder to the wheel, it’s a team effort and that’s the main thing about it.”

Commenting on the managers and coaches behind their current run of senior success, Coulter slips the names of Eamonn and Paul Campbell into the conversation – two of the most committed figures in the club’s history.

“Our manager right now is Gary McGettigan and his backroom team includes Kevin Campbell, Mark Marley, Ciaran O’Neill and David Porter. 2020 was their first season in charge, and before that the same management team was in charge for a number of years.

THE TRAILBLAZERS….First ever winning Championship team in 1980

“Paul Campbell was at the helm, and his father Eamonn before him, and they must’ve managed the team for the best part of 20 years. Obviously, there were others as well but they were the two men pushing the senior team on. We won two championships in-a-row when Paul took charge in 2007, and then there was a gap until 2017 – there was a period of dominance in the county with Burt being quite strong but over the past five years we’ve won three. St Eunan’s got the better of us in last year’s final but it’s all to play for again this year.”

While three championships in the last five years is still some going, their achievements in recent times stretch beyond the confines of Donegal.

They won the Ulster Junior Championship title in 2017 with victory over Na Magha of Derry, and the club is particularly proud that they’ve always had a strong representation on the county team. A number of their players have won Nickey Rackard All-Star awards, while Coulter won the man of the match award after participating in the All-Stars tour in Abu Dhabi in 2019.

Setanta have also been represented on a number of Junior and Senior All-Ireland Shinty teams, with Danny Cullen captaining the side in 2019. Oisín Marley hastwo Ulster Poc Fada titles and just last month, Ruairi Campbell lifted an All-Ireland medal when he played on the Queen’s University team in the All-Ireland Freshers B.

Declan Coulter, who oversees the youth academy in the club, has seen at close quarters that there’s plenty of promising young hurlers rising through the ranks.

“I oversee the academy, which is our U-5s, U-7s and U-9s, but when I say ‘oversee’, it’s a very loose term as you could have over 10 coaches helping on any given night and that’s brilliant as you need all hands on deck.”

“We train every Wednesday and you could have 60+ kids there across the three age groups which is fantastic for such a small catchment area.

“When you see them come back for the start of the year, you see massive improvement and I think the kids themselves see how much we care about helping them along. We’re all enthusiastic and giving our team and the parents certainly appreciate it as well, so it’s all going good.”

As for the success of their older age groups, Coulter said: “It’s been a tricky few years at underage level for all sports because of the pandemic, but we’ve been competitive in A and B competitions. We won the minor and senior ‘A’ double in 2019 which was a brilliant achievement. Stephen McBride and Pauric Moss were on both teams, which was some achievement for them.

“Some of the younger lads have come through and are already well established on the senior team, and it’s great to see that there’s a progression, and that there’s a willingness on their part to be involved in the senior set-up. I suppose success breeds success and long may that continue.”

Spooling back to the early days of the club, they enjoyed their most glorious period of success between 1980 and 1990, winning nine out of the 11 senior championship titles on offer. Asked whether that was the greatest ever Setanta team, Patricia McGovern admits they were certainly something special.

“It’s hard to know whether they were the greatest, our boys at the minute are like athletes, but that definitely was a great team to watch. Although we opened our doors to everyone, I remember in one of those panels, 16 players on the team came through the national school.

“We always supplied a lot of players to the county team as well. I remember four Doherty brothers playing for Donegal in the mid-eighties. They were always very skilled, but on top of that great friendships were formed in the club and we’d have organised trips away to places like New York and Brussels.”

There was a barren spell of more than a decade as Burt won a remarkable 16 titles in a row, but McGovern was confident that Setanta’s day would come. They ended a long, long wait without a title as they claimed a massively well-deserved victory over Burt in 2007.

“That was certainly a difficult period for us. We contested a lot of those county finals against Burt but unfortunately we lost them all and we were sometimes narrowly beaten by a point or two.

“But we knew we’d rise again. There was always such pride in the club. It was more than just about what happens on the field of play.

“A lot of people have given an awful lot to it, and if you go to a local match, you see so many hurling families – the parents, children, grannies and grandas are all there to cheer on the team.”

Another special moment for the club was when they came up trumps in the Kilmacud Sevens competition for the very first time in 2004, something which McGovern was keen to emphasize, as well as an All-Ireland Feile title in 2008.

“That was a big thing for us, for years we went down to Kilmacud Crokes and we got our first win in 2004, and then won it again in 2011 and 2018.

“There was an incredible amount of excitement the first time we won it, and I remember everyone down at Cloughfin and the horns blowing. The club was on a high after that, it was such a great feeling.”

Coulter also explains that the club worked hard to keep things ticking over during the pandemic.

“There was zoom sessions and so on, but I have to say everyone looked out for each other generally during the pandemic. That’s one thing I want to emphasise about the club, everyone looks after their neigbour.

“Before I joined the club, I knew how much effort everyone was putting in, I wanted to be part of that, I wanted to throw myself into it 100 percent and it’s been brilliant.

“It’s a real family feeling, you’re never left wanting, there’s always someone there to help you and it’s always nice to be in and around the club.”

While they lost their senior to St Eunan’s last season, Coulter said that if they don’t wrestle it back, it won’t be for a lack of trying.

“We were very disappointed to lose that one but on the day we know we didn’t perform. In the grand scale of things, maybe it’s a good thing – we know we have to be really on our game this season and raise our levels once again.”

And it’s fair to say that the club are planning for the future in every respect. They’re running a ‘buy a brick’ campaign as they’re conducting development work at the moment.

“There’s a big development going on with the new clubhouse”, said Coulter.

“When it’s finished it’ll be a brilliant hub for people, so we’re trying to get that sorted, and there’s people behind the scenes working really hard at that on top of their day job.

“It’s great to see and things are really progressing, the plans have gone through. It’ll be nice to see it go through all the various different stages. Fundraising is a massive thing at the moment, we’re trying to get as many people to support it as possible. We have ‘buy a brick’ and Cian Lynch has bought one, it’s amazing how word gets out.

“People from 15 or 16 different counties have all bought into it – it’s good to see but a lot more work to be done.”

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