By Frank Craig
MOST Killybegs natives have a famous ‘one that got away’ fishing story.
But Barry Cunningham says the 1991 Ulster Club final is the big one ‘the Fishermen’ could and probably should have landed.
The history books have it in black and white that Monaghan’s Castleblayney, powered on by Nudie Hughes, edged out the Donegal champions by 0-8 to 0-6.
But the fact of the matter, and it will forever grate at those involved at the time, is that Killybegs were denied the services of a third of their starting XV for the majority of that provincial campaign.
A special side littered with some serious talent; between 1988 and 1996 they won five Donegal Championships from seven final appearances.
For the first of those Dr Maguire Cup victories, they defeated fierce rivals Kilcar and, in the process, bridged a 36-year gap from their one and only previous success.
Barry McGowan, John Cunningham, John ‘Ban’ Gallagher, Barry Cunningham, Manus Boyle and Conor White were already All-Ireland U-21 medal holders by the time they won the first of their five club championships in 1988.
David Meehan, Stephen Burke, Mark Boyle and Barry Cunningham jnr had worn the Donegal jersey in the Ulster Minor Championship and also played u-21 football for Donegal.
Barry McGowan, Manus Boyle, Barry Cunningham and John Cunningham would go on to win All-Ireland senior medals in 1992.
Having lost the 1990 club decider to their other great regional foes, the John Joe Doherty and Noel Hegarty inspired Naomh Columba, Killybegs bounced back to regain the Tir Chonaill championship crown in 1991, defeating Red Hugh’s in the final.
“It was a great time,” recalls Cunningham. “We’d grown up playing all the sides around us and, to be fair, the area probably was the championship in Donegal at the time.
“We won five Dr Maguires but the most we ever won a final by was two points. We were a good side but the likes of Naomh Columba, Kilcar and Ardara… there were definitely good sides there with us.
“It was a great time to be playing football, no doubt.
“But we were lucky in the sense that there was a really good backbone of experience when a brilliant crop of young lads like Declan and Mark Boyle and Peter McGinley came through.
“To be fair, most of the squad had represented Donegal at some level. Declan was an exceptional player. He was a fantastic athlete and with the soccer and Gaelic skills he had, he was just a really formidable package.
“He was so strong. He had all the attributes. He had physique, skill and pace. And for me, I’ve no doubt he’d have been a regular senior starter for the county had Glasgow Celtic not come calling.
“And fair play to him, he went on to make a career out of playing soccer. In 1993, he started for Donegal against Armagh in the Ulster Championship in Breffni Park.
“The county team was in the top three or four in the country at the time. Most of those players came from the west of Donegal. That led to some seriously competitive club championship matches with massive crowds.”
He added: “We’d players coming through and options for every position. We’d a real squad and it was the basis for a very enjoyable time for the club.”
Killybegs was the island’s premier fishing port at the time. But back then, it was powered and served by a much greater man-power. Super trawlers and state-of-the-art processing machinery hadn’t yet decimated the number of households the port was putting bread on the table for.
Anchors were usually dropped at the end of April and not lifted again until the following September.
Killybegs, Cunningham explains, were still toasting their county championship success when the foghorns sounded and the time came to head for the north Atlantic once again.
As a result, Denis Carberry, Conor White, David Meehan, Rory McNelis and Mickey Campbell would play little or no further part in the remainder of that season.
“It was its own unique sort of economy,” he said of Kilybegs at the time. “It kept the whole of west Donegal going. Without it, it would have been decimated. Today, it’s just not the same. And you can see the effect. It’s trimmed down to just a couple of months (fishing) and the town is a ghost town.
“There was a lot more man power needed back then too – that was the beauty of it. A tonne of fish will be processed now by machine in an hour without human hands touching it. Back then, you’d have seven or eight men over the course of maybe four or five hours doing the same task.
“I suppose there was a big temptation for so many to go fishing. There were lads whose families were ‘fishing families’ and that was always going to be their path. It’s a lot of their sons’ paths now as well. To be fair, you couldn’t blame them. There was big money to be made and they weren’t fishing full time.
“They still had their summers to play football. It seemed like the perfect fit in a lot of ways. Back then, and with the quotas at the time, you were probably chatting about a six- or seven-month (fishing) season for them. But the one thing we never thought it would clash with was an Ulster campaign.
“Looking back, if we’d a full team we’d have had a right crack at that Ulster final. We’d five lads fishing and while one or two of them got home for the final, the longer it went on the more fitness became an issue for them.
“Even before the final, a few things went against us. John ‘Ban’ Gallagher got injured. And even the lads that got home from sea, they’d missed something like seven or eight weeks training. They weren’t at that level – to play in an Ulster final.
“The economy was the way it was at that time. Lads went to sea and they made real money. You couldn’t fault them. It wasn’t feasible to ask them to stick around. The reality of the situation was that was an impossible ask.
“The way I look at it is that if there wasn’t the fishing at the time, a lot of those lads would have been getting on planes and heading for the likes of America and London. So we have to be thankful for what we did achieve inside the county as well.”
The fact that Killybegs were still so competitive in Ulster that term is testament to just how talented a group they were.
First up inside the province were Derry champions Dungiven. They had future Oak Leaf All-Ireland winners Kieran and Emmett McKeever, Brian McGilligan and Joe Brolly in their midst.
However, Killybegs would advance to tee up a semi-final showdown with Downpatrick. That clash took place in Newcastle, on November 17 of that year. Again, Killybegs produced the good to win though to a first-ever senior provincial decider.
“We played the first two games in Ulster without a lot of the lads that had to go to sea. We played Dungiven up in Derry and Downpatrick away as well. We probably felt we’d the spade-work done after that.
“Dungiven was a bit of a statement. Down had won the All-Ireland that same year so Downpatrick had a swagger about them as well. They’d Conor Deegan and Barry Breen. But again, we played exceptionally well.
“There was an element of the unknown to it all. But it probably stood to us. We went to the likes of Dungiven and Downpatrick and were the underdogs.
“That turned on its head in the final. We were suddenly the favourites then. But what I enjoyed about it was that every county had its own style and it was mirrored very much by the clubs representing it. It was different but in a good way.”
Awaiting Killybegs in Omagh, in the Ulster showpiece, were Farney kingpins, Castleblayney.
Given the magnitude of the occasion and with hopes so high, efforts were made to have captain Denis Carberry, along with Conor White and David Meehan, flown home for the clash.
“We might have underestimated Castleblayney in the final,” admitted Cunningham. “To be fair to them they were a very good side. Even on the day, we missed a lot of chances. Nudie Hughes was a handful for them. They got their noses in front and we just weren’t able to get it back.
“We had a fair bit of success over the years. Personally, I’m very lucky to have club medals and I won things with Donegal. But definitely, the big regret of mine is that we didn’t win that Ulster Club title. With a full team, I’ve no doubt we were good enough to win an Ulster title.
“Listen, the mind wonders. If you’d won Ulster you suddenly had a crack at an All-Ireland semi-final. That would have been amazing. We were probably a little naive too – the magnitude of it was probably a little lost on us. But with the benefit of hindsight, the perspective has changed so much.
“But for whatever reason, there probably is a whole host of them, it just didn’t happen for us in the final. The main one, and the reason there is so much regret, is that we weren’t at full strength.
“An Ulster final, it’s such a high standard, that you need everything to be right. It just wasn’t for us that day.
“Castleblayney were very hard and physical. And they were also a very talented side. They’d their homework done. They paid particular attention to Manus. Things went well for them. Generally, myself included, the team didn’t play well.
“I don’t think there is anyone who looks back and thinks they did. The year before I played for Tir Chonaill Gaels against Lavey and did play well. They beat us after extra-time and they went onto win an All-Ireland. I’ve no regrets about that year but I do have regrets about the year after.”