By Niall McCoy
LIKE a lot of other clubs in Down in the 1980s, there was one word that brought a shiver down the spine of Loughinisland – Burren.
The Blues entered the decade with one Senior Championship to their name, courtesy of a one-point win over Rostrevor in 1975 having lost the previous three finals.
The first few years of the ‘80s were difficult with the side suffering relegation from Division One in 1984, but it was clear that the guts of a special team was forming.
However, much like their team of the 70s, they’d have to experience a bit of pain before the glory – and that usually came courtesy of the men from Burren.
In 1985 Loughinisland were considered as a long shot for the championship, mainly because they operated in Division Two.
True, they had cantered their way through the second tier with Brendan ‘Bundy’ Mason scoring an incredible 23-85 in just 18 league games – an average of over eight points per game.
They were still facing a tough ask though, but they showed little fear as they disposed of Castlewellan, Rostrevor and Longstone to set up a final meeting with a Burren side who had won three Down titles and two Ulster crowns in the previous four seasons.
The St Mary’s men proved too strong, triumphing on a 0-10 to 0-5 scoreline en-route to an All-Ireland title. Loughinisland had come close, but not close enough. Match reports referenced their determination but also cited a real lack of experience as one of their main downfalls.
The following year it took three games to separate the sides in the championship quarter-final before Burren edged through 0-8 to 0-6 in game three. They would meet again in the 1988 final.
The St Mary’s men would again come out on top as Loughinisland, still couldn’t solve the puzzle that was the Burren defence. Their 0-7 tally meant that they had managed just 0-18 across the three matches that they had lost to Burren in those three years.
Club great Vincey Doran still doesn’t know how they didn’t win at least one of those matches.
He was instrumental in getting Pat O’Hare on board as manager during those near misses, and that three-game saga with Burren in ’86 was galling – particularly as Doran was part of the management team.
“Pat O’Hare was along with Pete McGrath in 94,” said Doran. “He came to us in ’83, ’84.
“I had asked a friend in Downpatrick why they had gotten rid of him. He had been with them but he only got four or five matches because we beat them in the championship.
“We were in the Millbrook one night and I said to the fella that they got rid of Pat O’Hare very quickly and I asked him what happened. His reply was ‘do you want to speak to him?’
“O’Hare rang me that Saturday night and he got that team going and they came very close.
“I was his assistant, but I was more of a shoulder to lean on. I was someone who knew the names of all the players in Loughinisland.
“We won the league for the first time and we took Burren to three games in ’86 – two of those were 80-minute games too.
“They only beat us then in the third game and they went on and won the All-Ireland.
“I think we were 10 points up in the second match and James McCartan, old James, said to me after the game ‘Vincey, you had no luck.’
“James always would have said that Down had the luck. He’d say if we made our own luck we would win matches.”
Rather than be destroyed by those gut-wrenching defeats, the side gelled together even stronger.
They were no longer a young, inexperienced side, but one with a potent mix of all ages. The 1989 season, they decided, was to be theirs.
By that stage Doran, who was Loughinisland chairperson at the time, had appointed a new management team of Pat Gibney, Liam McGreevy and Vincent McGlew. The legendary Sean Smith also played a part later in the season after being suggested by defender Donard King at a club meeting.
Gary Mason had made his Down debut three years earlier while Brendan Mason, an Ulster U-21 winner in 1984, was already starring for the Mourne county.
Team captain Noel McCarthy had won an Ulster U-21 medal in 1978 while half-back Michael Madine was an Ulster Minor winner in 1979. Paul Mahon was part of the Down u-21 provincial winning squad with Brendan Mason in ’84 while Collie Mason played left half-back on the Mourne side that won the 1987 All-Ireland Minor Championship.
Burren may have been All-Ireland champions, but Loughinisland knew deep down that they could dethrone them. In the end, though, someone else did the job for them.
That honour fell to Clonduff who dumped Burren out in the first round of the 1989 Down Championship, ending the side’s dominance in the process. The St Mary’s men won only three more Down titles across the next two decades having won seven in the ‘80s alone.
“We were a very good side but Burren at that time were like Kilcoo now,” said Brendan Mason. “They had some great players and we just couldn’t get over the line against them.
“I don’t know whether it was just inexperience at that level, Burren just seemed to have it all the time.
“Then when they went out that year we just thought we had a real chance. We had the same crop of players and some brilliant men, Noel McCarthy, Donard King. Donard did his cruciate not long after that season and didn’t really play much after that.
“Mickey Madine, Gary Mason, Colin Mason, Terry O’Toole, Paul Tohan, who left soon after that to go to America and is still there. The list goes on.
“It was a very balanced side and when Burren went out we knew our chances increased.”
Burren’s exit wasn’t just a boost for the Blues. Clonduff suddenly were genuine contenders, as were Castlewellan and Downpatrick.
Those three teams made up the semi-finals along with Loughinisland who faced up against the Yellas.
After 15 minutes they were on easy street as they led 1-6 to 0-0, but by the end they were far from comfortable with John Trainor and Terry O’Toole grabbing the goals in a 2-10 to 1-10 win.
That set up a final meeting with Bryansford at St Patrick’s Park.
On a glorious day, a huge crowd turned up expecting a real battle with the ‘Ford showing their worth with a semi-final win over Castlewellan.
The ‘Ford had plenty of motivation too. When they last lifted the Frank O’Hare Cup in 1977 they were two titles clear in the Down roll of honour and nine titles ahead of Burren. The gap was still two by ’89, but Burren had joined Kilcoo in joint second and Bryansford were keen to reestablish their dominance.
The expected battle never materialized though as Loughinisland took their opponents apart.
The crucial moments arrived in one mad first-half minute.
Bryansford had what appeared to be a routine free, but the ball dropped short into James Mason’s hands and he launched it out to Paul Rice who sped up field.
His long kick was fielded under pressure by John Trainor and he picked out the overlapping Terry O’Toole who weaved past three players and found the net from distance.
From the resulting kick-out, Madine broke the ball down to Brendan Mason and played a one-two with Gerard Martin. Despite being under severe pressure, ‘Bundy’ got his shot away and it made it over the line despite ‘Ford goalie Mark Wells getting a touch.
Suddenly it was 2-3 to 0-3 and Loughinisland were not going to let this opportunity pass. Early in the second half, Martin’s long ball in was misjudged by the Bryansford defence and at the last second Trainor opted to have a go at goal instead of fisting over the bar. In it went and the game was done.
The final scoreline would read Loughinisland 3-10 Bryansford 0-5 – one of the biggest winning margins in the history of Down Senior finals.
“Look at that Bryansford team,” said Brendan Mason. “They had big Eamonn (Burns), God rest him, the brother Colm, Benny Corrigan, Ger Corrigan, Raymie Harbinson. They were one of the biggest sides in east Down.
“They had a great tradition plus it was in Newcastle too.
“I remember being interviewed the morning of the match, someone rang me from one of the radio stations and pointed out that it was their home pitch.
“You were going up thinking we had a chance because we knew we were good enough, but at the same time they were some side.
“But after 10 or 15 minutes when we got the two goals, we didn’t look back. They didn’t seem like they were going to get into it.
“It was probably a poor final to watch but we didn’t care.”
For Vincey Doran it was an exceptional win, especially given the club’s restrictions on numbers.
“We had one or two injuries around then, that was a bit of a problem.
“Ted Nixon, he went to England a lock of months before it and he was a great player who could have slotted into anywhere in the defence. Shorty Treanor would tell you that he was no fool.
“A wee club like Loughinisland can’t afford to lose too many. I think they were the smallest parish in Down the year they won the championship, 700 or so of a population.”
Brendan Mason had been playing for the seniors since he was 15, so the final whistle brought a range of emotions – relief was perhaps the most prevalent of those.
“We went back to the Millbrook after it to celebrate,” he said.
“I’m not a drinker but I enjoyed it just as much as everyone else. Some of the boys celebrated for a few days.”
When the partying died down, a new aim arrived – the prospect of a first ever Ulster Club Championship victory.
Back in 1975 they had been outclassed by St John’s who win by nine points at Corrigan Park. The Antrim side progressed despite the absence of a certain Gerry Armstrong at midfield as he was in London for a trial with Tottenham Hotspur. He signed with the White Harte Lane side for £25,000 the following month.
The Johnnies were seasoned provincial campaigners by then, and there was no shame in losing to them.
In 1989 though, the visit of Cavan’s Kingscourt to St Patrick’s Park appeared a much more winnable fixture, even if the Stars had been ruling the roost in the Breffni county during the 1980s.
With Damian Mason starring, the Blues eked out a 1-7 to 0-7 win as they turned things around in the second half.
Brendan Mason’s point was their only score in the first half and although the same player saw a penalty tipped over the bar after the interval, Terry O’Toole came up with another important goal to seal the club’s first provincial victory.
That set-up a semi-final clash with heavyweights Scotstown who already had three Ulster titles to their name at that stage.
Blue was once again the colour as the sides had to change their strips due to a clash, just as they had to in their quarter-final matches with Kingscourt and Fermanagh outfit Devenish, who Scotstown had defeated 2-13 to 0-6.
Much of the pre-match build-up focused on Farney great Gerry McCarville, whose wedding took place a few days before the match.
The noise coming out of Monaghan was that he wouldn’t play, but when the ball was thrown in he was there and he produced an excellent performance.
He was one of only three Scotstown scorers on the day, but Ray McCarron’s 1-4 tally was enough to secure another final spot for their side.
Loughinisland also had only three scorers with Brendan Mason hitting five points and Gerard Martin and Paul Toman both raising a white flag in the 1-6 to 0-7 defeat.
Despite the low scoring, the Anglo Celt described the game as “a thriller” and both teams received massive applause when departing at half-time and full-time.
For Vincey Doran, there is one incident that still grates though.
“We were very unlucky in Ulster,” he said.
“We had to go and play Scotstown in Clontibret on a real wet day.
“Brendan Mason was pulled straight down and it was a blatant penalty, but (Jim) Curran gave us a penalty in Newcastle against Kingscourt. It was disputed in the papers and he didn’t give it the second day when he should have given it.
“Then Scotstown went on and gave Coalisland an awful beating in the final.”
Brendan Mason also felt that the penalty incident had a big impact on the outcome.
“I should have had a penalty,” said ‘Bundy.’
“I was about to try and crack one past the goalkeeper and I don’t know where the defender came from but he left two stud marks on my calf.
“It wasn’t to be but it was special to play in the tournament.
“A lot of us had experience of county but when you play with your club it’s always going to mean a lot to you.”
So 1989 really was a year to remember for the Loughinisland club. A league and championship double, a run in Ulster and memories to last a lifetime.
Now it’s over to the current squad to see if they can make their own mark in the top grade in the coming years.