As Hugh O’Neills GFC prepares to celebrate its 70th Anniversary Damian Dolan looks back at its contribution to GAA in Leeds, Yorkshire and Britain
Nearly 20 years may have passed, but Frank Gallagher has no hesitation in hailing Hugh O’Neills 1999 All Britain triumph as the undoubted ‘pinnacle’ of the club’s proud and rich history.
As the club prepares to mark its 70th Anniversary with a celebratory Dinner Dance at the Leeds Irish Centre on Saturday 21st April, Hugh O’Neills chairperson recalls being on the sideline that day at Old Bedians in Manchester.
The culmination of a ‘fantastic year’ saw O’Neills follow up their Yorkshire title success by seeing off Warwickshire champions Sean McDermotts in the final, 1-11 to 0-4.
“We won it in style; we beat McDermotts off the park that day,” recalls Frank, who was manager in 1999.
A side captained by Kieran Donnelly and including Eamon Rogers, who was on the Tyrone panel beaten by Dublin in 1995, as well as Fermanagh senior footballer Barry King, had earlier seen off the champions of Scotland (Sands McSwineys) and Gloucestershire (Western Gaels) on route to the final.
The Irish World’s match report described Rogers’ performance that day as ‘brilliant’, while Kevin Maloney’s 12th minute goal set the Leeds side on their way to a famous victory. O’Neills goalkeeper Simon Wade saved a penalty with eight minutes to go.
For Frank, it was a sweet moment and one which helped to heal the wounds of 1982. After reaching the All Britain final for the first time in 1980, only to lose out to London’s Tara, O’Neills were back in the final two years later.
In their path stood another London side, Round Towers. This time O’Neills prevailed, 1-6 to 0-8 with Gerry Mulloy scoring the goal and inspired by star man Brendan Coleman. But within weeks some of the gloss was taken off the club’s achievement.
Frank recalls how O’Neills teamsheet for the final only had Christian name initials – a regular practice in Yorkshire GAA at the time. Towers objected. O’Neills counter-objected, claiming Towers had fielded an illegal player.
Both objections were upheld by provincial council, and it was Hugh O’Neills who went on to represent Britain in the All Ireland Club Championship quarter-final against St Finbarrs of Cork. No medals were ever forthcoming though.
For Frank, having played in the finals of 1980 and 1982, it was nice to ‘win it well’ in 1999, and finally draw a line under the events of 1982.
Hugh O’Neills origins in 1948 were as a hurling club. Jim Hallinan, Andy Creagh and Jim Neville were the driving forces. Andy would go on to provide the hurleys to the team at 10/ a piece.
As the story goes, Jim Neville was travelling by tram one Sunday morning in 1947 when from the top deck he spotted four lads playing his ‘dream’ game of hurling in Woodhouse Moor at Hyde Park on the Headingley Road. The four lads were Jim Hallinan, Tommy Collins, John Ennes and Andy Creagh.
“He looked out of the window and saw four chaps with hurley sticks and nearly broke his neck to get off the bus to see who they were,” said Frank.
The wheels for a new GAA club in Leeds had been set in motion. The club held its first meeting in St. Anne’s parish hall. Halton Moor would become its home ground.
While the arrival of O’Neills helped hasten the formation of the Yorkshire County Board in 1949, it was the arrival at the club of a young Kerry-born priest from Keighley which helped them to take the next step.
Canon Donal Stritch had been involved with the St Anne’s club, until he was relocated to the Seacroft area of Leeds in 1952. As well as building a church and a school, he would go on to be a significant figure in O’Neills history, as well as being the founder of the GAA in Yorkshire.
Four years later the club won the first of its 18 senior Yorkshire championship titles.
Canon Stritch was club chairperson for ‘many years’ and still held the position when he died in 1987. Founding member Pat Hanrahan, who came to Leeds in 1947, took over as chair up until 2005. He was then the club’s president until be passed away in 2012.
Frank, who took over from Pat in 2005, quips ‘when you take over as chair of O’Neills you’re there for a long time’. So it would seem.
Others who contributed greatly to the club included Jerry B. Whittaker who ‘never missed a game’ and its current president, James Moran Snr, whose involvement with the club stretches back to the 1960s.
Tyrone man Albert Beggs’ involvement goes back even further, to the early 1950s. He was a player for many years before going on to manage the team, and was the ‘life and soul of the club’. When Frank came to Leeds in 1967, Albert was manager of O’Neills. Frank would take over as manager from Albert in 1992.
The hurling club initially took the name of St Brendan’s and claimed a few Yorkshire championships and leagues, before folding in the late 1960s. Of their many noteworthy players, one was Charlie McCarthy – father of former Republic of Ireland footballer and manager Mick.
The football club was not without its difficult years either. The arrival of Young Irelands and John F Kennedy’s on the Leeds GAA scene during the 1960s impacted on O’Neills.
A Mayoman, Frank joined O’Neill’s in 1976 after nine years with Kennedy’s. O’Neills were ‘weaker’ than Young Irelands and Kennedys at the time after ‘losing a lot of players’.
He duly helped O’Neills to senior Yorkshire title success in his very first year, ending a 16-year wait.
“The club struggled for a few years to survive, but they did. They kept going while some of those other clubs have since faded away. We’ve had barren periods, but we’ve always risen again,” said Frank.
Success in 1976 was followed up with further senior titles in 1980, 1982, 1983 and 1985.
But O’Neills influence was felt beyond the club itself, to Yorkshire’s benefit. Hugh Keegan – a Westmeath player at 17 – came to Leeds in 1957. He captained Yorkshire in an All Ireland Junior final in 1961, having led the county to All Britain success.
When Yorkshire won the All Britain in 1983, they were ‘back-boned’ by the O’Neills provincial championship winning side of the previous year. The same could be said again in 1996, while there was a ‘huge amount’ of O’Neill players on the 2001 winning Yorkshire team.
O’Neills were the heavyweight force in Yorkshire from 1994 to 2002, winning seven senior county titles as well as seven successive Pennine League titles up to 2001. Between 2005-07, however, Frank recalls how O’Neills ‘really struggled’.
But Liam O’Hara, a former O’Neills player of the 1960s and 1970s who had moved on to St Benedicts Harps, returned to the club.
He brought his sons with him and with the addition of a few other players, who’d also left Harps, they gave the club ‘the lift it needed at the time’.
More recently, Brian Lane and Tom Duffy, who once famously ‘signed’ Dean Windass, came on board to help the club get back to where it wanted to be, winning junior titles along the way. The club’s wait for a seventeenth Yorkshire title ended in 2015 after a 13-year gap – a success achieved with at least seven English-born players on the panel.
The arrival of Eoin Murray then helped the club make that ‘final push’. Last year, they completed an historic clean sweep, winning all before them in Yorkshire under the watchful eye of John Keegan.
“Eoin Murray came on board and took us to a new level, with a lot of help from Tom Duffy (Mayo) and Brian Lane (Cork). He’s [Murray] a workaholic with regards training and motivation. He’s a great leader,” said Frank.
Tom has since gone back to Ballina and Brian, who scored 3-2 from play in last year’s county final, has moved to Wales. Both joined the club in 2010 and their loss will be felt by the club in its 70th year, although Frank is hopeful that Brian might be tempted to play the odd game.
The re-emergence of Hugh O’Neills is testament to the ideals and the work ethic of those that went before them, and in particular those that kept the club going through the tough times.
“If you’re devoted to the club, you want to be involved. A lot of players walk away after playing their last game, but some of us stay on and keep going,” said Frank.
“We still get enjoyment out of it and we want to put something back into it.”
Hugh O’Neills Roll of Honour
All Britain Senior champions:
Yorkshire Senior champions (18):
1956, 1958, 1960, 1961, 1976, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2015, 2017
Pennine League champions:
1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2017
Pennine Shield Champions:
Padráig Kenning Cup Champions:
2011, 2013, 2015, 2016