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Ballyclare Primary School

50 years of National Allianz CnmB: Bertie Foley

23rd Aug 2021

Bertie Foley


Bertie Foley taught in the Presentation Brothers’ Primary School in Dungannon from 1964 until 1987. He then took up the principal’s post at Mullinahoe PS in Ardboe and remained there until his retirement in 2001. Throughout his teaching career Bertie played an active role in promoting and organising GAA in primary schools across Tyrone and Ulster. He has served as Chairman and treasurer of Tyrone Cumann na mBunscol, and holds the distinction of being the inaugural Chairman of Tyrone Cumann na mBunscol when it was formed in 1986 and also of Cumann na mBunscol Uladh which was formed in 1993.


Dungannon parish has a proud tradition for Gaelic games in their schools. In 1913 a Dr Lucy from Benburb presented a silver cup (the Owen Roe O’Neill Cup) to the Presentation Brothers in Dungannon for a schools’ tournament in East Tyrone.  The cup is now in the Ó Fiaich library in Armagh.  I mention this to highlight the importance of the Brothers to the GAA in Dungannon.

 In the 1930s Brother Terence organised a league for schoolchildren, some of whom -  such as Iggy Jones, Tommy Campbell and Paddy ONeill - would go on to make a big impression in the county.  In the 1940s, when school leaving age was 14 and there were no Secondary Schools and very few went to Grammar School, Brother Oliver, Brother Fachnan and Brother Raymond organised football and hurling competitions with other schools.  These competitions continued on and off into the 1950s. School competitions were for under 14s.

In the 1960s Secondary Intermediate Schools were being built with young specially-trained Physical Education teachers such as Art McRory in Dungannon taking up posts.  This left the children under 12 in the primary schools with little or no football.  My first teaching post in 1963 was in Maghery PS and during the summer term I took a few training sessions in their field near the Loughshore.

I started teaching in the Brothers School in the following year, 1964, and with the support and encouragement of the principal, Brother Oliver, and Iggy Jones who was a teacher in the school, we played a number of challenge games with others in the area. Could I just say Iggy had taught me in third class/primary 5 and like all the young boys in the town looked up to him as the greatest Tyrone footballer. Iggy was a modest man, very straight and honest with a love for the town and Dungannon Clarke’s. While still a player he regularly cycled to O’Neill Park with a football tied to the handlebars. First he helped to prepare the field for games, to dig drains and then train on his own sprinting up the field solo-running. He was always available to act as a steward for big games and on a Sunday night sell tickets at Bingo. As a player he took up any position the team manager gave him.  I remember him playing at full-back marking the famous Jim Devlin from Coalisland.  For a small man he could rise high to field a ball.  He was a lifelong member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association and served on many parish committees. For over twenty years we travelled together to games and meetings and I am very proud to say we were very good friends. And we both loved ice-cream!

Back to school football We started an internal league with almost every boy in primary six and seven taking part.  We had no field so after school we made our way to the new intermediate playing fields or to O’Neill Park, on foot, almost two miles away.  Times were different then.  Very few people including teachers had a car, there was no directed time after school for teachers and it was safe to walk through the town. Many of the teachers in East Tyrone were heavily involved in the GAA. We had John McQuaid, Frank O’Neill and Barney Herron - all officers of the County Board or the East Tyrone Boards. We organised games between ourselves. In those days the grass wasn’t always cut and we didn’t have the nice dry, level fields we have today.  I remember one occasion when the grass was about one foot high. But the children enjoyed the games and I think the teachers did too. Our first game with a neighbouring school was against Edendork where John McQuaid was principal. Later we played the Presentation Brothers School in Enniskillen on a home-and-away basis.

Towards the end of the sixties a league was set up in East Tyrone. There was no official committee and I don’t think any of the schools had a telephone!  I approached Observer Newspapers who donated a silver cup for our competition. I believe it was successful. Other teachers involved at that time were Michael Keogh, Jimmy Tracey, Jim Cavanagh, Joe Sheehan, James McGarvey and Barney Herron.  Dungannon PS left the league after about four years.  At that time we were too strong for the other schools and we had introduced a P4 and P5 league in our school with Paul Quinn and later Mickey Quinn on the staff.

We played challenge games with first years in Dungannon and Ballygawley Secondary Schools. Art McRory, Frankie O’Loane and Robbie Hasson were very helpful, usually putting out their second team to make the games more competitive.  A great competition in the seventies was the Omagh Fėis Sevens organised by Donal Magee.  Teams came from Tyrone, Fermanagh, Derry, Armagh and for at least one year, Belfast. Donal was a great organiser. Two competitions were run off in one afternoon. The final was almost always refereed Paddy Devlin (Omagh). He was an inter-county referee and had been the whistler in charge of the 1974 Kerry/Dublin All-Ireland Senior Football final. Paddy always tried to finish his work early and came togged out in the same way as he would for an inter-county game.  Another Tyrone stalwart who was usually present was Thady Turbitt (Omagh).  Thady was later to become President of Tyrone Cumann na mBunscol.  Win or lose we always stopped on the way home for ice-cream.  I think that was maybe more important than winning!

The biggest change in primary schools for the GAA came in 1986 when Tyrone Cumann na mBunscol was formed. The majority of schools in the south of Ireland were already signed up when County Chairman Jimmy Tracey invited Iggy Jones, Joe McCrory (Glencull PS), Seamus Kearney (St Patrick’s PS, Dunamanagh) and myself to a meeting in Omagh to see what we thought of the idea.  We agreed it was worthwhile.  I was appointed chairman; Seamus  the secretary; Joe the treasurer, and Iggy was a committee member.  We wrote to all the primary schools in Tyrone and received a great response.  We decided on three main groupings based on the size of school. Games were to be 7, 9 or 13-a-side and we had 10 different sections to reduce the distance of travel.  Most of the clubs rowed-in behind us with financial support or help with transport etc.  At this stage we only had boys football confined to Tyrone.

From 1986/87 a fixture booklet was printed. As there was no money available to us, the first booklet was typed out by myself, copies made by Iggy Jones and then we stapled 80 booklets before sending them to all the schools in Tyrone.

Skills competitions known as the INTO/GAA Skills Awards: - solo running over 50 yards, point scoring from the 14 and 21-yard line and long kicking - were introduced for boys and girls with county winners going to Dublin for finals.   A few years later the Mini-Sevens were started with an opportunity for boys and girls to go to Croke Park on All-Ireland semi-final and final days and play in exhibition games. Others to join the committee included Michael Harvey (who helped to organise the handball competitions), Patrick McGivern (who developed the indoor competitions), Mickey Quinn (who is still the treasurer), Jim Campbell, Liam Grugan, Noel McGinn, Des Campbell, Paul Logue and Tony Devlin.  Some of the ladies in the early days were Anna McCaughey, Marion Meehan, Marion Kelly and Marie Conlon.  Today there are fewer men teaching in primary schools but with the success of Ladies Football we have a very big number of ladies involved in training and managing the boys and girls teams.  Clubs are now starting coaching for boys and girls from 5 years of age.

Shortly after I went to teach in Ardboe PS, I started a girls’ football team. The first girls from Tyrone to play in Croke Park were Bernadette Quinn and Simone Forbes from Ardboe.  With the help of Teddy Devlin, the first hurlers went to Croke Park and Dungannon PS and Carrickmore PS continued to send players.  Tom Jordan in Kingsisland was one of the first to take part in Camogie games.  During the winter months we had quizzes with an Ulster Final.

A County Board initiative in around  1995 saw coaches sent to all schools to help with the development of the basic skills.  One of the first coaches was Gerard O’Connor - who today is the Director for Coaching and Games Development in Dublin.  I think it would be fair to say that Tyone had an important role to play in Dublin’s success in recent years!  A special one-day coaching seminar was held in Omagh with Terence McWilliams (a teaching adviser with the North-Eastern Education and Library Board) demonstrating what could be done in PE lessons from Primary 1 to Primary 7 in a small hall or playground.  He supplied lesson notes showing progression etc. The County Board initially gave us a helpful grant of £300 but most of our income came from the National Committee in Dublin.  An Ulster committee was set up in the 1990s and I was elected ChairmanSome of the people involved were Mary McGovern (secretary), Aidan Cox from Fermanagh, Malachy McGeeney (Armagh), Kevin Toner and Matt Trolan (Derry), Nicholas Baxter (Cavan), Pearse Ferriter (Donegal). Patrick McGivern and Mickey Quinn had officer posts in later years and Pat was also a prominent member of the National Committee.

In my career as a teacher I have some lovely memories of boys and girls out playing our Gaelic games.  Children enjoy playing outdoor games.  I have seen many who became stars for their home club winning county medals at various levels. Others just loved being members of a team playing with their friends. Some things that happened still make me smile.  One day when training the school team in the Playing Fields in Dungannon after school a boy in P4, watching, asked could he play as well.  He was too young so I said “Sorry, not today.” At that time the goal posts were a school bag or a jersey so the boy looked at me and then said,” Can I be a goalpost? I let him be the ball boy!

Another day when I was in Ardboe I was refereeing a league final.  The whole school was out watching.  A high ball flew over my head. I couldn’t see what was happening but I heard footsteps approaching fast. The whole school fell silent as the boy coming in fast jumped into my back and I went flying.  Lying on the ground I saw this big, sad face looking down at me. “Paddy, I said, “Were you trying to kill me?” “Sorry, Master”, said Paddy, “but I didn’t see you. You always said to keep your eyes on the ball.” Some boys do listen to what you tell them!

You asked me about great young primary players I saw over my years as a teacher.  The quick answer is quite a lot.  I don’t really like to highlight people but if you insist I have to mention Kevin McCabe (Clonoe PS) and Damian O’Hagan (Primate Dixon PS, Coalisland). Kevin was very fast with great natural ability although on one occasion when Dungannon was playing Annaghmore I asked Aidan Quinn, who was in P6, to mark him with the instructions to stay tight at all times.  Aidan carried out his instruction perfectly and we won.  The Clonoe teacher at the time was my friend Micky Keogh who wasn’t too pleased, but Aidan never gave away a free and we won the game.  

Dungannon had a wealth of talent which resulted in multiple success at underage level in Tyrone and I still cannot understand how we failed to win a county title in the 1970s, 80s or 90s. A number of families stick outthe Kellys, Morgans, McArdles, Kennedys, Devlins, Barkers and Loughrans as examples.  Declan Muldoon was very talented and would have had an outstanding county career if he hadn’t picked up a serious injury.  Another player whose career was cut very short through injury was John McFall. Now when I go to games I am seeing the sons of the boys I taught.

I went to teach in Ardboe in 1987 and in my first year there the school team included Frank and Brian McGuigan and Michael Coleman. We won the Academy tournament that year beating Dungannon in the final! In the years that followed we had Gavin Devlin, Tommy and Shea McGuigan, Gavin Teague and Gavin Wylie, Kieran Devlin and Kyle Coney (a great long passer and high fielder). I should also mention the good help I got from a fellow teacher, John Jordan. Ardboe are a fine club and very supportive. I must thank Kevin Quinn for being so reasonable when we needed transport to games and Enda Bell who refereed many of our games. A primary school needs the support of its local community. I had started my career on the Loughshore and I finished it there.  I was fortunate to meet so many great Gaels. Again, something which sticks out in my mind is Shea Forbes insisting on playing with a badly cut finger, heavily bandaged and still rising to catch the ball.

Do I regret spending so much time coaching or managing teams?  No, definitely not. I enjoyed almost every minute of it but I couldn’t have done it without the support of my colleagues in the teaching profession and without the support of my family.  I have met some tremendous people from all over Ireland who work hard for the love of the game. The reward is seeing children develop and becoming stars for their clubs, then underage at county level and finally reaching the All-Ireland final in Croke Park.  I was a proud man in 2003 when Tyrone won their first Senior All-Ireland and on the panel were five young men I had seen as boys learning the skills… Gerald Cavlan, Brian McGuigan, Gavin Devlin, Michael Coleman and Frank McGuigan.

My apologies to anyone I should have mentioned but failed to do so.  Please put it down to growing old!  It was a privilege to have been involved.

Thanks to NialMcQuaid for interviewing me and to Eddie Doris for looking after the social media.

Congratulations and Good Luck to all involved in Cumann na mBunscol.

Bertie Foley