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Ballyclare Primary School

50 years of National Allianz CnmB: Damian Kelly

9th Aug 2021

Damian Kelly


Damian Kelly taught in St Mary’s PS, Cabragh from 1980 until his retirement in 2016. Damian has been a long-serving committee member of Tyrone Cumann na mBunscol. He set up the Cabragh Tournament which began in 1982 and continues to this day.


The Cabragh Tournament began in 1982. I took up my teaching post in Cabragh PS in 1980 and, having always had a keen interest in GAA, I soon realised that there was a lack of organised GAA activity among the primary schools in my area. There was the Knockmany Cup, set up by Ben Sherry, which had been going on for ten or so years, but apart from that, GAA activity was limited to ‘friendlies’ organised by schools on an individual basis.

My class at that time had a number of very keen footballers like Roddy McKenna, Seamus O’Neill, Vinnie Sherry and Kevin Sherry. Those boys had no primary school GAA competition to take part in. It was the enthusiasm and willingness of these boys and others to play, which drove me to come up with the idea of our school hosting a Gaelic competition where other local schools of similar size would be invited. Joe Sheehan, our principal at time, who was also a GAA enthusiast, had long been arranging friendly matches for us both home and away, with his good friend Tom Jordan, principal of Kingsisland PS and also with Jim McGarvey at Edendork PS. Other schools were also playing their own friendly matches. At that time there were, as like now, a number of teachers from the wider area who encouraged GAA in their schools and were keen to give their pupils the opportunity to play against other schools. People like Ben Sherry (Augher PS), Tom Connolly (Aughadarragh PS), Michael Harvey (Castlecaulfield PS), Colm McCaffre(Donaghmore PS), Liam Campbell (Galbally PS), Terry Gallagher and later Michael McGarvey (Ballygawley PS)Seamus Shields (Garvaghy PS), Joe McAleese (Aughnacloy PS) and Joe McCrory (Glencull PS). Indeed, Glencull PS, a school which never exceeded any more than 60 or 70 pupils, have probably won more Tyrone and Ulster Titles than any other primary school in Tyrone. An amazing feat!  It was all this enthusiasm that we in Cabragh PS were aware of, which eventually led to the idea of hosting a competition at our school which was to be known as the ‘Cabragh Cup’.


The Cup itself was donated to the school by the late Packy Kelly who owned a supermarket in the area. He gave the cup to Fr. Crowley who presented the cup to the winning team each year. From the beginning, and for quite a few years afterwards, the tournament was played on our pitch at the front of our school. However, over the years with the number of teams who came to our school to take part increasing, we felt we had no choice but to take the competition up to Killeeshil GAA football pitch. Bringing the competition there meant that we were able to use three pitches - meaning we could use more referees and would be able to run the competition off quite easily.

      One of the things which has given me the greatest pleasure over the last 35 years of this competition is having the opportunity to meet the different players and different personalities who have taken part. I am thinking of the likes of our own Kevin Hughes who won the Cabragh cup with our school in his P6 year (1990) and also Mark Cunningham, a former pupil of our school who in his P5 year was part of the team who won it as well. Mark went on to captain the Tyrone minors to an All-Ireland success in 2004. Ruairí McGlone, another past pupil, was part of the All-Ireland winning Tyrone U21 team in 2015. We also had players like Shane Mallon and Martin Hughes who also would go on to play at county level.


Over the years we have what you would call our stand-out big-name players for Tyrone who played in the Cabragh Tournament. In later years we introduced a ‘Player of the Tournament’. Eoin Gormley (Glencull PS), Brian McGuckin (Edendork PS), Seamus Mulgrew (Donaghmore PS) were some familiar names who would win that accolade. We have also had other Tyrone players who have played in the tournament. All-Ireland winners John Devine and Davy Harte have played here. I still remember a very young Peter Canavan coming to play with his Glencull PS team. Even then you could see that this player was going to be something special. Peter played in the Cabragh Cup in both his P6 and P7 years with his school. I remember him well! He had fair hair and was slightly built, but was a tenacious little footballer. I actually remember Peter playing for his school in a soccer tournament at Clogher PS. It was a cross-community tournament which was held throughout the 80s and 90s. His school actually beat our school in the final of that tournament. Whenever I spotted a good footballer during the tournament I made sure I asked the teacher involved who he was, who his dad was, who his mother was etc.. I always found that great little footballers usually came from a background which encouraged football in the family and drove them on.

From a GAA point of view, things have improved greatly in Tyrone primary schools over the past 15 or 20 years. We have had the development of Club Tyrone and a vibrant Cumann na mBunscol. We have also had the development of coaching in the schools. From the Ulster Council’s fundamental coaching for Key stage 1 to the  Tyrone County Board GAA coaches   we have had motivated, highly-skilled, both male and female coaches coming into our schools. We are indebted to recently retired Mr McWilliams from the Ulster Council and our County board who have provided us with these talented coaches for our schools. We are in a far better position now than we were when I first started teaching. Back then, GAA in primary schools depended totally on the enthusiasm of the teachers involved in them. Then, for children to get playing GAA in primary schools, it relied totally on the relationships and friendships among teachers in the area. It was left to different teachers to make arrangements for the schools to play each other in friendly games. Luckily, a lot of teachers in the area, who knew each other, made efforts to arrange football matches between the schools.

 From the start, the Cabragh Cup itself was organised in group stages on the day. You would have had a group ‘A’ and a group ‘B’. Group ‘A’ comprised the larger schools whereas Group ‘B’ was made up of the smaller schools. The groups were played in a round-robin competition. The top two schools in each group qualified for the semi-finals. The winner of Group A would play the runner-up in Group B while the winner of group B would play the runner-up group A. This of course is meant was a large school was playing a small school in the semi-finals. This may have appeared unfair but as history of our competition shows, on many occasions the smaller schools eventually emerged as winners. Glencull PS, despite their small numbers, have won the competition on quite a number of occasions. The standout school for me over the past 30 years has been St. Patrick's PS Donaghmore  with their teacher, Colm McCaffrey. For five or six years in-a-row they had absolutely outstanding teams. They had the Mulgrew brothers in one particular year and in another year they had the Rodgers brothers - as well as the Devine and McDermott lads - who were fantastic footballers and put on magnificent performances during our tournament.

When the competition was still based at the school, all our pupils would have come out to watch the final. This led to an incredible atmosphere, with a pitch which was completely surrounded by spectators. Unfortunately, with the tournament now based in Killeeshil GAA pitch, that special atmosphere is no longer there. But, as they say, you have to move with the times, and the competition is now much bigger than it ever was.

When the Cabragh tournament first began back in 1982, the teachers of the visiting schools were quite happy to referee matches in which their school was not involved. However, as time went on, we felt that that was unfair, due to the fact that the competition was getting more and more competitive. As the years went by, it became apparent that teachers were feeling the pressure of ensuring that they made the right decision at all times. As the number of teams who came to our school grew, the number of children, teachers and indeed parents grew as well.  This was leading to more pressure on the referee/teacher who did not have full confidence in undertaking the duties in the first place! To help cure this problem, we decided to enlist local players from our club and neighbouring clubs who volunteered to come along and perform as referees on the day. In the past we have had Peter Harte, Thomas Canavan and Ryan Lynch, all of whom who are All-Ireland minor winners, to referee. Over the years we’ve had people from our own club, Anton McGonnell, Claire Scully and even our own school’s building supervisor Damian Hamill taking the whistle. In fact, Damian has continued to referee in the competition each year since.  Basically, the referees we employed were very much up to speed with the game and very confident in their own ability to carry out this duty with spectators of teachers, parents and schoolchildren.

Having been involved with this competition since its inception, I have seen a serious improvement in the presentation and standard of teams. There have been one or two players in our competition who have stood out for the hunger, passion and their desire to win for their school. One player who fell into this category was Brian Gormley (Carrickmore PS). I first saw him in a P.S. tournament hosted by Dean Maguirc Secondary School in Carrickmore. He was able to play with both feet and could kick perfect shots off the ground. He had what I call the 'perfect package' for playing Gaelic football. He had what Peter Canavan had - the correct temperament for playing football. If someone was in a better position than him they would get the ball. He worked hard and wasn’t greedy.


    Our most famous past pupil is of course Kevin Hughes, who is no stranger to Tyrone football. Kevin was an All-Ireland winner in 2003 and 2008. He was ‘Man of the Match in the 2003 final. I have very fond memories of Kevin as a primary school pupil in our school. Kevin was a Cabragh cup winner in his P6 year. My memory of Kevin is of a very fair, hard-working dedicated lad to both his work and his play on a football field. He had what I call ‘tough breeding’. He was rarely off school due to illness, rarely got injured, and was always keen to get involved in the toughest of games. He grew to just over 6 foot, and 14 - 15 stone. I had spoken to Mickey Harte a lot in the late 90s and early 2000’s and I was always aware that he rated both Brian McGuigan and Kevin Hughes very highly indeed. Kevin, Sean Cavanagh would have said on many occasions, would have been his preferred partner in midfield when playing for Tyrone. Kevin has always been loyal to our school. He really looked forward to coming back after the All-Ireland wins with his medal to see the children. When we celebrated our 40th school anniversary in 2008 Kevin was thereboth in the chapel and back at the school, where we had a magnificent evening. He has always been a wonderful role model for the children of this area.


I’ve been honoured and privileged to see many great boys and superb girls in my teaching years. I always tried to bring other games like basketball (courtesy of Frankie O’Loane RIP and Don Sonner (current chair of Tyrone Towers BB club) to St. Mary’s, CabraghOver my 36 years there, I was privileged to witness the development and rise to serious All-Ireland contenders of all who represented us at inter-county level. However, of late I sometimes question some aspects of the development of our young players’ creative attacking skills and instincts.  Are stringent systems and the development of athletic powerful players hindering those childhood instincts to play with abandon and spontaneity? I feel we are not seeing enough of the finesse and magic that our attacking players could once show. Maybe I’ve been spoiled and expect to see Mugsys, O’Neills, Canavans and McGuigans. Were they born talented or purely developed??

All I can say is Best wishes to our Red Hand lads as they tackle the mighty Kingdom later this month.

Tír Eoghain Abú.”



       Damian Kelly