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Ballyclare Primary School

50 years of National Allianz CnmB: Stephen O’ Neill

21st Jun 2021




Stephen O’Neill attended St Patrick’s PS, Dunamanagh: 1985-1992.


I attended St Patrick’s PS, Dunamanagh, from September 1985 – June 1992. It was a small school with 80/90 pupils. My mother always reminds me that when I first started Primary 1, the only way for the first week or so, I could be enticed into the school, was when the principal Seamus Kearney brought a ball out to the car. I always enjoyed playing in the yard with the older boys in the school and looked forward to the competition against them. The main players were Gary and Justin Devine, Cathal and Ciaran Loughrey and Noel McDermott. The jumpers were laid out in the yard for the football game to act as goals. Seamus would always have made sure that the boys had the opportunity to play football. The game in the yard comprised of any willing boys from P4 and upwards. The P7 boys picked the teams and we just got on with it. I have a vivid memory of the yard being pretty full for those games with 10 or so boys round the ball at any one time trying to get a kick at it. I was always keen, being one of the younger boys, to try and score a goal against the older boys.

We were very lucky as our school, which is situated on the Plumbridge Rd coming into Dunamanaghwas right beside the local Gaelic pitch. I can recall always sitting in the classroom looking out through the big square windows onto the massive pitch beside us, which at the time belonged to Dunamanagh GFC before it became Clann na nGael in 1997.

The highlight of the week for many of us was the weekly visit we had from Tyrone GAA coach Sean O’Kane. Sean came on a Wednesday, and it was the best thing since sliced-bread for me as Sean gave us sessions on soloing, kick-passing etc. The whole school was buzzing when he arrived and everyone loved the half-hour sessions we had with him. Seamus Kearney, himself, was very much into the GAA and promoted it as much as he could in the school. He could be very competitive, though, and often during the summer term he would join us for football in the yard after dinner. The full-time whistle would only be heard as soon as his team had taken the lead. On occasions, however, this led to the dinner-time break becoming slightly longer than the allocated time. Seamus hadn’t realised was that we had his goalkeeper lined up to concede goals so as to keep the game going as long as we could! Anything to avoid schoolwork!!!  

Seamus had always organised matches for us against local schools like Glenmornan PS (Owen Roes), St Peter’s PS, Plumbridge and some of the Strabane schools. We also played in any of the Tyrone GAA county board blitzes. St Joseph’s High School in Plumbridge, which is now closed, ran a P7 blitz at the end of each year and as far as I can recall, we were the first school to win it. We won it in my P6 year and retained the Cup in my P7 year. When playing in that tournament, Seamus drove the bus around to collect pupils from Loughash PS and Altishane PS, which were associated with the cluband there we played against each other as well as competing against the pupils from Plumbridge PS; Greencastle PS; Gortin PS and Glenmornan PS.  There were great players on show. The likes of Cathal and Ryan McGill, Aidan Logue, Ronan and Enda Conway, Paul Kearney, Dermot Devine and Daryl Devine. Other schools had great players with whom we had great battles: Glenmornan’ s Brian Conway (cousin of Ronan and Enda), Christopher Kelly and Paul Bradley (Glenmornan PS), who would later play for the Tyrone Vocationals to name but a few. At the time my mother was the school cleaner so I spent my time along with Paul Kearney (son of Seamus) and the Conway brothers, whose mother Mary taught in the school, kicking the ball against the old mobile or playing matches between ourselves. There was the odd wee row but we got on the best and loved the competitive element in it.

When I left St Patrick’s Dunamanagh, I attended St Joseph’s High School, Plumbridge, then onto Omagh CBS to study for A-Levels. I always had in my head that being interested in sport I would become a PE teacher. I left the CBS in 1999 and went on to do a degree in Sports Studies at Stranmillis College from where I graduated in 2002. I spent 2002/03 subbing in various schools in Strabane, Derry and in local primary schools including of course St Patrick’s Dunamanagh. It was this experience which made me realise that the primary school sector was where I felt my teaching future lay. The idea of being a PE teacher in a secondary school slipped further into the back of my mind as the primary school sector became more appealing. It was because of this I went to Strawberry Hill in London to complete my PGCE in Primary Education. This was to start, of all dates, in September 2003. Of course this clashed with the All- Ireland Final that year, so myself and Declan McCrossan, who was doing the same course, were excused from beginning for two weeks while we got down to the small matter of preparing for the All-Ireland. We commenced our course soon after the Final but flew home almost every weekend to play for either club or county. In fact, during my year at Strawberry Hill, which I left in May 2004, I only spent three weekends in London.

When I qualified as a primary school teacher in 2004, I got a job for a year teaching the P3/4 class in St. Marys PS, Bellaghy where the principal was Eileen Donaghy from Donaghmore (formally principal of Derrylatinee PS when Cormac McAnallen was a pupil). I looked after the school team there, taking them to tournaments around the county. I was offered a year’s extension to my contract at Bellaghy but decided to leave and take my chances somewhere closer to home as the journey there and back each day was beginning to take its toll. From September 2005 I did a lot of subbing round home especially in Holy Cross Secondary School in Strabane. I was also working for O’Neill’s at the time but was becoming frustrated at the lack of permanent opportunities in the primary school sector where I really wanted to be. It was then in April 2006 that I decided to take a job with Shortt’s Property Services with whom Mickey Harte was working at the time. I was doing mortgages, insurance etc.. and this kept me occupied until April 2007 when I got subbing work in Barrack Street PS, Strabane. That summer I managed to secure a 3-year contract in St Patrick’s PS, Gortin, teaching the P4/5 class four days per week. I took all the sport there and despite having small numbers, maybe three or four boys per year group, we had some very good players. They were very well-mannered children who were a pleasure to coach. One boy who stood out was Ciaran Brolly. He was in my first class in Gortin and when it came to Gaelic football he was very motivated and always wanted to do well. Any advice I would give him regarding improving his skills would be heeded and he was prepared to work at it. Other lads were Darragh McDermott, Patrick McCullagh and Sean Óg McAleer. A great achievement for us was when we won our 5-a-side Indoor heat at Castlederg to qualify for the County Finals at Station Centre, Omagh. Most years, small schools like Gortin PS have no option but to go down to their Primary 5s to make up a team and it was Ciaran Brolly who, despite being a P5 pupil at the time, led the team to victory in that heat. As always we came up against the winners of the other heats in the Tyrone Finals and, despite our best efforts, the title went elsewhere.

The school took part in any outdoor football that was available to us and Gortin GFC was very supportive giving us the use of their pitch anytime it was required. The whole staff at Gortin was very much into the GAA especially Caoimhe Cunningham, Ciara Bradley and principal Mary Grugan. My time at Gortin ended in 2010 when I took up a full time post in the P4 class at St. Mary’s PS, Killyclogher. When I went there first, Pat Morris (who has since retired), was PE coordinator at the school. I immediately got involved with the various after-school GAA activities which led me then to taking the school teams to the various Cumann na mBunscol competitions and County Board blitzes. After Pat’s retirement I became PE coordinator and set about introducing various other sports throughout the school. Nowadays we have soccer, tennis, hurling, handball, basketball and cross country.

My first Tyrone hero as a child was Plunkett Donaghy when he was playing for Tyrone in the mid-80s. I had often told my parents that I would love to meet him. On one occasion, around that time, I was with my family at a wedding in Cookstown and it so happened that the Tyrone team were at the same hotel for a meeting. My mother and father wanted to introduce me to my hero but shyness overtook me and I always remember pulling away from my big opportunity. I was not willing to shake his hand. I actually hardly remember Tyrone’s Paddy Ball playing in his prime for Aughabrack. Normally at the home games, I was more interested in playing football behind the nets than taking an interest in what was happening on the pitch! However, I was very fortunate to play with him as he neared the end of his career. What a player and what a leader for our young players coming through at that time!

The first Tyrone game I recall attending was the 1995 Tyrone v Fermanagh Championship game in Irvinestown. I remember the 1996 Tyrone season really well as my clubmate, Brian Dooher,announced his arrival on the county scene. He really helped inspire myself and the club’s younger generation. It was from then I took a great interest in the various county teams and my desire to hopefully someday pull on the Red Hand jersey myself. Luckily enough for me, I was able to fulfil that ambition and be part of a team that achieved so much. I will always recall my primary school GAA days with great affection and I will always strive to ensure that the pupils of my school will have the same opportunities given to me by Seamus Kearney all those years ago in St Patrick’s PS, Dunamanagh.


                                             Stephen O’Neill