I was contacted recently by the author of a new book about the history of the Ulster Colleges Senior Hurling Championship. The Mageean Cup is awarded to the winners of that competition. I was asked for a quote as the captain of the St Mary’s CBGS team that won the trophy in 1991. This was my recollection:
“One of the quirks of Ulster hurling in the early 1990’s, was that much of the talent went unrecognised as they were too busy winning Sam. All-Ireland football titles rarely left Ulster during this period, but many of those teams contained some genuinely exceptional hurlers. I was lucky enough to play in the National League for a few years, during a period when Antrim were at least competitive in Semple Stadium, Nowlan Park and Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Those fixtures included many household names, but some of the greatest hurlers I ever played against came from Lavey, Kevin Lynch’s, Ballycran and Portaferry.
Kevin Blaney was one of the best hurlers I ever lined out with. Of course, he and his siblings are well-known to have an embarrassment of accolades with the larger ball, but they were wonderfully skilful hurlers too. Kevin was the stand-out player on the St Mary’s team that won the Mageean Cup in 1991. The bulk of the panel came from the O’Donovan Rossa team that won a Minor Hurling Championship in Antrim, but Kevin was our most influential player. The team was managed by Hugh McGettigan, who regularly lined Kevin out at top of the left, but gave him a free role. I think that Hugh’s strategy proved to be the winning of the trophy.
The rest of the squad was Belfast-based, with players from St Gall’s, Sarsfield’s and St Paul’s joining the Rossa contingent. It’s still fun to look at the team photograph taken before the final, which depicts a really strong squad (even if the haircuts from the period are somewhat less impressive).”Quote for Mageean Cup History Book
Given their recent lack of success in comparison to Antrim teams, it may seem strange to talk about the strength of Derry and Down hurling. It’s entirely accurate though. While the St Mary’s CBGS team pictured below were champions in 1991, Derry teams won the Mageean Cup the year before that and the year after that. In this photograph, Kevin Blaney is in the front row third from left, I’m in the back row sixth from left (and the late great Anto Finnegan is in the front row second from right).
I mentioned the National Hurling League too, and that competition also speaks to the quality of the hurling across Ulster in the early 1990s (even if the best teams in the country didn’t take the competition quite as seriously then as they do now). At the end of the 1992/93 National Hurling League, Division 1A finished with the table illustrated below. Down progressed to the playoffs and Antrim stayed up. Kilkenny and Offaly were relegated. Notwithstanding their league relegation though, The Cats went on to win the All-Ireland that year (which it seems they did in fact take quite seriously).
Down had already been competing in Division 1 during the previous 1991/92 National Hurling League, and finished fourth behind Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny. In the Ulster derby that was part of the subsequent 1992/93 season, Down beat Antrim very easily with a seven point margin between the sides at the final whistle. However, during the following year in Division 1 of the 1993/94 National Hurling League, Antrim and Down played out a draw in Casement Park. As I recall, the weather was awful that day. If it was up to me, all of the league and championship football fixtures would be run off over the winter, with hurling remaining illegal outside of June, July and August (and maybe the first Sunday in September). Unlike just a couple of years earlier during the Mageean Cup, for this fixture the Blayney Clan was represented in a different changing room, further down the corridor from mine.
By the end of that competition, Waterford and Wexford had been relegated, while Down stayed up. The table after the regular fixtures were completed is illustrated below, with Antrim progressing to the playoffs (where they were beaten easily in Croke Park by a great Clare side).
In the subsequent 1994/95 National Hurling League Antrim were relegated and followed Down into Division 2, after earning only draws against Cork and Galway but losing every other game. In fairness though, a draw was a half-decent result against a Cork side that wasn’t too shabby at all (team sheet illustrated below). I’m not sure Ulster hurling has been as competitive again since that period. The idea that we could see a repeat of tables like those reproduced above, with two Ulster teams hurling in Division 1 during consecutive years (and making the play offs) seems a very long way off indeed.
Looking instead at the summer competition, during the early 1990s the Ulster Senior Hurling Champions often went straight into an All-Ireland semi-final. This wasn’t too long after Antrim had made the 1989 All-Ireland final, losing to Tipperary. For example, in 1992 Down beat Antrim by eleven points in the Ulster final, before going straight into an All-Ireland semi-final that they lost to Cork. In 1994, Antrim qualified directly for an All-Ireland semi-final as Ulster champions, losing to a Limerick side that should really have won Liam McCarthy that year. In contrast, the idea that any time soon we might have another Ulster Senior Hurling Championship, which offers an All-Ireland semi-final as the very next game for the winners, seems entirely fanciful. In fact during more recent periods, no Ulster county has participated in the Tier 1 competition at all, competing instead for junior hurling titles.
During the 1990s the Ulster Senior Hurling Championship was won by Down four times and by Antrim six times. Derry then won the title in 2000 and retained the trophy in 2001. This was hardly Antrim hegemony, but Antrim subsequently went on to win Ulster for the next sixteen years in a row, often by very large margins. The competition was abandoned altogether in 2018 due to the lack of competitiveness. I guess this period explains why it may seem strange today to discuss the strength of Down and Derry hurling.
While Casement Park was still a great venue (before it became derelict) there were some fantastic hurling fixtures hosted there. Derry and Down teams played their full part during that period, with no small amount of senior hurling success at both club and county level. That was a long time ago though, and the only evidence that I ever touched a ball in the place is in black-and-white.