A most remarkable headstone stands against the ruins of a church at Clonca, near Malin Head on the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal. An intricate floral design down one side stands in sharp contrast to the other which depicts an old claymore sword alongside a hurley and ball.
The headstone marks the grave of Magnus MacOrristin, reputed to be from the islands of Scotland. It was rediscovered in 1890 by William James Doherty, having been lost from public sight at some point after the church fell into disuse in the 1820s.
The precise date of MacOrristin's death has been lost. The church was built on an ancient Christian site -- one which possibly once housed a monastery -- and the headstone is dated as being from the 15th century.
What it vividly illustrates is a tradition of stick-and-ball games in Donegal that extends back centuries before the establishment of the GAA, ultimately shaping the development of the Association after 1884. This is a tradition that might rightly be considered an ancestor of hurling, even if it cannot of course be considered precisely the same game as modern hurling. The game was often referred to as camán (anglicised as 'commons') and does not seem to have embraced handling of the ball; rather this was driven goalwards along the ground by men swinging long and narrow sticks.
Games were played in south Donegal as well as in the north of the county, and varied from one region to the next. Reports of matches from Burt in the Inishowen Peninsula tell of players taking to the field in their bare feet, using sticks cut from hawthorn, whinroot or sallies, and playing from one field to the next.
Later, and certainly by the 1880s, the form of camán played in Burt had evolved and was played from ditch to ditch. Matches were infrequent and usually scheduled for Christmas Day or St Stephen's Day. Up to 40 players played for each team, in a game for which no written rules have been found, but which was unsophisticated for that.
The foundation of the GAA and the construction by Maurice Davin of a set of rules for hurling, published in January 1885, did not bring the men of Burt to discard their traditional game. Although Burt Hibernians GAA Club was founded on February 5, 1888, they did not simply fall into step with the new movement. The GAA club in Burt had been founded with the assistance of a visiting team from Derry, St Patrick's. The two clubs then proceeded to play a match, the first half of which was played according to GAA rules and the second according to the traditional rules of play in Burt.
This did not prove a launch pad for the proper organisation of the GAA in Donegal. Such GAA clubs as wished to affiliated to the Derry County Board and played in the Derry county championships, but a formal GAA structure was not established in Donegal. Almost all of these clubs -- Buncrana Emmets, Cahir O's Buncrana, Burt Hibernians, Newtowncunningham Harps, Portlough Harps and Killea Hibernians -- were in the northeastern corner of the county, close to Derry city.
The great exception was the Bundoran Irish Hearts club, which was established to play Gaelic football in 1889. Crucially, though, these clubs never united to form a county board.
Widespread poverty, a dispersed rural population, an inadequate educational system and an underdeveloped transport system contributed to the failure of the GAA to establish itself in Donegal. So, too, did the diversity of sporting engagement in the county. Soccer, in particular, enjoyed great popularity, something borne out by the establishment of the Donegal Football Association in 1894. Historical links with Scotland -- later manifested through a connection with Glasgow Celtic -- and the presence of extensive British army and navy bases in the area provided an impetus to the growth of soccer, which hampered the development of the GAA.
The failure to develop the GAA in Donegal was also related to fidelity to the past. While hurlers in other counties abandoned their traditional stick-and-ball games in favour of hurling, the men of Donegal were less easily swayed. Glengesh Pass was the venue for a cross-country hurling match played over five miles of ground between teams from Glengesh and Scadaman, as late as 1906.
The old traditions of play were about to be lost, however: it was in that year that the first Donegal senior hurling championship was played. A county board, charged with its organisation, had finally been established at Cassie Mac's Hotel in Mountcharles on October 22, 1905.
To give evidence of their progress in promoting Gaelic games, Donegal men entered the Ulster championship. The footballers were soundly defeated by Derry but, represented by Burt as county champions, Donegal played Antrim in the Ulster hurling final. The match was an entirely one-sided affair with Burt winning by 5-21 to 0-1. The Burt men, the newspapers reported, were much too physically strong for their opponents who were "useless in checking the rushes of Donegal who added point after point till full-time".
This was not the start of a tradition of inter-county success for Donegal. The rebirth of the GAA in Donegal in 1906 had been driven by Gaelic revivalists but this was not enough to sustain the development of the Association.
A further attempt was made to promote Gaelic games in Donegal when the county board was re-established in April 1919 and affiliated to the Ulster Council of the GAA. Through the 1920s the number of clubs grew steadily and the county championships were now held on a regular basis. Ardara, Dungloe, Gaoth Dobhair and Ballyshannon emerged as the most successful clubs in the football championship. And it was now football, rather than hurling, which emerged as the most popular game in the county. Some of the players who now played GAA -- such as those from Ardara -- had previously played soccer. That game remained strong in Donegal and this contributed to the fact that Donegal made no impact on the inter-county scene in Ulster. Donegal did win Ulster junior titles. In 1933, they also defeated Cork in the All- Ireland semi-final, but were then hammered by Mayo in the final. The minor footballers also played in an All-Ireland minor semi-final in 1935 despite having lost to Tyrone in the Ulster final. They had been awarded that title, having placed an objection, before having it taken back from them through a counter-objection.
Throughout the 1940s and the 1950s, emigration destroyed the playing base of Donegal. In 1951, for example, when Ardara played Gaoth Dobhair in the first round of the Donegal senior football league, both teams fielded without many of their best footballers who had moved to work in England and America. In fact, Ardara had actually lost eight players who had been on their team the previous year. Year after year through the 1950s, the minutes of club AGMs and of county board meetings record the dismay over the exile of players. The drain of people was undercutting progressive moves at underage level. St Eunan's College in Letterkenny had made a significant impact in reaching the final of the MacRory Cup for colleges football and ten players from that school made the Donegal minor team, which won the Ulster minor football championship in 1956. Again, though, many of the players from that team emigrated, including wing-forward Hugh O'Donnell, who moved to Birmingham where he played for the John Mitchel's club for 14 years.
At the end of the 1950s just 4,300 people were employed in manufacturing in Donegal; for all that tourism was developing, the small scale of manufacturing and the decline of agriculture placed inevitable limits on the number of Donegal people who could find work in their own county.
And yet, in the 1960s, Donegal began to emerge from the abyss. Before that decade Donegal had never even reached an Ulster final. It was enough to lead Brian McEniff to remark: "When I began playing football for Donegal, even the cows in the field would turn their backs when Donegal came to play."
Work in the clubs and the schools at underage level began to pay dividends, however, when Donegal won three of the first four Ulster under 21 championships between 1963 and 1966. This was translated to progress at senior level with Donegal reaching the Ulster finals of 1963 and 1966. The 1963 final against Down proved disastrous with Donegal failing to score in the first half, but the 1966 final seemed set to see revenge exacted as Donegal led by a point with the game nearing a conclusion. This match was the first Ulster final to be televised live on the BBC and viewers saw a scrappy, free-ridden match which ended in heartbreak for Donegal when Seán O'Neill drove a last-minute penalty into the net to give Down a two-point victory. That Donegal team is remembered as being filled with brilliant footballers who simply could not quite overcome the psychological barrier of generations of defeat.
Club football in Donegal gathered strength through the 1960s. Gaoth Dobhair, a powerhouse of previous decades, won their last championship of the era in 1961. Seán MacCumhaills of Ballybofey then came to the fore, before the St Joseph's team -- an amalgamated team drawn from Bundoran and Ballyshannon -- came through to win seven senior football championships, six senior leagues and three Ulster championships in their 14 years of existence between 1963 and 1976.
Players from all these clubs came together to win Donegal's first Ulster senior football championship in 1972 and then a second in 1974. The team was in the charge of player-manager Brian McEniff: "I'd say we had a better quality of player in 1966, but we hadn't the total commitment to win it from all the players. There was no outstandingly good player among the 1972 team in comparison to the mid-1960s team. There was a great commitment and a great feeling of being a Donegal man, instead of being a St Joseph's man, or a Gweedore man, or a Letterkenny man. We were as one."
The place of the GAA in the life of the county and the failure to establish a strong base in the Inishowen Peninsula was of regular concern to GAA people. The Donegal GAA Yearbook of 1980, for example, laments the failure to develop more clubs in Inishowen and also lamented the notion that the GAA was a mere games-playing association: "Our games, our language, other aspects of cultural distinctiveness make people better and fuller people, and make communities better and fuller communities . . . Industrialisation and affluence have proved to be mixed blessings, not only as far as CLG [Cumann Lúthchleas Gael] is concerned, but for the Irish language as well. These and other modern phenomena such as materialism, the lounge bar society, the media and so on are forcing the Association to fight for its life in various parts of the county."
So successful was that fight that within a dozen years Donegal were crowned All-Ireland senior football champions. A boom in club football saw more than 34 clubs field teams. Players came together to win the 1983 Ulster football championship and several of these -- including Anthony Molloy, Matt Gallagher, Donal Reid and Martin McHugh -- were still there a decade later when Donegal staged a major surprise in winning the All-Ireland title under manager Brian McEniff.
The 1992 final victory over Dublin by 0-18 to 0-14 drew incredible scenes of jubilation. An emotional journey home saw crowds gather at train-stops in Kildare, Meath, Westmeath, Longford, Leitrim and Sligo to salute the champions. At Sligo, 9,000 people were waiting to welcome the team. Later, when the team bus approached the Drowes River, the players disembarked to carry the Sam Maguire across into the county. It was something that for many decades had seemed unlikely to the point of being impossible.