Rugby history in Letterkenny

Rugby history in Letterkenny

Like cricket and football, rugby was deemed an ‘English sport’ for many years in Ireland but unlike those sports, very little evidence exists of it taking place in Donegal in the early years of the twentieth century. By the 1930s though, these attitudes were changing. The first recorded rugby match concerning a Letterkenny team took place in April 1932 when the team lost to Milford 1 try (3 points) to nil. This team played their home games at the Asylum Hospital grounds (Bernard McGlinchey Town Park today), and despite protests from various GAA officials at the promotion of the sport, the board of the hospital ruled that: “these matches brought a little variety into the very drab lives of the patients, and there was nothing more exhilarating than a rugby match.”

An example of the opposition towards rugby came in March 1932

when five players from St. Eunan’s GAA club – Joe Callaghan, George Horabin, William Dillon, Robert Russell and Patrick McLaughlin – were suspended from playing for the GAA team for merely attending a rugby game at the Asylum Hospital Grounds, McLaughlin having also played in the game. Much to the outrage of Gaelic clubs throughout the county, rugby was also being promoted amongst the youth in St. Eunan’s College under the eye of Fr. J. McMenamin, with three Donegal Town players being suspended from their club as a result of participating at school. In 1933, at an Asylum Hospital committee meeting, at which once again the use of the ground for rugby matches was being debated, Mr. J. P. McIvor stated that: “he did not believe it was possible to make the people more loyal or Irish by these coercive acts…People had a perfect right to play any games they liked.”

As time went on, attitudes against rugby became more relaxed. Occasional games took place but no official club existed until the 1970s. Up until then, those players interested in the game usually travelled to nearby Derry or Limavady to get a game and so they decided to form their own club in the town. In 1973, “Letterkenny Rugby Club” was officially formed with games played at Robinson’s Field at the Port Road while training took place at O’Donnell Park. This use of the St. Eunan’s training ground for rugby shows the more relaxed attitude between the GAA and the so-called ‘foreign’ sport by now. Given the similarities of physicality of players and the use of the hands, it was no surprise to see several successful Gaelic football players playing for the new rugby club, including Joe ‘Dodo’ Winston (St. Eunan’s) and Declan O’Carroll (St. Joseph’s).

In 1974 the club purchased four acres of land at Drumnahoagh near the Dry Arch and constructed a small clubhouse, while in 1985 they moved to a field near the Silver Tassie Hotel known as the Halfway Line. In the late eighties and early nineties, for various reasons, rugby began to decline but the club was kept alive through the enthusiasm and dedication of several members. By 1999, in conjunction with Letterkenny Gaels GAA club, land was purchased at the Glebe for the development of their pitch and since then the club have played their games at “Dave Gallaher Park”, named after the former New Zealand All Black Rugby Captain, originally from nearby Ramelton who died in World War I.