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Tir Chonaill through and through

02 September 2010

With an immaculate record in county championship finals since 1983, London kingpins Tir Chonaill Gaels are now bidding for a fourth successive senior triumph in the English capital. Hughie Cunningham continues to help keep the Donegal connection with the club alive and spoke to Hogan Stand.  

When Hughie Cunningham made the bold move across the Channel to London eight years ago, he probably could have never envisaged the success he would enjoy with his adopted club, Tir Chonaill Gaels.   

A Commercial Manager/Quantity Surveyor with the Irish-owned Ballymore Group in East London, Hughie is bidding to win his fifth London SFC title this season and fourth in as many years.   

His origins with the Gaels are about as common as most talented footballers who depart from their home soil over to the UK in pursuit of something different.   

"I moved here in October 2002, basically to have a look for a few months and those months have turned into eight years since," Hughie explained.   

"I came over to a job I had arranged myself and after about six months I joined up with the Tir Chonaill Gaels club.   

"The Gaels have always had a big connection to my corner of Donegal. The then manager of the Naomh Columba senior team, Noel Hegarty, prompted me to sign for Tir Chonnaill Gaels if I intended staying in London, knowing the way they operated and didn't want my football to fall by the way side."  

Hughie is bang on when he talks about the history of the club. Tir Chonaill Gaels GFC club was formed in 1962 by prominently Donegal men. The first ever meeting took place in the Red Lion pub in Kilburn and was chaired by Jackie Reilly. Other people in attendance included Bernard Laverty, Peadre and Mickey Duffy, Jackie Rushe, Liam Doherty, Christy Boyle, Barney Donigan and John Kelly.   

The club was originally named Clan na Domnaill or 'Club of the O'Donnells', but this was changed to its present name, as the London county board would not allow the name to be used.   

The move from the coastal area of Glencolumbkille to the hectic city life in London didn't have too much of a bearing on Hughie, who was at home as long as he had football to play, and this is where Tir Chonaill Gaels came in to help him settle into a new life.    

"We won a cup or two the first year I was involved, but at that stage the club was very much in transition," he explained. "There was a big movement over from Donegal and there was about four or five lad I knew from Donegal in the club house the first time I went. It was very easy to fit in. There were a lot of old characters too, like Mickey McGlynn and from my native club Barney Donigan, who recently passed away unfortunately." 

Hughie had arrived at his new club with somewhat of a reputation. A former county minor and Under 21 under John Joe O'Shea and a solid member of the Naomh Columba senior team's full-back line from the tender age of 16 it seems he had nothing to prove with five years of senior football under his belt.   

However, he knew breaking into the team would be no simple task.  

Hughie commented: "Everybody has this perception in the first year they arrive that the standard isn't high. Let me tell you the standard of the top clubs here is as good as it is in most counties.   

"When I first started playing here there was a core of four or five clubs that were strong enough and would do well in any county championships. It took us three years to win London from I started playing and it was tough going."   

Now Hughie is very much a veteran of the Gaels team, still lining-out in their full-back line and eager as ever to collect a fifth county senior championship crown come this October.  

Before he started applying his trade in the Tir Chonaill Gaels' rearguard, Hughie's record with teams in finals wasn't pretty.   

Four or Hughie's family had played senior football with Naomh Columba in the 90s, including his brothers Dessie Conal and JP (RIP), and he won a Donegal reserve championship in 1996.   

However the following year, he played in a county final against Ballyshannon and came out on the losing side.   

"The club lost a few county finals in the 90s and won a few leagues. The south of Donegal is no longer the stronghold it used to be back then, unfortunately," Hughie conceded.  

"With Tir Chonaill Gaels, we're now going for four-in-a-row and a lot of it's down to the core of players that have been there since 2004, many have stayed on from that time. There's a nucleus there and we've kept players together. 

Unlike a lot of sides over here, the face of the team doesn't change from year to year.   

"We take it fairly seriously. There's a history in this club - they have competed in 13 championship finals and won 13 out of 13. That's a record that we want to keep going."  

You can be sure that no player of the current Gaels crop will want to let that record slip and with rivals like Neasden Gaels having knocked on the door for the London SFC in recent years Hughie knows that they will have to up their game.   

The club's efficient underage structures have brought some talented players through the ranks. Liam Gavigan is a London born member of the squad and is one of the best young players to come up through the ranks, according to Hughie. Along with senior player David McGreevy, Hughie encourages the current seniors players assist in the great underage set-up in the club, where Gavin McIvoy is another excellent player to come through the ranks.   

Both were still serving in the minor ranks when Hughie captained Tir Chonaill Gaels to the London SFC in 2007 and a historic appearance in the All-Ireland club quarter-final, which the Gaels lost to the mighty Crossmaglen Rangers.  

"It's more or less all year around when you get into the All-Ireland club SFC," Hughie explained. "It's tough, but we have to try and retain the London senior championship but we don't want to look too far ahead.   

"I live in East London, which is a good hour plus trip, but when you see others so committed it's easier to motivate yourself and give the commitment in training and matches."  

For eight years now, Hughie has been working as a Commercial Manager/Quantity Surveyor with the Ballymore Group.   

Established since 1985, The Ballymore Group is a design led, international property development and investment group, with principle offices in Dublin and London. Ballymore is one of the largest privately owned developers specialising in large scale mixed use schemes.   

The company's Managing Director is Wicklow native Sean Mulryan, who has generously sponsored the Wicklow and Roscommon GAA inter-county teams in the past.


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