Before 1993, no team from Ulster had ever won an Irish senior cross-country title. In ’93, Finn Valley AC ladies made history in winning the crown at the Phoenix Park.With the mould broken, the Finn Valley AC ladies won eight titles in a row. To mark 2020 Global Running Day, Chris McNulty charts their remarkable story …
OF ALL the sights she witnessed during the storied decade of the 1990s, a tree in Santry stands out for Catriona McGranaghan.
The year was 1992 and at that point there were hints and promises, if not cast-iron guarantees of what the future would hold.
Main picture: The Finn Valley AC Ladies who finished sixth in the European Clubs cross-country at Mia, Portugal in February 1995. Pictured are Ita Boyle, Belinda Carlin, Dawn Hargan, Catriona McGranaghan, Patsy McGonagle, Margaret Synott, Conor McGonagle and Kay Byrne.
At Porter’s Field in Castlefin, behind the family home, Peadar McGranaghan would put the budding athletes of the area, including his own children, through their paces.
Catriona was always marked out as different.
“She ran on confidence, but she was just a born winner,” was how Patsy McGonagle described the flame-haired star.
Moral victories didn’t count much in McGonagle’s world. Catriona McGranaghan was wired similarly.
Santry offered hope for Finn Valley, but history almost scoffed in their faces.
Dublin City Harriers had won 15-in-a-row.
No Ulster team – in either the men’s or women’s race – had won an Irish senior crown.
Finn Valley dared to dream and they almost made it happen in Santry.
“We had it in our grasp with 200 metres to go and we celebrated like we’d won it at the end,” is how McGonagle recalls the moments in his 2019 memoir, Relentless. “We were certain. Finally, we had broken the mould and I was on top of the world.”
A miscalculation of the tallies meant that Valley’s hearts were broken and Dublin City Harriers got their spikes into a 16th title
“We promised that would never happen again,” says Kay Byrne, a lead protagonist for Finn Valley’s dominance.
“If some athletes had ran more positively early on in ’92, we would have won.”
McGonagle had a habit in those days of making sure his teams were accompanied by a local press photographer.
Even in such a gut-wrenching moment, recording the near miss was important. The story still had to be told.
The image of Catriona McGranaghan remains one that paints a vivid picture.
“If you’d put salt in an open wound, it wouldn’t have made her wince as bad,” McGonagle wrote.
McGranaghan was in no mood for humouring the cameraman.
She says: “We hated even standing there. I’ll never forget that tree we were under.”
THE dream was far from impossible – and they showed as much in December 1992 when a Finn Valley quartet led Donegal to the National Senior Inter-County title at Ballyhaise in Cavan.
Belinda McArdle, Dawn Hargan, Kay Byrne and Margaret Synott scored for Donegal; names that would beam and gleam from the athletics pages for the best part of the next decade.
In her last ever race at junior, Catriona McGranaghan won with 13 seconds to spare, retaining the title she’d won at Ballyfin a year earlier.
A gauntlet had been really thrown in December ’91 when a Valley foresome of McArdle, Helena Crossan, Byrne and Synott won the Inter-Counties, with the former trio all inside the top five.
McGonagle had needed to change the tune a little after the disappointment of Santry.
At the national road relays, held at Gowran Park in April, McArdle led the way as the Finn Valley women topped the pile.
“That was it,” said McGonagle. “That was our marker down.”
“Patsy had a way of getting us going again,” McGranaghan remembers.
“He kept us out of the limelight. Where there was a will there was a way. It was hard to get group sessions, but he stayed on our case all the time – through Christmas, through whatever season.
“I worked in Derry at the time and he was on the phone constantly. What people are doing now he was doing with us back in the 90s. He was going constantly.”
IN 1988, Belinda McArdle went to the World Junior Cross-Country Championships in Canada, competing alongside Sonia O’Sullivan.
‘A class act,’ was how McGonagle described McArdle, whom he once signed out of hospital to ensure she participated in – and won – an Ulster Cross-Country.
He said: “Belinda was top class and was a key part of what we were about.”
During the months of ’92, McGonagle – who would manage an Irish team at the World Junior Championships in Seoul that autumn – was plotting the course of history and the addition of Dawn Hargan to the blue and white singlet was a key move.
“We had to get real,” McGonagle said.
“Dublin City Harriers won the European Championships – twice – and people thought I was insane even thinking about challenging their crown.”
At the Phoenix Park, McArdle led the charge in 11th.
With McGranaghan (14), Hargan (15) and Byrne (17) all inside the top 20, Finn Valley were finally on that famous roll of honour.
KAY McGowan was one of Finn Valley’s first ever medalists in the early 1970s, winning a team bronze with the under-9s and a team gold with the under-11s at Fintra in October 1971.
She represented Ireland at a schools meeting in Wales in 1977, while at St Columba’s College, but her athletics career tailed off when she went to Dublin in 1980.
Even there, the competitive instinct came to the fore. Her housemates didn’t believe she was a competitive athlete so she laced the runners and competed a ten-mile race.
Soon after, Kay McGowan – back on home soil – was walking down the Millbrae in Stranorlar one night when McGonagle was mid-session with a group of athletes.
The conversation was, as their talks tended to be, to the point.
‘God, are you still at that?’
‘Aye, Tuesday night at half seven. See you then, Kay!’
‘Aye, you will, Patsy!’
“He was kind of daring me,” Kay, now Kay Byrne, says.
“I landed in the Tuesday and no-one was more surprised than Patsy. The younger ones hadn’t a clue who I was.
“I said to Christine Lynch that I was struggling, but I couldn’t let on. From nothing, I did six miles. We came out past Finn Park, I nearly died.
“I went to All-Irelands and was about 19th or 20th. I always wondered how I got from here to there. Patsy’s solution was to compete with better athletes. Our challenge was in our own group. We were so far ahead.
“We trained with the men and we’d be away out hanging onto the likes of Pat Hegarty, Mark Connolly, Neil Martin, Kieran Carlin, Patsy Doherty, Michael Crampsie, out by Welchtown.
“Patsy saw that this team had some brilliant individuals. We went to places like Margate and we raced against other athletes from outside Donegal and Ireland. That gave us a vision of confidence.”
BEFORE Finn Valley defended their senior crown in 1994 at Ballinlough, Gerry Byrne – Kay’s husband – was seriously ill in hospital having contracted Weil’s Disease.
Kay Byrne’s mind was far from the race.
As Gerry’s condition improved and the race neared, McGonagle visited hospital before convincing Kay to run.
At Ballinlough, she finished fourth and was just one second from a bronze medal. Her performance led the way and, accompanied this time by Rosaleen Campbell, Rosemary Bogle and Margaret Synott, it was a team gold again.
“I was delighted,” Byrne said.
“Someone got word back to Gerry – and he said straight away ‘God she’ll be annoyed she didn’t get the bronze’. He knew the kind of me.
I” went to work every morning and I would have PB’d every day. I put so much in those runs because of everything going on in my head. The race wasn’t even on the radar.
“I told Patsy to take me out of the equation. We went the night before and I asked for a room to myself. I put all that away and the race was a pure mud bath. The race was minor detail to what I went through.
“I was one second from a bronze. If I made a run for Maureen Harrington sooner… I have regretted that from that day to this. I never got that close again.”
Yet, the performance meant that Byrne would go to the World Cross-Country Championships in Budapest.
“In 1994, Kay was an inspiration,” McGonagle said.
“Considering what she was going through at home, it was mind-blowing that she could even have the capacity to park it and run.”
Kay Byrne was priceless and would score each time as Finn Valley won eight senior titles in a row.
WINNING the national title meant that Finn Valley qualified for the European Club Championships, too.
Their first experience was at Monte Cassino in Italy in 1994 and they finished 14th.
“We took the first year as a trip away, but we had to make it more than an outing,” McGonagle said.
“We had to get our act together. We did – and went to Europe with a vengeance.”
Catriona McGranaghan’s athletics career began under a street light – which had come, via Finn Harps, from, of all places, Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC.
In the spring of 1995, competing at Maia in Portugal, Finn Valley AC finished sixth in Europe, led by McGranaghan in 30th. Dawn Hargan (31), Kay Byrne (39) and Ita Boyle (47) were the other scorers with Belinda Carlin (the former Belinda McArdle) and Margaret Synott also on the team.
“I made all of the European teams and that was a highlight,” McGranaghan says.
“Patsy was at his best there. He had his homework done.
“We went to Europe and we were meeting great athletes….the likes of Albertina Diaz from Portugal. They were sponsored highly and some of them were full-time athletes.
“We came back and just went into normal day-to-day stuff. People didn’t – and even now don’t – get what Patsy did for a wee, rural club in Donegal.”
The mercury rose heavy that afternoon in Portugal. Conditions, overhead and underfoot, were against the Donegal representatives, but they improved a phenomenal eight places on their previous attempt in Italy
“We weren’t allowed watches at training,” Byrne remembers.
“They live by watches now. That was part of Patsy’s psychology. It was brilliant.
“If he knew we had to up the anti, he’d have called slower times or if he needed someone to think she was doing better he’d have gone the other way. He was so, so smart.”
McGonagle was never one for patting his troops on the back, but even he had to acknowledge them in Portugal.
They sat on a track and listened to his words, spoke slowly and with meaning: ‘You would need to take this in. You would need to take in where you are at. Six girls from a small town and some of these are professional athletes’
Byrne shakes her head, even now: “We didn’t realise that at all – but maybe that’s why we were successful.”
FINN Valley AC’s three-in-a-row was secured at Naas in 1995.
Wins at Santry, Cork and Bree were secured to make it a sweet six.
In 1997, McGranaghan spent five months training with the Alabama University Track and Field Team.
Things might have capsized in 1998 at Bree when injuries meant that they could only start four athletes – ‘we were on the edge,’ McGonagle recalls – but Helena Crossan, Rosealeen Campbell, Ita Boyle and Kay Byrne – always Kay – maintained their glorious run.
It brought them to the end of the decade and another go. 1999 meant a little more, though. The Championships were being held in Stranorlar.
McGonagle fought the corner to get to host the Championships and ’99 was the year.
It helped keep his team focussed, ‘We’re on home territory – we have to win’. The drum was beaten every day of every week. ‘We have to win.’
A week out from the race, McGonagle was at the Mater Hospital in Dublin for an angiogram having complained of pains in his chest. The doctor, wearing a concerned look, told him he needed to have stents inserted and would have to come back.
McGonagle was almost incredulous.
‘Wait ’til I tell you, Mr McCann, I’ll not be back. The way it’ll be, whatever’s going to be is going to be done today….You have no idea how busy a man I am, Mr McCann’.
Even at a time of medic concern, McGonagle’s mind was solely on the race.
‘We have to win.’
The stents inserted, McGonagle proceeded to check himself out and hitched a lift home with PJ Sweeney from Drumkeen.
It was a day of days for Finn Valley.
Gary Murray won the men’s race and the senior women retained their crown.
Helena Crossan and Kay Byrne booked places on the Irish team for the World Cross with Catriona McGranaghan and Ita Boyle completing the scoring.
In 2000, the sequence came to an end, book-ended by McGranaghan and Byrne, accompanied by Noleen Porter and Rosaleen Campbell.
The journey would include further titles in 2002 and 2003, with Porter and Clodagh McCool joining the ever-reliable McGranaghan and Byrne.
All down the years, McGonagle would repeat the words each spring: ‘This is not normal life.’
And, yet, they made it the norm.