Fifty years – one growth – the resounding success of the Finn Valley Athletics Club

As impossible as it is to imagine now, the site was once in Donegal an abandoned tool factory adjacent to the local landfill.

The slow and then dramatic transformation is not yet fully complete and may never be, and perhaps therein lies the story itself.

This is because there are many similar stories from across the country about the rural sports facility becoming more and more desirable and there for the wider sporting good only a few seem to rival the 50s of growth at Finn Valley Athletics Club.

What started as a small idea has grown ever since, and as long as Patsy McGonagle is there to oversee it all, it always will be.

During its first decade Finn Valley had no home, McGonagle was still based in London during those early years.

It was McGonagle who first pitched the idea to a small group of equally interested minds who gathered in a room at Jackson’s Hotel in Ballybofey on August 10, 1971.

McGonagle had previously formed an athletics club in Glenties, where he was teaching at the time, and saw the need and potential for something similar around his home town of Ballybofey and its small twin town of Stranorlar, just north of the Finn River. The only publicity was word of mouth and he knew that was very reliable at the time.

What McGonagle also knew was what he didn’t want: the GAA already had a grip on parochialism and athletics couldn’t afford it, not if they wanted to expand their catchment area. more and more wide.

Thus the club was named after the perfectly neutral Finn Valley, stretching from Glenfin to Lifford, the blue colors also directly influenced by Finn Harps Football Club, which already drew support from across the county; the rest is Donegal athletics history.

Last night club members past and present came to Finn Valley from across the North West to mark this history and the launch of the recently published book – Beyond the Line – by popular and prolific Donegal sports journalist Chris McNulty.

They previously worked together on Relentless, McGonagle’s 2019 memoir, in part a reflection on his own sporting life that began with memories of his father Patsy, an army officer for the Irish soccer team at the Games. 1948 London Olympics, in part a reflection on his 25th birthday. years as manager of the Irish Athletics team, which included four Olympics and six World and European Athletics Championships, ending in 2017.

Patsy McGonagle: Devoted a lifetime of effort to the continued development and success of Finn Valley AC. Photography: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Complete file

Relentless would also have worked well as a title for this book. Spanning 240 pages, it’s a suitably illustrated and written story, by accident or by design of a club photographer present through the most defining moments of those first 50 years.

There is also a comprehensive record of all the national titles won by Finn Valley at all ages and levels – 434, to be exact – compiled by Honorary Life Member Pierce O’Callaghan, now responsible for managing the competition at World Athletics.

During his first decade Finn Valley had no home, McGonagle was still based in London during these early years, studying at St Mary’s College of Physical Education in Strawberry Hill.

His return home accelerated the pace of development, as chairman, coach and mentor, and aided by club chairman like Peadar McGranaghan and Patsy McGinley, what is obviously clear is that Finn Valley is not is never rested once in time or space.

Their first training ground was Drumboe Woods, around St Columba’s College, or later out of the temporary container set up at MacCumhaill Park, down the road in Ballybofey.

Thanks to McGranaghan, the club then gained use of Porter’s land, directly behind his house in Castlefin, cleverly lit by a 1500 watt light attached to the chimney of the McGranaghan family home. That same light incidentally came from Finn Harps, who was originally part of the first lighted system at Anfield.

This meant that Finn Valley could train throughout the winter months, to accommodate the rapid increase in male and female membership, branching out into field events as well. Among the early successes was Bridgeen Houston, who threw the javelin and shot put in the Community Games, and fondly remembers McGonagle’s admittedly crude training tactics: “Throw it like the fuck, Bridgeen “.

After a decade in existence, it was time to find a permanent home, and for McGonagle the four-acre site around Millbrae’s derelict tool factory in Stranorlar, priced at £31,000, ticked a lot of boxes . It was adjacent to the local rubbish tip, which he knew would close the following year, so they could also rent it out: a clean-up by the local fire department and another loan of £16,000 later the new Finn Valley Center opened in September 1982. , which is also open to a range of sports clubs and community groups from across Donegal.

Within three years, all that money had been repaid and developments have been quite relentless since. First they added facilities for field events, then came the regional sports centre, a new entrance and a bar and bistro, an accommodation block, before in September 2011 the running track dusty 400m be enhanced with an eight-lane tartan surface, lit and appropriately dedicated to McGonagle.

high point

It didn’t stop there: the Finn Valley Swimming and Recreation Center opened on another adjacent site in 2013, the new astro-turf field was added in 2017, and the next in the plan is a 4G GAA pitch. Between land, facilities and equipment, the club is now worth around £25m, entirely debt free, no one is putting a price on the benefits for this part of the Donegal community.

In the foreword to Beyond the Line, Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, describes Finn Valley as something of a role model for ensuring that as many children as possible are exposed to athletics in a fun and exciting way, and there is also an elite end: Brendan Boyce (50 km walk), Mark English (800 m) and Eilish Flanagan (3,000 m steeplechase) represented the club at the Tokyo Olympics last summer.

As impossible as it is to single out a high point from the 50-year history, what is also abundantly evident in Beyond the Line is the opportunity Finn Valley provided for young female athletes, particularly in the 1970s and 1980, a time when most young women in rural Ireland didn’t have to worry about which sport to choose because the choices just weren’t there.

This kind of careful nurturing of women’s athletics paved the way for Finn Valley’s senior women’s team to win eight successive national cross-country titles, from 1993 to 2000, plus two more in 2002 and 2004 (Kay Byrne , remarkably, scoring on all 10 teams).

Previously the domain of Dublin’s conquering clubs, these women’s teams also had to be comforted to train in the safe environment of the club itself, or perhaps without the kind of fear we all now know didn’t have. faded away.

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