Solid and rich tradition of rugby in the north east
David McFadden who is a member of Balbriggan RFC provides an overview of the rugby clubs in the North East and the contribution they have made to Leinster and Irish rugby going back to 1877 when the oldest club Dundalk was formed. He highlights the many Leinster and Irish rugby stars that have come through the clubs along with top referees and administrators, including Leinster Branch and IRFU presidents.
The North East Area of the Leinster Branch IRFU comprises clubs in Louth, Meath and north county Dublin with the game in the Royal County featuring Navan, Ashbourne, Athboy, North Meath and Ratoath.
The other clubs include Ardee, Balbriggan, Boyne, Dundalk, Skerries, Swords and Carlingford Knights.
Carlingford currently caters for minis and just this season fielded its first youth team.
Dundalk was in existence before the establishment of the IRFU in 1879 and is one of the oldest clubs in Ireland. Drogheda RFC was founded soon after Dundalk in 1880.
However, that club amalgamated with Delvin RFC (founded 1953) in 1997 leading to the establishment of Boyne RFC.
County Meath RFC was established in 1922 in Kells and was soon followed by Balbriggan and Navan, both formed in 1925 and Skerries formed in 1926.
County Meath RFC faded away in the 1940s, but surfaced again in 2007 as North Meath RFC.
A further burst of activity saw the formation of Ashbourne RFC, at first a Metropolitan-based club, in 1974 followed by Athboy in 1978 and Ardee in 1980.
Athboy is a wonderful example of a community-based rugby club. Established in an area that was far removed from established rugby-playing schools and in the heart of strong GAA country, the club has been a beacon of the oval ball game in Meath for over 40 years.
The Ratoath story is really remarkable. In their short history, the club has purchased substantial grounds near the village and has developed new all weather pitches with plans to begin construction of a clubhouse.
All this was built on a group of friends who started with the idea of getting children in their village to play rugby.
Ratoath started as a youth club and has progressed to Leinster League.
Swords RFC was formed in 1962/'63 as Aer Lingus and played as a Metro Area Club. In 2005, the club re-named itself as Swords RFC and moved from the Metro to the North East.
From the 1960s onwards, rugby in the North East has been built on a strong, locally developed tradition of youths rugby.
Youths rugby in this context refers to boys who did not attend rugby playing schools and who in previous generations would not have had the opportunity to play rugby until they became adults and joined a local rugby club.
Youths rugby was a novel concept. Balbriggan and Skerries began developing youths players in the mid 1960s. This was also being undertaken elsewhere, notably at County Carlow FC and in Foxfield in Raheny, North Dublin.
Coaching courses for rugby coaches and adult players were run during the summer months at Butlins holiday camp in Mosney during the 1960s.
A major turning point in the development of youths rugby in Leinster and Ireland occurred in 1970 when for the first time a special training course for youth players from non-rugby playing schools was run at Mosney.
This was attended by 50 youth players from Balbriggan, Skerries and Foxfield. Youth rugby in the North East has never looked back since those early days.
There is a strong youth structure in North East Area competitions and two of the area clubs, Ratoath and more recently Carlingford Knights started out as Youth rugby clubs.
North east clubs have won the Provincial Towns Cup 36 times since it was first played in 1926.
The first north east club to appear in a Towns Cup final was Balbriggan in 1927. Balbriggan were also the first to win the Cup when they beat Athy in 1928 after a replay.
They were then followed by Dundalk who won the first of their 10 titles in 1932 when they defeated Longford in a final played at Lansdowne Road.
Skerries secured the first of their 11 titles with a win over Wexford Wanderers in 1941.
Delvin were the next north east club to win the Towns Cup with their victory in 1962.
The first of Navan’s 10 wins was against Kilkenny after a replay in 1964. Navan followed this with wins in 1966 and 1968 before another period of north east domination commenced in the 1970s.
Boyne then went on to win back-to-back finals in 2009 and 2010 while Ashbourne won in 2014.
The strong showing of north east clubs in the Towns Cup is also reflected in the success of these clubs in winning Leinster League Div 1 and following that with promotion to the All-Ireland League.
Navan were promoted to senior status in 2009 and were followed by Boyne in 2011, Skerries in 2012 and Dundalk in 2015.
Ashbourne came close to following these four clubs when they won the Leinster League in 2018 but missed out on promotion in the AIL Round Robin.
They seemed on course to gain senior status in 2020 when they won the Leinster League again but unfortunately, like so much else, the round robin was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Navan won the All-Ireland Junior Cup in 2008 and were followed in 2015 by Dundalk while Ashbourne achieved an incredible three-in-a-row, winning the Cup in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
From Boyne RFC, Niall Ronan who played for Leinster, Munster and Ireland, Mark McHugh, Leinster, Connacht, Montpellier and Ireland, Grace Davitt, who has the distinction of playing for the Ireland Women’s team that won a Grand Slam and was on the first Ireland team to beat New Zealand.
One of Boyne RFC’s greatest sons is Shane Horgan.
The man from Bellewstown came up through the Delvin and Boyne youths system before going on to win tremendous honours with Leinster, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions.
Players from Dundalk include the Kearney brothers, Rob and Dave who have both played for Leinster and Ireland with Rob playing on two British and Irish Lions touring teams. Dundalk also provided another Ireland player in the 1960’s, wing forward Eamonn McGuire.
From Skerries Killian Keane played for Munster and Chris Keane (no relation) played for Leinster.
They both played for Ireland A as did the legendary Billy Mulcahy who lined out for Connacht in the 1990s.
David O’Connor played for Leinster in the 1990s including a famous encounter with Neil Back of Leicester.
David Hewitt and Dermot O’Sullivan also played for Leinster in the early years of European competition.
A current Leinster regular from Skerries is Ciaran Frawley. Brothers, Alan and David O’Connor are currently playing with Ulster.
Skerries most famous player is local man Jim Glennon who played for his hometown club and from there represented Leinster and Ireland.
Navan has Denis Hurley (Munster) who gained an Ireland cap having started his rugby career in the Navan youths set up.
One of Ireland’s great women players was Marie Louise 'Maz' Reilly who played for Leinster and was a Grand slam winner with Ireland.
Navan have had great connections with coaching.
Former Navan coach, John Mulvihill also coached Australia u-21 and was the Cardiff Blues Head Coach.
Brad Harris was the former forwards coach of the Georgia national team and Alan Kingsley was kicking consultant at Dragons and now at Cardiff Blues.
From Ashbourne, local GP Al Moroney, was capped for Ireland whilst playing for UCD. He was one of the original players for Ashbourne RFC when the club was first founded.
Ashbourne was for many years the home of Ireland’s women’s team and was the base for the team when they won the Grand Slam in 2013.
That team included women from the North East such as Grace Davitt, Lynne Cantwell and Maz Reilly.
It is fitting that Helen O’Reilly who hails from Ashbourne RFC was the first international female referee and is currently the Junior vice-president of the Association of Referees Leinster Branch.
Ashbourne RFC player Judy Bobbett currently features in the Ireland women’s team. Her grandfather, Pat Bobbett was one of the original founders of the club.
Ratoath resident, Maura Coulter, was capped 30 times for Ireland. Having played for Cooke, Blackrock and Boyne RFC, she also togged out for Ratoath.
Coulter was a co-founder of Ratoath RFC and coached minis, youths, men’s vets and tag teams in the club.
She played in one of the first adult men’s teams that Ratoath fielded when the former international prop fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition of playing at scrum half alongside her husband.
Balbriggan’s first Ireland international was WJ McCormick who played on the Towns’ Cup winning team of 1928 before earning his only cap against England in 1930.
Local man Jamie Hagan came up through the Balbriggan youths system before going on to play for Leinster, Connacht, London Irish and now Beziers in the south of France. He won his Ireland Cap against the USA in 2013.
North Meath RFC can claim one of the true greats of Irish rugby as their own.
One of their founding members when the club was first established in 1922 as County Meath RFC was Kells man, James Leo Farrell.
JL (Jimmy) Farrell played for Bective Rangers for much of that era and gained 29 caps for Ireland. In April 1927, Farrell played in the Provincial Towns Cup for County Meath RFC against Longford. He was also selected for the Lions.
A past President of the Leinster Branch IRFU was Dr Bill Mulcahy representing Skerries RFC. Sandy Heffernan was well known for his many years service to Leinster where he served as secretary.
Tom Kettle of Balbriggan RFC served as the first Honorary Secretary to the youths section of Leinster while Brian Purcell was one of the central administrators in Leinster rugby throughout the 1990s up until his death in 2002.
The current Honorary Junior Secretary of Leinster rugby is Ashbourne’s Bill Duggan. A predecessor was Brian Vaughan of Swords RFC.
For many years, the Area Honorary Secretary, and latterly the Area Honorary Treasurer has been Boyne’s Seamie Briscoe who was the winner of the Sean O’Brien Hall of Fame award in 2019.
The current Secretary of the North East’s Youths section is Scott Ennis of Navan. Scott has given many years of tireless service to youths rugby at Area and Leinster level.
The legendary Des Scaife, co-founder of Delvin RFC and of the Wolfhounds and manager of Butlins Holiday Camp at Mosney served Leinster rugby as Honorary Secretary for many years.
The first manager of the Leinster team during the professional era was Skerries legend Jim Glennon.
Balbriggan RFC co-founder and first club president was local man George Hamlet. Hamlet’s playing career was with Wesley College and Old Wesley.
He played for Ireland between 1902 and 1911 in a career which included playing against the first touring All Blacks side in 1905 and being the first man to captain Ireland against England in Twickenham when the two sides played the second ever international played at that stadium in February 1910.
Hamlet was President of Balbriggan RFC from 1925 to 1928 and during that period he was also President of the IRFU.
The North East have produced many notable referees over the years, enough to merit an article on its own. Mention is made in this article of some of the more famous referees who include Navan’s Sean Gallagher and Kevin Beggs and Ashbourne’s Helen O’Reilly.
Leinster competitions are named in remembrance of the contributions made by men from the North East.
These include the three premier minis festivals, the Kettle Festival (u-10) named after Tom Kettle of Balbriggan RFC, the Coyle Festival (u-11) named after Brian Coyle of Navan RFC and the O’Daly Festival (u-12) named after Dave O’Daly also of Navan RFC.
The Leinster u-13’s Youth’s Cup, known as the McGowan Cup, is named after Balbriggan RFC’s GL McGowan.
The u-15 Youths Cup, known as the McAuley Cup, is named after former Balbriggan RFC president Maurice McAuley whose family are still heavily involved with the Balbriggan and Skerries clubs.
The u-15 Youths Premier League trophy (the Ciaran Conlon Cup) is named in honour of a great Navan RFC stalwart.
The u-18 Purcell Cup is named in memory of Brian Purcell of Balbriggan RFC.
In recent years, the North East Area has kicked off the rugby season with the Beachy Cup, named in memory of the late John "Beachy" McCreanor.
The Junior Inter-Provincial Cup, played annually by the four provinces, is named in memory Ardee man, PV McGee.
The North East Area McGee Cup is also named in his honour.