Vincent O’Donnell once bitten by the running bug was a regular figure out pounding the roads around the Rosses. He played Gaelic football but it was the running that he enjoyed most, and he did ten Dublin City marathons in a row. Gerry McLaughlin interviewed him in the latest article in the Club Champion series in the Donegal Post.
Some of the greatest and most heart-warming sports are not about its famed gilded, almost corporate stars.
But, they are about the quiet unsung local heroes and heroines who have done remarkable feats in their daily lives far away from the paparazzi and the press.
Vincent O’Donnell, the iron man of the Rosses is such a person.
He is the brother of one of Donegal’s greatest ever footballers, the legendary Seán O’Donnell - a prince of Gaelic footballers.
His other brother Ben was an athletics legend in Donegal and has a track named after him in Lifford.
But the soft- spoken Vincent is quite a legend himself.
For he has run ten Dublin City Marathons on the trot and he never had an athletics club to train with because he had no transport.
And he once beat the legendary Danny McDaid where he had a few minutes start on Danny.
For many years Vincent pounded the lonely by roads of the Rosses, from his home in Belcruit, to Burtonport, Mullaghduff, Annagry, Dungloe and out to Kerrytown as training.
He had no coach, shrink or physio, just his own burning desire to run, on his own terms.
There is no doubt but that if he had a coach or was attached to a club his raw talent and perseverance would have pushed him to a much more elevated status in athletics
As it is, his achievements in the Dublin City Marathon where he came in under four hours on several occasions should be recognised and he took part in quite a number of races throughout Donegal.
Vincent also played Gaelic football for Rannafast, Dungloe, Tir Chonaill Gaels in London, Ballymun Kickhams in Dublin and Rosses Rovers.
He is in his 79th year but be still goes to circuit training in the company of Dungloe stalwarts like Mark Clerkin.
And he was all set to enter the 100 metres in the Over 70s section in 2019 only that his beloved sister passed away and he lost heart.
But nobody can deny his big heart and his great love of his native county and the Donegal GAA team.
Vincent was born in September 1942.
“I am younger than Seán and I was born in Belcruit and I am living there now.
“My father Patrick O’Donnell was a National Teacher, and he wrote poems and a famous song called “Thíos Cois na Trá Domh”.
He taught in Arranmore, Loughanure and Cruit and he had school bands as well and they won 12 championships in Dungloe.
“He was the band master. He wrote that lovely song “Thíos Cois na Trá Domh” and I sang it at a concert down in Letterkenny a few years ago and I translated the six verses into English, and I have both versions.
“It is a beautiful melody, and my brother Seán sings it too.”
He added: “My earliest memories of Belcruit are of looking after cattle and helping my father a lot and then I emigrated to Scotland first and then England when I was about 18.
“I went to school in Belcruit originally. I went from Scotland to England where I was working in a Brillo factory. I went from there to the tunnels for a while with the Tunnel Tigers.
“It was tough, but I had a handy job as I was driving a locomotive bringing the skips up from the bottom of the tunnel.
“There was one ganger from Donegal who was a hard boss and myself and himself had words and I was promoted then to driving the loco, so I had a cushy enough job.”
“Before I left, I played Gaelic football for Rannafast and then for Tir Chonaill Gaels in England.
“This was in the early 1960s and Frankie Campbell of Glenties and Connie McMahon of Fintown were with me and Connie came off in a match a half time and kindly let me on and I came on and played very well.
“It was a match against St Patrick’s Luton.
“Connie and me, were very close and he was my buddy in England.
“I was over and back to England for about eight year and I lived in Finsbury Park, Fulham, Croydon and in Edmonton.
“Tir Chonaill did not win any championships when I was there ,and I came home for good as there was not much work going.”
“I came home to my father in 1969 and I stayed for a while and I went to Dublin to work in security for a few years and I played with Ballymun Kickhams along with Fran Ryder.
“I played with Rosses Rovers and we won an Intermediate County title in 1978 beating Downings in the final.
“I won the man of the match in a challenge against Kells.”
He also recalls playing against the famous Frank White of Dungloe.
In 1978, Vincent was 36 and says he was playing right half forward for all the matches leading up to the final but did not play in the final.
“I was playing very well in the training and I scored 2-4 in one of the training matches so I thought I should have started.
“It was very disappointing but I was half ways out on the field when they were winning with the excitement so I might as well have been on.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s he did an ANCO course in Gaoth Dobhair in metal fabrication and he played soccer for a while.
“The Gaoth Dobhair football team was playing in the Gaeltacht competition and I was playing on the Darts team and we won.
“Me and this other fellow from Milford we won the All-Ireland Gaeltacht title.”
“That was about 1979 and after I left, I had a very bad car accident. We went just past the lake at Burtonport, the car went off the road and I went through the windscreen.
“I had to go to the hospital with a broken jaw to St Kevin’s Hospital in Dublin and that finished my career at football.
But a whole new career beckoned in 1982 in his 40th year.
“I said I would run the Dublin Marathon and anything I put into my head I did it.
“So, I trained on a very hard surface for four months and I did not have the proper gear and I was not well up on running and I ran out to this place in Kerrytown for four months.
“That was the training I did for the first marathon and I had everything packed away for the first marathon, but I forgot my runners.
“I did not know what I was going to do after training so hard for it. I landed up in Dublin to a shop and I saw a pair of Adidas and it must have been God that sent them there for me.
“They were hanging up in the shop and I asked the man would they run a marathon and he said they would run ten.”
He added: “I got them for £10 in the shop and I had to run as otherwise I would have had to run it in my bare feet.
“Because of the hard training I did, I ran the marathon in 3.50. The next year I finished it in 3.14 and I had no club.
“Finn Valley wanted me to run with them because I was getting better times than some of their runners, but I could not do it because I had no transport.
“I used to run about 70 miles a week in those times.”
He said he would only do about five or six marathons, but ended up doing more during which time he was working for the local curate in Kincasslagh, Fr Sweeney.
“So, he told me to do the Millenium Marathon in 2000.
“He said I should do it as it would never happen again, and I did it and I decided to carry on for another few years and I did the Millennium in 3.30 and I was coming on 48 years of age then.
“I have done ten marathons on the trot, the most of any man in the Rosses.
“Another time I cycled down to Gaoth Dobhair to take part in a 5km race one time.
“It was in the Vets and there were a few Gaoth Dobhair boys in my category and when I went down the race was supposed to start at Hughie Tim’s pub in Gaoth Dobhair, but it had already started further down the road.
“I went out and caught up with them after about one kilometre and I eventually sprinted, and I won the vet’s race after cycling down from Kincasslagh and that was in the early Noughties.”
He added: “I would run five miles five times a week at night for four months.
“I ran out a back road from Kincasslagh out to Kerrytown.
“Then I did long runs, from Belcruit around Dungloe and Burtonport which would be 13 miles.
“I would do a longer run of 22 miles a fortnight before the marathon and then I would pack it in a fortnight before the marathon and it was all my own doing, I had no coach or trainer or anything like that.
“I ran a 5km in Letterkenny and Danny McDaid had a few minutes handicap and I beat him and that was one of my greatest feats in 2002.
“I kept on running after the marathons and I did several shorter races and I did 18.56 for the 5km in Ballybofey and that was my best time.
“My best time for the ten miles was 64 minutes but it was unfortunate that I did not have a club as I loved running.
“I had a few young lads running with me, John McGonigle and Charlie Sharkey, and they were very good for speed training and that made me more competitive so when I was running in the Vets, I could do a lot better.”
He continued: “My mother passed away nine years ago, and I moved in with my sister and she passed away two years ago.
“I am here in the house in Belcruit on my own.
“When I was young my brother Ben and me used to train for athletics in front of the old home with hurdles etc.
“I was going to enter the Over 70s All-Ireland Sprint Championship in 2019 in Tullamore and I had a man training me called Ben McGonigle from Belcruit and he was a great motivator.
“I was only three weeks away from the race and I was getting 22 seconds for the 100 yards.
“So, I was near the time where I would get a bronze medal, but my sister died and it took a lot out of me and I could not concentrate on things.”
He added: “In my younger days I worked with cattle on the land and I kept six or seven head of cattle and did hay and all that.
“I had animals up until a few years ago and I sold them as they were giving me too much bother as they were breaking out.
“I am not badly off, and I am fairly content.’
Vincent is also a “fanatical Donegal GAA supporter” and one of his greatest days was the first All-Ireland victory in 1992 when he was in the Canal End to see fellow Rosses men like Declan Bonner and Tony Boyle kick some great points.
“I will never forget it.
“I was working on a FÁS Scheme down in the Banks with Naomh Muire and they got me a ticket for the final.
“It was a great game of football and I was celebrating for a few days afterwards and I had a few pints of Guinness.”
“There are no pubs open now.
“I have a home help and she does the shopping for me in Burtonport and I know Daniel O'Donnell, an absolute gentleman and a great singer.
“We used to play Whist and he used to come down to see us and he is very down to earth.
“I would go anywhere to see Donegal playing and I get to the games by bus; sometimes my father used to drive me to the matches.”
And then he pays a great tribute to his older brother Sean O’Donnell.
“Sean was exceptional, he played for Donegal and he played for Ulster.
“He also played for the Leinster Colleges and he played in one final for Multyfarnham against St Mel’s and he soloed 70 yards and scored a goal after saving a penalty and the headline in the paper was ‘John O’Donnell wins the match for Multyfarnham.’”
Vincent has great admiration for his brother Sean and ‘Cookie’ Boyle of Dungloe and for Martin McHugh and Michael Murphy in more recent times.
“Michael Murphy is fantastic and so is Ryan McHugh and his father Martin McHugh was very good too. It was great to see the matches during the Covid even if there were no crowds there.”
“I loved the running and I loved going to those great matches between Dungloe and Gaoth Dobhair in the late 1950s.
“I saw Sean and Eddie O’Donnell, and Dan Bonner and Frank White playing in those days.
“I remember the match where the row erupted in the late 1950s and there were loads of boxes exchanged.
“Conal Doogan, a Dungloe boxer, came on to the field and he hammered a few of the Gaoth Dobhair boys who were pretty tough also.
“There were six of the Doogans and I would not like to take on Conal or any of them.”
Indeed, he recalled a row continuing on the streets of Dungleo until 2 am.
“The guards had to lock the barracks for the night as the row was just too much for them to handle.”
“But that is in the past and things are a lot better these days, but there were some great footballers on both teams.”
“The Doogan’s were as tough a crowd as ever came out of the Rosses.”
But there are few hardier, than the gentle Vincent O’Donnell, the king of the roads of the Rosses!
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