Colm Shovlin has been a key figure for Naomh Ultan down through the years. Both on and off the field, he has been hugely influential in developing the club and doing so much for many younger players in the area. A great story-teller, he is never shy to speak his mind. This week he was the latest person to be featured in the popular Club Champion series in the Donegal Post newspaper.
BY GERRY MCLAUGHLIN
This is the story of one of na fir fada, the long lean men as hardy as heather with a ferocious pride in the place that formed them.
Sixty-two-year-old Colm Shovlin from Naomh Ultan (Dunkineely) is truly a local legend, a seanchaí, a gifted natural storyteller, who loves to entertain and be entertained.
Colm is a man who has tasted life through the teeth, battled personal adversity and has been a great role model for his team-mates over quite a few generations and the scores of youngsters he has coached over the years.
He was still playing Reserve football in 2019 at the age of 61 and that was after he was ten years away from the game from 1996 to 2006 when he fought and won a brave battle with alcohol.
Colm is straight-talking, what you see is what you get, and he will not tell you what you might want to hear but always calls it as he sees it.
He comes from a club sandwiched between Killybegs and St Nauls and is not afraid to repeat his concerns that boundaries are not being observed in his view.
He says: “It hasn’t gone away you know.”
But he is happiest when talking about the good days, his famous brother Martin and a golden era in the mid 1980s when Naomh Ultan won an Intermediate Championship in 1984, beating a pretty strong Kilcar second string who had around six of the team that won the county championship in 1980.
Naomh Ultan also won quite a few tournaments also in places like Pettigo and Castlederg - which evoke fond memories.
Colm is also very proud of the fine facilities his club has.
He served as a very youthful club secretary in the early 1980s, played midfield for the Donegal Vocational School’s team with Packie Bonner and also lined out for Donegal U-21’s in 1980.
Colm was born in 1959 in Dunkineely village.
“My father was born on the steep hill looking down on the new Fintra pitch in 1912.
“It was a great view, but the views didn’t keep them and Martin and myself were up there one day and we wondered how on earth they were able to rear a family on the side of that mountain.
“And they had the landlord in Fintra, for the privilege of living up on the side of that mountain.
“My father’s name was Connie and the Congested Districts Board got the family out to Brenter in Dunkineely when the big Bustard Estate was broken up.
“They were given a house and 20 acres from the Land Commission.
“My father went to England when he was 18 in 1930 and he did not come back until the Second World War broke out in 1939.
“He did not want to be conscripted and he came back here and worked with the Land Commission, bog roads out by Cashelard and Pettigo and places like that.
“And then as he said himself: ‘I went back to re-build England after the War.’”
“He came home in 1958 and Colm was born in 1959 and has younger siblings Martin (a county stalwart for many years), Orla and Imleda.
“I enjoyed my schooldays, and the principal was Michael Coughlan, a cousin of the Coughlans of the Mountcharles area and he was a very good teacher.
There was no football, and it was only soccer and Martin was a West Ham supporter and I was a Man Utd fan.
“I had a picture of Bobby Charlton in my bedroom.
Gaelic football was gone, and the club had disbanded in 1959 after it was originally founded in the 1920s.
“Whatever players were around went to Killybegs or St Naul’s.
“The club won its first title in 1936, a JFC county title when they beat St Eunan’s in Donegal Town.
“At that time there were teams from Croagh, Bruckless and two teams from St John’s Point in the area in the 1930s and 40s.
“There was a big population and many of them were fishing and the ‘Point’ team used to play challenge matches against Fintra and the Commons in Killybegs and they travelled by boat to Killybegs Pier.
Colm played soccer with Dunkineely Celtic when he was young, and he liked the game.
“I always remember my last soccer match was against Keadue, and that was in 1981 and we were playing Gaelic as well.
“We were playing Naomh Muire in GAA and they were the same team as Keadue, the same players.
“There was a GAA match fixed between the teams for the same day. The soccer match was on early to cater for both teams.
“I was sent off in the soccer match after I shoulder-charged a soccer player over the side- line.
“The ref gave me a red card and said: ‘Shovlin, you will not play Gaelic football here.’
“Those were his words, and I went up to the Gaelic pitch where the GAA match was held and the Naomh Muire side had a full team out on the pitch, and we had only half a team and had to concede the match.
“I never played another soccer match after that and there was a big change in the attitude of the club after that.
“There was a big meeting of the club after that, and the players were asked for a commitment and who they were going to throw their weight behind.
“Some did not like it, and some did, and from that day on we had a lot more players playing Gaelic football.”
So, what was the background to the revival of the club In 1974.
“It was October 11 1974, in St Mary’s Hall Dunkineely, and I remember it well.
“People like Terence McGinley, Jack Furey, Christy Kelly, PJ Kennedy (RIP) noticed that there was a big population of youngsters and it was all soccer.
“I knew no Gaelic footballers when I was in my teens and they reformed the club, and they deserve great credit.
It was 1977, when he was 18, that Colm first pulled on the Naomh Ultan jersey to begin a 42-year career which is certainly a record in Donegal if not Ulster.
“I was on the County Vocational Schools team and Donegal played in two Ulster finals and lost the two of them and I played at midfield with Packie Bonner for one of those finals.”
“Those finals were in 1977/78 and we had some great players like Michael Hegarty from Glen who was a great player and a brother of Noel’s and Paddy’s and is in the US a lifetime.
“Barry McNelis, another lad from Glen, Denis Bonner, Denis McBride and “Tiny” Vaughan, Danny McGroddy, and Gerard “Cookie” Boyle from Dungloe and many other good players.
“We played and lost in an Ulster final to Down in 1977 in Coalisland and the British army helicopter never stopped hovering overhead which was quite an experience for us.”
Colm went to Killybegs Vocational School and Colm and other stalwarts like Jimmy White wanted to enter into a secondary school’s competition and the headmaster at the time said the school just did not have the time.
But he allowed us to enter it if we organised it ourselves.
“Jimmy White and I organised the team in Killybegs ourselves and Frank McGee from Ardara was the teacher who travelled to the games with us.
“And Jimmy White and I were two of the first ever fully qualified coaches in the county.
“There was no GAA in Inishowen and Jimmy and I went to O’Doherty Park in Carndonagh to coach in an area that was all soccer.
“We coached 70 youngsters on a Saturday and Urris GAA club was the first GAA club to start up after that and Jimmy and I were in our later teens.”
He added: “I did play with Killybegs at U-21 level along with my brother Martin and that team went to the county semi-final that year and we had eight of the first team for Killybegs.
“Among the players were Martin and myself, Seamus McNern, Vincent and Raymond Blaine and Eunan Harvey and that was in 1980.
“I played with John Quigley and he always gave 110 per cent for Naomh Ultan and Killybegs and ourselves amalgamated for one year in 1980 and the county board brought in a competition called the Junior Shield as soccer was going strong in both areas.
“Killybegs was always a great soccer town and around six of them joined up with us and we were called Dunkineely and we played in this Junior Shield.
“Jimmy White, “Baker” Boyle, Eamon Byrne RIP, Seamus O’Donnell, Georgie Flaherty and a fair few of them came out.
“We played five or six games and we got to the final against St Eunan’s.
“But they objected claiming the amalgamation was illegal and I do not know what happened to that Junior Shield to this day.
“We did not mind as long as we were playing, and nobody objected for the five or six games we played in it.
“They only objected when we got to the final.”
Colm started out playing corner-back for Dunkineely and then he was moved to midfield and he played with Paddy Breslin who was a fine midfielder who went to England.
In 1982/83 Naomh Ultan won the Division Three Shield and League that year.
“We had a good team and were unbeaten in 1983 for sixteen matches.
“But we lost out to St Michael’s in the JFC semi-final that same year and they went on to win the final.
“Our captain was James Daniel Cassidy and we beat Kilcar in the Intermediate final in 1984 and they had some of their seniors who had won a county SFC in 1980.
“It was a great victory and it really boosted the place.”
Above: The 2007 reserves against Moville
He added: “At that time there were a lot of tournaments and we always went to Pettigo, to play for the Flood Memorial Cup.
“Dunkineely won that tournament in 1952 and the team was:
“Gerry Floyd, Danny Murray, Peter Sweeney, Hugh Sweeney, John McGroarty, Pat Quinn, Brian Cotter and Maurice Boyle.
“We won it after a lot of attempts.
“In 1983 we made it to the final and Civil Service beat us in the final and Gary Snow of Pettigo ironically was the hero for Civil Service as he saved two penalties that day.
“We won it two years in a row in 1984 and 85 and we beat Trillick of Tyrone, in the semi-final in 84, and beat Pettigo in the finals in both years.
“The team in 1984 that won the Pettigo Cup was: Dermot Alvey, Brendan McGready, Seamus McNern,, Colm Shovlin, Martin Shovlin, Raymond Blaine, John Kearney RIP, Liam Kennedy, Francis Blaine, James Daniel Cassidy and Donal Cannon.
He added: “But P J Flood was something else for Pettigo and Donegal. I remember playing in midfield against him and I thought I was at myself going up for a ball.
“But I found I could not move as he put his hand on my shoulder and caught the ball with the other hand.
“He gave me a wee push and I went flying into the hedge and boy he was some strong man.”
“And I also played with the great Sean O’Donnell for Donegal County Council in an Inter Firms competition.
“In 1985 and 1986 we played SFC in Donegal and we were invited to a tournament in Castlederg, and we beat Aghyaran of Tyrone in the final.
“It was an eye opener for a lot of us, that is if you did not get your eyes closed before that.
“It is a pity that there are no more of those seven-a-side and nine-a-side tournaments, but insurance issues have killed them off.
“I remember Dunkineely used to have a tournament of its own, a nine-a-side in the late 1970s and I played in one of them and Tir Conaill Gaels used to have a team over from London as the lads were at home in the summer-time every year.
“Kilcar won it a few times, Glenties, Aghyaran and Trillick all came down to it and Four Masters and it was a big thing.
“We drew Killybegs in the first round of the SFC in 1985 and Fintra was black with people.
“We had them beaten up to the last minute and they drew with us and they came out to Dunkineley a fortnight later and they beat us well.
“OK we did not perform but we lifted £850 on the gate.”
Naomh Ultan lost an Intermediate final in 1989 to Na Rossa and lost another final in 1992.
“We won another Intermediate title in 2002 when we beat Buncrana.”
And then Colm candidly admits that he “fell by the wayside” through an addiction to alcohol.
“I developed a drinking problem. I was always fond of a drop of whiskey and slowly but surely it got the better of me and in the end up I could not do without it and I missed out on ten years from around 1996 to 2006.
“That is what it took from me and nearly lost the family as well.
“That is what addiction will do and my wife would always say to me when I would be going out to the pub to go and get help for myself as it is out there.
“But I would say nah maybe tomorrow or next week and that went on for ten years, but eventually I was in rehab a few times and I got sober in 2006.
“I have been going to AA meetings steady. I reached out eventually and got the help that I needed.”
“There was one time I was ashamed to be known as an alcoholic, but I have accepted it now.
“I am in a good place now as I am sober since 2006.
“Around 2009 I started to play again, and I was back coaching as well. And I have never looked back since.”
This great raconteur then tells a story about his first time back playing for Naomh Ultan Reserves at the ripe old age of 50 plus a small bit of VAT!
“I did a wee bit if running but I was not able to do the hard training as the joints would only seize up on me.
“I used to tell the managers if you get an hour out of me, you will be doing well.”
“The last game I played was a championship match against Naomh Brid in Trummon in 2019 and I told them in the dressing room that this would be my last game.”
When asked what his biggest highlight was in coaching, it was the minor team of 2008 which is currently the mainstay of the current senior team.
“We had the Alveys and my son Conor and he captained the team that won the JFC in 2015. Conor is still playing with the reserves.
“About 11 of that minor team stayed and they won the Division Two Minor Championship and League and Divisional titles as well.
“But we were badly hit in 2015 after winning the championship we lost three of our best players, Danny Shovlin, Jonny Cassidy and Matthew O’Donnell.”
Naomh Ultan may be small in size but always had great heart and just before the break-up in 1959, Colm recalls how they beat Kilcar in the final of the St Connell Cup in 1958.
“We were always good battlers and we had to be as we always struggled but we supplied Willie and Andy Cunningham, Charlie Brady and our Martin to the county team.”
Colm has also been a long serving official and mentor with the club. He managed underage teams, was club secretary, PRO, and organised parish leagues.
Now there are so many rules and regulations and he feels: “This nanny state is away with it altogether.”
Now It is time to hand over the reins, but he will always be around, and is a Trustee of the pitch and is on the Park Committee.
He added: “The official opening of our pitch was in June 1997 and Donegal and Roscommon opened it and Bundoran played Naomh Ultan at U-16 which was the other match that day.
“That was a whole handling to get that ground into the GAA’s name and it was a soccer pitch at a time.
“Even the FAI had their hand in it and there was a lot of people who objected to the GAA taking it over.
‘And many of them were not even from the parish.
“We bought some land around the pitch, which was about €30,000 around 1985.
“We were the first club in Donegal to put out a £100 Draw Ticket to help to buy the land in 1985 and it was limited to 400 and it got great support and we made about £20,000 which was a big help.
“The dressing rooms and meeting rooms went up in 2002 and it cost us around £100,000 and we got around £50,000 from the Lottery.”
“We have another development at the minute as a training pitch where the grass has been laid down on it.
They have lost a lot of players in recent years, including Alan Lyons who got badly injured in a match against Naomh Colmcille.
“Alan is a great lad with a great attitude. He had his first cruciate operation at 18 and he has three altogether which are terrible blows.”
Colm’s vocal talents have seen him represent the club a few times at Recitation and Solo Singing.
So, what does the GAA mean to Colm?
“It is community-based and if you get the community behind you, you are flying.
Colm is married to Anne Brogan from Donegal Town, the daughter of the great ex-Four Masters county player Patsy Brogan.
“My daughter Leanne played with Four Masters and won a county championship medal and has an All-Ireland basketball,” he adds.
“My other son Ethan was a good footballer until he was 14 and then he took up the farming.
And what does Naomh Ultan mean to Colm?
“It means everything from I was 13 years of age and I have got to know people all over Donegal and the GAA has brought me to places that otherwise I would never be and has brought me some great friends and memories.”
Listening to Colm’s natural ability to tell his story and you just know that this is a man who has made some wonderful memories of his own, in his long career in the service of the black and amber of his native place.
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