SPECIAL FEATURE: There will always only ever be one 'Baker'

Gerry McLaughlin talks to John 'Baker' Boyle - a legend in Donegal GAA

Baker Boyle interview

John 'Baker' Boyle in action for Killybegs

John “Baker” Boyle is a well known Gael far beyond his beloved Killybegs, and during a distinguished playing career notched up no less than five Donegal SFC titles as well as two league titles, not to mention junior and intermediate honours as well. The current chairman of Killybegs, he has been a driving figure off the field as well, and has never been afraid to shoot from the hip

In Killybegs, and indeed in Donegal GAA circles, there will always be only one “Baker”.
Surnames are superfluous, for this fear rua de bhunadh na Rosann, the one and only John “Baker” Boyle is a man full of courage, character, conviction and above all else loyalty to the sea faring town he loves so well.
Quite often, it can be adversity that defines us as people and characters.
But “Baker” has seen the two days and none more traumatic than when he lost three fingers in his right hand in a road traffic accident in 1988 “the day after we played Four Masters in the championship.”
“I was on my way to the physio,” he quips with dark humour.
That was a cruel blow as “Baker” was a key figure in an emerging Killybegs team of all talents who went on to win their first county championship since 1952 by beating neighbours Kilcar in an emotional victory.
But the brave “Baker” was togged and went on to win five Donegal SFC titles and two Donegal SFL titles in a golden period from 1988 to 1996 when the club also contested and lost two county finals.
In all, they contested seven county finals in this period, including an Ulster club final in 1991.
He also has Donegal JFC medals and captained Killybegs to an Intermediate county title in 1979.
The feisty 65 year-old was still playing reserve football up until around six years ago.
But he also has two All-Ireland Masters medals with Donegal and played with Tyrone Masters, the home county of his wife who is a native of Newtownstewart for three years as Donegal had not yet entered the competition.
As a player, he always grew taller in the heat of battle, a ferocious leader and a teak-tough wing back.
These days he is in his fourth year as club chairman after serving as vice chairman before that.
And while he is a very strong club leader, “Baker” is never afraid to muck in and he is always on hand with tea for the press and then helps to clean along with his equally charismatic sister-in-law Mary Boyle who is the real Taoiseach on match days!

From the hip
And he is never afraid to fire from the hip as he slams the growing trends towards elitism in Development Squads and how hard it is to get levies to pay the county board in these straitened times.
“Baker” was born in 1955 and his father Jamesie from Maghery, Dungloe, who passed away in 1999, and grandfather and uncles were all fishermen.
“He came to Killybegs to fish. That was his whole life and he never took a holiday.”
His mother Rose, neé Doherty from Dungloe, is thankfully still hale and hearty.

John went to Primary School in Killybegs and spent two months in Carrick Vocational School until the football season was over and he went to sea to fish with his father.
“My father got a new fishing vessel in 1970 and it was the biggest fishing vessel in Ireland at the time.
“It was called The Janrieh, it was a letter out of every one of our names.”

Early playing days
He added: “When I was growing up there was no real competitive football and we would have been playing against Naomh Conaill, Ardara and Na Rossa.
“I can remember in my early days that we would cycle to Croagh beyond Dunkineely 10 or 11 miles to arrange a game.
“Or we cycled to Ardara and that is the way it was.
“We played underage and Bernard Conaghan was one of the main men and he had a big Zephyr car and the whole team would travel with him and that was quite common that time.
“But in all of those underage teams there would only have been five or six Killybegs guys playing as the rest were from Bruckless and Dunkineely.
“They were amalgamated with us and we would not have been able to fulfil our fixtures without them and Naomh Ultan had no team that time.”
“There were some great footballers in Dunkineely like John Quigley, Dennis McCallig, Wilie Mackey, Big John Breslin, Francie Morrow and Stanley Morrow and Stanley Gallagher.
“Myself Donal Campbell, Michael Melly, Paul and Jody Gallagher.”

John Boyle pictured in a local pub's kitchen during the time when he was captain of Killybegs. Beside him is the Intermediate trophy in 1979 which was named after a Glen man Cathal McLaughlin

Soccer was strong in Killybegs and St Catherine’s was the club, but it had few competitions.
“The soccer pitch was very close to where a lot of us were from at the Rock near the cottages.
“The soccer pitch was our back garden and I played with St Catherine’s all my younger years.
“In 1976 we won the Donegal GAA Junior double, but half of that team was also playing with St Catherine’s who also won a Donegal soccer double.
“1975 was the start of our GAA revival and 1976 we won the double by beating St Naul’s and it was tough.
“In those days I was a corner forward coming out as a third midfielder and I was the free taker and I later played in the backs.”
He added: “In 1978 we went up to Intermediate and Downings beat us and in 1979 I was captain and we beat Glenfin in the final.
“Jimmy White was coming on to that team, but the mainstays were Pat Cannon, Dominic Mullan, Charles Boyle (my brother), myself and Noel Dorrian were the main players.
“But, if Glenfin had to get over us they would have gone on to win the county championship.
“We did some celebrating after that.
“And our U-12’s played before that game and some of them went on to win an All-Ireland and they won the U-12’s that day.
“John and Barry Cunningham, Manus Boyle, Barry McGowan, John Ban Gallagher and many others went on to do the club proud in a great era from 1988-1996.”

Jimmy White was player manager of that great team for many years taking them to a string of underage titles in the 1980s and then to senior glory and an Ulster club final appearance in 1991.
John was manager of the U-21’s that won a county title in 1987.
Killybegs beat Kilcar by 2-10 to 2-8 in the county final in 1988, their first final victory since 1952 when Kilcar players like James McHugh, father of Martin, James and Enda was on board.
But it was a bitter-sweet year for “Baker”.
“The late Eamon Byrne was captain, and I was vice captain and we played Four Masters in the first round in Fintra.
“Before the next game Eamon took a heart attack in a game against Aodh Ruadh in Ballyshannon which was a terrible tragedy for the club.
“We had a good win over Masters, and Eamon’s death was the driving force behind us that year.
“And I lost three fingers in a car accident before the second match against Four Masters.
“It happened in a car accident while I was going to the physio and I crashed.
“It was my right hand and that was June, and I was back in September and I did not play in any of the championship finals.
“It never stopped me, and I wore one glove.
“For me I never thought about it and the game was a lot more physical in those days.
“I remember a referee blowing me up one day and I asked him what the f*** was that for.
“He said it was for a closed fist tackle and I pulled off the glove and told him I don’t have a f***ing closed fist.”
“That referee was and is a very good friend of mine.
“I played on and the last game I played in Glenfin, I was put off for not wearing a gum shield.”

Despite the setback “Baker” is proud to have been part of that golden Killybegs team.
“That Killybegs team was as good as a few county teams in that era.
“The early 1990s were very good to us and we were in an Ulster Club final in 1991 when “Nudie” Hughes of Castleblayney beat us on his own. He got a goal and two points in the first five minutes and we were playing catch up after that.
“We could have won it but things did not go for us.
“There were four or five of us fishermen who could not make that final.
“I was not there along with Rory McNelis and Matthew Campbell.
‘To be honest, even in victory, we never performed to our capabilities in a final.
“And we had vital players who missed finals at different stages like John Cunningham and John Ban Gallagher.”
But there was more success in 1995 and 1996 when Killybegs won another two titles on the trot including the marathon four game clash with Aodh Ruadh.
“Pauric McShea came in as manager in 1996 and we had some mighty tussles with a great Ballyshannon side who had Sylvester Maguire, Val Murray, Brian Tuohy, Joe Doherty, Gavin Bourke, Brian Roper, Donal Buggy etc.
“The quality on both teams was remarkable.

John ‘Baker’ Boyle and the side that won the 1975 Junior League title in Donegal Town after victory against St Nauls

“Jimmy White was the man that took those young lads through to senior level.”
He continued: “In 1983 we won the county U-16 championship and as a club we knew we had to do something.
“We realised that we would have to be a bit less rugged and improve our discipline and the era of the closed fist had to go.
“I am not saying we were dirty, but we were a hard team, half of us were fishermen and we applied to the county board to go down to Division Three for the Shield to take our U-16s through.
“They granted it and we reached the Division Three Final against Naomh Brid and after a replay we beat them and none of those young lads looked back after that.”
Meanwhile, John began his long association with the club as a mentor and official in 1974 when he was just 19, he managed the club minor team.
“I managed the U-21 team and the senior team along with Austin Coughlin in the 1980s.
“At that time, we had great men in the club like Bernard Conaghan, Patsy McGowan and Frankie Tom would be a driving force as well.
“In 1972 at just 17 I went to my first Donegal County Convention in the Highlands Hotel and that was my first taste of it really.”
For the past eight years, John has been vice chairman and chairman of the club and is active at all levels.
“I was always involved selling tickets, raising funds etc and anything that had to be done.”
Killybegs now have great facilities with the opening of the Eamon Byrne Memorial Park in 2010 and the opening of their splendid clubhouse a few years later.
“The old Fintra was always a dry pitch and the sand would blow from the beach and kept it dry.
“We had a 99 year lease on the old Fintra but it was in a private estate and we need permission to do any renovation.
“That was ok but around 2007 Ladies Football was coming on and all we had at the old facility was just two dressing rooms.
“We needed new dressing rooms and Fintra was taken over by a Fermanagh business- man.
“He was developing the area, building holiday homes and selling them.
“And he planned to build a nine- hole golf course so he needed to get us out and 90 per cent of us were happy to leave.
“We would leave if he would leave us in a similar or better place than we were, and he developed the current Fintra for us which also included the dressing rooms etc.
“As regards the training pitch this was given to us by a big hearted local.
“We opened it in 2010 and we were in the county final as well.
He continued: “This developer basically built the lot for us and that was a good deal and we have great facilities and we more than doubled the size of the area with four dressing rooms, a large function room, a referee’s room and we converted the attic into a gym, a meeting room and our training pitch is 70 by 50.
“It was done in a few years.
“And from that great minor team of 2005 that had Seamie Coleman, there was only one player in 2010.
“We lost a whole generation and we got to a final in 2013 and I had two sons on that team Brendan and Shane, and Ronan injured his cruciate the week before the county final.
“Shane and Ronan are playing in Brooklyn and Shane played for Donegal minors and Brendan is managing the Strathroy soccer team in Omagh.
“My boys were into the soccer, but John is the oldest and he is up in Ballycastle and he played for our reserves.
“My wife was Noreen McKenna from Newtownstewart and she wasn’t into the GAA before she met me but then she had to be!”

“And we entered the Ulster Intermediate League in 2010 and we won it and then we lost to a good Naomh Conaill side in the county final who went on to the Ulster final.”
John became vice-chairman eight years ago, so the past eight years have been really hectic.
“I was player manager of the reserve team in the 1990s and we got to four county finals and we lost them all.”
That cruel injury robbed John of a lot but he stayed in the squad and was fishing for some of those finals.
“If you take that team that won the Intermediate title in 1979 over three quarters of us were fishermen.
“We were fishing on a Sunday and we had to go and get someone else in the town to go out fishing for us and we had to pay them out of our own pocket.
“What we were giving them you would hardly make it in a day yet.”

John may be chairman, but he is very much a hands-on chairman.
“Killybegs is very much like every other club, you only have a handful of volunteers.
There is a good crop of players now and “Baker” is delighted to have people of the calibre of John Cunningham and Rory Gallagher in the management, and they are not taking a penny.

"I am not just doing this for Killybegs GAA, I am doing this for my town" - John 'Baker' Boyle   

“If any club had Rory Gallagher, they would not let him go.
“I do tell our boys to listen to both of these men.”
He added: “And I would like to pay tribute also to underage managers like Sean Connors and Manus Boyle who do great work.
“And our own Jimmy White has a unique record as when he refereed the replayed county final between Naomh Conaill and Gaoth Dobhair it was his sixth county final and he also played in six county finals, a record that will never be beaten.”
The current crop of players is young and are still around, but Baker reckons that “unless they go to fish there is not much else for them around here.”
He added: “We have Development Squads and young fellows go every Saturday and it is left to the clubs to take them.
“You need volunteers to go to Convoy and it is U-16, U-18 and U-20 and they are not allowed to play for the club.
“And you can put this on the record, the GAA will regret this notion of elite footballers who are only playing with the county.
“In my time I played for Donegal a few times and I came in from fishing on a Tuesday night, headed out the road to thumb to Ballybofey and thumbed back that night again.
“My question to the elite players when they come back to the clubs is who is cutting the grass and who is lining the pitch?”
“Who is making the cup of tea, because once players become elite, they are not going to be too keen to play with the club because it is not elite.
“They are used to a certain level of training and it has not affected us too much yet, but it will affect every club in the future.
“I don’t blame the players themselves; it is much more to do with the demands that are placed on these players by all the different county management setups.
“And what sickens me is that some of the best club workers are pushed into the bad seats when the big inter county championship matches come along and you look over at the best seats and you wonder, who are they?”
“It is all about the county and we could have 25,000 fans going to a county match in Clones, but how many of them are putting their hands in their pockets and giving their club a fiver.”
When asked about the club levies he said: “It is crazy, and no disrespect, take a club like Glencolmcille, Kilcar and Ardara, they have no competition when they go to collect money.
“In Killybegs when we collect money, we are competing with the soccer club, the rowing club, the athletic club and the Judo club.
“It is the same people that we are looking for money from all the time.
“We nearly have to be asking every day in the week.”
But when asked what the GAA means to him he replies: “It is everything. It is not a matter of saying I am just a GAA man it is part of me.
“I am not just doing this for Killybegs GAA, I am doing this for my town. It is for my family and friends and I have played soccer and I loved the game, but I was asked one time to give a commitment to the GAA and that is what I did.
“Once you give a commitment, then everybody knows where you stand.
“If I had no Gaelic tomorrow, I would play soccer and I have played rugby as well with Donegal Town.
“But it is the GAA that has my heart.
“It was great to be involved with all those great players and to win those titles and those are great memories.
“My nephews Declan and Mark have also made a great contribution to the club.
“Declan, who went on to play with Finn Harps and Sligo Rovers, won his first county underage medal when he was only nine.
“Mark played in the Junior B in 1979 and was still playing in 2019 and their mother Mary is a great figure in the club.”
And so is “Baker”, who fires from the hip and the heart for the club he has served so well for so many years.

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