BY CHRIS MCNULTY
WHEN Patsy McGonagle returned from a spell at St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill in London, you could have ‘put all of the athletes in Donegal into two cars’.
The Ballybofey man helped changed the landscape. He formed the Finn Valley Athletic Club in 1971 and the club’s base at the Millbrae in Stranorlar stands as a monument to the efforts of a man who has managed the Irish athletics team at three Olympic Games.
His contribution to athletics locally, nationally and internationally has left quite the legacy – but he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Recently appointed for another two years as manager of the Irish athletics side, he aims to lead them to the 2016 Olympics in Rio and next month the new wing at the Finn Valley Centre, housing an all-new gym facility and the Finn Valley’s long-awaited swimming pool will be opened.
This afternoon, McGonagle will be accorded the highest honour possible in this county when the Freedom of Donegal is bestowed upon him. Only Packie Bonner, Shay Given, Phil Coulter, Daniel O’Donnell and the Brennans of Clannad have previously received the accolade from Donegal County Council.
“It’s probably the greatest honour that I’ll ever see,” said McGonagle, who was the Donegal Person of the Year in 2001
“This tops it all. It is the top honour in the county. I’m delighted in the context there are only five people to have got the freedom of the county previously, so I’m in exalted company.
“I’m chuffed about it.”
McGonagle, the son of an army officer and a chemist from Inishowen who has been in Ballybofey all of his days, was first introduced to athletics by a priest at St Columb’s College in Derry, where he was a boarder.
While at St Mary’s in Strawberry Hill, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Dave Bedford, at the time the 10,000m world record holder.
Arriving back in Donegal, he hooked up with the Cranford Athletic Club and ran alongside men like Danny McDaid, Hugo Doogan, Paddy Marley and Eamon Giles. There was no organised athletics in Donegal at the time.
“I pursued that with a vengeance, a passion and a desire,” McGonagle said.
In 1971, he set up the Finn Valley AC, with the help of his father-in-law Michael Houston, Manus O’Donnell, Fr Kerr, Eugene Quinn, Hugh Gallen, Liam Merritt, Anthony Gillespie, Michael Doherty and John Carlin.
McGonagle said: “I have been very lucky that I have had good people around me.
“I have forty to fifty people working around me and we’re all working on the one page every single day.”
With the support of groundsman Joe Doherty, they were based in Sean MacCumhaill Park during their formative years. In 1984, the club, driven by Patsy’s vision, purchased a disused tool factory in Stranorlar on a 2.5acre site for the sum of £32,000stg.
Almost 30 years on, and after investment of upwards on €16million, the Finn Valley AC now has a home to rival anything on this island. The centre employs 17 people and that will rise to 35 when the new wing is opened.
“Finn Valley is still the exciting part – it still gives me goose pimples,” McGonagle said.
“In the good times, when a lot of people pushed out and were caught, we didn’t extend ourselves to a point where we’d be struggling with repayments. Every decision we’ve made have been very considered decisions and we’re not chasing bank debts.
“People have a view that everything over there was built by Government funding. Certainly, there was support and we’re appreciative of that, but we generated vast percentages of it through the centre itself, through fund-raising and loans.”
With 300 running members, the centre is also home to a variety of other sports. Nothing stands still, though. McGonagle said: “We’re pushing like bejesus to get money raised to develop the Gaelic football pitch. We’ll ready to rock and roll with that once the construction huts leave where they are now.”
In 1993, McGonagle watched a Finn Valley team of Belinda Carlin, Kay Byrne, Dawn Hargan and Catriona McGranaghan won an Irish cross country title and they hung onto the crown for eight successive years; an unprecedented golden period.
It was he who first set up the Donegal primary schools athletics 43 years ago and the most recent instalment had 1,300 participants in the final.
He branched out to other sports and trained Donegal under the management of PJ McGowan and Brian McEniff. At one Olympic Games an RTE reporter asked if he was feeling the pressure. “Boys, you know nothing about pressure,” Patsy responded. “You want to be up in Clones and have the boys firing water bottles at you and you’re firing them back before they go out for the second half – that’s pressure.”
In 1992, he first managed an Irish team, the juniors at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Seoul, South Korea. He never looked back. A veteran now of three Olympics and various other big meets, he’s watched the good days and bad of Derval O’Rourke, Mary Cullen, David Gillick and Sonia O’Sullivan, among others. The highlight of his career was the night in 2000 in Sydney when Sonia won a 5,000m silver medal.
He said: “Sonia still stands out. That Monday night in Sydney was special…Sonia going down that finishing straight with Gabriela Szabo. Being involved when Sonia was the business was just something else. What a talent.”
He’s come a long way from the days when he first broke the mould by jogging around Ballybofey when it wasn’t the done thing.
He said: “People would meet me in their cars and I used to think that they were thinking: ‘God, isn’t terrible about Mrs McGonagle, sending that young fella away to be educated and look at him now, running around the roads with hardly any clothes on him!’”