Impossible as it is to imagine now, the site was once upon a time in Donegal a derelict tool factory adjacent to the local refuse dump.
The slow and then spectacular transformation is not yet entirely complete and may never be and perhaps therein lies the tale in itself.
That’s because there are lots of similar tales from all around the country of the rural sporting facility becoming increasingly desirable and there for the wider sporting good, only few it seems to rival the 50-years-a-growing of Finn Valley Athletics Club.
What started out as a small idea has never stopped growing bigger since and, as long as Patsy McGonagle is around to oversee it all, that will always be the case.
For its first decade Finn Valley had no place to call home, McGonagle still based in London during those early years
It was McGonagle who first put the idea to a small group of similarly interested minds that gathered in a room at Jackson’s Hotel in Ballybofey on August 10th, 1971.
McGonagle had already formed an athletics club in Glenties, where he was teaching at the time, and saw the need and potential for something similar around his hometown of Ballybofey and its smaller twin town of Stranorlar, just north of the River Finn. The only publicity was word of mouth and he knew that was plenty dependable at the time.
What McGonagle also knew was what he didn’t want: the GAA already had a grip on parochialism and athletics couldn’t afford that, not if it wanted to spread its catchment area further and wider.
So the club was named after the perfectly neutral Finn Valley, stretching from Glenfin to Lifford, the blue colours also influenced directly by Finn Harps Football Club, who already drew their support from throughout the county; the rest is Donegal athletics history.
Last night, club members past and present came to Finn Valley from all around the north west to mark that history and the launch of the newly published book – Beyond the Line – by popular and prolific Donegal sports journalist Chris McNulty.
They worked together before on Relentless, McGonagle’s 2019 memoir, in part a reflection on his own sporting life which began with memories of his father Patsy, an army officer on the Irish football team at the 1948 London Olympics, in part a reflection on his 25 years as Irish athletics team manager, which included four Olympics and six World and European Athletics Championships, ending in 2017.
Relentless would have worked well as a title for this book too. At 240 pages, it’s a suitably pictorial and written history, by accident or design a club photographer present throughout most defining moments of those first 50 years.
There’s also a complete record of every national title won by Finn Valley across all ages and grades – 434, to be exact – compiled by honorary life member Pierce O’Callaghan, now head of competition management at World Athletics.
For its first decade Finn Valley had no place to call home, McGonagle still based in London during those early years, studying at St Mary’s College of Physical Education in Strawberry Hill.
His return home increased the pace of development, as chairperson, coach and mentor, and aided by the likes of club presidents Peadar McGranaghan and Patsy McGinley, what is evidently clear is that Finn Valley never once rested in time or place.
Their first training ground was Drumboe Woods, around St Columba’s College, or later out of the temporary container set up in MacCumhaill Park, down the road in Ballybofey.
Thanks to McGranaghan, the club then sourced the use of Porter’s field, directly behind his house in Castlefin, deftly illuminated by a 1500-watt light attached to the chimney of the McGranaghan family home. That same light incidentally had been sourced via Finn Harps, originally part of the first floodlit system at Anfield.
This meant Finn Valley could train throughout the winter months, catering for the rapidly increasing male and female membership, branching further out into field events too. Among the early success stories there was Bridgeen Houston, who threw the javelin and shot put in the Community Games, and fondly recalls McGonagle’s admittedly crude coaching tactics: “Throw it like f***, Bridgeen”.
After a decade in existence, it was time to find a permanent home, and for McGonagle the four-acre site around the derelict tool factory at Millbrae in Stranorlar, priced at £31,000, ticked a lot of boxes. It was adjacent to the local refuse dump, which he knew was closing the following year, so they could lease that too: a clear-out by the local fire brigade and another loan of £16,000 later the new Finn Valley Centre opened in September 1982, with that also opening itself up to a range of sporting clubs and community groups from across Donegal.
Within three years all that money had been paid back and the developments have been pretty relentless since. First they added some field event facilities, then came the regional sports centre, a new entrance and bar and bistro, an accommodation block, before in September 2011, the dusty 400m running track was upgraded with an eight-lane tartan surface, floodlit and suitably dedicated to McGonagle.
It hasn’t stopped there: the Finn Valley Swimming and Leisure Centre opened on another adjacent site in 2013, the nine-a-side astro-turf pitch was added in 2017, and next in the plan is a 4G GAA pitch. Between the land, facilities and equipment, the club’s worth there now is in the region of €25 million, entirely debt-free, not that anyone is putting a price on the benefits to this part of the Donegal community.
In the foreword to Beyond the Line, Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, describes Finn Valley as a sort of template for ensuring as many kids as possible are exposed to athletics in a fun and exciting way, and there is an elite end too: Brendan Boyce (50km walk), Mark English (800m) and Eilish Flanagan (3,000m steeplechase) represented the club at the Tokyo Olympics last summer.
Impossible as it is to single out a high point in the 50-year history, what is also abundantly evident from Beyond the Line is the opportunity Finn Valley presented to young female athletes, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when most young women in rural Ireland didn’t have to worry about what sport to choose from, because the choices simply weren’t there.
This sort of careful nurturing of women’s athletics paved the way for the Finn Valley senior women’s team to win eight National Cross-Country titles in succession, from 1993-2000, plus two more in 2002 and 2004 (Kay Byrne, remarkably, scoring on all 10 teams).
Previously the domain of the all-conquering Dublin clubs, it must have been some comfort too for those women’s teams to train within the safe environment of the club itself, or perhaps without the sort of fear we all now know hasn’t gone away.