WHILE much has been written about Jimmy Donnelly’s connections with Belfast Celtic, less is known about his playing days with O’Donovan Rossa and Antrim.
Before he was signed by the legendary Elisha Scott, Donnelly was a rising star in Gaelic Games. Having captained Antrim to two All-Ireland Minor Hurling semi-final appearances in 1945 and 1946, Donnelly made his breakthrough in the senior ranks and was goalkeeper for the Antrim Senior Hurling Championship win of ’45 – despite still being a minor.
Rossa’s Chris McDonnell, himself a respected shot-stopper, interviewed the man who once donned the number one jersey at the Premier Club last summer as part of the club’s oral history project ahead of their centenary commemorations this year. “
We were trying to get people’s memories and trying to get a picture of what the club was like in the 1940s,” explained McDonnell “I went to interview him for an hour and it lasted about three hours! He was a gentleman and a character.
“He was very quick-witted but also very sharp. “One of the things which stood out for me was his memory of everything that happened. “His big achievement with Rossa was winning an Antrim Senior Championship medal in 1945 when he was still only a minor. He played as a goalkeeper.
“It would be quiet tough for a minor now to play in the senior Championship never mind in the 40s. “They beat Mitchel’s in the semi-final, then beat Loughgiel in the final in Ballycastle. “Shortly after that, Belfast Celtic came calling.”
The GAA’s ban on ‘foreign sports’ meant that balancing codes wasn’t an option. The lure of ‘the Grand Old Team’ proved too great for the teenager and he was lost to the GAA, albeit temporarily.
While Donnelly and Rossa went their separate ways, the Shaws Road club re-established themselves as the dominant force in both the Antrim Senior Hurling and Football Championship for the next decade.
McDonnell says that Donnelly would have been part of that ‘Golden Generation’ had he opted against furthering his soccer career.
“He preferred the name Seamus Donnelly when he was associated with the GAA,” said McDonnell. “When I was chatting to other members of the club, they would remember him as Seamus.
“When he went to Belfast Celtic that cut short his career with Rossa (due to the ban on GAA members playing foreign sports). “That was the start of the golden generation at Rossa and Jimmy would have been a star on that team.
“They went onto win six football titles and seven hurling titles in the next 14 or 15 years. He definitely would have been a part of that but his GAA career was cut short.
“He also won an Intermediate championship under a false name with Granuaile (now defunct) playing illegally. “That was the norm up until the ban was lifted in 1971.”
Donnelly’s legacy in the folklore of Irish Soccer is secure. As well as playing for Belfast Celtic, he also helped establish Amateur League side Malachians FC in 1963.
He was also the club’s manager in the early days when one of his players was none other than former Glasgow Celtic and current Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill. As O’Donovan Rossa continue with their centenary celebrations, Donnelly’s contribution will be fondly remembered by the West Belfast club.
“He was an active member of Rossa up until quite recently,” added McDonnell. “He has also gave advice to a number of Irish League clubs, including Donegal Celtic.
“He was set-up for a great career with Rossa and he only played for Belfast Celtic for a brief spell before they folded. “I know he was looking forward to meeting up with some of his old friends at the Rossa centenary dinner dance in November. “That whole generation ended the ‘famine’ from the 1920s.”