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McBurney/Declan Bogue

Pictured Declan Bogue

Date: Thursday 12th April 2012

Location: BT Offices

Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Copyright: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Liam McBurney - RAZORPIX


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How a BBC gamble 30 years ago brought Ulster GAA to the masses

Declan Bogue



Key moment: Down ace Paddy O’Rourke lifts the All-Ireland crown in 1991

Key moment: Down ace Paddy O’Rourke lifts the All-Ireland crown in 1991

Jim Neilly

Jim Neilly

�INPHO/Colm O'Neill

Key moment: Down ace Paddy O’Rourke lifts the All-Ireland crown in 1991

The documentary maker and photographer Marc Devenant has a fantastic Twitter account - @SirWilliamD - that publishes black and white images of studies of urban alienation.


A small boy destroying the remains of a piano with a rock of masonry in Wales. A London shop advertising dog and cat meat for sale in 1937, less than a mile away from Kensington Palace. Families scavenging through a slag heap in Sunderland in 1962 for scraps of coal.

Occasionally, he adds the line: "Nostalgia is a seductive liar".

It's worth bearing in mind at times like these as we yearn for what was. There's a big run on nostalgia right now, but not all of it is bad.

One slice of nostalgic goodness that people were happy to dive into was last Sunday's screening of the 1994 Ulster Championship first round game between Derry and Down in Celtic Park.

With no live sport to fill the schedules, TG4 took the decision to give this game another run out. It was a tap-in decision for them. Despite it being shown regularly on Eir Sport over the spring, it is commonly cited as one of the greatest matches ever played.

The context in all of this is crucial. The year before, Derry went to Newry and walloped Down 3-11 to 0-9 in front of their own fans. Eleven points was the margin as Mourne manager Pete McGrath stated afterwards to the television cameras that the Down public were owed an apology for that performance.

Derry went on to win the All-Ireland and with McGrath's words stinging them, two of Down's most crucial forwards, Greg Blaney and James McCartan, stayed away from the county panel for months.

The temptation of taking out the newly-minted All-Ireland champions in their own backyard, however, proved too enticing. One evening in Clonduff, Blaney and McCartan got out of a car from Belfast and walked back into training.

And, of course, Adrian Logan was there to capture the moment for UTV.

At the time, getting Gaelic games on the small screen was an arms race between the two local broadcasters. In February 1989, Jim Neilly was appointed Head of Sport at BBC Northern Ireland and after some deliberation, he suggested that the outside broadcast units that lay idle over the summer could be put to use.


Jim Neilly

Jim Neilly

�INPHO/Colm O'Neill

Jim Neilly


And so, from such a germ of an idea, 'The Championship' Sunday highlights package was born. The first year of operation was 1990 and the first commentary team was Armagh's 1977 All-Ireland final captain Jimmy Smyth accompanied by Fermanagh's only All-Star of the time, Peter McGinnity.

The Beeb came along at a good time. Before that, only Smyth's Armagh and Tyrone in 1986 had managed to get through an All-Ireland semi-final since Down's last Sam Maguire in 1968.

It's hard to imagine just how poor Ulster's standing was in the game of Gaelic football and while Italia '90 had come and gone, the flat beer of Donegal's eight-point loss to Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final a month later felt par for the course.

Nobody could have predicted that in year two of the increased output, Ulster would catch fire - providing the next four All-Ireland champions - but it was a gamble that paid off for Neilly.

A common misconception of that time was that Neilly had to battle opposition from within the ranks of Broadcasting House.

"There was none within the BBC itself - nobody said that we shouldn't be doing that," Neilly told me during a chat this week.

"They all understood, they were intelligent people and they knew that Gaelic football had been singularly under-represented on the television screens."

In 1990 and 1991 it was a highlights programme, with Down's run to the All-Ireland title covered live. By 1992, they could then show live games and got off to a start in Celtic Park when Derry squeezed past Tyrone.

From then on, things went supernova. Donegal won their first All-Ireland in 1992, after beating Derry in the Ulster final. That result was reversed in the 1993 Ulster decider, the Oak Leafs going on to capture their first All-Ireland a few months later.

Little wonder then, that by the third game of the 1994 Ulster Championship, there was such a clamour to see a match that became an epic of its time.

Now 30 years on, facing into a summer with possibly no games on television, people will forget how revolutionary all of this was at the time, for broadcasting in general and Gaelic games in Ulster particularly.

Belfast Telegraph