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How 'hidden gem' of Ballyliffin was introduced to the world 30 years ago

By Deric Henderson

It was Trevor Caughey, then No.2 at the Bord Failte office in Belfast, who was on the line to discuss arrangements for the forthcoming Spring outing of Belfast Press Golf Society, one of the season's highlights. The year was 1988 and our planned destination was Baltray, Co Louth.

"Deric," he enquired. "Is there any chance you guys would consider going to Ballyliffin instead?"

"Ballyliffin? Where's Ballyliffin?" I replied. Or words to that effect.

Their club captain at the time was a man called Noel Kilcooley, a bank manager in neighbouring Carndonagh. Cahir O'Doherty, a travel agent with an office in Dublin, was president.

I was secretary of the society, and with the former Open champion Fred Daly as our president, courses then were easily accessed by the men, and women, representing the Fourth Estate and who enjoyed the occasional round, especially at somebody else's expense.

Bord Failte (the Irish Tourist Board) were generous hosts. We were always facilitated and well refreshed when we travelled south across the border, but this time we were happy to head north, even though this was a club which hardly anyone of our acquaintance knew even existed. Ballyliffin? Where's Ballyliffin?

Little did we know what lay ahead, and the reception which awaited.

Three times their captain called in advance of the expedition arriving on the Inishowen Peninsula. "Is Fred Daly coming with you?" asked Noel. "I mean the real Fred Daly…" He was assured he was. A week later, he called again seeking confirmation that the man who won The Open at Royal Liverpool the same year Ballyliffin was founded (1947) was definitely leading the party of 30 or so print and broadcast journalists.

And then just a day before leaving Belfast, the phone rang again. "Nobody up here believes me," he declared, sounding slightly perplexed. "They just don't believe me."

Within an hour or so of checking into the village's Strand Hotel, then owned by Brian Harkin, Mr Daly, wearing his Ryder Cup blazer and Royal Portrush tie, was holding court in the downstairs bar as Mr Kilcooley listened in awe at the conversation while a golfing legend reflected on times past about his exploits in various parts of the country.

But Fred was also new to this beautiful part of the world.

Two rounds of golf followed by long, liquid nights seemed to pass by in a flash on that Bank Holiday. Everything had been set aside to ensure the visitors were given five-star treatment. The clubhouse wasn't much to shout about. Old, dreary and run down with the worst men's locker room I've ever frequented, if my memory serves me right.

The bar and lounge were fairly ordinary as well, but the craic was mighty. "What time do you close?" somebody enquired around 2.30 in the morning, the party in full swing.

"When the Sergeant says it's time to go," he was told. "But don't worry, that's him up there playing the fiddle."

The links course, overlooking a spectacular stretch of coastline at Pollan Bay, on the north western tip of the peninsula, was a landscape of such natural beauty that even Fred struggled to find the adjectives to describe the 18 holes marked out on those sand dunes, now known as the Old Links.

His regular travelling companion Johnny Frazer, a wealthy Belfast businessman and fellow Balmoral member, nodded in approval when his great friend declared in that inimitable North Coast drawl: "This is the hidden gem of Irish golf. It is good enough to stage a Championship."

Ballyliffin dined out on those words for years afterwards.

On our first night, Fred, Johnny, Cahir and Noel shared a dinner table. Sadly none of them are around anymore, nor the man who picked up most of the bill for those three days, Stanley Bennett, Trevor Caughey's boss, a wonderful individual with a wicked sense of humour and whose memory is marked every year at one of our society outings.

But Mr Harkin, who was club captain the year work started on the adjoining Glashedy course which opened in August 1995, is still going strong aged 70. Padraig Harrington is staying in one of his properties for this week's Irish Open.

So the club which apparently nobody outside Donegal, and maybe Derry city, had ever heard of never looked back after that memorable media weekend 30 years ago.

No doubt some of the members who later became great friends, and who entertained us so royally back then, will be among the crowds straining to catch a glimpse of Rory and Co.

None of us can recall who won the overall prize, or indeed any prize, but a clipping of a newspaper article, and accompanying photograph, which effectively announced the club's presence to the outside world was duly framed and later presented to the club on behalf of the society by the BBC's David Lynas.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Belfast Telegraph


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