Hugh Gallagher RIP

We remember Hugh Gallagher as a valuable club member and indeed his loyalty and the commitment of his family all 11 of them at one time or another , We reproduce an article with the kind permission of Michael Gygax .May he rest in peace .

Hugh Gallagher 

D.O.B. 1/8/1924



Martin, Hugh and Bernadette Gallagher

“Do you know what my favorite part of the game is? The opportunity to play.”– Mike Singletary


Never mess with a Gallagher


                                                                                       Neil Farrell


Hugh Gallagher is the grand old man of Irish Master’s Athletics. In fact, look across the spectrum of all sporting activity in the nation and probably you won’t find a more senior competitor. Almost the same age as Irish independence itself, the man turns 90 this autumn. Hugh’s story reaches back even further than those 90 years and intertwines with seminal events in Irish history.


In the 1870s Hugh Gallagher’s Grandfather James, and his four brothers, had their Donegal homestead razed by Lord Leitrim on one of his rampages. William Sydney Clements, 3rd Earl of Leitrim, was one of the country’s biggest landowners in the19th century. His enormous 100,000 acre estate, granted to the Clements family by Oliver Cromwell, straddled Galway, Leitrim and Donegal. William Clements was a ruthless landlord and pitiless evictor. Sometimes referred to locally as the ‘oul debaucher,’ he behaved like a feudal overlord, intruding and interfering in every aspect of the lives of his hapless tenants. The spirited Gallagher brothers, in the words of grandson Hugh, ‘refused to bow to him’ and suffered the consequences. Dispossessed of their land near the Co. Donegal village of Carrigart, the family took the boat to America and the story of the force of nature that is Hugh Gallagher today was already running into the sand.


Some years passed. James and his brothers set about building new lives in Pennsylvania. However, the Gallagher Clan has been in Donegal from the time of St. Patrick and Niall of the Nine Hostages, a thousand years before Cromwell installed the Clements family. With the advent of the Land League and men like Michael Davit and Parnell, the page of Irish history was set to turn again. Moreover the parochial dispute between the Gallaghers and their landlord, was about to re-ignite.


In Cratlagh Wood in the spring of 1878, while on his way in to the village of Milford, the despicable Clements and two of his party were killed in an ambush. We can get a sense of how the locals felt about the demise of his lordship from the apocryphal Ballad of Lord Leitrim which tells us that ‘the devils ate him, rump and stump’! Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic in Philadelphia, the game changing news reached James Gallagher. Gathering his belongings, James headed for the boat back to Ireland and his unfinished business with the estate of his former landlord. By now the Land War was raging, especially in the west and northwest of Ireland where tenant evictions were being fiercely resisted. Those who took over properties from evicted tenants were boycotted and ostracised. Rural Ireland was rapidly becoming ungovernable by the landlord class.


Hugh takes up the narrative telling how his grandfather’s arrival back at Creevy, the family home place near Carrigart, was marred by the sight of Leitrim’s cattle on the land. Adding insult to injury, James recognised stones from the old homestead had been used to build a new house for Leitrim’s land steward. The formative influence of these events, on succeeding generations of Gallaghers, is evident from Hugh’s story of the encounter between his grandfather and the land steward.


James identifies himself, enters the steward’s house, sits down and refuses to leave. A standoff ensues. Midnight comes and goes and the two men continue to eyeball one another. Who knows what threats and counter threats were made during that long night but in the morning the land steward took his cattle and left. James had made good his return by repossessing the old homestead and it has remained in the Gallagher family ever since. Hugh’s father Dannie took over the farm from James and in more peaceful times it became the training camp that launched Ireland’s most successful sporting family: Hugh and his 12 children have bagged over 4,000 medals and trophies to date, a tally which continues to be revised upward after every competition season.


If strength is forged in adversity, the Gallagher family are the people to know it. Hugh was the youngest child of Dannie’s brood of six. The children attended the local one teacher school and Hugh remembers that then, as now, bullying was a problem. On the advice of his bothers, Hugh trained hard to be fit for resisting the school bullies as much as for competition. Sports equipment had to be improvised like the punch bag made from a sack filled with sand. Growing up to be a young man of superior fitness and strength, Hugh had a keen competitive spirit. As he says himself, it didn’t take long to find out that bullies have big mouths and not much else.


Times were hard in the 1920s and 30s, when the Irish Free State was in its infancy. DeValera’s Government, on taking office in 1932, refused to continue reimbursing Britain for loans made to Irish tenant farmers to enable land purchase. These arrangements dated back to the time of Hugh’s grandfather and the Land War that brought him home from America. The ensuing Economic War with Britain caused severe damage to the Irish economy during the 1930s. The repercussions were felt by all: Hugh left school at 14 and worked for a local farmer earning £1 a month.  Many long hours were spent saving turf on the bogs to keep the home fires burning. An early riser, Hugh trained from 6am before work every morning. Cycling was the chief mode of transport in those days and Hugh travelled to track and field events all over northwest Ulster. Hardly a surprise then that he also became a highly competitive cyclist, winning many races and, on occasion, beating Ulster champions in the process.


Hard on the heels of the Economic war with Britain came World War II, quaintly known in Ireland as ‘The Emergency’. Hugh joined the Local Defence Force (LDF) in 1940, giving his age as eighteen years although only sixteen at the time. Later, when the Irish army took over the LDF, it became the more disciplined and professionally structured Army Reserve (FCA). Hugh liked the army drill and held his comrades and the army trainers in very high repute. Reflecting this and not least the lack of employment in Ireland at the time, Hugh remained in the FCA after the war into the mid-1950s.


Medieval hiring fairs survived in Letterkenny into the 1940s. Young men sold their labour to English and Scottish farmers as potato pickers or ‘tattie hokers’. Hugh left to go to Yorkshire ‘pulling beet’ and digging potatoes in a team assembled by his brother-in-law. They worked from dawn until dusk covering 2 acres per day. When word got around of Hugh’s cycling successes back in Ireland, the organisers of a local 25 mile race offered to provide him with a bike if he would take part. He lined up with some of the top cyclists in the north of England and his tactic was simple: follow the police car that led out the race as closely as possible. The plan worked and he finished an easy first receiving a standing ovation later at the presentation. Hugh also went to Scotland and worked 12 hour shifts in all weathers on the huge hydroelectricity projects which were rolled out in Britain’s post war reconstruction. His employer, Wimpey Construction, mentioned in Dominic Behan’s famous song McAlpine’s Fusiliers, built the Lairg Dam on Loch Shin in the mountainous NW Highlands. 


Hugh met his wife-to-be, Rosemary McGee, on a return visit to Donegal. His mother had fallen ill and he tried to find work in Ireland to be near home. Jobs were scarce and the wages were poor. After Hugh and Rosemary married, they went to live in London where prospects were better but all the while, the lure of Donegal remained strong. Three years passed. Rosemary and Hugh decided to return and make their family home in Creevy, the hard won seat of the Gallagher family over generations. Although putting bread on the table forced Hugh back over to the UK to work for a time every year. His fitness and strength meant that finding work was never a problem but construction sites are dangerous. In those days site safety was not a premium concern and fate is a cruel arbiter.


It determined that the man with a wife and young family back in Donegal, the man who didn’t smoke or drink, who cultivated fitness and a healthy lifestyle, be the victim of a random work accident that left Hugh with a broken back. The doctors, at St. George’s Hospital in London, told him he would never walk again. Hugh speaks of being frightened for the first time in his life. He was in severe pain and, alone with his thoughts, he felt it might be the end. He wondered about his remains going home to Rosemary and the children in Donegal. It was a dark time. His entire body was encased in plaster and now, adding more stress to the mix, the wards were filling up with British Soldiers coming back from Northern Ireland. Against all medical advice, Hugh determined he would have to return to his flat.


A taxi brought him home to his flat where a whole new set of challenges awaited – getting in and out of bed, getting dressed, struggling down to the local café once a day to try and eat something. As Christmas drew nearer, Hugh planned to return home and insisted that the doctors remove his body cast. They told him it needed to remain on for another 3 or 4 months, at least, and that if they cut it off, he would never be able for the journey home. Needless to say the cast came off and Hugh made it home. Unable to carry anything, he paid for help with his bags and presents. At home, when his local doctor saw his medical report, he reiterated the warning about lifting and advised Hugh that life in a wheel chair beckoned if he continued to ignore the warnings. With the support of Rosemary and their family of 12 children, Hugh began a programme of mild exercise and a slow but real recovery was underway.


Employment was out of the question so Hugh turned his attention to training his family in athletics and began a long association with the Community Games. Thus commenced a most remarkable story of family endeavour in which the Gallagher family’s haul of medals and trophies runs into thousands. Hugh served as President of Donegal Community Games for many years while his children became champions in athletics, weight throwing, judo and boxing. The Gallaghers are easily the most successful family in the history of the Community Games. In one particular year, five of the family, Kevin, Bernadette, Angela, Caroline and Paul, competed at the Community Games National Finals and each one of them came home to Donegal with either medals and/or certificates in athletics and judo. The success of his children made it inevitable that Hugh would be drawn back to compete again. In 1987, some 17 years after the accident and at an age when most men are reaching for their slippers, Hugh Gallagher reached for his trainers and began a new chapter as a master’s athlete.


Wearing a special support jacket to brace his injured back, Hugh won the 16 lb shot putt at the Donegal Championship in Lifford. Although he has gone on to win much more prestigious titles competing internationally, the ’87 Donegal Championship that signaled his return to track and field is a very fond memory. Hugh was hooked on sport again and he has competed at national level every year since. Going from strength to strength since his return, Hugh has competed in a wide variety of master’s track and field events including weight throwing, hammer, discus, javelin, long jump, triple jump, the 60m sprint and the 3k and 5k walk. He is far and away the most prolific athlete the nation has ever produced.


Hugh has donned the green jersey in European Masters Athletic Championships winning a string of gold and silver medals in Finland, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Poland and Ireland. He represented Ireland in six World Masters Championships again taking gold and silver medals home to Donegal, from England, South Africa, Australia, Spain, Puerto Rico and Ireland.


Hammer throwing has a long history in Ireland. Competitive hammer throwing dates back at least 4,000 years to the ancient Tailteann Games where competitors threw a weight attached to a rope. In its evolution as a sport, hammer throwing entered a long phase in which the hammers were conventional workmen’s hammers with wooden handles. It was a widely popular sport. A 16th Century drawing shows King Henry VIII throwing a blacksmith’s sledgehammer. Over the next few centuries the hammer returned to its roots and became a metal ball attached to a wire with a handle grip on one end. It became an Olympic event in 1900 and when Hugh Gallagher was a lad, Corkman Dr. Pat O’Callaghan was a gold medal winner for Ireland in Los Angeles and Berlin.


In Aug 2009 at the age of 85, Hugh took part in the world weight throwing championships in Hungary winning 7 gold and 2 silver medals. The international crowd took him to their hearts as the ‘Irish Warrior’. Hugh himself has a real sense, not just of the personal pride in his unique achievements, but also of the shared recognition for Donegal and Ireland. The moment they hung the 7th gold medal around his neck will always resonate in that way. Later in the year, competing in Dunboyne, Hugh set a new world record for the 56 lb shot putt and received a special cup to mark the event. He was subsequently inducted into the Irish weight throwers’ Hall of Fame.


And what of the descendants of the Gallaghers who remained in Philadelphia? Hugh relates the story of how, a few years ago, a bus full of Gallaghers from the US arrived in Carrigart to trace their roots. As the long-absent Gallaghers set about getting re-connected, it transpired that athletic prowess is just as much part of the picture on the other side of the pond. In fact the page on the Gallagher Clan website that records the athletic successes of Hugh and daughter Rosemarie Gallagher also features Olympic medal winner at 800m, Kim Gallagher from Philadelphia!


 There is a kind of mythical sense in which it is places that own people, in which the Gallaghers are as much a part of the Donegal landscape as its rocky blue hills.


A monster rock

Stood on our land

For a million years

Or more

We played in all its shadows


When James Gallagher returned to Creevy in the 1880s, Donegal was not about to lose him for a second time. And so it was, two generations later with Hugh: evicted from his livelihood and good health, he landed back in Creevy barely able to walk, never mind work. Donegal gathered him up. The story is much broader than Hugh finding his feet again through the Community Games. Hugh’s community activism extended into many other areas. He promoted a group water scheme that was the most successful of its time bringing running water to over 50 homes in the local area. He recognized the benefits of integrating a healthy life style with sporting endeavor for men and women, at a time when drinking and smoking were commonplace in sport. A lifelong non-drinker/smoker Hugh served as President of the Meevagh Pioneer Total Abstinence Association and started up an athletic competition for members.


Being chosen Donegal Person of the Year in 1996 is Hugh’s most treasured accolade. 600 people attended the function at the Burlington Hotel in Dublin and, by all accounts, at least another hundred couldn’t get tickets and were left outside. Hugh commented ‘if I had known I would’ve got them in somehow’. Lord Leitrim thought he owned the sticks and stones and people of Carrigart. Hugh Gallagher’s sovereignty is of a spiritual kind: throughout his long life he wears Donegal as a second skin.


Scripted by Neil Farrell June 2014



           Hugh Gallagher wins V 90 at nationals in Tullamore 2014


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