As we face an indeterminate period when there will be no organised sport, it is worth looking back 100 years to 1920 when sportsmen and women were getting back into competition after a hiatus of six years due to the First World War, writes Malcolm McCausland. Of the 60 million soldiers who fought in the Great War, over 9 million were killed, or to put it another way, 14% of the combat troops or 6,000 dead soldiers per day.

Anton Hegarty who was Northern champion 100 years ago – he is to be the subject of a biography to be published later this year

Over 200,000 men from Ireland fought in the war, both in Gallipoli and the Western Front. About 30,000 serving in Irish regiments died but including those Irish men in British regiments, the total fatalities from this island approached 50,000. Spanish ‘Flu which struck the men in the trenches harder than the ordinary population on account of the conditions in which they were living, poor hygiene and no sanitation. This contributed significantly to the total particularly in 1918, the final year of the war.

Many well-known sportsmen died during the hostilities. Notable among these was Ramelton-born Dave Gallaher, captain of the All-Blacks during their tour of the British Isles in 1905, who succumbed to a head wound at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. Rugby seemed to suffer more than most with nine Irish internationals also never returning to their native land.

Irish League side Derry Celtic lost its David Beckham of the day. Barney Donaghey was the star attraction of the team based at Celtic Park, then a soccer ground. Barney Donaghey had played for Manchester United, Burnley, and a host of Irish clubs, and he made one appearance for the Irish international team, before returning to his home town club.

He quickly settled back into the Celtic team and, despite standing only 5ft 4in (1.63m) and weighing just 10 stone (63kgs), was a tricky player whom opponents found hard to tackle. He joined up in 1914 at the start of the Great War despite having a wife and four young children. He lost his life in the mud and chaos of the Somme on July 1, 1916. His body was never found

Diamond War Memorial
Barney Donaghey’s name is on the Diamond War Memorial but is almost forgotten in his home town

In athletics France’s Jean Bouin, a silver medallist over 5000m in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, his duel with Finland’s Hannes Kolehmainen is still regarded as one of the classics in athletics history, died as a consequence of what would nowadays be called friendly fire.

Germany’s Hanns Braun, a medallist in both 1908 and 1912 Games, was a fighter pilot and died when shot down over France. He could well have been the German pilot who was depicted in the recent film 1917. He and Bouin were just two of seven athletics Olympics medallists who never came home, much less pulled on a spiked shoe.

In the absence of a large percentage of the male population, even in Ireland where there was no conscription, and at a time when there was no significant participation in sport by females, most athletics clubs struggled to maintain any level of normality.  The Irish championships, both track and field as well as cross country had been suspended from 1914; what clubs who struggled on could only organise a Saturday afternoon pack run when numbers permitted.

It was like a new dawn when hostilities finally came to a conclusion in November 1918 but it was not until early 1920 that the athletics authorities managed to restore organised competitions. The Northern Cross Country Championship in Belvoir Park at the end of February, 1920 marked the end of a six year gap and attracted a huge entry and a good crowd of spectators.

Anton Hegarty was the convincing of the race, the 27-year-old Derry man simply running away from the opposition. He had only taken up running whilst serving with the Inniskilling Fusiliers in India but found he was a natural, leading the Skins 1st battalion to success in inter-regiment competitions in 1913 and 1914. Albertville Harriers filled the next three places in Belvoir Park through Martin, Topping and Gowdy.

In a tight team race Albertville (2,3,4,11,13,25=58) narrowly defeated North Belfast Harriers (5,6,10,12,14,15=62) with Willowfield a distant third on 146 points. Duncairn, City of Derry, County Antrim, Ulsterville B and 9th Old Boys all completed teams reflecting the strength of the sport despite the lay-off. A War Memorial trophy was presented for competition by Juniors with Willowfield being the first club to put its name on its base.


“A really splendid race for the northern cross country championship took place in Belvoir Park on Saturday afternoon, and it was favoured with the very best of weather conditions. The venue proved quite an attraction in itself, for it would be difficult, if not, indeed, altogether impossible, to find a better within the whole limits of Ulster. With characteristic thoughtfulness and consideration, the park – which is beautifully undulating, and adorned in many parts by clumps of giant trees – was kindly placed at the disposal of the committee by the right honourable Sir James Johnston J.P., The present occupant, who, attending with some friends, manifested a deep interest in the contest. Trams, motor waggons, and cars carried a large crowd of spectators to the scene, and this was another distinctly encouraging feature on the side of success. No doubt was left in the mind of anyone who saw the arrangements, the admirable manner they were carried out, and the workmanlike way all went about their duties, that the officials from top to bottom of the list were sportsmen of the first water……..

“Derry club travelled specially to participate in the race, and had every reason to be gratified over their reception. A. Hegarty who created a sensation at Glasgow Gaelic sports by his work in the mile, belonged to this team, and the fine record he again established in the Northern championships at Belvoir Park made him an outstanding figure. He led all the way, improving the distance every lap, and finished magnificently. It was at once recognised that he and Crowe who had won in the junior race at Bloomfield a fortnight ago, would make fine assets for Ireland in an international contest, and it is almost certain that before long both will have their chances in this respect. Martin and Kerr, ex champions: Magill, winner of the victory inter-team shield; and McBride, the Ulster four mile champion, were also in the field…….

“Hegarty made a splendid finish, coming in strongly a good way in front of Martin. Topping romped in 100 yards behind the latter, and then followed at shorter or longer intervals – Gowdy, Crothers, McCann and Jackson, of Willowfield, and McBride, North Belfast.  The time was 34 minutes 53 seconds. This proved a new record, Hegarty improving on the former time for a somewhat shorter course, by a minute”.