The major development in Ulster post-Primary schools in 2016 has been the realignment of all competitions under the one banner of Ulster Schools’ GAA.
The new Council, now with over 140 affiliated units, has responsibility for organising and bringing to a conclusion 70 different competitions, a number of which have an All-Ireland dimension. There are six Divisions in football and four in hurling and in the autumn term alone there have been 24 football and 12 hurling competitions, many of them running to a conclusion during the past few weeks.
Within this overall structure the vast majority of teams are afforded the opportunity to develop over at least three or four games, while the more successful complete campaigns of six to eight or nine games.
The new system has seen the redistribution of many trophies and the introduction of new ones for the expansion in competitions – but the MacRory and Mageean Cups are still the most sought after silverware in the schools’ calendar.
Overall there are 14 grade A trophies (football and hurling combined) and nine of those sit this Christmas in the trophy cabinet of St Patrick’s Maghera – and many of those competitions were won with open, exciting and expansive play.
In March, with a 5-7 to 1-9 win over St Paul’s Bessbrook, they collected their 15th Danske Bank MacRory Cup title, closing in on St Colman’s Newry’s record haul of 19 titles.
There was late drama in the Hogan semi-final when Francis Kearney converted a penalty for a 2-14 to 3-10 win over Summerhill Sligo.
But Maghera’s luck ran out in Croke Park with St Brendan’s Killarney pulling clear in the last few minutes after Aussie-bound Conor Glass received a mysterious red card in an off-the-ball incident.
High scoring was their trade-mark in the autumn when they collected both the Rannafast Cup and Corn na nÓg within a six day period, while down the school younger outfits are winners of the O’Farrell and Oisin McGrath titles.
The new St Ronan’s College in Lurgan won their first trophy in April, beating St Paul’s Bessbrook by a point in the Treanor Cup final, but last month’s eclipse of the MacCormack Cup for the senior league is a huge step forward, building on a MacRory Cup semi-final spot at their first attempt.
They are one step away from another MacRory semi-final, qualifying alongside Abbey and Omagh CBS and St Patrick’s Armagh for February’s quarter-finals.
Abbey were Dalton Cup winners last April with an extra-time final win over Maghera, while the Brock Cup is in St Patrick’s Academy following final success over St Patrick’s Cavan.
Patrician High Carrickmacross built on their Rannafast Cup success of November 2015 by winning the MacLarnon Cup in March and then progressing to the MacRory, where they have found life a tad more difficult – although they did oust St Patrick’s Academy after extra-time in a play-off to reach the last 12 of the competition.
They also collected Corn Cholmchille at the expense of Holy Trinity Cookstown.
Special mention also must go to Drumragh Integrated. Just last week they became the first ever school from the Integrated sector to collect a provincial title, winning the JJ Reilly Cup at the expense of St John’s Dromore.
There have also been a number of other first time provincial winners through the grades as more smaller schools get the opportunity to play at their own level.
In hurling, three schools have dominated the A grade competitions in 2016.
St Patrick’s Maghera have won five of the six titles on offer including the MacNamee and Leonard Cup titles in the autumn term.
St Mary’s CBGS Belfast however pulled away from the pack in September / October to easily win their 30th Mageean Cup title at Halloween with some excellent teamwork and breath-taking scores.
In the spring they will go into the All-Ireland series for the Paddy Buggy Cup with high hopes of success, despite last season’s champions St Louis Ballymena coming up agonisingly short after extra time in the 2016 All-Ireland final against Abbey CBS from Tipperary.
The third school to impress at the top level of hurling is St Killian’s Garron Tower, who lost all five final appearances in 2016, including a first Mageean final in over a decade. Surely their luck will change in 2017?
A positive development in hurling has been the decision of Our Lady’s & St Patrick’s Knock to compete at Grade A level after winning Casement, Kirk and Leopold titles over the last school year.
St Patrick’s Keady won their first Casement Cup title in five seasons a fortnight ago through the individual brilliance of Paul Green and they can perhaps make an impact on the All-Ireland in the spring time.
St Patrick’s Downpatrick have also had a successful year with the McFarland, McGreevy and O’Mahoney Cups all in their possession at the moment.
In camogie, Cross and Passion Ballycastle are the top dogs at the moment, holding all the major trophies, bar Corn Uan Uladh for the Senior A championship. Indeed some of those under-age titles have been won for the second or third season in succession.
They are the top seed for Corn Uan Uladh semi-finals in January (along with St Mary’s Magherafelt, St Louis Ballymena and holders St Patrick’s Maghera) and were runaway winners of Corn Eimhear at Halloween with an All-Ireland semi-final ahead of them in February.
St Pius X Magherafelt and St Paul’s Kilrea are other schools to pick up silverware this season and who look to be on an upward curve, while Victoria College Belfast’s progress through to the Ulster semi-finals of the Under 16 12-a-sides is another welcome development.
In general however camogie still suffers from a lack of media exposure in comparison to hurling and football. In spite of that there has been significant recent development to the point where there are now 56 schools participating in a range of competitions at Post Primary level. And there has been a number of memorable games at all levels and attendances at finals have steadily risen.