Starting today a series of articles by Clarence Hiles who looks back on the various leagues that emerged in Ulster cricket over the years.
Some of the Ulster leagues were formed over 100 years ago, but unfortunately, they have disappeared in the modern era with a few exceptions. We have previously looked back at the Belfast Cricket League in March, which started in 1902. It seems this League was the first formal League in Ulster apart from the Northern Cricket Union and the North-West Cricket Union. However, there were many games in towns and villages that took place prior to 1902, mainly challenge matches for the ‘bragging’ rights without trophies!
The various Leagues in Ulster included the Derry Midweek League, founded in 1927, and still operating in the North-West, the Downshire, Ballee and Crossgar District in East/South Down circa the 1940-50s, the Dundonald Cricket League 1950s-60s, the Larne District League 1950s-60s, the Mid-Ulster Cricket Group founded in 1963-1999, the East Antrim League 1970s-80s, the Fermanagh and Tyrone League circa 1970s-1980s, and the birth of the Border League founded in 2014.
The NCU has its own Midweek Leagues.
Each League has its own story and I’m grateful that a few people have shared in their experience. In particular Robin Walsh, Don Shields, Jimmy Campbell, Peter Orr, John Kerstens, Roger Bell and Matthew Parks. The research has limitations, but I welcome others who can add to the Ulster Leagues story. I’ve dealt with them in chronological order starting with the Derry Midweek League and the Downshire, Ballee and Crossgar District Leagues here in Part 1.
DERRY MIDWEEK LEAGUE
It is amazing that the Derry Midweek League is still in existence since 1927, although it now works closely with the North-West Cricket Union since 2015. Teams competed for the Faughan Valley Cup and nowadays it includes a Women’s League. In the early years the Derry Midweek League primarily involved junior players, but in recent times it now includes most of the senior clubs.
It has a rural culture, and saw the birth of teams like Greerstown, Drumcarnan, Killymallaght, Curryfree, Desertone, Creevedonnell, Carnafern, The Nedd, Bond’s Glen, Fox Lodge, Ballyspallen, Cumber Claudy and Crindle. Sadly, many teams have been lost over the 90 years of the League’s existence.
However, the big difference with other leagues is their charity work with dedicated stalwarts on their committee. And, they have had some of the best in the Derry Midweek League, past and present. They owe much to long-serving officials Lexie Miller, Davy Caldwell, Drew Downey and the late Sam McConnell. It is a non-profit organization and depends on volunteers.
The charity allocation ends after the season and each club has nominated a charity. The annual distribution is a major event in the North-West region.
DOWNSHIRE, BALLEE AND CROSSGAR DISTRICT LEAGUES
The East and South Down Leagues were centred on Downpatrick, with little or no records to relate apart from recollections of former players. The League started in the post-World War 2 and ended around the 1960s. The Ferguson brothers (Noel and David) and the Linehan brothers (Alfie and Hugh) were perhaps the best known. They began their cricket career as teenagers, and later emerged as the finest ambassadors of Downpatrick Cricket Club.
The Linehans and the Fergusons were great friends. Noel often spoke about the fiery environment and partisan supporters in rural cricket. Noel’s father introduced him to the game with his brothers John and David in the Tobermore team. They played in the Ballee and Crossgar League, and Noel was a 15-year-old when they won the Downshire Cup against Bright in 1944. Two years later Noel starred for Downpatrick when they beat Waringstown at Ormeau to win the NCU Senior Challenge Cup. He took 6-36 to cap a great performance. Picture above of Noel with his Man of the Match award.
Alfie and Hugh Linehan played for Ardmeen in the same League, albeit a few years later. The games were midweek matches, and played mainly on matting pitches under grass or cinders, sometimes concrete. I’m sure Noel was lethal on those tracks!
The brothers were popular players, and when they played in Downpatrick, they could always be assured of a following from the Tobermore and Ardmeen spectators. They mostly congregated on the roadside, a tradition at Strangford Road. The teams came from Ballee, Shrigley, Crossgar, Ardmeen, Annsborough, Minerstown, Ballykilbeg, Bright, Blackstaff, Hollymount and Downpatrick, although not together. The teams had few facilities in the 1940s and often disbanded because of limited resources and players. It was understandable that the rural teams moved to Downpatrick with more teams and a better ground.
However, at the time there was a great flavour to rural cricket in the Down area, and everyone will acknowledge that the Linehan and Ferguson brothers were their best.