The Rosses Athletes
The Rosses area of Donegal was always renowned for great athletes and sportsmen, achieving great honours for themselves, their county and country. One such person springs to mind almost immediately in the person of the great Pa Sharkey of Mulladuff who represented Ireland in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. Another who achieved great feats in the fifties in the cycling world was Anthony McGinley of Annagry who went on to become a well know coach and tour operator. Both of the above gentlemen are of Sweeney extraction.
The Sweeney Brothers of Mullaghderg in the Lower Rosses probably ranks as the trio who brought the greatest fame to the area in the early days. There were three brothers, John, Manus and Pat, and though all three were sterling athletes, the eldest brother John was destined to become the most famous of them all. Not alone did he outshine his brother athletes but all other athletes in the Rosses, in the county and indeed in the province as well.
Although well above the average as a competitor in field events it was on the track that Sweeney showed his superiority to the full. His rise to fame was meteoric. In 1923, his very first year in competition, he was undefeated in the county in all track events from 440 yards to the 4 miles. In 1924 the Ulster championships (N.A.C.A.) were held at Letterkenny and Sweeney became Ulster champion in two events - the 400 metres and the half-mile. In the following year, 1925, he won the 400 metres Ulster Senior Championships at Finner Camp, Co. Donegal. For the next decade he ruled the roost in Donegal, winning practically all events from the 440 to the 4 miles.
So convincing were his victories and so consistent were his performances that the handicapper gave Sweeney's opponents every chance to close that gap which always opened up between him and his nearest rival. Indeed, in a mile race at the Guards' sports in Letterkenny, in the late twenties, Sweeney started from scratch while his nearest rival was off the ninety yards mark. Yet, no matter how heavily the dice was loaded against him, Sweeney was to prove that speed, spirit and determination could overcome all obstacles and, he remained undefeated. His greatest triumph at this period was at the Guards' sports in Glenties in 1929 when he defeated George McGann of Dublin in the mile. The latter held the Irish mile senior championship title and had also won the Irish 5 mile cross-country championship.
Ten years from that day in 1924, when Sweeney won two Ulster championship titles at Letterkenny, he was to win his last and perhaps the greatest victory of his career. On 15th August 1934 sports were held at Mullaghderg Banks. On holidays in the Rosses at that time was J. Stewart of Glasgow who, a few weeks previously had won the mile championship at Powderhall. Stewart and Sweeney entered for the half-mile event and the latter as was his custom took the lead at the last bend. Unaware of the identity of his formidable opponent, however, he left his effort too late and Stewart beat him on the tape.
Then came the mile and in the interval between the two races, Sweeney became aware of the fact that he was competing against Stewart the Scottish champion. Never having been defeated in the mile, he was now more than ever determined to uphold his great record. Streaking away from the other competitors, Sweeney and Stewart raced side by side. With half the race run they were still together. No change at the three quarter mark. Then, with 100 yards to go, Sweeney made his effort. So did Stewart. Scottish champion and. Rosses' champion matched stride for stride in that last desperate lap and in a grand finish to a grand race the Rosses' man breasted the tape inches ahead of the Scottish champion. Sweeney had won the Rosses Mile of the Century.
When one remembers that at this time John Sweeney was well past his best, one wonders what were his capabilities when at the height of his racing career.
Manus Sweeney, although younger than his more famous brother was the first of the three to come into prominence. In the early twenties, competing at sports all over the county, he was undefeated in the half-mile and mile. In 1922 he won the half-mile championship of Donegal. As well as being an outstanding runner, Manus also won fame as racing cyclist winning the mile cycling championship of the County also in 1924. It is probable that more honours would have come to him but for the fact that he emigrated to America in 1924.
Pat Sweeney, the youngest of the brothers, took up the running - in the literal sense - where his eldest brother had left off. Although not to my knowledge competing in any official championship event, he was undefeated "in the half mile and mile at any venue in the county at which he competed. His greatest victory was at Killybegs in 1938 when he defeated J. Nesbitt of Manchester in the 440. The latter had previously been a member of the athletic team, which had represented Great Britain in international competitions.
Towards the end of Pat's racing career another Rosses' youth was beginning to show up prominently also in the longer distance events. This was James (Doalty) Sharkey of Mullaghderg and when the last of the famous Sweeney brothers had departed from the athletic scene, Sharkey kept the flag flying for the Rosses with many great victories in the mile and half mile events. A contemporary of the Sweeney brothers was John Sharkey (Pat) of Mullaghduff, who was also outstanding in long distance races. Another outstanding athlete at this period was Paddy Sweeney of Mullaghduff. An all round athlete, he specialised in the mile, half mile and long jump.
Other names of local athletic hero's of that age include Dan Boyle of Gortnasaide, Kincaslagh. The Boyle brothers of Bunaman. Kevin Sweeney Dungloe. Murray Boyle Bunaman. Mick Ward of Keadue. Neil McGonnagle Kincaslagh and Paddy McGee of Mulladuff.
The fine tradition of athletics lives on to this day in the Lower Rosses with the children of the area who attend the Annagry National School bringing honours to their locality each year when the compete in the various field events all over the country under the expert guidance of their coach and teacher Sean McGinley.
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