As a well established institution with a national and international reputation, the Queen’s University of Belfast is indeed a distinguished seat of learning, and since it’s foundation in 1845 as one of the three sister colleges, it has developed in stature and size. Within Northern Ireland today it plays a significant role in the educational, professional, industrial and cultural life of the region while it’s sporting facilities and achievements must rank among the most impressive of all universities in Ireland. Famous and distinguished graduates of the college include Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, film actors and Oscar nominees Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea and Kenneth Branagh as well as musician Phil Coulter and various other political, diplomatic and public figures.
Though the G.A.A. tradition at the Queen’s University stretches as far back as 1922, the movement to establish a permanent club actually began in 1930 led by Patrick (P.J.) Bradley, and by mid-1931 a Gaelic football and hurling association was up and running efficiently. Prof. M.A. O’Brien, a lecturer in Celtic Studies, became the first President in 1931-32 with Paddy Bradley as treasurer, J.J. Fitzpatrick as secretary and Peter Meegan as captain, and with support from some notable soccer and rugby players it was soon accepted by the S.R.C. and the Students Union.
Though narrowly defeated at the 1933 Sigerson Cup in Galway by U.C.D. the highlight to many was the reception from the Galway G.A.A. and people in general who welcomed the Belfast side enthusiastically, conscious of their contribution under the difficult conditions of the time. Like future Queen’s sides they had won the hearts and respect of the people for their sporting nature in victory or defeat. Though no major honour was bestowed on Queen’s until 1958, they did however surprise U.C.C. in the ‘39 semi-final before falling to U.C.G. in the decider by two points.
Things however improved immeasurably in the ‘50s under the guidance of the president Dr. John A. McAuley (1957-71), and eventually the Antrim, Ulster and All-Ireland star Paddy O’Hara who had played with QUB for a number of years, took over as trainer of the side. Despite the persistent obstacles of small membership and the preference of players for their home clubs, the club had gradually grown stronger and it hosted the intervarsities in 1956. By then men of action such as Donal Donnelly, Joe Cunningham, Paddy Duffy, Frank Higgins and the late Christy Mallon had set about improving the clubs prestige within the university as well as building a side strong enough to succeed at the Sigerson level.
In 1958, a calculated campaign to win the highest honour in higher education Gaelic football succeeded. With Hugh O’Kane as captain, Queen’s pushed aside U.C.G. in the semi-final in Galway by five points to earn a place in the decider against U.C.D. Though faced with an almost insurmountable eleven-point deficit at the break, Queen’s levelled the game after a terrific second-half performance with a Phil Steward goal on the stroke of full-time. Ballybay played host to the replay in February 1959 as Queen’s claimed their first Sigerson crown with a ‘four-star’ performance. They trailed by six-points at the break but in the second-half “the arduous weeks of training, the inspiration of Paddy O’Hara and the tremendous display of captain and midfielder Hugh O’Kane turned the tide for Queen’s”. Tom Scullion scored the winner as QUB triumphed on a scoreline of 0-10 to 0-9.
Despite losing their crown as hosts in 1960, Queen’s returned in 1964 led by Des Sharkey to claim a second title in what became a personal triumph for Sean O’Neill. The Downman scored 1-3 in the semi-final and 2-2 in the decider as QUB lifted the Sigerson on a scoreline of 3-5 to 0-8. O’Neill would later claim a place on the ‘Team of the Century’ and is generally regarded as the finest Ulster footballer of them all, winning two All-Ireland medals back to back in 1960 and ‘61 and a third in 1968. He was an instrumental figure on many Railway Cup sides and leading sports writer Raymond Smith describes him as “one of the most dangerous and quicksilver attackers, either as a wing-forward or full-forward that I have seen in my time writing about Gaelic football. Not surprising then that he got an overwhelming vote for the right-half forward position on the Sunday Independent/ Irish Nationwide/ G.A.A. Team of the Century in 1984”.
Though subdued for the remainder of the ‘60s, the Belfast side bounced back in 1971 as Paddy Parks led them to a third title with a 0-7 to 0-6 victory over U.C.G. Two-time Allstar Anthony McGurk notched the vital point and the Derryman was one of three Queen’s men to feature on the Railway Cup winning Combined Universities side of ‘73 which was managed by Paddy O’Hara. Queen’s followed up with Ryan Cup successes in 1972 and 73 and their Freshers won All-Ireland glory in ‘73 and ‘76. Armagh star Paddy Moriarty was by now a leading member of the Queen’s brigade and despite losing to Dublin in the All-Ireland final of 1977 he claimed two Allstars in a distinguished career. Another Allstar would emerge in the early ‘80s as Greg Blaney came through his Fresher year with a Sigerson medal during the club’s Jubilee Anniversary. Armagh men Aidan Shortt and Dermot Dowling played leading roles in a memorable success on Queen’s soil. Shortt and Blaney (All-Ireland medallist in 1991 and ‘94) were part of the Ryan Cup winning side of 1984 and Dowling managed the All-Ireland Fresher champions of that same year.
Queen’s finished the decade strongly with a Fresher title and began the ‘90s as a force to be reckoned with as Ulster sides entered a period of prosperity at all levels. Tyrone midfielder Fergal Logan captained the Sigerson side of 1990, managed by Des Ryan. The team included Down star James McCartan, a brilliant forward who would make his mark as ‘man of the match’ in the All-Ireland final of ‘91 and collected his second medal and Allstar three years later. In between these events McCartan played a pivotal role in a star-studded Queen’s side of 1993 which romped to their sixth Sigerson title. Derry midfielder Anthony Tohill who was generally regarded as the top Gaelic star of the ‘90s featured prominently alongside fellow Oak Leaf county stars Joe Brolly and Eamonn Burns, Denis Holywood, Cathal O’Rourke, Kieran McGeeney and Paul McGrane of Armagh and Paul Brewster and Paddy McGuinnes from Fermanagh. Brewster captained the side which was managed by Dermot Dowling and they demolished arch-rivals St.Marys in the decider at Casement Park. Brew again led the side in ‘94 but they fell at the final hurdle by the narrowest of margins and were to be consoled by success in the Ryan Cup.
By ‘95 the side had weakened but the Freshers team captained by Colin Holmes and managed by Denis Holywood and Donal Murdock emerged to win the All-Ireland crown in impressive fashion, defeating U.C.G. in the final by ten points. Most of this Fresher team helped Queen’s win the Intermediate title in 1997. For the 1997 – 1998 season Dessie Ryan returned as Sigerson manager and for the first time in three years Queen’s qualified for weekend of the Sigerson Cup in Tralee. Queen’s were drawn to meet arch rivals UUJ in the Semi-finals and between a player being prevented from playing, having a man sent off, and another breaking his wrist, Queen’s lost. In 1999 Justin McNulty led Queen’s to Ryan Cup success over Garda College in Westmanstown Co Dublin. Justin McNulty, Joe Quinn, Cormac McAnallen and Paddy Campbell excelled in Queen’s colours, leading to a 0-10 to 1-6 victory over the Guards.
Queen’s hosting the Sigerson weekend (and seeing the return of the three day weekend) for the first time in 10 years, had to beat UCD in Belfield to qualify for there own party. Queen’s defeated Dublin Institute of Technology in the Quarter Finals by 10 points. In the semi-final Queen’s played Garda College a reply of the Ryan Cup Final a month previous. With 20 minutes left in the game it was all one way traffic with Queen’s 8 points in front and the crowd leaving the ground thinking that the final the following day would be between Tralee IT and Queen’s. Queen’s lost by 2 points. Tralee went on to win the Sigerson Cup for the third successive year. Queen’s hosted want many would see as the most successful Sigerson Cup weekend in the history of the competition and also produced a programme that is unlikely ever to be matched. Queen’s in 1999 also hosted a GAA exhibition celebrating the Gaelic Football tradition at Queen’s
The start of the new millennium saw Queen’s seniors and fresher teams have a poor league campaign. This poor league display by the Sigerson team forced Queen’s into the preliminary round of the Sigerson Cup where they were drawn to meet Sligo IT. Queen’s defeated Sligo and then went onto defeat City rivals St Mary’s in round two. Queen’s qualified for the Quarter-finals of the Sigerson Cup being hosted by NUIG in Glaway. In the Quarter-final Queen’s defeated MICL and in the Semi final Queen’s were drawn to meet UCC. UCC at half time lead by 4 points and just after half time UCC went 5 points clear. Queen’s then moved up a gear with substitutes Diarmaid Marsden and Barry Ward being instrumental in Queen’s revival. Queen’s went on to beat UCC 0 – 13 to 1 – 07. Queen’s had qualified for the Sigerson final for the first time since 1994 where they were to meet UCD. Queen’s started the game well with Liam McBarron scoring a goal after only 40 seconds. This was Queen’s only score in the first half. With 2 minutes left UCD went 1 point in front, but in the dying seconds of the game Tom Brewster scored a cracking free on the left wing with his left boot. In injury time Queen ran out 1 – 08 to 0 – 08 winners. Team captains Diarmaid Marsden and Enda McNulty lifted the Sigerson cup for the seventh time for Queen’s.