All set for special Sports Star Awards Show

1976 winners at a 40th anniversary Awards function in January 2016 in the Mount Errigal Hotel. - Front row left to right - Tommy Burns (Cycling), John McCrossan (Clay Pigeon Shooting), Marie Kelly (Handball), Maeve Kyle (Special Guest), Anne McCafferty (Tennis), Michael Jamieson (Rugby), Robert Ward (Motorsport).
Back row - Danny McDaid (Athletics), Uel Blair (Badminton), John Gillespie (Boxing), Andy Curran (GAA), Richard Eaton for his dad Tom Eaton (Hall of Fame), Frank Harrigan (Hurling), Pat Bonner (Snooker) and Damien O’Doherty for his uncle James O’Doherty (Soccer). Missing from the photo were Fr. Brendan McBride (Golf), Ed Moore (Hockey), Margaret Gallagher (Handball) and Veronica McAteer (Camogie).

The first ever Donegal Sports Star Virtual Show will take place on this Friday evening as the committee marks the 45th anniversary of the first awards which was held on the 26th of November 1976 in the Milford Inn and the remarkable journey will continue when the committee marks another milestone celebrating its 45th anniversary. Over 1100 individuals and teams have been honoured as the awards function has grown into the biggest sporting social event in Donegal. But, for the first time ever due to Covid it will be a virtual show when the winners will be announced on Friday evening. It will be streamed live from 7.30 via the Donegal Sports Star Awards Facebook Page.

The founding committee set high standards from the start with Ronnie Delaney the Irish Olympic legend being the first special guest at the inaugural Awards 45 years ago. The 24th of November 1978 is a date that Liam Doherty has never forgotten. It was the night that the Lifford man was named the first Overall Donegal Sports Star Award winner at only the third ever staging of the function, which was held in the Milford Inn. It was appropriate also that a fellow athlete Noel Carroll the former Irish international Olympic runner was the special guest marking that historic presentation. The awards which had started in 1976 did not include an “Overall Winner’ category in the first two years of the event.

When the first Donegal Sports Star Awards were held in the Milford Inn on the 26th November 1976 there were no outlandish predictions made about it being an event that would have the capacity to pass significant milestone’s like marking 21 years in existence or celebrating 30th or 40th anniversaries.

Like any organisation it has experienced its ups and downs over the years but there’s no arguing with the fact that over the last decade the annual awards night has enjoyed a purple patch with average attendances of 600 at the function. And so now 45 years on the Donegal Sports Star Awards committee is celebrating another landmark with its Sapphire Anniversary. In 1976 there were just over 40 nominees and 17 winners but those figures have seen a very steep rise in recent years. However, this year due to Covid-19 and a restricted sporting year the awards ceremony is understandably shorter but nonetheless there are still plenty of successes that the committee is delighted to be able to recognise on Friday evening.

The first Overall Female winner was Finn Valley’s Danea Herron in 1985. Not surprisingly Letterkenny’s long distance runner Danny McDaid (1979) was an early recipient of the overall award. Athletics got its fair share of the top honours in those early years with Finn Valley’s Sean Carlin getting the Overall nod in 1981, David Wilson, Donegal Harriers (1987), the late Hugo Duggan, Finn (Valley (1988), Sharon Foley, Lifford AC (1989 & 1993), and Bridie Lynch Tirconall AC (1996).

Among the other Overall winners prior to the 21st anniversary celebrations in 1997 were John Campbell, Clay Pigeon Shooting (1982), Vincent Bonner, Motor Sport (1983), Joe Barr, Cycling (1984), Patrick O’Donnell, Boxing (1986), Billy Bourne, Weightlifting (1990 & 1991), Donegal GAA Team (1992), Brian Tobin, Surfing (1994) and Teresa McDermott (1995). Swimmer Henry O’Donnell got the overall award in 1997, Brendan Devenney (1998) while it was golfer Ciaran McMonagle in 1999 and Damien Faulkner for Motor Sport in 2000.

World rowing gold medalist Sinead Jennings was the undisputed Sports Star of 2001. The Letterkenny woman repeated that success five years later and became the only sports person ever in the 45-year history to win the Overall three times when she was honoured at the 2016 Donegal Sports Star Awards. In 2002 it was Letterkenny Athletic Club’s Gary Crossan who took the top honour. Golfer Brian McElhinney was the winner in 2003 after winning a European youth title and the following year it was the cyclist Philip Deignan who emerged as the top Donegal sports person. Athlete Gary Murray and Sean Gallagher (Motorsport) were the Overall Winners in 2005 and 2007 respectively while the following year it was the turn of the only person from Martial Arts to take the top honour Letterkenny man Tommy McCafferty.

Illies Golden Gloves boxer Willie McLaughlin took to the stage in 2009 to receive the Overall Award from special guest the Irish Olympic legend John Tracey. Clay Pigeon Shooting which has featured as a category at all 44 Donegal Sports Star Awards took the top honour for a second time in 2011 courtesy of Newtowncunningham’s Jim Doherty. That was a year after Glenfin and Donegal Ladies GAA star Yvonne McMonagle became the sixth woman to get the judges nod as the number one sports person in the county.

By the time the very special 40th celebration came around in 2015 three more Overall Winners had been handed out to Donegal All-Ireland winner Karl Lacey (2012), World Amateur Boxing silver medalist Jason Quigley (2013) and in 2014 it was Mark English who took a bronze in the European 800 Metre Final. English became only the second person to take back-to-back Overall titles 24 years after Billy Bourne had achieved that feat (1990 & 1991).

While the overall award accolade is the pinnacle of a sports person’s achievement in Donegal, each and every winner of a category since 1976 deserves special recognition on this 45th anniversary of the awards. The majority of awards go to individuals and teams who are in active competition but two honours that create great interest each year are the Hall of Fame and Appreciation Awards.

The winner of the first Hall of Fame Award in 1976 was hockey stalwart Tom Eaton from Raphoe. Tom’s son Richard, who sadly passed away in September, won the Hockey Award in 1985. And the following year the inaugural Appreciation honour went to a fellow Raphoe man Billy McConnell for his services to the same sport. Fast forward 45 years and 2020 Hall of Fame inductee is Finn Harps legend Patsy McGowan.

Milford Inn where it all started

It all started at the Milford Inn Bingo in the early-1970s. Looking back it is hard to see how a handful of bingo numbers were so important in the creation of the Donegal Sports Star Awards in 1976. But the entire idea for the gala sporting occasion came through the Milford Inn Bingo Committee. Names were sought that might offer advice: Fr. Michael Sweeney: Ivan Grier: Hugh Strain: John Diver of the Mulroy Gun Club and Eamonn Giles and Patsy McGonagle were all consulted as well as some of the bingo committee who had a decent sporting knowledge.

The idea was certainly going places but the big challenge was finding a sponsor or enough money to fund it. As plans advanced on to a serious footing it was initially agreed to have awards for 11 different sports in Donegal while a Hall of Fame was decided at a meeting in the Milford Inn at the end of September 1976. It was confirmed that the Milford Inn Bingo Committee were going to be the sponsors and it was planned to present specially designed medallions. On a draw from the hat it was decided to present the Hall of Fame Award to a star of the past from Hockey and that was to be the late Tom Eaton from Raphoe. The selection of the winners was to be made from within the organizing committees of the various sports.

Mr Brendan McDaid of Swilly Rovers and Secretary of the organizing committee told representatives from the various sporting bodies active in the county that the Bingo Committee had agreed to his suggestion to sponsor a Donegal Sports Stars Scheme. They had little hesitation in agreeing to the sponsorship to the extent of £300. The Bingo Committee was composed of representatives from Milford Athletic Club, Swilly Rovers F.C. and the Fanad Development Association.

And the rest as they say is history as 45 years later the Donegal Sports Star Awards committee prepares for its first Virtual Show on this Friday evening which will be streamed live from their Facebook Page from 7.30 p.m.