St Columba’s Community School is a focal point of the town and the region. History. Tradition. Football. Life. All seamlessly blending into one another at one point on the road.
Above the entrance is a sign ‘Sam’s for the hills. C’mon Donegal’ and on the corridor an artist’s drawing of former pupil Jim McGuinness with his motto: Focus. Commit. Believe. Achieve.
Now Jim wasn’t a model students and left school early but the effect he’s had on the pupils and teachers is hard to quantify.
“Long before he was famous I used him as a role model for other students,” says his former PE teacher Manus Brennan. “He left school early, like many young lads in those years, but he had the wisdom and courage to go back and do his Leaving Cert after he won the All-Ireland medal in 1992. I used to use him as an example for lads who were struggling and thinking of packing it in. Not only did he do his Leaving Cert as a mature student but he went on to have a distinguished academic career at third level, eventually getting a Masters degree. And a couple of Sigerson Cup medals as well!”
Inside in his office new PE teacher Martin Regan roots out an old picture of Jim from his national school days. On the noticeboard there’s a picture of Manus’s nephew Eoghan O’Gara with Sam Maguire and Bernard Brogan. On the other side of it is a memorial card of Charlie McGuinness, Jim’s brother.
“He would have been like him in appearance,” says Manus of the brothers. “I think it was ’85. He was very sporty too and his death had a profound effect on the family. Jim’s other brother Mark died later on in life and Jim was there. It’s been a tough journey for him. Something clicked when he went back to do his Leaving Cert (1995) and he stayed in third level a long time. He was always looking to do things better.”
Jim and Manus struck up a bond through sport and basketball in particular. At a time when the game was packing out halls in Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Tralee, Glenties tried it out. A bug took hold. Manus started Jim, the smallest player on the court, as a point guard in first year but by fourth year he was a centre on the side which reached the then All-Ireland (Green Giants) semi-final.
“I believe some of Jim’s coaching methodologies come from basketball where the focus is on the performance rather than winning. That’s part of what he says and does now. He was like that as a young fella. He picked things up quickly and was prepared to put in the practice to get it right,” says Manus. “If you look at all the great basketball coaches, that’s been their philosophy. He’s obviously far more than just that though. His great strength is his ability to get the best out of individuals. Out of ordinary lads. Take the past pupils from Glenties, Anthony and Leon Thompson, Leo McLoone, Paddy McGrath, Dermot Molloy; there may have been better players than them in the school at the time but they were always wholehearted, determined and coachable. That’s the kind of player he works with. He draws out the last ounce of talent in each player and builds a team around the personalities.
“Jim had a lot of talent but he was never the most talented. Whatever talent he had he used it well. He was always the most determined. As a midfielder for Donegal he did not fit into the traditional role but instead used his great mobility to cover acres of ground, probably a sign of things to come.
“You hear the players talking and they are all the same. Michael Murphy is the best player in the country but if Jim tells him to play corner-back he will because he knows it’s all about the team and the performance. He won’t complain. You leave your ego in the dressing room when you line out on one of Jim’s teams. Jim is also very shrewd. After the win against Dublin he gave a radio interview — he praised the clubs and the county board for giving them the time to prepare this year without the pressure of the club championship. That was class! He shared the credit and that’s so useful going forward.
“When Donegal lost last year there were a lot of daggers out but he hung in, he persevered just like he has done in his life and we are all sharing in the rewards now. When Donegal were annihilated last year by Mayo he didn’t blame anyone. The fact that he came back and stayed with them was a surprise though. No one thought he could get anymore out of them because they gave so much. He was able to do that.”
Just after making the decision to stay on last September he came back to the school he left too young. A guest speaker at their sixth year awards night, it was Manus’s final roll call before retirement. And who better than an old pupil to give the talk. The event has gone into folklore locally.
“He’s a brilliant motivational speaker,” says Manus. “To see him speak to his own area, in his own place was really special. The young students are so proud of him and they identify with his story and the articulate way he tells it. Sometimes you’re not a prophet in your own land, but not in Jim’s case.”
The teachers and principal Frances Boner have used the experience and Jim’s story to connect with pupils. Mention the philosophy in the painting on the main corridor and the kids can’t find an argument back. The logic and results are there.
“He really went into his four-point philosophy: focus, commit, believe, achieve,” says Frances. “And when he went through examples with them and talked to them about how little self-belief he had when he was their age you could hear a pin drop. The minute he walked into that room everyone was listening to Jim McGuinness. He has faith in effort and achieving goals if you really, really want it.”
T ypically the night for sixth years, parents and teachers begins with an ecumenical service followed by food, pictures and speeches. The hardest task is tearing the boys away from the grub but on this night they were queuing outside the library for a picture with Jim.
“He could have just turned up for the photos and shook a few hands and everyone would have been delighted,” says Frances. “He didn’t come into the ecumenical ceremony because he didn’t want to be a distraction in the room but he listened outside and listened to the students’ reflections and picked up on their references. He used those references in his speech, showing a real attention to detail.
“We’d always have been looking in SPHE (Social, Personal and Health Education) or career guidance for goal-setting strategies. Down through the years different things have been used in goal setting. Students might have created a dream sheet of where they wanted to be so when they were doing their work or study they could look up and see where it’s going. But in terms of talking about Jim and the team, here we have past pupils on the team and involved with the team. They can put names on their neighbours, people their older brothers and sisters know and are friendly with. It’s more immediate.”
And it’s clearly working. Back in the PE office we observe a basketball session taking place. Three names are called out and asked to come in for a chat. The three minor players representing the school and region in Sunday’s final: Christian Bonner (son of manager Declan), John McDyre and Ethan O’Donnell, who kicked the winning point against Dublin in the semi-final.
It’s a quick one; the game inside taking up most of the attention until the picture of Jim from national school is produced. It takes a minute but John picks him out.
“I suppose knowing you can go on and achieve was the big thing he gave us,” says Christian. “Looking at them after the game you’re dreaming of being there some day.”