It’s been a memorable month for Mark Donegan on and off the field. 

The Hills’ wicket-keeper batsman made his interprovincial debut,  equalling the post-war record of Paul Jackson and Chris Dougherty of six dismissals during just his third match in the Irish interpros.

He has also just successfully completed his Masters Degree in Engineering, and starts a new job next week.

The 24 year-old comes from a sporting family, but he is the first to play cricket, with GAA and cycling the predominant forces in the Donegan lineage. His elder brother Conor was a fine hurling player before emigrating to Australia, while his father Pacelli was captain of a Laois Senior Football championship winning side. His grandfather Alo was an Irish cycling champion who broke world records – the first man to cycle 25 miles in under an hour.

Mark’s first foray into the world of cricket came at Loughshinny Primary School, when a coach from Rush came to conduct some sessions.

“I was into all sports when I was growing up, but mostly the GAA ones, hurling and football. I also played golf, so when I got myself a little bat and ball, my mother Dympna was understandably a little skeptical of my commitment to what she thought was the latest fad.

“I actually joined Rush Cricket Club first, but after a few weeks, I joined The Hills as that was where my friends all were, including Andrew Kavanagh, who is now the first-team captain.”

The young Donegan soon came to the attention of the Leinster youth system, and made rapid progression through the ranks.

“Mark first came on the scene when playing for his Primary school in the Fingal section of the Leprechaun Cup - Loughshinny National School,” said Brian O’Rourke.

“He came through from the Leinster Under-11 programme and had a memorable two-month placement at Muir College in South Africa spending time there during his school (Gormanston College) Transition Year with Fionn Hand in 2015.”

He was involved in the Ireland Under-age teams, but faced stiff competition for a slot in the Under-19 side that would go to Jersey in 2017 attempting to qualify for the World Cup the following year in New Zealand.

“I had a bit of a late run to get into that squad, scoring runs and keeping well at just the right time. There were four keepers in that squad, with myself, Jamie Grassi, Sam Murphy and Neil Rock. It gave me great confidence and belief when the coaches selected me to be the first-choice for the tournament and also open the batting.

Donegan did well in the tournament with bat and gloves, but in the decider against Scotland, the Irish top-order slumped to 27 for 5 before Harry Tector’s half century got them to 108. It didn’t look to be enough as Scotland reached 94 for 5, before stumbling with the finishing line in sight.

“The fact that there was such a huge prize at stake contributed. Once momentum starts it can be hard to stop. I liken it to stepping into a river and getting taken away by the current. Once that happens it takes something special to change it.”

Donegan did well in New Zealand, scoring 30s against Sri Lanka, Namibia and the West Indies, but on returning to domestic cricket, was faced with the daunting reality that he was unlikely to be able to forge his way into a Leinster Lightning squad full of senior and seasoned internationals.

“I looked at that squad and thought to myself I don’t have a chance. Again, that mindset of an 18/19 year-old, and I didn’t have a great year with the bat, probably one of my worst, so things just drifted. I was studying for my engineering degree so there were other distractions too.”

The arrival of Jeremy Bray as Head Coach of The Hills though seems to have sparked Donegan, with the appointment the catalyst for an excellent 2022 campaign that once again had the selectors interested.

He became the prize wicket for opposition, and with the gloves enjoyed an almost faultless season, winning the prestigious Hopkins Cup – awarded to the most successful keeper in Leinster cricket – following in the footsteps of previous Vineyard winners Ian O’Herlihy (2007) and Mick Dwyer (1985).

“I worked on a few technical things, some of which I will keep to myself. It was great to have Jeremy on board as a full-time coach and be able to tap into into the knowledge he has as a former international keeper, and left-handed opener. He has been great to have tactical insights on preparation and stressed the mental side too. The importance of focus and not letting the opposition get on top. To dominate attacks and turn innings into match winning ones.”

Jeremy Bray clearly has a lot of time for the level-headed Donegan, who he believes has the necessary attributes to go all the way to the top.

“Mark is a very talented player,” said Bray.  “He had a bit of a breakout year last season. He was seen as a bit of a 30s man, get a pretty 30 then get out. We had some important conversations around the needs of the team, and he was definitely our best batter last year. I just love how busy he is as a cricketer and his strike-rate is fantastic. He got us out of a lot of trouble in tight circumstances last year. 

“I definitely think he has the ability to play at higher levels. I think the more exposure he gets now that he has broken into the Leinster Lightning side. He is a bit of a dark horse and potentially could be wearing the green for Ireland.”

Ireland’s international schedule has created opportunities at interprovincial level, and Donegan took his chance with both hands, claiming six dismissals as Leinster beat the North West at Bready. Was he aware of the significance of his display.

“Not really, but it is a great achievement. I have to pay tribute to the bowlers who did the hard work and I’m there to take the chances when they come. Six came my way and thankfully I took them all.

"I’ve always been confident in my ability with the gloves, but you need the bowlers to make those chances. I’ve loved being involved with Lightning. I had a taste of it towards the end of last year and that’s continued with my debut this month.”

“THEY said he had guts. That his reserve of determination was bottomless. They said his heart had no quit in it and it beat a rhythm through legs that propelled him to victory. He was of quiet demeanor and modest personality but on a fixed-wheel bicycle his charisma cheered crowds and chilled opponents.”

The Irish Post tribute to Alo Donegan above shows that the family gene pool is strong with those attributes clearly evident in Mark. Can the young Hills keeper continue on an upward trajectory? With his DNA you wouldn’t bet against it given his clear ability and level-headed approach to life and the sport.

Photos by Joe Curtis and Barry Chambers.