Every era produces one or two outstanding players and in the period between the wars James Macdonald was arguably the best player in Ulster cricket and one of Ireland’s most accomplished. He was a double cricket and hockey international and, at the peak of his cricketing career, he won great praise from the 1938 touring Australians. He captained the Ireland team at Ormeau where he took five for 24 in 16 overs including the wickets of Barnes, White, Fingleton, O’Reilly and Ward.
James was educated at “Inst” and then Queen’s University, Belfast, and played for the university side from 1924 to 1928 with his brother Tom. They were the star performers and regular thorns in the flesh of the opposing universities of St Andrews, Glasgow, Durham, Manchester and Trinity College, Dublin. Both went on to play on the same teams many times, at club and international level.
James Macdonald made his debut for North Down as a 15 year-old in 1922 and, over the next four decades, he became a towering figure in Ulster and Irish sport, both as a player and as an administrator. He was a brilliant all rounder and much of North Down’s dominance between the wars was down to James Macdonald’s performances.
At international level he marked his debut against Wales in 1926 with a score of 95, ironically ending his career in 1939 with a similar score against Sir Julian Cahn’s XI.
He was a stylish left-handed batsman and slow left-arm bowler who varied his flight and pace with great control. He scored a match-winning 108 not out against MCC in 1936 and captained Ireland on 13 occasions, although ironically he never captained North Down for a single season!
Irish cricket historian WP Hone wrote of him in his book “Cricket in Ireland”:
“From that year (1926) up to the outbreak of war, he remained one of our most consistent performers with bat and ball. His batting was marked by that easy, graceful style often seen in the best left handers, and his bowling by a high smooth delivery; he depended more on clever variations of flight than on any great spin off the pitch.”
James Macdonald was admired by friend and foe alike and played the game with impeccable sportsmanship. His performance against the Australians in 1938 was described by former Australian test spinner Arthur Mailey as “the best piece of left-arm slow bowling he has seen on the tour”. Yorkshire’s Maurice Leyland went further in this praise when he lamented to a colleague:
“There’s now’t wrong with James Macdonald except he wasn’t born in Yorkshire.”
For North Down he was a revelation with both bat and ball. He played in nine Challenge Cup winning teams and six league winning teams. He set high standards in performance and in 1927 he scored 1,072 runs and took 109 wickets. He scored 197 not out against CPA in a 1930 cup game and a record 159 not out in the 1935 final against Cliftonville. In the 1931 final he took 13 for 79 against Ulster. In virtually every game he played James Macdonald made a telling contribution. His record at club level was unparalleled, winning the 1st XI batting award on eleven occasions and the 1st XI bowling award sixteen times. In 1936 he took all ten wickets (10 for 40) against the touring Royal High School FP of Edinburgh in a match North Down lost by two runs.
At the Carnival Cabaret evening the vocal tribute to the team mischievously included a verse on James Macdonald:
“As one of the best men North Down possess
James Macdonald has been an outstanding success
He has just won two cups, but I hear he’d prefer
A nice game of tennis when ladies are there!
Tra la la. Tra la lee,
The best team in Ireland is North Down CC”
James played hockey for Ireland 25 times and was a member of the 1933 Triple Crown winning team. He played for the Great Britain XI and was the mainstay in the most successful North Down hockey teams of the Thirties.
When war broke out in 1939 he immediately relinquished his teaching post at Methodist College and joined the Royal Artillery, reaching the rank of Lieut. Colonel. He survived the ravages of Dunkirk and won special recognition for saving the regiment’s guns. He was later awarded the OBE (Military Division).
Sadly, ill health and war service limited his appearances for North Down after 1939 and when the war was over, in 1945, there was no James Macdonald to recapture the dizzy heights of success of the Twenties and Thirties.
He was appointed headmaster of Regent House School in 1946 and retained an active interest in the club’s affairs through a wide variety of roles. He was, for many years, an Ireland selector and heavily involved within both the ICU and the NCU administration. He was president of the Irish Cricket Union in 1954 and was the first chairman of the NI Youth and Sports Advisory Council.
At Regent House he was a strong disciplinarian but gave sport plenty of support and in particular cricket. Not many of the pupils under his care would have known of the brilliant sporting achievements of their headmaster, except perhaps the ‘chosen few’ who were taken willingly from lessons to play for Mr Willie’s Wednesday XI. James Macdonald and Mr. Willie were lifelong friends and no request of this nature would have been refused.
In 1969 James Macdonald died suddenly, at the age of 63, and one of the finest cricketers in Ireland passed from our midst. Sportsmen and leading dignitaries from all over Ireland attended the special memorial service held at First Newtownards Presbyterian Church.