Wednesday 7 December 2016

Crossmaglen's 'independent republic' passes its screen test

Published 16/03/2016 | 02:30

The Crossmaglen team stand for the national anthem with the old British Army base in the background back in 2005. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
The Crossmaglen team stand for the national anthem with the old British Army base in the background back in 2005. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

The essence of what sets Crossmaglen apart, as a town and as a GAA club, is perhaps best captured by the words of Oisin McConville early on in the BBC documentary 'True North: Crossmaglen - Field Of Dreams' which follows the senior team during the two-year joint-management term that McConville had with John McEntee.

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"I didn't really feel I was from the North or the South," he explains. "It was like we were a little island cocooned in the middle of the whole thing."

It's an explanation in geography but more so an insight into mindset. The concept of an 'Independent Republic of Crossmaglen' has weaved its way through culture, politics and sport for a long time now.

Unlimited This documentary, skilfully brought together by sports presenter Thomas Niblock, gives unlimited access to the Rangers' dressing-room on a journey that ended last month in Cavan with defeat to Castlebar Mitchels in the All-Ireland semi-final.

That the story didn't have its fairytale end in Croke Park tomorrow afternoon doesn't detract. Crossmaglen's unique DNA carries it all the way. Running parallel is the club's history in the Troubles. The presence of British Army barracks, occupying vast swathes of their property, is unavoidably a central theme.

There is some remarkable old footage of soldiers on patrol through the town in 1980, one confiding to the camera that "the atmosphere in the village isn't a very pleasant one and, if you were lucky you might get a 'good morning' out of them occasionally." At one stage an ex-British serviceman once stationed in Cross but now working on reconciliation arranges to meet with McConville on the very pitch that was once the interface of such suspicion.

He tells McConville how soldiers like him were" fearful" of the club and imagined IRA members plotting among them. "Gaelic, ie nationalist, ie Republican equals our enemy," recalls the soldier.

It was mutual. McConville recalls the attitude from club members that "you can land your helicopters here, you can build your barracks on top of us, you can stop us, throw our clothes out on the street, chase people going to training, you can intimidate us but f**k you, we're going to win an All-Ireland anyway."

They shake hands, the soldier denying he ever stuck a knife through one of the many balls that crossed over the wall, McConville seeing it as a gesture of how much they've all moved on.

McConville's mother and club stalwart Margaret identifies the role of the club set against the background of the Troubles too.

She lost a 16-year-old son, Thomas, to a drowning accident while he was attending the Gaeltacht. Around the same time a soldier was killed in the town and Margaret recalls empathy through "the knock on the door" that both mothers experienced.

"Through bereavements and sad times, the GAA got people through and got them back out - it's that important," she says.

The desire and drive to win is all apparent, the joint-managers regularly reminding their players that the only team that can beat them is themselves. One man among them does not radiate that attitude. Jamie Clarke has always been that little bit different and during the second season he left for America, the conversation about that decision between McEntee and himself featuring in detail.

"It's not that I can't fit in here, it's that I don't want to," Clarke explains to camera. "The only reason I am here is because of football. I don't enjoy it as much because of the pressures of having to win all the time and wanting to win for the sake of winning, so no one else can win. It's all about having fun and enjoying the game."

Discipline off the field provides another theme. A nine-day pre match alcohol ban is imposed but then broken by three players who attended a wedding on one occasion and by John Murtagh on another.

McConville addresses the room after the wedding incident, declaring that there is "no integrity" in it because of what happened and shares his experience of addiction to illustrate a point. When he went to a clinic in Galway for treatment the first advice he was given was to 'be positive and stick with the winners'. "Stay away from negativity," he advises the players.

When Murtagh is dropped for breaking the ban prior to last year's semi-final, he challenges the joint-managers, initially denying the charge. But their information is good and he later concedes to being "sick" that he didn't front up.

It's these moments that puts this compelling documentary on a par with others of its genre, like Pat Comer's 'A Year Till Sunday' giving the inside story of Galway's 1998 All-Ireland win. It's highly recommended. *

 'True North: Crossmaglen - Field of Dreams' will be broadcast on BBC 1 on Monday night next

Irish Independent

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