Monday 26 June 2017

St Colmcille's pilgrimage to Mecca

Meath club's journey from the wilderness to Croke Park has touched their local community

St Colmcille’s club members (from left): Jackser Kavanagh, Dermot Hilliard, Gwen Lannigan, James Kelly, Pat Haigney and Keith Loughman. Photo: Mark Condren
St Colmcille’s club members (from left): Jackser Kavanagh, Dermot Hilliard, Gwen Lannigan, James Kelly, Pat Haigney and Keith Loughman. Photo: Mark Condren

Dermot Crowe

In the 1980s St Colmcille's of Meath used to play their home games on the eastern seaboard. On a patch of ground known as Seafield, near the water's edge in Laytown, you had days when the sea wind went through you for a shortcut. "By jeez, you can say that again," says Jackser Kavanagh, the club chairman, "an east wind and a bit of sleet with it."

Jackser was a player first, an administrator second, a clubman always. In his playing days he represented Meath at minor, under 21 and senior before a broken leg ended his county career in 1971. That was the year St Colmcille's was formed, a union of Stars of the Sea and Shallon, who drew from territories east and west of the old main road between Dublin and Belfast.

Meath's Graham Reilly. Photo: Sportsfile
Meath's Graham Reilly. Photo: Sportsfile

They weren't in the news much and they certainly weren't thinking of winning All-Irelands. They are now. Today in the intermediate final in Croke Park, they come up against Westport, another part of the country not traditionally renowned as a bastion of the Gael. Their other distinction is that they lay claim to Graham Reilly, one of the best forwards in the country and also the county captain.

They have had some moments of recognition before. In 1983 a bunch of talented players came along to win a county minor championship. Bernard Flynn and Robbie O'Malley, legends of Meath All-Ireland-winning teams later in that decade, were products of that side. Five years later they won the intermediate, the club's last title at the grade until they won again in 2016. For the most part they have been a second-tier club in Meath with little in the way of concrete success.

It is an article of faith in the parish that the lost intermediate final of '84 to Slane ruined glorious prospects of them making a significant impact in senior football. When promotion arrived four years later they were not the same body of men. Jackser Kavanagh believes they could have challenged strongly for a senior championship but it goes down as a lesson and an opportunity missed. Flynn left to play with St Joseph's in Laois, others fell away, and the club struggled. Eventually they successfully applied for demotion to the sanctuary of intermediate.

Before they made their escape Kilmainhamwood destroyed them in the senior championship. "I think we were beaten by 41 points," says Jackser. "I will never forget it, it was down in Syddan. (Fellow club member) Pat O'Neil and I were the only two people that went down to see that match. Sure nobody would go to see the team play."

The area they draw from is not a classic GAA rural enclave. This part of Meath, to the north of Dublin, experienced a massive population leap but recreational facilities and other necessary services couldn't keep pace with the tidal wave of housing development. The club's catchment area runs from the outskirts of Drogheda down to Laytown at the southern extreme.

Seafield is still used for training and matches but in 1990 they opened a new grounds at Piltown, closer to Bettystown. Club secretary Keith Loughman says the club has a suburban feel, but the home pitch is positioned in the countryside. They hope to relocate to Bettystown, where they have an interest in acquiring over 20 acres of land rezoned for recreational use.

"We are in an unusual location where we are," says Loughman. "We have the population of a town but don't have any centre. In terms of where its heart was we struggled with that through the years. It went through many forms and names."

The influx of people taking up residence in the area didn't automatically translate into a dividend for the GAA club. It offered an opportunity but also posed a challenge. "We sat down as a club six or seven years ago, and asked, 'How do we address that?'" says Loughman. "You have all the challenges of a suburban area, not too many locals, a lot of blow-ins."

They launched a mental health awareness programme which was highly successful and managed to unite diverse parts of the community. And they worked hard at offering people something they could identify with and feel they belonged to. After the economic crash there was a deeper interest in personal wellbeing.

"People did change their mindsets and looked for something more important and more spiritual," says Loughman. "We served the whole area and people gravitated towards us and saw what we were doing."

But you needed some success too, Loughman admits. "When Dublin were going well you'd see people here in their Dubs gear. For us it is absolutely critical that there would be a successful Meath team. Graham (Reilly) has been great at that, he has massive profile, and he has been captain this year, which has been great for us and there is a feel-good with the team under Andy (McEntee). And most of our minors would come from non-traditional St Colmcille's families."

Of the club minor team that won the championship last year (for the first time since Flynn and O'Malley's time in '83) only two were from families who have roots in the area according to Loughman. "The rest are new residents," he says. "A lot of Dubs. I would be from Monaghan myself. We have a huge number out of Donegal for whatever reason. We would have a fair good mix. Not always parents who had a GAA connection either."

Loughman's family were always involved in the GAA. Declan Loughman, the former Monaghan player, is a cousin. Keith Loughman lost touch with the GAA for a few years but resettled in this part of Meath 16 years ago and was soon itching to get back.

"After a year or two, I felt I wanted to get involved," he says. "I don't mind saying that back when Monaghan weren't successful in the '90s we all followed Armagh. The night after Armagh won the All-Ireland I felt I wanted to go back. It sounds corny but I always felt I'd got much more out of it than I'd ever put in. I genuinely wanted to put something back."

So he went down on Sunday mornings to the nursery and pitched in coaching the kids. "That time it was 30 kids and five balls, now we have 250 kids and God knows how many balls. It just turned. I am 200 metres inside the Meath border, in a housing estate that is a real Celtic Tiger development. This journey really has touched the community. It has been everything that the GAA stands for."

The journey has energised the club and its people. They were fancied to win the county intermediate title but this level of expectation never sat comfortably with them in the past. "We were probably seen as chokers in some ways," says Loughman. "In 2013 Colin Kelly came in for a season, he changed the mentality for a lot of guys. Mickey Conlon was there in 2014. Mickey moved on to take our minor team and Colm Nally, who is now with Colin Kelly at Louth, took over. Nally is a revolutionary coach, a top-class coach. Colm built on the good work that Colin and Mickey got going there. But the thing that set this team apart is probably courage - we buried the chokers tag many times.

"We looked done in the quarter-final against Curraha, who were the Leinster junior champions the previous season, so much so that one of the selectors turned to me and said, 'we're gone here'. But we dug it out and won. In the semi-final against Walterstown we were blessed, it went to extra-time, after we got the last point to draw the game, while the final against Dunderry went to a replay and Graham Reilly was sent off after two minutes the first day. We drew with 14 men and he was suspended for the replay but we won well."

St Colmcille's provincial journey began in Arklow, where they won by three points. From there they went to Newbridge where they defeated Round Towers by two points. Captain Ben Brennan scored the point that won the Leinster final at Rosemount's expense in Navan, a free three minutes into added time. The All-Ireland semi-final against Pomeroy of Tyrone in Armagh had them leading by eight points, then falling three behind late in the play. Brennan again kicked the winner after Conor O'Byrne's late goal got the Meath side level.

Jackser Kavanagh took over as chairman in 2005. Where were you then, he's asked? "A bad place, to be honest. Football-wise we wouldn't have been great, we were holding our own in intermediate but we weren't setting the world alight by any means. It was just holding our own, and league-wise we were holding our status in Division 2 - just about as well."

The finances needed attention too. "We had to ask the Meath County Board not to cash the cheque for the registering of the teams until we had enough money in the bank to meet the cheque," admits the chairman. "That was one of the big challenges the get the financial footing back to where it needed to be."

But any club is its people. And the success of St Colmcille's is in how it has harnessed that resource, embracing people of all backgrounds unequivocally. "There was a bit of fresh blood that came into the club," explains Kavanagh. "The population has exploded in this area. I often sit down at meetings, there might be five or six of us sitting around the table, and I would be the only Meath man. That's typical for the type of clubs like ourselves, the likes of Dunboyne, Ratoath . . ."

In his youth there was no juvenile football so he played in the Drogheda street leagues. The club's underage unit is now a thriving industry. All they want for is more space.

How does he feel about winning an All-Ireland then? "Not in our wildest dreams did we think it would happen this year. Although we did fancy our chances of winning the county intermediate championship."

But the winning is only a by-product of having the fundamentals in place. As club secretary Loughman says: "We want to ensure we stay growing and serving our community. When we do that, the silverware will take care of itself. Community first.

"In many ways it is a fantastic story that has taken us to Mecca. There is something almost poetic about the journey."

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