North-South divide cast shadow over 70s and 80s
Being a Gaelic footballer or hurler wasn't easy in the '70s and '80s in the Six Counties. We were automatically associated with trouble by the security forces, who had their own ways of making life as difficult as possible.
The most common form of harassment was the 'boot and bonnet' routine. You would be asked where you were going and once you mentioned Gaelic football or hurling you were told to pull the bonnet, open the boot and stand on the side of the road for as long as they deemed fit. The checkpoints were annoying, but there were more sinister forces at work too. The threat from loyalist paramilitary organisations was constantly there.
One particular incident scared the hell out of me. I was driving out of Lurgan after training one night when a car came right up behind me. It was so close that I sensed something wasn't right. I knew it wasn't a police car, so I decided that under no circumstances would I allow it to overtake me. If I let it get ahead, it might block the road and I could be forced out of the car. After that, who knows?
It followed me for several miles, trying to get past at every opportunity, but I held my ground.
I was terrified, but felt that my best chance was to stay ahead, which I managed to do until we came closer to Crossmaglen, at which stage my pursuers veered off on another road at high speed.
I told the county board what happened and it was decided to split up training for a while. The boys from the south of the county trained in Carrickcruppin, while the rest went to Lurgan or Armagh.
It was a tough time being a GAA man in the Six Counties, which made Armagh's advance to the All-Ireland final in 1977 such a newsworthy event. We saw ourselves as being the same as every other county and never sought to play the victim card. For all that, a lot of people in the South didn't understand us.
Very few county teams from the South overnighted north of the border when they came up for League matches, instead staying in Monaghan or Dundalk and driving north on Sunday morning. It was understandable, I suppose, but it did tend to create a 'them and us' situation. Attitudes changed over the years, but the North-South divide didn't disappear for everybody. One of the few times as Armagh manager I really lost my temper as manager was in a league game against Laois in Portlaoise.
A bit of a scuffle broke out near the sideline with players and officials becoming involved. It wasn't anything too serious and ended fairly quickly, but not before one Laois man, who was part of the official party, had a right go at us.
He squared up to John Rafferty and called us 'orange bastards'. Now, on a league table of stupidity that would take some beating and, while I should have laughed at it, I was infuriated. I felt like laying him out with a punch, but managed to restrain myself.
In fairness to Liam Kearns, who was managing Laois at the time, he came to me afterwards and apologised. He didn't have to, because he hadn't done or said anything wrong and could hardly be blamed for someone else's stupidity.
It was an isolated incident, but it showed that even in a new century there are still people who have no real grasp of the relationship between North and South.