Tuesday 20 August 2019

Carnival atmosphere returns to Slaughtneil as they fight for unprecedented double treble

Slaughtneil chairman Sean McGuigan insists club wants to achieve more. Photo: Sportsfile
Slaughtneil chairman Sean McGuigan insists club wants to achieve more. Photo: Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

The talk all around Ulster is of one club, three teams, three codes, and a collective, incredible goal.

Last year Slaughtneil became the first club to win club football, hurling and camogie provincial titles.

It was a stupendous feat in ambition and scale. But now they are a mere 60 odd minutes from a repeat as the Derry and Ulster champions get ready for tomorrow's final against Cavan Gaels at the Athletic Grounds.

As a demonstration of just how far they have come, chairman Seán McGuigan articulates it perfectly.

"Twenty years ago, we were getting beaten in the first round of every championship, especially football. We couldn't get over the first round," he sighs.

"The occasion would get to us, our discipline wasn't great and we would end up with a man on the line.

"This younger generation of fellas, we will have to put up a monument to them in Slaughtneil because I don't think it will ever happen again."

It's a long way from the carnival games of the '60s and '70s. Or perhaps, these games are carnivals all of their own now.

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In a playing career that spanned three decades, assistant manager John Joe Kearney recalls: "We got to a championship final in 1969 against Bellaghy and they were the kingpins of Derry football at that stage. We were beaten by four points and on the day we were a player or two short.

"In those days, there were a lot of carnivals and that was a big thing.

"Carnival football might have been on any day of the week and then a match on a Sunday.

"To be quite honest, although we only had the bare 15 or 17 players, you never had to say to anybody about being there for a carnival match.

"Without question, they were up there. We were always successful in them and, if the championship had have been run on a carnival basis we probably would have won one or two."

They are winning plenty now. But on weekends such as these, it's important to think of the people who made the club what it is today. Men such as Thomas Cassidy, the constant touchstone across three codes but who definitely cemented hurling and camogie as important strands of the club.

"There is many a conversation had and thinking about how proud he would have been," says his daughter Aoife, who lifted the All-Ireland camogie Championship in February, and successfully defended the Ulster camogie championship last month to keep this remarkable run going.

"But it is what it is and we know how proud he would be of the club and of everybody and how unreal it is. It has been amazing and I hope it continues to be amazing."

"Thomas, God rest his soul, had a big heart," says Kearney. "He was very much into his hurling and camogie.

"He played football as well with the senior team but he was more into the hurling and then with his girls he was interested in camogie."

He continues: "There's another, my brother Bernard, who was chairman of the club for a number of years, died the year before we won our first championship of this run, 2013.

"There were many more men in the club, who wouldn't have missed a match - Kearney men and McGuigan men, Cassidys, Thomas as well, who died a few years young before all this happened.

"They would have been over the moon to have seen it and be part of it. But that's the way life goes."

If other clubs are green with envy, they can't say Slaughtneil haven't got to this point without enormous work.

"Every other Derry club is getting a wee bite on the bum and saying, 'Listen, if these fellas can do it, we can do it'.

"You just have to instil that discipline into the team and buy into your managers," says McGuigan. "Glen, Maghera and Swatragh and all these clubs have this talent. You just need to knuckle down."

For all that, the neighbours have been neighbourly. In recent days the rain coming off the slopes of Carn Togher mountain has rendered the Slaughtneil pitch a quagmire.

Alternative arrangements had to be made and they have had the use of Bellaghy and Swatragh's pitches.

There's a lot more to all this than meets the eye. The greatest triumph Slaughtneil ever achieved wasn't on the pitch, but in the minds and hearts of the people of the community.

Founded in 1992, the Carntogher Community Association has brought together the various strands of the community - the GAA club, the Irish Language movement and the Drumnaph Nature Reserve.

The buy-in from the community at large has brought them to the precipice of history.

There is no secret to it, other than hard work.

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