Saturday 24 March 2018

Joe Brolly: Crossmaglen Rangers - a GAA community that stood up to the British

Joe Brolly

Don't worry. Be happy. Welcome to Crossmaglen.

That is the slogan painted on the entrance to the British Army barracks which greeted the new recruits as they were choppered into the village during the Troubles. To this day, Crossmaglen is a place shrouded in mystique.

Like the tiny Gallic hamlet in Asterix holding out against the might of the Roman Empire, this parish of 1,500 people stands defiantly against the outside world. Whether it is the British Army or the blanket defence or their opponents on the field of play.
Ronan Walsh of Tir Chonaill Gaels, shows his athleticism alongside John McEntee of Crossmaglen Rangers

Tomorrow night, True North, Natalie Maynes' documentary about Crossmaglen and its footballers, airs on BBC1 Northern Ireland. She invited me to a private showing of it during the week. At the heart of her film are John McEntee and Oisín McConville, the village's Asterix and Obelix.

Interviewer: Did you ever consider joining the IRA?

John: I was too busy playing Gaelic football.

Oisín: I was scared shitless.

Oisin McConville

There is archive footage of the barracks being constructed in 1976. By then, Cross had been christened bandit country and the empire decided to build an enormous fortress on top of their Gaelic football field. So, in an act of community relations that would have embarrassed the KKK, they plonked this monstrosity down as though it had been dropped from a helicopter, and duly reaped the whirlwind. As one plummy voiced English army officer said, "It was all rather disconcerting. The people completely ignored us."

That proved the least of their worries. The 'Sniper At Work' sign went up soon after. When Margaret Thatcher travelled to the province as Prime Minister, she asked if it would be safe to go for a walk about in the village. Which tells you all you need to know about that old eejit.

Quickly, the barracks became a symbol of oppression. The Gaelic football pitch a symbol of resistance. When I was a boarder in St Pat's Armagh, Cardinal Ó Fiaich was our next door neighbour. He had played for The Rangers in the 1943 county final, when they were beaten by Derrymacash.

By the 1980s, he had been the club president for 30 years. Before important matches, he regularly gave the team talk. As cardinal, Crossmaglen matches were prioritised in his diary. His car often pulled out of the residence on a Sunday with the Rangers flag flying from the window.

He despised the British treatment of his beloved St Oliver Plunkett Park, loudly proclaiming that "it had been reduced to a shambles by the soldiers" and standing foursquare with the people.

Oisín: Wasn't it great to stick the two fingers up to them and say regardless what you do, you can land your helicopters on our pitch, you can build your barracks on top of us, you can throw our clothes and our bags out on the street when you search our cars on the way to training. . . Wasn't it great to say to them, 'But fuck youse, we're gonna win an All-Ireland anyway.'

Oisín's mother, Margaret, is an unforgettable human being. I have had the privilege of knowing her for many years. Tough, gentle, serene, humanitarian. Too long ago to remember, she began making cream buns and tea for the players in the clubhouse the night before championship games.

On one occasion before an Ulster club final I was invited to share those cream buns with them. "The lemon tarts are lovely Joe," said Aaron Kernan. I sat there happy as Larry on an ancient sofa in the dilapidated clubroom with one two-bar electric heater, drinking black tea poured by Margaret and soaking it all in. She is a surrogate mother to two generations of footballers. It is good that part of her will be stored on the silver screen permanently.

St Oliver Plunkett Park, home of Crossmaglen Rangers, pictured in 2003. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile
St Oliver Plunkett Park, home of Crossmaglen Rangers, pictured in 2003. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile

Margaret: My oldest son Thomas got a scholarship to the Gaeltacht when he was 16 and a half and he went and he never came home. He drowned there. On the Sunday before Thomas died, a young soldier was blown up down at the corner by a bomb on a bicycle. His mother's door got a knock on the Sunday. My door on the Tuesday. It was the same grief. Losing your son . . ."

There was a time not long ago when BBC cameras would have been confiscated and the crew hunted out of the village minus their clothes. How times have changed. Maynes and her team were given full access and for two years were embedded in this extraordinary community.

Jamie Clarke comes across as a vulnerable young man and in the film, we see him struggling to cope. "I don't enjoy it so much anymore. There's too much pressure to win. The fun has gone out of it." Then later: "There's a lot more to me than living in a rural town."

Then, he drops the bombshell at a squad meeting, mid-championship, that he is quitting the team to travel. It is like the announcement of a death. John McEntee and Oisín look stunned. The group are silent. Eventually, John says in his ear (it is subtitled): "Get whatever you need out of your system." They shake hands and Jamie goes.

"He's the first player ever to leave a Crossmaglen team in the middle of a championship," John says. "So it's obviously a massive thing for the people of the town." McEntee knows that you can escape a place but you can't escape yourself. Sure enough, a few months later, Jamie is back.

In another scene, Johnny Murtagh is dropped without warning for the championship semi-final. When his name isn't read out, he goes to the joint managers and asks what's going on.

Oisín: You were drinking.

Johnny: No. No.

Oisín: You're telling lies.

Johnny: I'm not.

Oisín: You going to stand there and look me in the eyes and tell me you weren't drinking?

Johnny: I wasn't. Who told you?

Oisín: The man you were drinking with.

No further questions, members of the jury. It is worth pointing out that the drink ban only covers the nine days before championship games. In Cross, they realise that Gaelic football is only a part of the rhythm of life.

I leave the last words to Margaret McConville: "What would you do without the GAA? If I didn't have it I'd have nothing to look forward to. I mightn't be here at all . . ."

True North

BBC1 NI, tomorrow, 9.00pm

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