Dermot Gilleece: 'Inclusive Armagh club offered important oasis in times of Troubles'
After 125 years of golf, border course still stuns with its beauty having overcome difficult days
On the night of March 25, 1980, the clubhouse at Co Armagh GC was reduced to ashes by a series of terrorist bombs. In response, the club immediately set about designing and building a replacement, which was completed by December 19, 1981, a mere 21 months later.
When considering the resilience of sporting bodies north of the Border, we can but feel the utmost respect and admiration for Co Armagh, which recently celebrated 125 years with a gala ball. And they have prospered, one suspects, largely through an insistence on cross-community membership.
As with the gravest of human conflict, the Troubles prompted its own, black humour. An incident that has stayed with me concerns a phone call made by Sean Flanagan, then a Dublin-based garda, to fellow Connacht player Cyril Devins about the impending Men's Interprovincials at Royal Portrush in 1974.
Soon into their chat, Flanagan could sense his friend's apprehension about a challenging assignment. "Sure, wouldn't it be wonderful to die for Connacht?" he blurted by way of encouragement. As it happened, serious civil unrest caused those matches to be switched to Royal Dublin.
While the GUI were arranging a change of venue, it is remarkable to think that Co Armagh, with unbending optimism, were extending their course from nine to 18 holes. The design brought together the creative skills of Warrenpoint professional Don Patterson and golf-course architect Alan Smith. A construction contract costing £26,000 was agreed in 1972 and a further £12,000 was later added for an automatic sprinkler system.
So it was that on May 3, 1975, Ulster GUI official Michael McAuley officially opened the new, 6,043-yard par-70 layout, which has since matured into a parkland treasure where it is no longer possible to distinguish between the old and the new. Interestingly, Jim Maxwell, a key figure behind the project, filled a comparable role for the replacement clubhouse, and similarly forceful figures are now to the fore.
"For many years, women have played an important and meaningful role in the club," said current lady captain Elizabeth Mawhinney. "Last year, we increased our numbers through the 'Get Into Golf' initiative and we are keen to encourage more new ladies and junior girls to join us."
They will be joining women with a distinguished lineage. Notable among them was Maisie Hirsch, whose father Henry was club captain in 1911 and 1912. Prior to victories in the Swiss Ladies' Championship of 1923 and 1927, she reached the final of the 1922 Irish Ladies' at Royal Co Down before losing to Castlerock native Stella Gotto, the first married woman to win the national title.
On a more practical level, there's the attraction of a solid financial structure and a membership of close to 800, through all categories.
The men's captain is Colm Shannon, a former Northern Ireland civil servant who is now chief executive of Newry Chamber of Commerce, with a home in Armagh City, where he was born and reared. And though his parents had no interest in the game, he imagined, "they preferred to see me playing golf than wandering around the streets of the city".
He added: "Our strength lies in being a cross-community club. At the height of the Troubles, we had leaders who tried to ensure that events around us didn't impact on the running of the club."
In which context, there is a temptation to attach obvious political affiliations to Charles Vernon Snr and Eithne O'Hare as the respective winners of 18-hole competitions to mark the opening of the new course. Was there positive discrimination, as in devices such as alternating the captaincy between Catholic and Protestant? Shannon baulked at the very notion.
"No, no," he replied. "I don't like the word discrimination, however it's used." You could imagine an awareness of the importance of language, from his time as joint secretary of the North-South Ministerial Council in Armagh, from 2012 and 2016.
He went on: "We were fortunate in having leaders who facilitated the running of the club on a cross-community basis. I remember becoming aware of the older generation and their seeming determination to have a bit of an oasis from what was happening elsewhere. And, for the most part, they succeeded."
Few clubs could claim such an auspicious start, launched as it was in 1893 in an archbishop's magnificent palace demesne, featuring panoramic views of Armagh city and the surrounding countryside. There, free-standing oak, chestnut, beech and ash trees might have been waiting to fill strategic roles in a fascinating game, as it spread rapidly through these islands.
Still, it took some time for the club to grow into its prominent role in the local community. We learn of a time when its sole employee, a certain Tommy Moir, maintained the course, kept a shop, looked after the clubhouse and, if required, gave golf lessons. Indeed, in the wake of World War II, the club had only 80 members who paid an annual subscription of £3.
Now, as a golfing stretch which has been enjoyed by such luminaries as Fred Daly, Christy O'Connor, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, it exudes a beauty to gladden the heart.
Such terrain, I suggested to the club captain, is at its most appealing in autumn with falling leaves, in the words of Shelley, "yellow and black and pale and hectic red". Colm Shannon smiled. For him, Co Armagh could not be surpassed "in the soft light of an evening in early summer".
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