Last week, the Derry senior footballers took their training session into a city club for the first time ever.tracks the societal, religious, cultural, and economic reasons why the city has always been prevented from fulfilling its potential in the GAA world.
Just inside the main entrance to Sean Dolan’s GAA club on the very fringes of the Creggan area of Derry city, you catch the colourful displays set against the fresh paint. Underneath a jersey signed by members of the Slaughtneil senior football team – they choose to warm up at Sean Dolan’s ahead of significant games at nearby Celtic Park and have always been warmly welcomed – is the successful under 15 team of 2005.
In the front row, all attitude and hair gel is James McClean. Go along the line and you see Derry City legend, their late captain, Ryan McBride. On Tuesday May 28, Derry senior county football team took their training session to Sean Dolan’s as they began preparations for this afternoon’s All-Ireland SFC Round One qualifier against Wexford.
It was by common understanding, the first time they had ever trained at a city venue, excluding the county grounds of Celtic Park. The evening was sunny and warm. The Games Promotion Officers of city clubs such like Steelstown, Doire Colmcille, Doire Trasna as well as Dolan’s and other had arranged a series of mini-games between their U12 teams.
Parents arrived with children, grins splitting their faces. Kids messed about between games, playing keepie-up and showing off their dance moves to each other. It was just like any joyous blitz with the emphasis on enjoyment. It felt like a country club, only it was all framed by tightly built terraced housing.
There’s more to it. It was just over a month since the journalist Lyra McKee was killed at Fanad Drive. The exact scene is just around the corner from Sean Dolan’s. McKee was reporting on riots after the Police Service of Northern Ireland moved into the area intending to seize munitions ahead of planned Easter Rising commemorations that weekend. Petrol bombs were thrown and two vehicles were set alight.
A youth with a gun, captured on video, began firing towards the police cordon. A bullet hit McKee and hours later she lay dead in nearby Altnagelvin Hospital. From Belfast originally, McKee lived in the Creggan with her partner Sarah Canning.
As a journalist, she went after the big issues. In January 2016 she published a piece called ‘Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies,’ that examined how in the 16 years post-ceasefire, more people in Northern Ireland had taken their own lives than during them.
Referring to one of her contemporaries she wrote; ‘We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us.’
Spoils never reached the wider community of the Creggan from its inception. Gerrymandering created the Creggan. In the 1940s and 50s, the Bogside, on the west bank of The Foyle, had deteriorated into a series of tenement slums. Water ran down the walls of houses. Windows were left without glass. Whenever the Corporation were contacted and asked about repairs, they were in no hurry to get out.
As the population grew, Londonderry Corporation kept a tight grip on the electoral wards. Houses were needed so instead of building on the east bank — the Waterside — they hoofed the population up on the hill towards the Donegal border. It was the ultimate Irish solution to an Irish problem in that it kept all votes (only five) in the Bogside Ward — already overwhelmingly Nationalist already.
No amenities and little thought went into it. Human rights abuses led to Civil Rights Associations and from that point to this, it’s unimaginable what went on between. There were other factors.
At the age of 39, Dr Neil Farren was appointed Bishop of Derry. He had no time for the GAA and preached regularly against the Republican links within the GAA. Instead, he urged his pupils at St Columb’s College to play soccer.
Through Civil Rights leader Eddie McAteer and Jack Timmons, Derry GAA acquired Celtic Park in 1943 for £1,000, but by that stage, irretrievable damage had been done to the GAA identity. Self-harm was rife too. In Derry of all places, a bit of leniency regarding ‘The Ban’ was required, but it was not forthcoming.
It seemed that Derry GAA as a whole, was at war with itself. Even when the senior footballers reached the All-Ireland football final in 1958 against Dublin, it was the last year when a Bishop would throw the ball in to start the game. The honour, such as it was, fell to Bishop Neil Farren, who threw the ball straight at Dublin’s Kevin Heffernan. Such was the job he made of it, that the referee actually stopped the game and threw the ball in himself after.
In the GAA Oral History Project, Derry’s 1958 captain, the legendary Jim McKeever told the story. “Dr Stewart came out onto the field with Bishop Farren which was a bit of a surprise because Bishop Farren was anti-Gaelic…He was Bishop of Derry and was not at all in
favour; he saw the GAA as a threat to his authority. He was invited to throw the ball in and he accepted, he was a bit of a vain man…”
In the 30s and 40s there were a number of air and naval bases along the Foyle, stretching all the way towards Limavady and at that stage the strength of the GAA in Derry was in the city, with around 14 clubs in operation. But those jobs weren’t for GAA men. Bishop Farren was appointed ‘Ordinary’ of the American Forces in Ireland and given the United States Medal of Freedom. He was tied in with the British war effort.
Anyone who worked within the military camps were loath to test the patience of the Bishop. Derry city never received fair play when it came to key public investments.
In 1963 the Matthew Report —established to identify the need to counter-balance the economic and population concentration in Belfast, recommended that a ‘new city’ of Craigavon be built between Lurgan and Portadown, despite being less than 30 miles from Belfast and within where there was solid support for the Unionist Government.
The project was aborted with the onset of the Troubles. Two years later, a report was carried out as to the need for a second University in Northern Ireland. The Committee that prepared the Lockwood Report did not contain any Catholic members and opted to place the University in the solidly Unionist town of Coleraine, rather than Derry City.
That was enough to get shoe leather on tarmac, headed up by a cross-community campaign, led by a young teacher called John Hume. No wonder the Creggan has such an identity. That’s why, when the Sean Dolan’s clubhouse and parts of their pitch was destroyed in an arson attack in 2011, they had a meeting of the club committee and vowed that while they might have to exist as a senior team only for a few years, they would rise again.
That’s why in 2015, James McClean sponsored the club a set of jerseys. How the club built their premises once again. They appointed Tipperary man Brian O’Donnell as Games Promotion Officer (GPO) and sent him into the schools in the area, along with contemporaries from other clubs such as Steelstown’s Neil Forester and began flooding their clubs with enthusiastic kids, building from the ground up all over again.
“From my point of view, there was no point getting this club rebuilt if we weren’t going to have underage,” says O’Donnell.
“I think once we made the decision we weren’t going to let the club go, we had to do something. We had five years between the fire and we were open again. We only had a senior team and played on council pitches, the hurling club (Na Magha) here were very good to us and other clubs too.” There are obvious spin-offs in all this time and energy.
The population of the city is around 105,000 with almost a quarter of that number (22%) being under 16. Given the entire county is 247,000, it means 40% of the population resides within the city area. Neil Forester played for his county for several years and is the full-time GPO with his club, Steelstown Brian Ógs.
“I was the first in, way back when I was just out of University so this is my seventh year in the job,” he says.
I’ve seen a huge change. The most obvious for me is that we had our Tower Cup which was a tournament between the Derry city primary schools.
“In my first year there were six teams in the cup, five schools, one of the schools brought two teams. And then this year there were between all cups, around 26 primary schools competing across all the cups to qualify for the Tower Cup.
“We have gone from five schools to 26 schools taking part in Gaelic Games in Derry city. We are probably not good enough at promoting ourselves. There is incredible work going on and I know Sean Dolan’s, they started from scratch since the fire. They really had no underage structure at that point.
“That had a tough effect, a huge effect on them and then they had no real underage structure after that in terms of 8s’, 10s and 12s. Now, because of these jobs, they have a very good group at under 12. They have girls’ teams now and that is all coming from the GPO roles, going to new Primary Schools. That’s what we do, go into the primary schools, promote the club in our local schools and try to recruit players. That’s the crux of it.”
Forester was the first city player to captain his county and soon grew weary of the reporter’s questions which were vague hints as to whether he might have preferred to perform in red and white stripes for Derry City, rather than a red hoop on a white jersey for his county. He has it long figured out.
“In Derry city, there is a lot of social deprivation. There is a perception there that Derry city is a soccer city, but whenever you actually look at it, there is a lot of kids that don’t have any organised sport whatsoever. And I think people don’t realise that.
“It’s as much about keeping kids active at a young age and giving them the option. Soccer is so available on TV and so on, but whenever you give these kids the opportunity to play Gaelic Games, especially kids in Creggan and Galliagh to play football, they absolutely love it.
“You certainly see more players going into the clubs. They get a few games, a few matches and then, that’s them hooked for life.”
On the training night, that was apparent. After they finished off their game, the county senior team began creeping out of the dressing room. The children formed a tunnel and held out their hands for high fives. Some of the more streetwise or old-fashioned, depending on your point of view, withdrew their hands before they were slapped to ‘leave them hanging.’ All a bit of fun.
“It was absolutely class,” said Derry manager Damien McErlain. “When we arrived there were cars right down through the Creggan parked up. It was a good buzz. I explained to the lads last week that we were going to Sean Dolan’s and why we were going.
“It was a great opportunity to see the facilities and so on. The boys were genuinely lifted by the buzz and the appreciation. Sometimes we give off about the lack of support we get but it was a brilliant thing to get that lift from it and to see that young lads look up to them.”
Team captain Chrissy McKaigue is a man not given to the ‘fluffy’ side of football. The local celebrity and fringe benefits mean little to one as austere. But if anyone can appreciate the ongoing efforts in the city, it is the Slaughtneil man.
Over the past couple of years, he has been behind a project to improve the standard of football in the Limavady region through the Gleann na Ro initiative which allows players to come together and play a higher standard.
“I think the Derry senior team attending the Creggan to train and meeting the local Derry city clubs also shows Derry supporters and the kids what the players are like as people,” says McKaigue.
“Just like the local coaches, the players have come from a day’s work, left a family home, belong to club just like all the kids do. I think quite often when people come to watch county games that they forget how normal the players are.
“Sport can transform people and communities in the key messages it delivers. People being involved in sport - not just GAA - for me is key in developing functioning communities. All areas no matter what their location or history face obstacles. Sport can often alleviate some of these problems and give people a pathway to a better quality of living. I think perhaps society now more than ever needs sport to help focus kids growing up because of the many distractions modern living encompasses.” Watching all of this unfold from the height of the bank is Tom McGuinness. Holder of three Ulster medals as an athletic midfielder with Derry in the 1970s, within the city he is more renowned for being a brother of the late Martin, the former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
“I started off with Doire Óg who has disappeared since. And then I graduated to Colmcille,” he recalls of his playing days.
There was a drastic decline in Gaelic football at that time. That was the early to mid-70’s. I got a chance to play down the county for Newbridge so I played down there for Sean O’Leary’s. Harry Gribbin was the manager at the time.
“I wasn’t getting games with Colmcille at the time because the lack of interest in the city, as opposed to what we are witnessing tonight. Between Colmcille, who have hundreds of young players, and then Dolan’s obviously have got the same. Steelstown Brian Ógs are another leading light and then you have Na Magha and Pearses.
“To divert back to when I was playing, there was none of this,” he says, surveying the pitch full of children.
“It was completely absent. This has evolved and everything does evolve. What we are witnessing in the city, how it pans out and how it contributes to the players who are going to develop into county footballers, we are going to have a few good prospects.
“The county team needs this input from the city. I believe city players provide a degree of craft and spontaneity in a player. Only then will Derry become a dominant force as they once were in Ulster and All-Ireland.” As for a Derry team training in his own patch?
“It’s all part of the promotion. To get the team up here tonight it gives the city a bit of a prompt. The events going on around us, it’s good from a county board perspective that they are interested in developing the game here. And it’s a good comfort for me to see that, the county board do care and want to promote the game in the city.” In the coming weeks, schools will close and the days will be long for children. The challenge is how to fill them in the middle of an Orange marching season.
“Sean Dolan’s has been there for 40 years, but their development has been absolutely fascinating,” says Kevin Campbell of Triax Neighbourhood Management, a matter of yards away from the McKee murder.
You get the youth into sport and it takes them away from the negativity in the community. Sean Dolan’s are doing a brilliant job.
“It’s always been that a sporting culture within the city has always been very, very strong. It is a very tight community. Creggan has always been a very strong, community-orientated area and people would band together in times of hardship.
“We see that with the clubs. They go out there and advertise themselves and what you notice is that the schools will close up for an eight-week period. These clubs all step into that breach to fill that gap for the youth.”
It keeps them occupied, off the street and focused at all times.”
You cannot hide from politics and history in a city like Derry. It’s everywhere, on every wall mural, every restored cannon. All that you can do is move forward and provide neutral spaces.
“We don’t get into the politics side of things. We know where we are and different people have different views and beliefs. We don’t get into it,” states Brian O’Donnell with emphasis. “When you come through that gate, football is the only thing that matters. We can provide an outlet for young people in the community and it is a great community, the Creggan.
“We plan to make it a parish feeling in the city. Creggan people are proud of where they are from and we are proud of where the club is. That’s a big part of it, we want a community club.”
How good does that sound?
‘We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reaps the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us.’
Too late for Lyra, an adopted daughter of the Creggan. But maybe for those that came shortly after her.