Colm McGuigan drove the Limavady bus to Slaughtneil.
Thousands of teenagers, particularly those without much involvement in GAA, could have comfortably grown up having never set foot in Slaughtneil.
Shrouded in darkness on a Friday evening, its charms were not easily advertised, but if the mountain would not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.
But how would south Derry’s teenage prophets get there?
“Putting on the Ulsterbuses and all the coaches is what really got it going. They came in fairly quickly and it did the trick,” said current club chairperson Sean McGuigan.
“Darragh’s and McLaughlin’s only had maybe four buses and they were a wee bit reluctant to send good buses to the disco. Ulsterbus were a great saviour.”
Every Friday evening, a group of hardy bus drivers would set off from towns across Derry, delivering the county’s youth to Slaughtneil hall.
It wasn’t for everyone. Pat McGlade, who drove the Draperstown bus for a brief period as the disco was drawing to a close, beat a hasty exit.
“I was never at Slaughtneil in my life, I didn’t even know where it was at, but the first night I landed, we got them off and the fighting started,” he said.
“I said, ‘Jesus if I get out of here tonight, I’ll not be back!’. I’d never seen the like of it – they were killing each other that night!”
His predecessor, Loup man Sean Glendinning, approached the journey with a little more relish.
“They all called me Big Sean for some reason. I wasn’t that big, but I would have gave an odd roar out of me and they sort of listened to me!” he said.
“I got on well with them, really. You can’t put old heads on young bodies. You have to be flexible, and if you work with young people, they’ll work with you.
“We had no real hassle on the bus, the young people were easy talked to. I gave them a bit of space and they knew how far they could go with you. I never had any hassle.
“You’d have got a bit of fighting, but you never passed any remarks on it. It wasn’t too bad, just a bit of a row.
“I used to tell the young boys that if they wanted to box, to go and do it in the ring and earn a bit of money.
“The worst bit was whenever the snow was on, you got a bit of a snowballing! There was many a hairy night about it now, but we made it, we got there.”
Every night the fleet of drivers was ushered into the club’s kitchen and were wined and dined in traditional GAA style, with plenty of sandwiches, tea and biscuits to be had.
“We were well looked after up there,” said Sean.
“Once you got there, they took you into the club and Willie Hampson was the main man. You got your tea and all the drivers got a fiver.
“You had men from everywhere. The Ulsterbuses came from Kilrea and Dungiven and you had men from all round. Good times and good chat. There was the odd lie told!
“The kettle was going and there would be biscuits and a bit of craic. There were four or five in at one time and one or two would have stayed out to keep an eye on the buses.”
Willie Hampson is held in high esteem by all the drivers and his hospitality on a Friday night is remembered fondly when they recall the disco.
“Willie Hampson looked after the bus drivers and he was some man,” said Colm McGuigan, who started driving the Dungiven bus around 1987.
“He used to try and give us all a fiver, but we would have left it all and split it at Christmas time. I would say Slaughtneil got me through twelve Christmases when the weans were young!”
Colm is the current Derry GAA kit man and never tires of reminding the Slaughtneil players of his role in their success.
“I used to slag the Slaughtneil men when they came on the Derry team that it was me built their club, bringing all the weans over,” he said.
An Ulsterbus employee, he did the school runs by day from Limavady depot, and it was after some pestering from a few of the pupils that the routes to Slaughtneil expanded.
“When I started, it was only Dungiven going over to it. They would have gathered at the bus depot and two buses would have left,” said Colm.
“A year or so into it, the school weans used to say ‘would you not put a bus on to Slaughtneil?’
“I was in Limavady depot at the time, so I talked to a few of the drivers and we said we’d book a bus ourselves in our own name.”
Demand for the bus shot up as hordes of teenagers clamoured for a place every Friday night, but the Troubles still cast a shadow over South Derry in the 80s and 90s, and the chances of stumbling on a security checkpoint with an overloaded bus were high.
“Some nights there were maybe 100 weans on the bus, but we were lucky, we were never stopped,” said Colm.
“I remember we left Limavady during holiday time with about 30 in a 49-seater. Another 10 or 15 got on in Drumsurn, another 10 or 15 in Ballerin and by that time I was looking down the bus thinking ‘Jesus, how many is in this thing?’
“When I got the length of Glenullin, there were 20 weans standing and I was thinking ‘what am I going to do here?’
“I put the 20 weans on anyway and they were up in the racks and everywhere, so I said to myself I couldn’t go down onto the main road with these weans.
“I had to put the bus into first gear to get it over the top of that hill past the Gaelic pitch and I took it over the back roads into Slaughtneil.
“I came back that way and once I got those weans left off in Glenullin, I was happy enough to go down onto the main road again after that!”
In order to reduce the potential for mischief on the buses, the GAA club provided bouncers who would travel on the bus with the drivers.
Colm generally preferred to police the bus himself and recalls one night in particular when support came from an unlikely corner.
“One night I couldn’t get a driver, so I had to drive it myself. This boy got on with a bag of drink,” he said.
“Usually you weren’t allowed it, they just poured it down the drain, but this boy was a bit older than the rest of them and had a bag, so I took it off him and told him he’d get it after.
“I put it in around the cab. He behaved badly on the way over and I warned him a few times, so coming back again I said, ‘you behave yourself til we get home.’
“He didn’t do so bad until we got the length of Drumsurn and he went clean mad again, wrecking and tearing at the back of the bus.
“We got to Limavady and he came to me and said, ‘I want my drink’ and I said ‘you’re not getting it, you didn’t behave yourself.’
“He drew out and he hit me and knocked the glasses off me. He had long hair and I managed to grab him, and the next thing was he landed out onto the street.
“I looked and the police were sitting in the Landrover. I could see them coming and I thought ‘Jesus I’m in bother.’
“He got up and ran and the policemen chased him. The two cops came down then and asked if I was alright and if I wanted to press charges.
“I said ‘naw you’re alright’ and they said, ‘you did a brave job with him anyway’ and I never heard another word about it.”
Despite the odd bit of trouble here and there, Colm is full of praise for the Slaughtneil clubmen who kept things under control.
“All the boys that were looking after the disco were pioneers. They were great clubmen and they were never short,” he said.
“Even when the younger boys that were going to the disco in the early days, when they got past it they were doing their bit at it too.
“It gave them a serious name in those early days, and it put a bit of a push on the other clubs about the county to make their club as financially strong as Slaughtneil.”
With his parents’ house being in Maghera, Colm was able to take advantage by dropping in for a visit while the hundreds of teenagers he transported were dancing just a few miles out the road.
“Every Friday night I would have reversed the bus up to the side of the house and watched The Late, Late Show with my mother and father,” he said.
“You had to rush back to get up before the parents came up in cars. It would take you 10 or 15 minutes to get out, but it was well-marshalled and it was a good time for the weans.”
The bus drivers who braved the roads leading to Slaughtneil disco kept teenagers dancing in the South Derry hills.
They became the trustworthy ferrymen of teenage dreams.
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