Hitting the ground running - A story of camogie in Swatragh
PUBLISHED: 2 July 2020
The roots of Swatragh camogie club had barely established themselves in the local sporting landscape before they were Derry senior champions. It was the start of an amazing run of 19 successive titles. Sarah Ann McNicholl played on 18 of those winning teams and was their goalkeeper in 2005 when they won their last senior championship. She spoke to Michael McMullan...
Most teams need time to lay foundations, blood a team, take their share of defeats along the learning curve before bounding back to gun their way to a title. Not Swatragh camogs.
There were signs of camogie in Granaghan in the 1950s, but Swatragh club wasn't founded until 1973. They were senior champions the following year. Just as they were for the next 18 seasons after that, before Bellaghy ended their unprecedented run of success.
Sarah Ann McNicholl (née Quinn) missed their 1992 success, as she and husband Mickey were expecting their oldest daughter Gráinne, with whom she would later line out with for a game on the club's junior team. Her younger daughter Mairead has also been a permanent fixture on Swatragh and Derry teams in recent seasons, while their son Darren plays both codes with the club.
Like many families across Ireland at the time, the Quinn family played endless hours of football, hurling and camogie, 'beating the hell out of each other' in the back field of their Ballynian home.
Sarah Ann went to school in Loreto, but her older sister Bernie (Rogers) was among the Swatragh girls going to St Mary's in Maghera, a key ingredient in Swatragh's rise.
“Anne Kelly was the teacher and was taking them for camogie, they absolutely loved it,” Sarah Ann recalls. “The next thing Mary Gunning mentioned starting a camogie team in Swatragh, that was back in 1973, and we were delighted to hear it.”
Nuala Friel (Chairperson), Mary Gunning (Secretary) and Helen McQuillan (Treasurer) were the first office bearers. Tommy Gunning was the first manager, with Tony McFlynn coming on board as trainer, at the old pitch, down the Ballynian Road
“I remember it vividly, three o'clock on a Saturday we had camogie training and we just loved it, everybody did. You couldn't wait 'til the following Saturday.”
Swatragh's camogie story is one of enjoyment, tradition, winning and more enjoyment. It was a way of life, with families all heading to games at the weekend. When the club was at it's peak in Ulster, including a three-in-a-row of titles, buses were filled and the attendances swelled.
“We used to joke that the Ulster Council loved us and that Swatragh were the first team to bring crowds to finals, they were not that heavily supported,” Sarah Ann continued.
In that first 1973 season, Swatragh won the minor championship (now called the U16 championship) with a young team that would form the basis for their relentless level of success at senior level.
“We were very interested and really, there was nothing else to do in Swatragh,” offers Sarah Ann as the secret of their success.
“It gave you a reason to get out of the house, we were all playing a bit at school, we loved it and we were all very young. Most of the team that won the first championship were between 13 and 16. There was no long-term strategy, we just said we would take every game as it game and try and win it.”
Sarah Ann also recalls going to carnivals everywhere, sometimes two per day. In that first season, it took countless periods of extra time before a replay was needed to decide their final with Glenullin at Drumsurn carnival. She mentions Caroline McWilliams, who was also on Ulster and All-Ireland hockey teams, collapsing with exhaustion.
Sarah Ann doesn't even remember the result, it was all about playing, and the next game. That was the mantra of the time.
“None of us were the age for driving and I always remember Margaret and Danny McCusker (RIP) taking us to the games in taxis, they were great supporters.
“We had a great committee at that time that made our job a lot easier,” Sarah Ann adds. “From the greater club committee, even though the camogie was a separate entity, we never had any trouble getting the pitch for training, we always got great support from the club.”
Alice Kirkpatrick is one of the names she has mentioned. Sadly she passed away, but the recent Ulster U18 Club championship is dedicated in her name.
“Alice was brilliant. If you needed a game arranged or pitch booked, you'd get a phone call to say all was in order, all you had to do is tell the weans to turn up. Those people made life very easy for the rest of us,” Sarah Ann explains.
“In the late 1970’s Brian McQuillan took over as chairman, and has been heavily involved in all aspects of the GAA club since, Tommy McGuckin likewise.”
Sarah Ann also mentions Eilis McGurk and their long-serving treasurer Patsy McElwee (née Quinn).
“The players are not the club, the club is the people and the community.”
With the structures in place, Swatragh's adventure was about to take off.
Every ship needs a skipper and in Tony McFlynn, Swatragh camogs had a trainer that went hand in hand with their love for the game.
“His brother Niall and Colm O'Kane would help, but 90 percent of the work was done by Tony. He took us to match and to carnivals everywhere. We were literally never off the road and Tony's input to camogie in Swatragh was remarkable.”
In the early stages of the 1974 final, Greenlough looked to be heading for the finish line with goals from Bridie McErlean and Bernadette Gribbon, but Jeanette O'Kane found the net with a game-changing goal and the 'Swa were on their way to a first title.
On their way home, the cavalcade stopped at St John's Primary School, where the cup was tied to the front of Tommy McGuckin's Land Rover.
“We paraded through the village to the hall, which is now the boxing club, and the post-mortem of the game was held there,” Sarah Ann points out. “Minerals and crisps were got in the shop and given to all the players and supporters. This tradition continued for every championship we won.”
The core of the team stayed together, with the odd player coming into the fray before a greater change came in the 1980s, with the tradition of the team still well-embedded.
In 1980 Sarah Ann broke her leg, but was back to play a part in the county final and the Ulster campaign. All the years may have merged into one and a series of victory processions. When asked if there was a moment when their march was close to being stopped, Sarah Ann mentions one word – Ballinascreen.
“Looking back, there wasn't a year we went out that we didn't fear Ballinascreen. Whenever the championship draws were made, we always wanted to play them first,” Sarah Ann continues.
It attracted their attention from the off. Training demanded a bite early on.
“We would have the utmost respect for them. They took us to replays and there was never more than a point or two in any of the games. They were very unfortunate, we rode our luck at times. I know they got a couple of championships, but they deserved a lot more.”
In one of the seasons, 'Screen nearly had their number before Swatragh forced a replay. Injury kept Sarah Ann out of the drawn game, but she remembers it well.
“We often thought about it and we got a very lucky free at the end and Eileen McGuckin put it over, from 50 yards out, to draw the game with the last puck of the ball.”
Goals from Jeanette O'Kane helped Swatragh through in the replay and on their way to another title.
Just as every story has a beginning, it always had an ending. In 1993, Swatragh were going for 20 titles in succession. Bellaghy had other ideas and ended their hopes of reaching the milestone.
“It was disappointing, We had beat them in the last two finals and they were an up and coming team,” Sarah Ann points out.
“They beat us fair and square. You dust yourself down and get on with it, that's what sport is about and you move on.”
Swatragh were back at the top of the pile in 1997 and won seven titles in a nine-year spell. Their last two Derry titles came under the guidance of Banagher man James O'Kane, who had called Sarah Ann in as a selector. But she got more than she bargained for.
“Margaret McAtamney, who was our goalie at the time got married and was pregnant. Gráinne Gunning was the sub goalie and she had an unsettled appendix and she had been off.
“James persuaded me to go into goals, so I got my 19th championship medal in 2005 at the age of 45.”
Sarah Ann's first port of call was Tony McFlynn, who had played in goals with Swatragh and Derry. He was only too glad too and put her through a routine for her new role.
All through the seventies, as Swatragh were rolling out Derry titles, they kept clambering towards Ulster's summit. In 1976, they reached their first final where they fell (5-5 to 0-1) against St Bridget's Newry.
Earlier in the season, Antrim player Lily Scullion was asked to take 'a few sessions' with the Swatragh squad. As the year progressed, work took her to Newry and she transferred to St Bridget's.
“It only dawned on me when she was talking about the game in the paper recently, that she was playing against us,” Sarah Ann points out.
Swatragh reached Ulster finals in 1978 and 1979, but returned home empty-handed from Glenravel after going down to a Portglenone side with Mairead McAtamney at the peak of her powers.
As the evenings began to drop and before the floodlights became the norm, Swatragh trained ahead of the Ulster championship under the light of the yard at the nearby Co-Op .
“There was a light and that's where we did a lot of fitness training over the autumn time,” Sarah Ann recalls.
In the early 1980s, Tommy McGuckin and Seamus McNicholl, Sarah Ann's brother in law, took over the reins and steered them to a first Ulster title in 1983, with victory over Down side An Riocht.
“The younger players came into the side and were well settled in and we were just raring to go. They (An Riocht) had two great players, Teresa Allen and Bonnie McGreevy, we knew about them and we knew we were going to have battle on our hands. We came through by four or five points.”
The victory parade would have an additional stop that Saturday evening. Clare McCusker was the team captain and her father Danny, who drove them all over Derry and beyond, was in ill health and unable to be in Ballymacnab for the club's greatest hour to date.
“After crossing Swatragh bridge, Clare brought the cup to her father who was waiting in a chair in the front foyer,” Sarah Ann recalls of the very poignant moment.
“Bingo was held at that time in the 'wee hall' and we invaded it,” Sarah Ann remembers. “We were leaping through the hall with the cup. I'm sure somebody could've missed a check that night over the head of us.”
On their national debut, they were beaten in a Swatragh monsoon by Wexford side Buffers Alley, who would go on to win a record four successive All-Ireland titles.
In Ulster, it was a shoot-out between Swatragh and Eglish, who defeated their Derry rivals in the 1985, 1986 and 1987 Ulster finals.
They would clash again in 1988, an 'eventful year' in Swatragh's history.
“We beat Eglish in the final at Swatragh. Our hall had been destroyed in an arson attack the previous weekend and it was a great boost to the area.
“The crowd at the match and support from GAA club and all over Derry was incredible. I was privileged to be captain,” Sarah Ann enthuses.
The Davitt's lost to Galway side Glenamaddy in the All-Ireland semi-final, but they went on to complete three-in-a-row in Ulster.
Sarah Ann's sister, Patsy McElwee, was captain for the next two seasons. In 1989, they defeated Loughgiel to win Ulster, but lost to St Paul's of Kilkenny, who went on to win the last of their eight All-Ireland titles, a current record. They were made up of eight Kilkenny seniors – including the Downeys - and a Cork player.
“We actually didn't do too bad, they beat us by seven points in the end, but it was a tight game”, she said.
It was Sarah Ann's last All-Ireland campaign. In 1990 she played in the Derry and Ulster championship where they beat Laragh of Cavan in the decider.
“I had just found out I was pregnant and I didn't play in the All-Ireland semi-final against Glen Rovers (Cork). It was a tough game, they were at a higher standard than us.
“Tommy McGuckin and Seamus McNicholl always told is to give our all and 'every team can be beat' but it didn't work out.”
It wasn't until 2000 that Swatragh got over their All-Ireland semi-final hurdle. Kevin McNaughton, who was also the Derry senior hurling manager, was in charge with Christopher 'Bisto' McGuckin.
With seven members of Derry's All-Ireland junior winning team on board, Swatragh were again Derry champions and met Keady in the Ulster final at Davitt Park.
The Armagh girls trailed at half-time before hitting two goals to take the lead. Paula McAtamney, who landed 0-9 of their 13 points, responded with scores after both goals. Swatragh were level with 10 minutes to go before Grainne Maguire's free and a ninth McAtamney free turned out to be the winner.
“They played a Tipperary team (Granagh-Ballingarry) in the All-Ireland semi-final in Swatragh,” Sarah Ann continues of their 2-8 to 1-7 win.
“The girls played out of their skins and it was probably one of the best ever performances by a Swatragh team.”
The All-Ireland final was abandoned in the early stages due to inclement weather with Swatragh leading by the only point of the game. Disaster struck before the rescheduled final when Paula McAtamney sustained a broken ankle that kept her out of the game and Galway side Pearses took the title, their fifth in a seven year period.
“Paula McAtamney was technically one of the best players to come out of Swatragh. She was a treat to watch and was a huge loss, but it wasn't to be,” Sarah Ann concludes.
Since then, the club have won two senior titles and the underage is blossoming. Two Féile wins (including All-Ireland Division 2 in 2008) have formed the backbone of the current senior team.
Last season, they defeated Slaughtneil to secure the league title but went down to their parish rivals in the championship.
When the league starts next month, they will travel to Lavey to begin another season. The club will be 50 years old in 2023. If the current team can parade with the cup across Swatragh Bridge, in the usual tradition, it would be a fitting way to mark the club's milestone.
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