Simone Forbes in action during St Mary's All-Ireland Semi-Final win over St Patrick's Cork.
Taking on the southern teams was always a significant obstacle for Ulster camogie teams, but St Mary's Magherafelt's 1996 junior team were different. Twenty-five years after being the first Ulster side to win an All-Ireland junior title, Martina Devlin (née McGuckin) looks back on the joy of making history. Michael McMullan writes...
Fantastic. It wasn't just Martina Devlin's choice of word, but it was more how she said it. With an enthusiastic tone that jumped across a conversation of a moment she will never forget.
Winning All-Ireland titles is the stuff of dreams, but as is often the case, you have to lose one before you win.
It was a mixture of heartbreak and success for 'The Convent' in 1996. In a year when the school's MacRory team lost to their rivals St Patrick's Maghera in the final, the senior camogs won the Ulster championship.
After beating Maghera in the Ulster final, they were seconds away from a major scalp in the All-Ireland semi-final. Cork giants St Mary's Charleville were trying to turn a run of three All-Ireland final defeats into a first title.
“Whenever you go down south, you are always up against it...you rarely won,” Martina recollects.
St Mary's were 1-8 to 0-6 ahead and looked to have one foot in a first senior final. They didn't factor in the Cork side's resolve and three minutes of injury time that saw Charleville carve out a comeback on the way to the first of four successive titles. It was a sore lesson of needing to play to the final whistle.
“The heartbreak for Rita Moran (coach) and that team was just awful,” Martina remembers.
As the defeat subsided, all efforts were channelled into the school's junior team, who were coming up the ranks as the school began to build its camogie tradition.
St Mary's Grammar School Magherafelt - 1996 All-Ireland Junior A camogie champions.
After winning four successive Ulster junior championships, the All-Ireland had proved to be a bridge too far. Magherafelt lost their first final to St Mary's, Nenagh after a replay in 1992 before losing to Charleville in the next three seasons, twice in the final.
The 1995 final defeat was a heavy one, but Martina was one of six from the team eligible again the following season as they launched another Ulster title bid.
“We had some star players,” Martina continues. “Simone Forbes from Ardboe, she was a class act. Along with that, we had a lot of solid players.”
Patricia Cooney had come into the school as a new PE teacher and had taken the team under her wing, with support from Rita who had now thrown her lot in totally with the juniors after the senior exit.
“All attention was focussed on us and that we could possibly do this,” adds Martina, daughter of successful school (football) manager Adrian.
Sport was central to their lives in Ballinderry and her late mother Vera, also a teacher in St Patrick's Maghera, would rarely have missed a game.
“She had us spoiled,” Martina states. “The boots would be clean and the kit bag would always be ready.”
In the pre-Christmas qualifier stages, Magherafelt and Maghera played out a draw. When the sides met in the semi-final, it went down to the wire again.
“There was always a bit of stick in the house between the boys (Adrian and Ronan) and myself,” Martina jokes. “If St Pat's were playing in the football, I donned the St Pat's colours, but when the Convent were playing in the camogie, Mammy and Daddy were on my side.”
The clash in Newbridge saw Magherafelt emerge as one-point winners. With girls playing both with and against clubmates, rivalry was at fever pitch, with a tense affair always on the cards.
“Any time you met them (Maghera), there was tension and nerves in the build up to it,” Martina said of the 'most nerve-racking' game of the season.
“We were all psyched up for it and it was the same for Maghera because the girls knew each other. It was always very closely contested and the rivalry between those two teams was mad.”
With the exception of their two-point win over Loreto Cavan in the 1993 junior final, St Mary's were comfortable winners in the other four finals. Standing in their way this time was St Louis Ballymena, who were playing in their first decider.
Magherafelt skipper Simone Forbes hit 3-5, with Denise McCann grabbing the fourth goal in a 4-5 to 1-1 victory at Creggan.
Ulster's only camogie All-Ireland came in 1971, when St Clare's of Newry saw off Presentation, Mountmellick after a replay to win the senior crown.
With St Mary's an established name across Ulster and now well travelled on the national stage, it was their time to shine.
It was a dismal Saturday morning in Cork. It may have been a crunch All-Ireland clash, but as fog descended on the Mayfield pitch, conditions for camogie were far from ideal.
“It was the most dismal day,” Martina remembers. “It was amazing the match even went ahead, you could barely see in front of you.”
It wasn't her only concern as the nerves kicked in as the team impatiently watched the minutes tick away at their hotel on the morning ahead of a midday throw-in.
Some of the parents called with good luck wishes and a few quiet words from her father helped ease Martina's nerves.
“It is very natural (to be nervous) before a game, but that morning I was sick with nerves,” she recalls.
This time it was a different Cork opponent, St Patrick's, who raced out of the blocks to land two early points.
Simone Forbes, with support from Bernadine Quinn and Maoliosa Shivers, began to get to grips with the game around midfield and a goal from Claire Gormley had St Mary's 1-1 to 0-2 ahead by half-time.
“From then, we found our way,” Martina points out. With the breeze at their back, Forbes added a second goal and St Mary's never looked back. Gormley bagged a third before Forbes netted again late on to seal a 4-3 to 0-5 win.
Press reports had Martina down as the 'pick of' the defenders, as she put her nerves to one side to help her side to victory.
“It was unheard of, to go down and beat a Cork camogie team...that was just something else,” she states.
“I remember Mummy and Daddy having to leave at five or six in the morning to make that game. It was brilliant, out of my whole career that's the one match that sticks in my head,” added Martina, who gave her school coaches the highest of compliments.
“I just can't describe the confidence they instilled in us,” she explains of Patricia Cooney and Rita Moran's input.
“They always had something new to add to the coaching sessions. Rita always told me I had a fantastic reach on me and if I could stretch out my arm, I'd catch the sliotar. That stayed with me.”
“They had the tactics perfected and took every player aside at training, giving them their own pep talk. They were fantastic coaches and made everyone feel as one...as a team and that was very important.
“Rita was a fantastic person and mentor. She was the most influential person in my camogie career. The confidence she instilled in young girls, the belief she instilled...she was a fabulous role model.”
A win in Cork was one thing, but St Mary's had only one hand on the cup and the experience from the previous finals was ringing in the ears.
“The nerves had settled and we had nothing to lose. We knew what we were going down to face. We were up against fantastic players from the south who were often told to train with the hurlers,” Martina continues.
While the previous final defeats had lowered the expectations, there was confidence in the squad. They knew they had a solid and gifted team.
The excitement was building around the school. After every game the squad would have been called up on the stage at assembly, like celebrities almost.
“We were treated like Queens,” Martina adds. “We got to stay in hotels before games and there was just such a buzz in the school.”
The St Mary's squad pictured at a civic reception hosted by Magherafelt District Council to mark their All-Ireland success.
The final against FCJ Bunclody, who they beat in the 1995 semi-final, was moved from Tullamore to Birr at the last minute.
With the date with destiny ahead of them, their battles with Maghera over the past two seasons and the hurt of losing finals had them primed for a shot at glory.
Like the Ulster Final, it turned out to be a routine win. But not before a 'tit for tat' opening quarter as the teams sussed one another out. Simone Forbes again led by example and a sweet Denise McCann goal had the Ulster champions 1-8 to 0-3 ahead at half-time.
“Bunclody in the final was a blur,” Martina said of the game. “I remember Simone just taking the lead and the score at the end was 1-10 to 0-5, so thankfully it was a quiet day for me in the defence.”
Despite holding a 'comfortable' lead and thoughts of 'could it be' the year, there were still the sobering thoughts of the senior team and throwing away a comfortable lead.
“There would be no relaxing,” Martina stresses. “You were praying that the clock would tick down quickly. You always felt that once you crossed the border, you hadn't a chance, but thankfully that year was different. It is every GAA person's dream, it was just fantastic and to this day I treasure it dearly.”
It was a loud bus on the way home as the celebrations began.
“I don't know how Patricia and Rita's ears stuck it,” Martina laughs. “We had fantastic memories.”
The next trip to the school stage was as All-Ireland champions. There was a civic reception hosted by Magherafelt District Council, with a four course lunch and photographs with the Mayor.
“We felt very special,” Martina adds. “The school put on a lunch for us and invited all the parents in too, those were great memories.”
The All-Ireland success had an impact up the ranks, with eight of the team going on to win Ulster senior medals later in their careers.
“We had a very solid team and everybody had something different to offer. The defence was rock solid, Maura McAuley was a centre back, there was Eimear Totten and Sinead Heffron.
“There were only four of us in defence and you nearly had the full-back line to yourself, that was your territory to defend It was a whole different ball game back then”, explains Martina of the days when camogie was 12-a-side.”
In 2007, St Mary's won their first All-Ireland senior title with a replay win over Presentation Athenry, thanks to five Attracta McPeake points and goals from Eimear McKenna and Sarah O'Kane.
It was another chapter in the school's sporting history, but it was the team of 1996 who started their All-Ireland story, they were the team to cut new ground.
The teams from St Mary's five-in-a-row winning Ulster junior championships.
1992 – St Mary's 5-8 St Patrick's, Keady 1-1
ST MARY'S: Lisa Diffley, Gemma Bateson, Bláithín McIvor, Clare Brown, Fiona Kennedy, Eimear Burton, Jeanette McCann (0-2), Éilis O'Neill (1-1), Kathy McDonnell (1-3), Roisin Pickering (3-2), Barbara Birt, Niamh Trolan
SUBS: Laura McGoldrick, Aisling Tohill, Ann-Marie Totten, Bríd Mulholland
1993 – St Mary's 3-3 Loreto, Cavan 3-1
ST MARY'S: Christine Cushley, Mary Keenan, Sinéad Birt, Orla Forbes, Mary Teresa Gribben, Tracey Kelly, Bláithín McIvor (Capt.), Bríd Mulholland (0-1), Brona Trolan, Catherine Pickering (0-1), Therese McCann (2-1), Cathryn Gribben (1-0)
SUBS: Éilis O'Neill, Clare Long, Jacinta Totten, Cliona O'Boyle, Ciara O'Kane, Roisin Kielt, Joanne Mulholland, Michelle McVey, Seona O'Neill, Catherine Bothwell.
1994 – St Mary's 3-10 Loreto, Cavan 1-2
ST MARY'S: Marion Kearney, Orla Forbes, Anne Marie Bateson, Sinéad Birt, Catherine McCann, Amanda Kennedy, Éilis O'Néill (0-2), Bríd Mulholland (0-1), Simone Forbes, Bláithín McIvor (1-3), Tríona McAteer, Catherine Pickering (Capt., 2-4)
SUBS: Clare McCann, Sheree Bell, Orla Donnelly, Veronica Diamond, Mary McCann, Leanne Madden
1995 – St Mary's Magherafelt 1-3 S Mary's Clady 0-1
ST MARY'S: Claire O'Kane, Martina McGuckin, Orla Donnelly, Catherine McCann (Capt.), Bernadine McCann, Noreen O'Neill, Mary Jo Walls, Simone Forbes, Maoliosa Shivers, Amanda Kennedy, Denise McCann, Claire Gormley
1996 – St Mary's 4-5 St. Louis Ballymena 1-1
ST MARY'S: Rowena Cassidy, Martina McGuckin, Eimear Totten, Maura McAuley, Sinéad Heffron, Bernadine Quinn, Simone Forbes (Capt. 3-5), Maoliosa Shivers, Claire Gormley, Denise McCann, Marie Therese McCann (1-0), Amanda Kennedy
SUBS: Ursula Walls, Fiona Hughes, Paula Bateson, Patricia Bateson, Aine O'Kane, Lorna Mulholland, Shauna Mulholland, Ciara O'Donnell
Teams compiled by Séamas McAleenan
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