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NOSTALGIA: From the darkness came a great light: Patsy Cassidy on Slaughtneil's growth

An interview with the late Patsy Cassidy ahead of the 2017 All-Ireland Club Final

NOSTALGIA: From the darkness came a great light: Patsy  Cassidy on Slaughtneil's growth

Patsy and Mary Cassidy pictured with Mickey Moran after a Derry SFC final

Former Slaughtneil President Patsy Cassidy passed away on Sunday at his home surrounded by his family at the age of 94.

In the week before the 2017 All-Ireland Club Final, Michael McMullan went to meet Patsy and his wife Mary as part of the County Derry Post's preview to Slaughtneil's clash with Kerry giants Dr Crokes.

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Shortly before seven o’clock last Thursday night Patsy and Mary Cassidy returned home from Slaughtneil Hall. With 30 tickets secured for Friday’s final, it was time to load up the fire and get the kettle on.

You never see one without the other, with the GAA a perfect bond. Pulling into Lavey on a cold October afternoon a few years back to see one of their 22 grandchildren play in a school game. A 400 mile round trip by bus to Portlaoise to see their beloved Slaughtneil make their first appearance on the national stage.

They are side by side - fanatical supporters in every sense of the word. Despite the beating drums of the partisan army of Austin Stacks supporters through the O’Moore Park stand at half-time, there was a glint in Patsy Cassidy’s eyes. “We have them now,” he uttered, in reference to Slaughtneil’s comeback.

On Friday, the 30 Hogan Stand tickets will be distributed evenly. Three rows of ten. Intentionally. The Cassidy family can all sit in close proximity, hoping for Mickey Moran’s side to follow in the footsteps of the camogie girls.

“Francis (son) and (grandson) Michael they’ll come from Derry,” Mary explained. “They’ll lift us and we’ll call with Roisin (daughter) for a bite to eat, she lives in Ashbourne.”

From there, it will be on to Croke Park, and thanks to the Slaughtneil club, there’ll be a convenient parking spot. A respect of the generation of founding members. Patsy is grateful: “They are more than good to me, Seamus Mulholland and Ollie McCusker, they’ll come with a car pass.”

Cassidy would often be seen across the county, stewarding at funerals, helping park cars or ushering someone to the last available seat at the front of the chapel. He is entitled to a slice of payback.

“When you hit the tenth decade you get slowed up,” Cassidy joked.

At his 90th birthday party celebrations last year, the dress code said it all about one of Slaughtneil’s greatest ever supporters.

On May 29th (the day after his official birthday), there was a family gathering at the Shepherd’s Rest and out came a set of 35 specially commissioned maroon and white jerseys. The Cassidy coat of arms on the front and “Cassidy 90” on the back.

Such was the novelty, O’Neill’s asked permission to use them in a marketing campaign.

On visiting Patsy last week three things stuck out way above the rest. The Slaughtneil photos scattered around the walls, a warm fire and an equally warm welcome.

Cassidy’s first venture to Croke Park was some 72 years ago, the first of countless visits to the iconic ground.

“It was in 1945, I remember it because I was in Willy Noone’s. He had a wee Morris Minor car and it was sitting during the war,” Cassidy recalled. “There was me, Willy Noone and Fr Bernard McKenna, who was a chaplin in the army. He called in a thatched house along the road to see a man who was in the army along with him.”

Patsy Cassidy began working at the age of 14, serving his time under Mr and Mrs Noone in the shop, where he worked for 25 years. In 1960, he opened his own grocery shop in Maghera before retiring in 1990.

“I started in Noone’s on Hallowe’en day 1940, he had just left Teady McErlean’s and started in DJ McKenna’s the year before. It was an electrical shop, selling wirelesses,” Cassidy recalled.

“I was nearly the first one who got a car”, Cassidy stated. “I took Hugh Andrew (Cassidy), the Faddies (McKenna’s), Billy McRory, Gerry McNeill, our Jack and Denis and all to Croke Park for years and years and years. I was in Croke Park more times,” Cassidy explained.

“It was the only time you ever got out – nobody had cars. People never got out to dances or anything like it is now.”

A trip to Dublin cost around 30 shillings for a passenger and about 5 shillings to pay into Croke Park. Times have changed.

“I bought a car from Jim McGeehan - an Austin 12. Frank McKenna and me at the time, got three calves and kept them for two years up in a field of Brian Gormley’s and they were ready for selling. This car was £80 and I bought it.”

There were always eight in the car and Patsy had two extra seats installed just behind the front seats. There were also two spare wheels.

EMMET PARK

“In 1953 they started the football, down in a field of Philip Mullan’s,” recalled Cassidy. “Before that, they always had a Sunday carnival and they played a soccer match. I remember Matt Regan and another boy Frank Bradley from Swatragh playing soccer up where wee John McEldowney lives. It was Jimmy Doherty’s field.”

The first club officers were David McKenna (Chairman), Tommy McAllister (Secretary) and Jack Cassidy (Treasurer).

When the ‘old hall’ was built in Halfgayne three years later, it gave the club a focus – mainly for whist drives, ceilís and concerts. They came in their droves for popular acts. A Dublin based priest Fr Cleary, Philomena Begley and Leo McCafferty.

There was a tug of war team. The locals played skittles, as well as pitch and toss – all in the days before the football got going.

They would soon have a home: “Where the main pitch is now, that was just a wilderness when they started,” Cassidy outlined.

“Jack (Cassidy), Pat McGuigan, Gerry McNeill and all those older boys. There was Patrick Kelly and Thomas McAllister was a big man at that time - he was the brains behind nearly all that. There was another man Neil Denis (Bradley), he was a good worker.

“That was just a scrog and they started pulling the rushes out of it. They drew all the gravel for making the drains from Dorrity’s gravel pit down in Moneysharvin, in behind where Anthony Tohill lives.

“Barney Briney (Bradley), Francis and Tommy Doogan were there. We had plenty of good workers now. We had an old tractor, and they drew the stones and they filled them with shovels.”

In his 91 years, Cassidy has witnessed different phases of change in the landscape around Slaughtneil.

Back then, Hugh McCann brought up a digger to finish the levelling process on Slaughtneil’s pitch, which was opened in 1966. Now Emmet Park is barely recognisable, with the three pitches and floodlights which can be seen for miles.

To build the current hall, opened in 1984, Slaughtneil ran the draw, as Cassidy explains: “It was a raffle £50 per ticket and you could pay it in over six months. They sold tickets everywhere for building that hall.

“We went up to Corvanaghan, outside Kildress, I had a sister who lived up there and they would tell you what houses to go to - I can guarantee that draw went on for 18 months.”

With the GAA well-established, the Sunday routine soon followed in the homes of Slaughtneil. Go to mass, back home and on the bicycle to a game.

Further afield, Cassidy was a regular visitor to Croke Park. It was mainly football.

“The hurling final – there wasn’t as much talk in those times. Antrim was the only team here and hurling was hardly mentioned. Our Denis was wild about hurling and so were the Kellys. Colm Kelly was a great hurler and he played for the county. It was only Lavey and Dungiven in those times, back about 40-50 years ago.

“It wasn’t until Thomas (Cassidy) took a real interest, every Sunday morning, that’s the time hurling got going in Slaughtneil properly.”

On the football front, Swatragh had only been formed a matter of years before Slaughtneil and there wasn’t the volume of games that we see today.

“I remember our Barney playing for Swatragh. The first time I remember our Denis playing, it was in a final for Derry played at Magherafelt. It was the County Grounds back then - he wasn’t very big until he was 19 or 20 years of age.”

Cassidy contrasts to the modern day and the All-Ireland Camogie title: “There are some strides since then.”

The presence of Aoife Ní Chaiside at the top of the Hogan Stand steps and the wider family circle. His nephew Bernard’s daughter Cara up in the commentary box, describing every move.

Eilís’ wonder score to seal the title is the icing on the cake. The most memorable visit to Croke Park

“I went down to the wire (at the end) and of course nobody gets into Croke Park. I was just standing and someone says ‘let the man in, let the man in’, there was a man there and he was on the phone all the time,” explains Cassidy.

Eventually common sense prevailed and Cassidy had the freedom of the touchline to mingle and enjoy the magical occasion. Within minutes, the entire camogie team were standing in a group surrounding him. It was a nice touch.

“Then a woman came along and said ‘you’re not going up those stairs again’, you’re going out the player’s entry. So I went away down the tunnel - by God it’s some place. I went outside, just where our car was parked.”

THE D WORD

Hand in hand with the recent success, has come a more disciplined approach by Slaughtneil. In Cassidy’s mind – it was made all the difference.

“When they won the first minor championship (1998) and went into senior after that, if they had more discipline they would have won a lot more. Once you loss a man, that’s it.

“They had a good team – even the ones still playing yet. Francis McEldowney, Fergal McEldowney, Damien Kearney and Jim Kelly - now he was a great player, I am only sorry he didn’t keep on another year, he scored more goals for Slaughtneil.

“Shane Kelly was brilliant and there is never a word about him,” Cassidy added.

With a thought towards Friday’s opponents Dr Crokes, Cooper and O’Leary are the household names.

“They’ll not be soft, coming from Kerry,” Mary added.

Patsy put it in context.

“St Vincent’s were the bookies favourites, but there is one man that has been an asset the last two years and that has been Padraig Tad (Cassidy). There is very little count put on him. He never loses a ball and he fears nobody. He hasn’t failed in many matches the (this) year, he doesn’t look strong but he is.”

The return to fitness of Patsy Bradley has been another plus: “He came on against Newbridge, away at the beginning of the year and he played about 15 minutes but the last two or three matches he has been brilliant.”

“And another man,” Cassidy continued. “I dare say if he came on now, he’d still play the shirt off his back and that’s Togger (Padríg Kelly).”

From decades of watching Slaughtneil at all levels, there isn’t much gets past Patsy. Rarely missing a game, brought up in a GAA stronghold and constantly reading about the exploits of all the teams – a fountain of knowledge.

“Francis McEldowney has been a pleasure this year as well. Were you ever at a match that he wasn’t booked or sent off? Up to the last three years, he is completely different and I told him that,” was Cassidy’s praise for the Slaughtneil skipper.

Several times during a two hour long chat, discipline has been brought up and Mickey Moran’s ability to instil it into the Slaughtneil squad.

“Paudie McGuigan got sent off a couple of times and I’d always on at him after matches. Then one day in Owenbeg, he played well, they won and he came over and asked ‘How did I do today’ – he is a nice lad,” Cassidy commented.

“After they played St Vincent’s they were all talking about Chrissy McKaigue and Connolly not getting a kick at the ball. But I said, the man you never hear a thing talked about is Antóin McMullan - he saved a goal that nobody could have saved.”

MAN MANAGMENT

Cassidy’s nephew John Joe Kearney is a regular visitor. “He calls every couple of weeks and I think he is looking great for 70 and he gets on very well with Mickey Moran. Mickey, doesn’t want to talk to the people and John Joe is very capable.

“Apart from the manager on the field, you have to manage them (players) too. You have to know their temperament and know what to say to them – every player is different.”

From the early days of the club and the ‘wilderness’ before Emmet Park was developed, Friday exposes Cassidy’s beloved Slaughtneil to the nation once again. There is a pride.

Apart from discipline, what has made the difference?

“Spirit,” was Mary’s reply.

Patsy also gave a short response: “Dedication.”

But then he expanded: “Not just now. I remember when we were young and we had just built Slaughtneil (old) Hall, all with voluntary labour. It was all about the community and I remember in Halfgayne, we hadn’t got tuppence but everyone got fed in it”

“There was a boy Green came down for years on a motorbike to teach Irish dancing up in the old hall and got his tea in our house before heading back to Belfast.”

The work ethic that Slaughtneil will crave on Friday, it becomes second nature. Patsy Cassidy knows it too well.

Working 15 hour days, earning just 15 shillings per week in the early days and eventually opening his own shop.

When St Patrick’s Maghera were in finals back in the day, the pre-match snacks were all donated. In today’s game, it’s doubtful if Mickey and John Joe will be feeding Sammy, Rogers and the McKaigues ‘Tip Top’, Marathon bars and Tayto cheese and onion.

How times have changed but much stays the same. In 1945 Fr Barney McKenna and Willy Noone travelled with Cassidy on his first trip to Croke Park. Now Noone’s are the Slaughtneil team sponsor.

Francis McEldowney will lead the men from Halfgayne Road into battle against the might of Kerry. The three rows of 10 in the ‘Cassidy Section’ of the Hogan Stand will be bursting with pride.

From the wilderness comes a great light.

If you have a story or want to send a photo or video to us please contact the Derry Now editorial team on 028 7129 6600 for Derry City stories Or 028 7774 3970 for County Derry stories. Or you can email editor@derrynews.net or editor@derrypost.com at any time.


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