Chairman Pat Kidd in the foyer of Desertmartin's refurbished Gaelic Centre
In the recent County Derry Post awards scheme, Desertmartin were voted as Club of the Year for 2020. Michael McMullan spoke with their Chairman and club stalwart Pat Kidd to hear how the club is now thriving.
Following the meandering Longfield Road, up from the village of Desertmartin, the snowy summit of Slieve Gallion makes for an impressive skyline.
Eventually, on the right hand side, football posts emerge from the lush green countryside. A freshly made sign highlights the club's support for the NHS during the current pandemic and tells a community the club is there for them.
From grocery deliveries to pharmacy collections, the support is there with Chairman Pat Kidd's number clearly visible. Welcome to planet GAA and how they fend for their own.
The sign also advertises their new membership scheme – Club Desertmartin – with a motto that tells a lot.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much,” it reads.
Pat Kidd backs it up. After hanging up the boots, his love of GAA saw him give something back and he has stayed involved.
He was a club referee, an underage coach and carried out all roles on the administration front. When asked how long he held the post of Chairman, he laughs.
“Off and on, I have been Chairman, Secretary or Vice-Chairman for about 40 years,” he clears up.
He points to the clubhouse and its surroundings. It's all for the families.
“I always say the GAA is family and families stick together,” Kidd proudly says.
Glen's All-Ireland winning forward Enda Gormley's father Joe played with Desertmartin and was 'born and raised' in the village. His uncle Pat was a club trustee. But the majority of their members hail from the countryside outside the village.
“We touch Ballinascreen, Lissan, Moneymore and around to Magherafelt...and across to Lavey and Glen,” Kidd points out. “We reach all those areas of our catchment area.”
Their membership grew to 362 last year, the club's record in their existence. It's something that is music to any club, especially in the foothills of Slieve Gallion where they don't have the luxury of an influx of housing.
“Yeah, every club loves to see more members,” said Kidd. “There are not many houses and there is not much of a future for houses to be built here.”
The club have made a case to the Housing Executive who have in turn asked for a declaration of interest from families wanting to locate in the Longfield area.
“That's what we are crying out for,” Kidd stresses. There is an ambition to grow their community.
On arrival at Desertmartin's Gaelic Centre, the newly developed extension is both fresh and welcoming.
Built on the side of their existing hall and prestigiously refurbished dressing rooms, is a state of the art function room, with plasma TVs on the wall. There is a separate meeting room and a foyer area with the club crest and kits visible.
It is the shop window of the club. First impression is everything and Desertmartin are making a statement of a club building for the future.
Desertmartin's new function room
“With our membership continuing to grow and with people looking more than football, we thought we would provide a social hub for the community,” Pat Kidd outlines.
The motivation was to provide a centre for anything from fitness classes to birthday parties.
“It is there for everyone to use. Our next phase would be to upgrade our gym facilities and that would be something we can look at further on,” Kidd adds.
They sought funding from both Mid Ulster Council and the Department of Agriculture. On top of that, like any club benefiting from grants, they had to show their own commitment and put forward their own income.
The community answered the call in the shape of silver and gold memberships, with monthly payments of £10 and £20, to the Club Desertmartin scheme.
“It was a serious effort by a lot of people,” Kidd stresses. Behind the words, his tone tells the full story of pride in what they have achieved.
“As well as more new blood coming into the underage system via the local schools, we noticed increasing numbers coming to walk around the pitch.”
A grant from Mid Ulster Council, coupled with the foresight to get the application made, saw a full floodlit walking provision with zero cost to the club.
Even as our conversation continues, a couple of walkers are in their zone, striding along as part of their daily routine – proof of the club's value.
“There are people using this all the time. It is the whole community, even coming to walk their dogs and there in an overall social aspect to it,” Kidd adds.
“There are initiatives like Every Step Counts or Ireland Lights Up, we sign up to them all the time and people get involved in them.”
Those who founded the club would look down with pride on how their early seeds grew and have been nurtured.
In 'The Story of the GAA', published in 1916 by Dr T O’Sullivan, Desertmartin was one of the first traces of the association, even before the formal competitions had begun.
In chapter seven, O'Sullivan states that 'branches of the GAA' were started in Desertmartin in 1885, just after the association was founded in Thurles' Hayes Hotel.
The first St Martin's team to play in organised league fixtures in Derry, 1930-33
BACK (L-R): M Hegarty, JJ Higgins, F Law, E Breen, T Hegarty, Master Hartnet
FRONT (L-R): J Donnelly, J Hegarty, H Walls, F Cassidy, J McGuigan, L McGuigan
A club was founded by Master McLaughlin, a teacher in Knocknagin in 1933, wearing yellow jerseys with a Shamrock emblazoned on them. That was the beginning and in the same year, the South Derry League and Championship was initiated.
Due to the effects of World War Two, the club dissolved but was reinstated in 1947.
From then until 1960, the team played in fields belonging to the Bradley and Gribben families in the townland of Moneysterlin. After that, they moved to a field belonging to Annie and Hugh McCann of Longfield until 1964.
During this period the club continued their lofty ambitions and purchased land in Longfield which they converted into a playing pitch and have been based there ever since.
The 1950’s saw the seniors win the junior championship in 1950 followed by the senior championship in 1953 and were finalists to Bellaghy in the Senior final of 1959. Junior championship honours followed for a second time in 1968.
“They are massive markers in our history, from the very first team that ever represented the club in the 1930s,” Pat Kidd added.
“There are links to the present day. That's what carries all clubs, there are links in the chain and you just keep building on them.”
From then until now the club have contested seven intermediate finals 1972, 1975, 1977, 1985, 1991, 1994, 2003 but, while it demonstrates a level of consistency, they have yet to get over the line at this grade.
The strong base of players helped them win seven intermediate reserve championships, since their first in 1992.
Development of facilities have been ongoing with the construction of the Gaelic Centre opened by President Buggy in August 1984. The club Chairman at the time, Patrick Higgins, was a driving force behind the club and was a vital cog in the South Derry Board.
Higgins sadly passed away in 2001, but his legacy lives on through an U10 tournament the club began the following year. It remains one of the most established on underage club circuit with his family presenting the cup in his memory.
The playing field was re-laid in 1993 along with the building of the John O’Hagan Stand.
Due to increased numbers of players and teams the club developed a fully floodlit training pitch in 2011. They didn't stand still and the current developments display the commitment to the future.
Camogie was prominent within the club up until the late 1960s while Rounders was played during the 1980s and 1990s.
“Big Andy (Shaw) was chairman of the club at that time and he tried to revive it (camogie) in the seventies,” Kidd points out. Those in the area travel to neighbouring Ballinascreen for hurling and camogie.
“We also had Paula McElwee, one of our lady footballers, playing for Swatragh in the Derry camogie final against Slaughtneil this year and she played very well,” he added.
Patsy Breen is one of the club's most famous sons, having played with Derry and Ulster with great distinction.
“His father Eoin was on the first team we had back in 1930. Patsy went on to be Derry Chairman with Brian Smith following in his footsteps more recently.”
When Scór was in its zenith during the 1970s and 1980s Desertmartin were awarded on one occasion as the most participant club throughout the county.
Desertmartin won many South Derry underage leagues and championships during the 1990s, as the club began an underage coaching drive that built a senior team for the future.
On the ladies football front, Desertmartin were senior champions in 1998 and, like the mens' teams, the more recent underage development has brought silverware.
In 2019, Desertmartin beat Ballinascreen to land the Derry 'A' Féile and qualified for the All-Ireland Finals in Mayo. It was a wet night in Lissan, but the Desertmartin girls emerged county champions.
“It was a bad night (with the rain), but it was a great night for us,” Pat Kidd proudly states. “There were great coaching structures there too, just like we have with the boys.
“The girls went to the All-Ireland and of all the various 20 groups across all the Divisions, we played in Division 3.
“Our girls were creating history on a daily basis with their results and performances and they reached the semi-final.”
The Martin's were grouped with Tyrone side Carrickmore and Mayo's Carnacon, who produced the great Cora Staunton.
“We were playing clubs from Dublin and Mayo and competing with the best and we were based in the foothills of Slieve Gallion,” Kidd enthused.
It's all about Desertmartin. Boys or girls, it didn't matter. Even last year, the club's executive committee of 12 was split down the middle – six men, six women.
“That's a sign of how wide a reach across the community,” Kidd said. “We'd be very keen to see that.”
On the day the seniors began their championship run last season, Pat's mother Mary and Mary Breen - who were also great friends - were both buried. Between them, they washed the senior kit for the past 40 years.
The 2020 season brought the club on the latest leg of their story, one that has been left in limbo.
In 2005, the club played at Grade A U16 level and four years later defeated a fancied Kilrea team to land the U21 Jack Cassidy Cup.
It was a group that backbones the current senior team – Declan Murray, Connor Monaghan, Enda McGuckin, brothers Gregory and Paul McGovern.
And, casting your eyes over Derry development, minor and school squads in recent years Desertmartin players are beginning to appear with more regularity.
Lachlan Murray and Connor Shiels played in the Ulster minor championship with Derry last season and Ryan McEldowney is also on the panel.
“Yes, it's happening a hell of a lot more than ever, we have players involved in all of those teams,” Pat Kidd points out.
“You have the girls in the camogie, we had a handful involved when St Colm's (Draperstown) won the All-Ireland.”
Last year, Desertmartin seniors, minors and U16s qualified for their respective championship finals, only for them to be postponed due to the second wave of Covid-19 in October.
After being relegated from the intermediate championship, following Derry's restructuring of the leagues, Desertmartin found themselves in the junior championship.
“We got a wee inkling that a high profile player (Chrissy McKaigue) was showing an interest in managing the senior team, because of his (family) connections with the club,” Kidd points out.
The 2020 Desertmartin senior panel
McKaigue's Granda, Andy Shaw, was a former Chairman. His aunt Kate is married to club PRO Colm Breen.
“As soon as we heard that we jumped on it and I rang him. He became the new manager and really lifted the team and created a buzz with his name alone,” said Kidd who was full of praise for his input.
They began to dig out results and he points to their semi-final win over Ballerin as the type of game they would've lost in the past.
“People began to realise that he was the real deal, he wasn't asking you to do something he wasn't prepared to do or didn't do himself, Kidd said.
“He was all in and a 100 percent man. The players bought in and him and Kevin O'Neill (selector) bounced off each other. Before that, we would've had 15 or 16 out training. In the whole year last season, there were just short of 40 players turning out and that was just fantastic.”
At reserve level, the team was in 'serious decline' from the days they were winning titles regularly. With the rising numbers, fielding two teams was no longer a problem.
“It's like the underage, where we have a great wee cohort of people. From the U10s, U12s and up to the U14s, they deserve a mention, it is all a ladder and continuity”, said Kidd.
“Then we have Ciaran Higgins and Danny Murray involved with both the seniors and underage, so there is a link there.”
McKaigue has stepped away from management role, with O'Neill staying on as manager. Kidd wouldn't be surprised if McKaigue returns to join him later in the year. But for now, his focus is on Derry and their promotion hopes.
While the club remains in limbo regarding the unplayed finals of 2020, Kidd is adamant that their foundations are strong. They have come a long way from the 'early branches' of 1885.
“We are here for good,” Kidd said. “There are great people in the club and families who want to keep the thing going.
“We have fantastic people working away behind the scenes, not wanting to be noticed. They do a lot for the club, so many people all shoulder to the wheel. None of the work around here would've been possible without them.”
On top of their three finals, the club had the wheels in motion to officially open the new function room.
“It would've been our fourth final of the year,” Kidd jokes. “In September, all was ready...we had a programme made out and invitations ready to send.
“Being voted as Club of the Year in the paper (County Derry Post), that was very appropriate for the efforts on and off the pitch. There is a phrase that not all the best teams are on the field. There is a good team in the community.”
Whatever 2021 brings, the people of Desertmartin have built and developed a club to direct them into the future.
Subscribe or register today to discover more from DonegalLive.ie
Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.
Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.