From 1995, Lavey and Swatragh dominated the Derry senior camogie scene. Of the next 15 titles, the superpowers won seven each, but in 2006 an emerging Castledawson side annexed their first senior title. Michael McMullan spoke to 'Dawson captain Maura McAuley as she looked back on their historic success.
Light was fading fast, but it was never going to suppress the tension lingering over Swatragh's Davitt Park. You could almost taste the sizzling pressure as the 2006 Derry senior camogie final headed for a dramatic conclusion.
The championship had been held up and the decider was prised into an unfashionable Tuesday night slot. Antrim giants Rossa were waiting in the wings, destined to meet the winners the following weekend.
For the guts of 10 minutes, with the game in the melting pot, it looked like Lavey would emerge as champions. The two Shauna Mulholland goals that set Castledawson into a 2-4 to 0-4 and in cruise control were cancelled out. The momentum had swung full circle. Attracta McPeake and Therese McCann found the net for Lavey, who now led 2-7 to 2-5 as the race headed for the final fence.
In the semi-final two years earlier, Castledawson sunk Swatragh who were going for five in a row but didn't produce the fairytale ending, going down to Lavey in the decider. This year was going to be different. It would take until the dying moments, but the girls from the Broagh would get both hands on the cup this time.
In the dying moments a Katie McAuley shot found its way into the net to turn the game on its head. In the middle of the pandemonium, she put the icing on the cake with a sweet strike over the bar from a '45'.
They weren't to be denied. It was Castledawson's moment of glory.
Katie's oldest sister Maura was stationed at the other end of the field. At full-back, yards in front of goalkeeper Claire O'Kane, she had a different view of that defining goal.
“That night...it was so dark,” Maura recalls. “All I saw was the net rippling, I saw it moving and I thought 'she's got it' and we knew then...we knew we were going to do it.
“You could see nothing from the other end and Swatragh pitch...it is massive. It was a relief it (the goal) went in and you were praying for the whistle at that stage.”
Maura McAuley with the cup after the game
With no camogie at the time in their native Cargin, the McAuley sisters - Maura, Úna and Katie – crossed the Bann to join Castledawson. Their mother Marcella taught in New Row Primary School and their uncles – James and Malachy McAfee – played for Ballerin and Derry.
They were among five sets of sisters, as the names Pickering, O'Kane, Totten and Mulholland also featured heavily on the team-sheet.
It was a team that, without wiping all before it in the underage ranks, matured to form a senior team that would come to the top and knock on the door of four county finals.
“Mary McAuley, she won player of the match (in the 2006 win over Lavey) and she was 35 and a real old hand,” Maura points out. “There was a real mix...our Katie was playing and she was only 19 or 20.
“It was a mixture of old hands that had been playing camogie for years for Castledawson and some of the younger ones.”
The panel was littered with players who tasted success at minor level with Derry and on the Ulster College scene with St Mary's Magherafelt. Sharpshooter Róisín Pickering hit 0-3 in UUJ's Ashbourne Cup Final win over UL. A talented bunch was beginning to form.
At club level, a minor title in the late nineties brought through 'five or six' players to the senior ranks. It was followed by seasons of frustration with a host of first round exits.
“We'd have got beat by Bellaghy, Swatragh and Lavey...we could never get over the hurdle,” Maura explains.
Any team knocking on the door of success will have a turning point. Malachy McToal and Tommy Cox took the reigns in the 2004 season that saw Castledawson make their greatest stride to date.
Going into their semi-final with Swatragh that year, the 'Dawson were underdogs. The Davitt's had 25 titles to their name and after a staggering 19 in succession, they were chasing another five-in-a-row.
“We beat them, it was a big scalp,” Maura points out. “They were high and flying and weren't expecting it...and to be fair, neither were we.”
The result was just the tonic. Katie McAuley scored three goals in an enthralling 6-6 to 3-9 win. Once Castledawson got their noses in front, they battened down the hatches at the back. It was time to stand up.
“We threw everything into the back line to keep them out,” Maura remembers. “You couldn't let that Swatragh team near the goals or they'd have opened you up.”
It was a seismic step forward, one to foster belief. Though, that's where their title hopes ended. In the decider, Lavey ran out 1-11 to 1-3 winners on the way to four titles inside six years.
Castledawson just couldn't find their semi-final form and reach the same heights.
“As they say, 'you have to lose a final to win one'” offers Maura.
The following year, Castledawson weren't in the reckoning, yet didn't disappear from the pecking order. In 2006 they returned for another crack at the title. It was their time.
Paddy Henry senior was taken too soon. Maura McAuley still remembers her sister Úna's phone call. It was Saturday, August 8, 2008, just two years after managing Castledawson to championship glory, and down the line filtered the tragic news that Paddy passed away.
“It was awful at the time,” Maura said. “It was such a short time after us winning the championship and although he wasn't with us (as manager) that year, we'll never forget him for what he did.
Katie, Úna and Maura McAuley pictured with Paddy Henry senior during the celebrations
“He was brilliant and was able to get the best out of everybody,” said Maura of Paddy's greatest strength.
She remembers after weekends when they'd have been in Dublin socialising, their manager always struck a balance to get his charges back on track for the next challenge.
“He's just said 'I'll run the drink out of you' and he knew what to do to get you going and it worked,” Maura added. “Others may have taken a different approach, but Paddy just had that way with him.”
With the experience of having coached football teams around the club, mixed with his infectious personality made him the perfect leader for their ever-improving camogie side. Without the endless array of team meetings that has crept into sport now, Paddy still managed to leave no stone unturned.
His son Paddy junior, who won an Ulster minor medal with Lavey the previous season, and Bridie Totten came on board as part of the management.
“'Young Paddy would have been working with Claire (O'Kane – goalkeeper) on puck-outs. He was handy with the hurl and he'd be firing shots in at her and working with the free-takers,” Maura points out.
The two other Henry boys - Christopher and Peter - were also part of the back-room team, who would later help Paddy junior get Castledawson's underage hurling teams get their foot on the ladder.
On the camogie front, Castledawson entered the 2006 Ulster League, giving them games against the cream of other counties. Again, it was another ingredient, helping them raise the standard.
Despite losing to Swatragh early on in the Derry league, Castledawson went on to win the title and Maura vividly remembers the next training session after their defeat.
“He gave us some running after that game, he knew we shouldn't have got beat.” Maura laughs. “Paddy made it enjoyable. We did the hard running and the hard hours.”
Later in the year, after a championship semi-final win over Greenlough, Castledawson were one step from realising their dream. Standing in their way were rivals Lavey. The buzz began to kick in around the parish, but the team needed to keep their eyes on the prize.
“We knew it was going to be a do die and you had to do what it took to win,” Maura remembers.
On the eve of the final, one of the players found the nerves overwhelming her preparations. Paddy senior's attention for detail took another direction, prescribing her an hour in the Thatch and a couple of drinks to take the edge off her anxiety.
“It was his way of pacifying her and getting her settled...and it worked a treat,” Maura jokes, of their 'Declan Pilkington' moment.
It was the last base that needed covered. It was time for Castledawson's date with destiny. They had knocked the door long enough.
“We had gotten off to a good start,” Maura remembers of the decider. “Shauna (Mulholland) scored two goals and we were doing very well, but of course Lavey came back at us again.
“It ebbed and flowed all the way. It wasn't a high scoring match and after Katie got that goal, her '45' sealed it.”
In reports after the game, Castledawson's diamond formation of dropping a player behind midfield was attributed as their master plan.
“Paddy came up with that,” Maura reveals. “Katie P (Catherine Pickering) came back as our defensive midfielder. She dropped back between the full and half back lines, between me and Eileen (Pickering).”
It was their plan for the season. An extra set of defensive hands if needed.
“Katie (Pickering) was told 'that's your role', she's going to have to defend and push on to support midfield,” Maura explains of their plans.
“She came dropping back to help out. Her and Maoliosa Shivers were midfield, they were flying fit and were able to get back and cover and get up the pitch again.”
The arduous training sessions and simplistic, yet effective, system, had paid off. Their name was on the cup.
But, a Tuesday night county final doesn't fit in with the traditional weekend party slot, of a Sunday night spilling into wee small hours of Monday.
“We tried our best,” Maura laughs of their extended celebrations. “We went back to Mary McAuley's house and I remember coming back home at half six the next morning and Daddy was going up to do the milking...he just shook his head at us.”
A matter of days later, Rossa were waiting, but the short turnaround ahead of a tilt at Ulster was a bridge too far for the 'Dawson.
The Belfast side ran out 5-12 to 2-5 winners, on their way to the All-Ireland Final before growing into the machine that would go the whole way in 2008.
“It was the Jane Adams show, she was unreal,” Maura conceded. “We had won the Derry championship for the first time and we'd go and give it a go.”
It was Paddy Henry's last game in charge, telling the squad after the game that he took them as far as he could.
A signed Castledawson jersey from 2006
Castledawson stuck together and reached two more finals (2007 and 2009) but came up short against Lavey on both occasions and have yet to land their second county title. It leaves a hint of regret, as Maura explains.
“The team that we had...we should've gone on and won more,” she admits. “To win one, it was special but you'd like to have won more, but it would've been far worse if you didn't win any and lost in all those finals.”
When Cargin set up their camogie club in 2014, the McAuley sisters headed back to their roots and won an Ulster junior title with their native club.
“The Castledawson ones always knew that if Cargin started up, we were always going to go to our own club.” Maura concludes.
But fifteen years on, Maura's memories are razor sharp of the night when she led her side into battle and they stood tallest above the rest - the Queens of the Castle.
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