On Sunday afternoon, the senior camogs of Sleacht Néill take centre stage at Croke Park in search of an unprecedented third club All-Ireland in succession. Success wasn’t always a regular visitor to the slopes of Carntogher and Michael McMullan met with some club members to take a step back in time.
Every magical journey, no matter how radiant or eventful, begins with a single step.
Sleacht Néill’s camogie pathway to the unbridled joy on the steps of the Hogan Stand was no different.
It took Trojan efforts down the years to elevate the club to the pinnacle of camogie.
Last Wednesday night was a million miles away from those humble beginnings.
The senior camogs finished another perfectly planned training session on the club’s overused, yet well-groomed training pitch. The club’s epicentre.
A product of foresight and a work ethic from a locality that has basked in the unrivalled glory of the recent past.
The floodlights can be seen for miles. Bang in the middle of the pitch was a symbol of unity. Arm in arm, the girls were huddled. Tightly bound in a circle. Powerful by its appearance.
Inside, the management team relayed their instructions.
In the hall above, was a lengthy queue snaking its way towards a desk to purchase All-Ireland final tickets, at reduced pre-purchase rates.
Business is brisk.
When Sleacht Néill teams are in championship action, the community continue to put their hands in their pockets. Hard earned cash is parted with. They come out of a face. GAA is religion in these parts. There is no other way.
At the front, youngsters were gathered for a meet and greet night organised by the committee. To inspire another batch of champions.
Shortly after eight o’clock the camogs paraded up through the hall. Idols all. Kitted from head to toe in the best of gear.
The same well-trodden path on which the Bill and Agnes Carroll All-Ireland cup was paraded. Not once, but twice.
This is now. The culmination of years of graft, of knock backs and soul searching.
Like the football and hurling landscape, the garden wasn’t always rosy.
When Sleacht Néill hurtle onto the hallowed turf of Croke Park this Sunday they will carry a slice of what has went before them.
They represent a people, some of whom have passed away to their eternal reward. That’s the beauty of the club championship. It’s raw, it’s real, yet it’s unrivalled.
Club stalwart Martin Mulholland was honoured by the club winning the first Derry camogie title in 2012, a cup named in his memory.
Goals from Therese Mellon and Mary Kelly hauled Ulster and All-Ireland titles to the club for the first time.
Thomas Cassidy, who had poured so much effort into the dream, missed the final destination of a team that bore his fingerprints, having passed away earlier in the season.
Also looking down was the pioneer for it all, the man who ignited the dream - Tommy Rogers. Along with his wife Margaret, he dug the foundations for the empire that exists today.
Sleacht Néill club was founded in 1953. It took until 2004 for the first senior football championship to arrive but the 1960s saw the club win four hurling titles, a third of their total haul.
Tommy and Margaret Rogers had a family of 10 children and while their five sons were playing football, their daughters had no sporting outlet.
In the mid-1960s, Tommy decided to start a camogie club. He paid the registration fees himself and Margaret made the first uniforms, from the brown and white material she had at her disposal.
They acquired hurls to get the show off the ground. Tommy refereed games, lined out the teams and carried out all the roles that were needed.
For training sessions, he would walk to the pitch with his daughters in a line behind. It was a workout in itself.
For matches, the bottom of Tommy’s van could often be heard scraping the ground as he ferried the team around the county.
In 1969, all three codes from the club were in county finals. The hurlers took title number four. The footballers reached a first ever decider, only to lose to Bellaghy. It was also the Tones who beat the camogs in their first final
Camogie remained active in the area for the best part of the next decade, but Greenlough and Glenullin the prominent teams.
During the 1970s, with camogie developing across the county, Sleacht Néill didn’t follow suit.
Players got married and moved away from the game. In the absence of underage players coming through, camogie began to decline. Training continued, but with a struggle to field teams with any regularity.
But the memories generated in those early days, would ensure the club would bounce back.
Current Derry camogie chairperson Dympna Dougan (nee Cassidy), recalled playing her first game, as an 11 year-old, under Rogers’ guidance.
“We were always stopped by the police and we were always late for matches. You got fined if you were late, but not if the cops stopped you.”
Training sessions would last for hours, often until it got dark or until the only sliotar available got lost.
“I remember walking from the pitch to the old phone box (on the Gortinure Road) with Mary Bradley, helping her carry down the bag of hurls before walking up home afterwards,” Dougan added.
Some nights they’d be standing at the end of the Emmet Park lane, waiting to see if there were enough players for a team. There were no mobile phones. It was just a waiting game. How many would arrive?
“I remember playing Greenough and we were getting beat at half-time,” Dougan laughed. “I remember Tommy saying ‘you see you - I need a goal or two out of you.’ I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I was sitting shaking.
“Then I was lucky enough. The ball fell and I rattled the back of the net and went over gesturing to him – ‘didn’t I tell you’.”
That was the team talk. There was no nonsense with Tommy, yet with his infectious enthusiasm and drive, the foundations were laid.
Resilience is a word that features prominently in the Sleacht Néill vocabulary. So too is persistence. After a testing decade, which included a ‘three or four’ year hiatus from camogie the shoots of life emerged to resurrect the camogie club.
Dympna Dougan translated the inspiration Tommy Rogers had introduced into a new beginning.
“I remember taking our Lanny (Cassidy) and gathering a crowd of them (underage players) up from Sleacht Néill.
“Moira (Cassidy) and Sinead Donnelly, they were all still at Tirkane. We took them into the ‘Castle Cup’ in at St Pat’s (Maghera) to get them playing camogie again.”
As the club were running a draw to build the hall in 1984, the resurrection of camogie continued. Following their primary school days, the girls moved to the club where the coaching sessions continued.
“It was probably around that time that we got the camogie formed again,” Dougan admitted. “The crowds were gathering up and I remember Thomas (Cassidy), God rest him, saying ‘would you not think about starting up the camogie again’ and it must’ve went from that.”
By 1987, now wearing maroon and white, the camogie club was back on its feet. Later that season, they reached the junior championship semi-final where they lost to Limavady.
The following year the club established a first minor (which was the U16 grade back then) team to cater for the youth and build for the future.
At the turn of the decade, under the management of Shane Cassidy, Sleacht Néill won back to back minor championships – with the core of girls from that Tirkane school team.
“That was the first group of girls to win a county underage championship,” stated Joe Cassidy, who would go on to have an influence on camogie within the club.
“We beat Swatragh in the Loup and the following year we beat Glen, up in Glenullin.”
It was backed up with a group of players coming along, that included one of the club’s longest serving and most decorated players, Claire Doherty.
“There was me and Aileen O’Kane, Rose Bradley, Helena Kelly and Lisa (Kelly) and those players were all coming up,” Claire explained.
“I don’t remember us winning any memorable championships but we fitted in behind that strong team that came before that.”
With Joe Cassidy taking on the management of the club’s senior team in 1993, it resulted in promotion from intermediate camogie after finishing second in the league, behind Glenullin.
The same year the U18 camogie team were beaten 3-1 to 0-1 by Ballinascreen in the championship but eight of the starting 12 would pick up intermediate championship medals later that year.
Three goals from Dympna Dougan and her sister Lanny’s tally of 0-4 saw them 3-6 to 2-1 winners over Drumsurn in the quarter-final.
In the semi-final they were 5-5 to 2-2 winners over Glenullin, with Dympna hitting four goals and Una Kelly grabbing the other.
In the final, played at Greenlough, Lanny chalked up 1-7 in a player of the match performance to sink Limavady (5-8 to 1-0), with Dympna hitting another hat-trick.
Sleacht Néill 1993 intermediate winning panel.
Team (v Limavady): Sarah Bradley, Noeleen O’Neill, Moira Cassidy, Edel O’Loughlin, Claire Doherty, Ciara O’Kane, Sinead Donnelly, Emma O’Kane, Aileen O’Kane (1-1), Una Kelly, Dympna Cassidy (3-0), Lanny Cassidy (1-7).
Subs: Bridgeen Kelly, Patricia Murtagh, Moira Jane McEldowney, Donna McEldowney, Siobhan Heron, Gerardette Doherty.
“Some of the girls, like yourself Claire and Aileen, were U14 the year we played in the intermediate final,” Joe commented of the youth policy.
Six years after losing a junior semi-final, Sleacht Néill were a senior club, where they have remained until the present day’s dizzy heights.
Passed across the table during our interview was Dympna’s notebook, which charted that 1993 season.
“We trained a lot,” uttered Joe, who also won a senior hurling medal that season, while also playing reserve football.
He coached the U14 hurlers some of which would form part of the 1995 team, the first in the club’s history to win the Féile.
A busy schedule, but was symbolic of the mentality that saw the club blossom on all fronts.
“We had a very strict manager,” joked Claire. “It’s a good job we won the championship.”
“The money was good,” quipped Joe in response.
The blend was right at that time. The minor teams had come of age and would backbone the club for the next decade – on and off the pitch.
“To get up into senior level, there was a step up in standard and quality,” added Claire, who would become a central figure on club and county teams.
“I don’t remember it being a struggle. We were never near the top of it but we would’ve held our own. I never remember us being in a relegation battle, we were always mid table.”
If 1993 was a milestone year, with a first adult championship, the 18 seasons that followed were steady yet largely uneventful.
At the turn of the millennium, Na Eméidí reached two county senior finals - under the watch of current coach Mickey Glover - but lost to Swatragh and Lavey who were both forces at that time. The Davitt’s went to the 2000 All-Ireland senior final where they lost to three in a row winners Pearses of Galway.
After six more seasons of mediocrity the 2007 season brought another flicker of light as Sleacht Néill defeated Swatragh in a morale-boosting win but lost to Lavey in the next round.
With the panel size beginning to swell, a second team was established to ensure that girls would get a game of camogie. It was a building block towards senior.
Just like he did with the reserve hurling team, Eugene Burns began the ‘seconds’ camogie side but stepped ahead due to ill-health.
Gerry McEldowney and Jimmy Mellon took over and won the Derry and Ulster junior titles. The following season they won the intermediate title after a replay win over Dungiven but were narrowly beaten in the Ulster by Loughgiel, courtesy of two sideline cuts from Raquel McCarry.
Also in 2008, there was a third senior county final appearance but it again ended in defeat to Lavey who, under current hurling manager Michael McShane, would win the All-Ireland junior title after a replay.
The following season Bellaghy dumped Sleacht Néill out in the first round, in a shock defeat.
After living in the shadows of Swatragh and Lavey, it was the turn of Coleraine to lead the way. They won two All-Ireland intermediate championships in 2010 and 2011.
Then eventually, the door of opportunity swung open in 2012, after almost two decades of false dawns and soul-searching.
Ballinascreen took out Coleraine in the semi-final to setup a showdown at Magherafelt, but the Emmet’s were not to be denied and history was made with the Martin Mulholland Cup making its first visit to the slopes of Carntogher.
For Claire Doherty, 19 years of waiting was over.
“When you ask any of the senior players in 2012, what was your highlight? At that stage, it was beating Swatragh because we were beaten by them so many times over the years and they were the top team. Lavey were there but Swatragh were in a league of their own for a long time.”
Was there a doubt that the senior title would pass them by?
“Absolutely,” came Doherty’s prompt answer. “It was a long time coming. We were always knocking on the door, we just couldn’t get the monkey off the back.”
But it wasn’t the end of the setbacks. In Ulster they ran into a Jane Adams inspired Rossa team who were All-Ireland senior champions four years previous.
Two more county finals followed, both resulting in sobering defeats at the hands of Coleraine.
“But we never looked back after that,” Doherty added.
Barring an Ulster final defeat to Loughgiel, Slaughtneil haven’t lost a championship game since.
There was another reason, a further injection of youth.
In 2012, the club had won their first Féile since the turn of the millennium. With players like Therese Mellon and Faoiltiarna Burke, who will line out this weekend.
There was also the considerable addition of Sionainn Graham from Creggan and former Offaly player Tina Hannon to the mix.
“There wasn’t a lot of success. It was an underage team now and again. That was enough. You don’t need to be winning. I think with winning all the time, people get complacent,” Claire Doherty pointed out.
“It was spaced out enough so that there was enough quality coming through each year to build towards the current senior team.”
It was a stark contrast to the earlier days. Dympna Dougan remembers coming home from games and getting laughed at almost.
The margin of defeat was always sought. It was expected. Winning didn’t come into the equation.
“It’s tara too,” she said. “There are girls in this club that don’t know what it is like to lose a game and the rest of us didn’t know what it was like to win one.”
Times have changed.
Five championships, three Ulster and two All-Irelands later, Sleacht Néill are the envy of club camogie.
But not everybody who put their shoulder to the wheel basked in the glory of their ultimate rewards.
“There have been so many players who have committed so much to this club but never got their championship medal,” Claire Doherty pointed out. “That is sad for them personally but it was all part of the building process.”
It is all about timing and for the current crop, they are riding along on the crest of a wave.
Girls’ careers tend to be shorter than men.
“If you don’t get that window, you may miss out or you could hit it lucky and be in that window that comes around,” explained Claire.
“I had to play 20 years at senior level before I got a championship but not everybody does that. There were a few of us. Me, Helena Kelly, Rose (Bradley) and Denise (McGuigan) – they were all in around that time.”
And now, the club is in dreamland. Just over 60 minutes from completing three-in-a-row.
“The young girls don’t realise what they have done,” uttered Dympna Dougan.
“They have had that winning mentality from such a young age and maybe that’s not a bad thing,” Doherty added.
“Eventually that will disappear for a while but maybe that’s the time you will sit back and say ‘we were so lucky’ because I know there are different people, in other clubs, that would love to be in their place.”
Behind our table are noticeboards with press clippings from the three trophy laden seasons, when cup after cup made its way through the throngs of people. Like the parting of the Red Sea.
“I remember when Rossa won the senior All-Ireland,” Claire explained. “We played them the following year in the Ulster league up in Rossa.
“We were in awe of them, they were All-Ireland senior champions and to ever think that this club would do the same thing and are now looking at three in a row…it’s amazing.”
Since winning the Derry championship in 2012 until 2015, she could see the shift in efforts.
“It has turned professional and I know people will say what the men are doing. Our senior camogie team have put in just as much, if not more, to get to where they are.
“The commitment is unbelievable,” Dympna added. “I don’t think every girl around the average age of our senior panel would put in that commitment. They have had no social life. If they are not working they’re training.”
But in a country area like Sleacht Néill, there are no distractions. Camogie is prominent on the list of priorities.
Moira Jane Devlin (nee McEldowney) is another example of putting something back. Once the defensive rock, she is now the physiotherapist with difference. When not having all the players in tip top shape, she is at the forefront of underage coaching. Commitment personified.
There is another factor.
“It also comes from losing one or two finals and coming close,” Joe Cassidy added. “That helps as well. Even from 2012 right up through and losing to Loughgiel in Ulster - it gave them more grit and determination.”
The hurt fuelled a team that simply refused to be denied.
A quality you won’t find in any lucky bag, but rather something rooted in the soul.
It began with Tommy Rogers and was passed down the chain. From generation to generation. From family to family.
The personnel involved and the time spent are unquantifiable.
Through the lean times, persistence still kept its head above the rest.
With the recent change in fortunes comes immense pride.
On Sunday, when the Sleacht Néill bus ebbs through the narrow streets of Drumcondra, the dwarfing Croke Park will come into view.
The mecca of GAA. The biggest stage possible. How times have changed.
All the years of toil have been worth it.
Pic: Mary K Burke
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