Jim Brady-My Lamh Dhearg Journey

Jim Brady is Chairman of the SW Antrim Cumann Na mBunscol Primary Schools’ Gaelic games organisation, coaches football at minor level in Ballymena and is the current Chairperson of All Saints GAC but his GAA life started in Hannahstown many years ago. In this article Jim takes us on his “Red Hand” journey.

From Lenadoon’s estate to Hannahstown’s green fields:

When you’re asked to write an article such as this before you put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) you really have to sit back and think. Memories that you have held for years can become distorted with the passing of time, successes & failures can be diluted or magnified depending on the outcome and the people who looked after and developed you can become a blur of faces. So I’ll get my apologies for any omissions out of the way first and of course make sure I include everyone’s favourite juvenile coach at the start! Buke was a central figure in my life at the Lámhs. There, I’ve said it. If I don’t mention him again he can’t come back at me. Of course I’m only kidding. Buke was a central figure in many of our Lámh Dhearg journeys … but more of him later.

My first experience of Gaelic Football came during my time in Holy Child PS in 1980 under the influence of Primary 5 teacher, Clem Murray. Anyone who attended the school and became involved in GAA will have been influenced by Clem. He loved Gaelic games and imparted that feeling in us at a young age. These were the days before schools were inundated with Gaelic games coaches from the governing bodies.  He organised the “P5 Cup” which basically meant the two P5 classes battled for the coveted trophy in June each year at South Link gravel pitch in a 25 a side game. While the result gave bragging rights to the victor what I remember most was being introduced to this new game I had never heard of before. A game where you could use your hands and more importantly us big lads could throw our weight around legally. I was hooked. A friend in the class, Sammy Sterett, was a Rossa man and therefore my club involvement began in the blue and yellow of the Falls Road men. This lasted around a year of U12 before the move “up the hill” came. The extent of the loss felt by the Falls Park men was less than palpable. No transfer forms were exchanged, no one in the Rossa club mourned the loss of their U12 corner back and I have never been invited back for any team reunions. I did play my first regulation 15 a side game with them though, an U12 friendly out in the wilds of the countryside of Glenavy, a place I had never heard of! I can still remember putting the heavy woven top on, the 1st time I had ever worn an organised team jersey before, on a sticky summer evening before lining out in defence for my big debut. I can’t remember if we won or lost but the occasion itself sticks with me to this day. I remember my 1st big game as a spectator when, at the instruction of our coach – the legendary Joe Quinn, I badgered my father enough to take me to Casement to watch the Rossa senior footballers play someone in the championship. Again a 1st experience for me as Casement at that stage was the place we only ever went to for the Annual H’ween fireworks display up until then.    

So where did the move up the hill come from? A friend and neighbour, Pearse Rice, attended St. Oliver Plunkett Boys PS in Lenadoon and he had joined up with the Lámhs following the influence of a young student teacher called Buchanan. It was therefore natural that as friends influence friends others would follow and at Pearse’s invitation I headed to my 1st training session. It took place on the all-weather pitch at Trench House (or The Ranch as I came to know it as a student years later) and from memory I was 10 or 11 years old and about 5 different age groups trained at the same time (at least it seemed that way). Although I didn’t know them at the time I think some of the older players who were there included Marty Buchanan and Liam “Lambsy Tiernan’. My suspicions should have been raised when we had to enter Trench House through a hole in the fence. It was an unauthorised use of the college facilities but sure life was different then and insurance and risk assessments were things of the future.  Involvement progressed and we joined the U12’s. I say we as it’s important to note the influence young Ricey had on us all.

Mizen Gardens is the street that links Stewartstown Avenue and Lenadoon Avenue. Those of us that lived there were looked upon with some suspicion by our teammates I learned years later. The Lenadoon folk weren’t really sure if we were really Lenadoon people at all and the Stewartstown people couldn’t make their minds up if they wanted to associate with us as we were Lenadooners in their eyes!  We had 20 houses in Mizen Gardens, 10 on each side, and most of those homes who had boys became Lámh Dhearg families. With brothers included all told there were 18 of us over those early years. Myself and my brother Michael, the Rices, the Vincents, the Gormans, the Walshes, John Gray, Jim Dunbar and Gerard Smith ….. and this was with the Sarsfields club located 2 streets away. I mentioned both Lenadoon and Stewartstown Avenues earlier and these were also great recruiting grounds for the Lamhs. When you read through the lists of players Kieran, Paddy and Beansy rhymed off in their articles you can see what a foothold the club had in the area. There was a recent article published about “Lenadoon’s Eclectic GAA Heartland” and I think it explains quite well the development of each of the local clubs over the years in the area. I’ve always felt that the men from Hannahstown were the 1st in that part of the world to develop a genuine youth policy, something every club has today. I always feel it is a credit to the club when I travel home to visit my family that they are included in the Lenadoon mural that depicts the local GAA clubs. This is truly a measure of how the club from the countryside is viewed as an integral part of the Lenadoon community. Paul Buchanan, Roy Irvine, Kevin McCambridge, Jim Lynch, Barney Herron and many others were instrumental in that development.

In the days before mobile phones and whatsapp groups communication was a bit more primitive. Many a day we headed round to Buke’s mums house in Stewartstown to find out what the fixtures were for the week. To be fair to Mrs. Buchanan she never seemed to mind, even years later when we would occupy her front room to check the Lámh Dhearg GAA Pools coupons we sold door to door. Buke’s dad Bertie was always up for a chat when we called. A great man who always had a story to share. One time he singled me out as the biggest of the bunch and decided to test my suitability as a gaelic footballer. A heavy dunt from Bertie to my shoulder followed and I stood firm … until I got home and had an aching arm for about a week. Like myself many years later Bukey spent many an evening sitting at the foot of the hall stairs running up his parents’ phone bill on behalf of Lámh Dhearg. Hours of notifications with single phone calls followed by the same routine again when inevitably at least one fixture would be cancelled on a regular basis. Of course the club covered the bill but my Mum still suggests that she didn’t receive all of the money from her eldest boy! I’ll not be admitting to that or she’ll be looking it back.       

There was no juvenile hurling at the club back then and therefore it is a regret of mine that I was never a club hurler. Playing sanctions were not something that existed then as far as I know though you could play for another team if you wanted. I say I wasn’t a hurler, that is apart from 2 South Antrim matches in my later years when we were short players and I scored a goal and a point – Paddy Tumelty has labelled me Babs ever since, after the legendary Tipperary player and manager.  We played our U12 football in the B Division at Budore. Playing on the original club pitch is a memory that I do genuinely cherish, even though it was only as a juvenile. It really helps you to appreciate the history associated with the club, those who worked tirelessly to develop it and provide the wonderful facilities there now. Many clubs have travelled the same path and my own club, All Saints in Ballymena, charts a similar history with a comparable journey that began with the loan of a parish field in the 70’s through to the facilities the club has today. 

Changing at Budore was in the bus, the car or, if you weren’t quick enough to grab one of the luxury spots, by the side of the ditch. I think there was a stream at the far end of the pitch and that was reason enough to defend like mad at that end as any shot by the opposition had the potential of sending you into the water to retrieve the ball.  It’s a long time ago so the memory dims but I remember us playing and winning the Division 2 U12 League at the pitch against Davitts back around 1982. Little did we know it but this was a pre-cursor to a great rivalry with the boys in the tri-colour tops that would continue right up to the minor final in 1987. I remember years later hearing the story about the shooting incident at Budore though it was before our time playing there. I have a vivid memory of being allowed to venture on to the new pitch before it opened to get a team photo taken. The photo is in the Official Pitch Opening Programme so I guess it was taken for publication in that and we were literally just inside the gate and no more. Nonetheless to get on to the new pitch was special. The posts weren’t even up at that stage. The fact that I received the U12 player of the year at the Dinner Dance in the Ballymac later that year cemented my place in Lámh Dhearg folklore! Back then every player of the year went to the Senior Dinner whether you were a juvenile award winner or not. There were no such things as Juvenile Prize Evenings. I have to say that I obviously do not subscribe to the vicious rumours that persist to this day that suggest I was a 13 year old ringer at the time. That was another thing about our juvenile days back then … ringers (overage players for you young people) were as common as the rain.

As we travelled out to Budore at that young age we watched from the windows as we passed the club house and saw the emerging changing rooms and billiard table pitch developing before our eyes. Fast forward to Easter 1984 and the efforts of the club bore fruit and the new pitch officially opened. I’m not sure if I actually remember that the 1981 All Ireland winning Offaly hurling team and their 1982 football winners travelled to play in both opening matches and that GAA President Paddy Buggy did the official opening honours. Those memories may have come from the photos of that day that we grew up looking at in the committee room but I do remember being one of the flag carriers as the club put on parade its growing number of juvenile players as we marched behind the band around the pitch. I have a memory of some adult members of the club staying awake all night at the pitch the night before to make sure the official opening wasn’t sabotaged. It was only years later that I realised that my initial childhood thoughts – that they were afraid of a rival club doing something – was as ridiculous as it sounds but rather they were concerned that more sinister forces might have intervened. Thankfully that wasn’t the case and though we suffered at various times over the years in different ways the people running the club never let these events hold us back.  

Having reached the age of 14 we were becoming more acutely aware of what was going on in the streets around us. Our involvement with the club coincided with some of the most difficult years of the conflict through the Hunger Strikes and beyond. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight and added years that you really can appreciate what the club provided us with. Within minutes we were spirited away from our meeting place at Greenways shop on the Stewartstown Road to the idyllic countryside of the Upper Springfield Road and Hannahstown 4 or 5 evenings a week. As a parent myself I can only now appreciate the sense of relief that our own parents must have felt as we left the house each evening. I can’t mention the meeting point at Greenways without reflecting on what I consider to be a master stroke taken by the club in developing the club’s juvenile structures – the purchase of a club bus.

Cars were a luxury and not a necessity back then and few families, my own included, had them. Tremendous credit must go to the foresight of the club and in particular to Pat “Shanty” McCague who travelled the Lenadoon to Hannahstown route religiously on our behalf for more years than I am sure he would care to remember. I have vivid memories of the white Volkswagen bus having to detour to pick up players who hadn’t shown up or were still in their beds. These were the days of lower numbers and struggling at times to field the bare 15 and on many occasions we pulled up alongside an unsuspecting member of the public who was walking along the street and for whom their only qualification to play was that they were wearing a pair of gutties. I’m surprised we weren’t reported for kidnap at times such was our eagerness to get another player to make up the 15. As a  Lámh Dhearg man through and through it’s probably no surprise that Shanty  showed great patience as we diverted him through the streets of the estate stopping at houses where we knew someone of the correct age (or close enough) lived.  Of course Shanty fulfilled and continues to fulfil many other duties as one of the true Mr Lámh Dhearg’s. As well as designated bus driver he was ever present as long serving club chairman during my early years with the club as well as being a team mentor. In fact we managed several juvenile teams together. He never seemed to miss a single match, whether it was U8 hurling or senior reserve football and we are all forever indebted to him …. Especially for his encouraging sideline calls and instructions which none of us ever answered back to! Credit must also be attributed to Davy “Shaker “ McGarry who in later years doubled the club’s bus fleet with the legendary Blue Ford Transit which also traversed the streets of West Belfast. Such was the condition of the blue bus that a decision was taken at committee level to confine its journeys to a no more than a fivemile radius of the club. “Shaker” was a dedicated club stalwart and a character.

As I progressed through my playing career I was lucky to play on teams with great players like our keeper Davy Vincent, Pat “Dodger” McCambridge, Kieran “Slippy” O’Neill, Vincent “Tucker” Stranney and Micky Boyle and in later years the unassuming Frankie Wilson, his cousin Paul McCabe, Paul Stinton (RIP), Paddy Dornan and Brendy O’Neill to name but several.

Success was limited in the early days and from memory our big breakthrough came in the Mick Mooney Sevens at U16 level in Casement Park when we defeated Davitts in the final. I don’t think we had won anything from the U12 B Final so it was quite a coup. We then went on to qualify for the minor final in 1987 against the same opposition and despite losing both that final and the league final to them that year we always felt that 1988 would be our year. The 1987 league campaign was a fantastic close affair. We beat them in Twinbrook from memory and they beat us in Hannahstown. The Twinbrook game will be forever famous for an off the ball incident which left Ciaran “Fred” Magee sprinting the length of the field with a posse of disgruntled players and supporters trying to catch him to tell him off for his rough play. We couldn’t be separated in overall league points so a league final was arranged in Casement. Though we lost it I remember it was a fantastic game and one that did justice to the label of being the two best minor teams in the county at that time. It also highlights for me the travesty that is the Casement situation at present. We played games there all of the time, not just finals. I remember playing reserve league games there against teams that had no ground of their own and at primary school we held our sports day there every June. To think a generation of players might miss out on that experience is shocking. That excellent Davitts team went on to sustain their senior team for quite a number of years in Division 1 and they had great players like Eugene Gallagher, Stevie Toner and Terry Parks. Just a few weeks ago I saw a flashback photo on Saffron Gael of their winning 1987 team celebrating and in the comments below one of their players said winning it was a career highlight for him. This is a measure of what minor football can mean over 30 years later.  

As a club supporter my earliest memories of watching the club senior team as a juvenile is attending the County Finals in 1983 when we lost both the minor (to St. Pauls) and the senior final (to St. Galls). I remember I somehow wangled my way into sitting on the old concrete sub benches watching the seniors. We were young at the time but we were still conscious that the club hadn’t won the senior since our maiden victory in 1971 and had never won a minor title before. It was a tough way to end the season. I remember Eddie Fitz playing the minor and then playing in the senior final. I don’t think there would be too many players who have achieved that though young Pat Shivers from Cargin did the same in 2019. I have always had a particular interest in minor football competition, most likely because of our success in it, and I have always believed that the minor championship is a great measure of how well a club has done in developing its players as it not only shows their playing development but it also means that you have managed to get the players to an age whereby lifelong involvement in the club is within their grasp.

We had a great panel of players in 1988 and it was probably no surprise that we went on and won the club’s first title against St. Gall’s that year. That’s not to say we were guaranteed it by any means as events later in this paragraph will show. We trained hard and the memory of the loss the year before was always in the back of our minds. Memories are still vivid for me and I particularly remember Dodger accepting the cup from County Chairman Oliver Kelly and delivering his acceptance speech in Irish. Don’t ask me what he said for I haven’t a clue but it was just one of many great experiences we had around that time. That team was particularly talented and opportunities for players like me were few and far between so the boys tolerate my incessant recalling of the 2nd greatest comeback in my career (the 1st comes later on).

The game was against Sarsfields at the Bearpit. Ciaran Ward, who I meet regularly at games now that he lives up in the Glens, and others were dominating and this was just not the way the script was supposed to pan out. We were staring defeat and exit from the championship straight in the face when Big Lynchy pulled off a managerial masterstroke and threw me on as a second half substitute in corner forward. I was on the field a few minutes when the ball somehow or other landed at my feet. Having legally (despite what my good friends say) gathered the ball from the ground I let a shot go and the net rippled. The goal kick-started our revival and secured the eventual win that has gone down in club folklore, largely to be fair due to my efforts over the years at retelling the story to anyone who showed a smidgeon of interest. In truth while there’s no doubt that the goal did start the comeback my memories are that Mickey Boyle hit form and was virtually unstoppable that night. He must have scored 3 more goals.  

We entered the St. Paul’s Ulster Minor tournament that year in great spirit but lost by a single point to Maghery from Armagh who went on to contest the final. This was disappointing as we led by 8 or 9 points at a stage and I feel that team could have won that competition. 

That minor team went on to provide the bulk of the senior club team for many years and along with the established seniors such as Eamon McGarry, Terry McCrudden, Bukey, Damian Kane, Mickey Seenan and Russ and Eddie Fitzsimmons RIP culminated in the clubs 1st senior title since 1971 when we reached the final in 1992. The fact that the final wasn’t payed through no fault of our own was and still is a source of regret. We had a great team that year and were denied the opportunity to prove it in a county final. As minors we were managed in the main by Paul Lynch and Fitzy. Paul in particular had put a great shift in with us since our U16 days and when club legend Fitzy joined with him we couldn’t have asked for better management. That the same team didn’t follow it up with an U21 title 3 years later is a regret but we more than made up for it as a club in 1992.

I moved from minor to reserve football. At that time the minors trained separately from the seniors and unless you were a young star who progressed to the senior ranks while still U18 you didn’t really know what to expect at training. Our 1st night at pre-season involved meeting at the club in the depths of late January. I brought my boots and prepared to hide at the back, jog endlessly around the pitch and speak only when spoken to. Big Seamy Fitzsimmons and Sean Kavanagh were looking after the seniors that year and therefore were in charge of meeting all of the adult players training needs. It quickly became apparent that the pre-season starter was going to consist of a road run down Hannahstown Hill, Shaws Road as far as the Andytown Barracks and then up the Glen Road and Hannahstown Hill to the safety of the club. I hadn’t even done a journey like that by car at that stage of my life never mind run it. Worse still, no one had told us young lads that the training would not be on the pitch. I looked down at my football boots and realised they weren’t going to do the job. The more seasoned people had brought trainers .. we hadn’t! What to do? Tell the 2 coaches that I couldn’t train on the 1st night of adult training. No chance. I had already got the impression that Seamy and Sean didn’t suffer fools lightly. Ask around for a pair of spare trainers from people I hardly knew. No way. So I did what any self-respecting and aspiring young footballer would do. I ran the roads in my good loafers. And boy did I suffer for it for about a week after. Blisters galore. I think Davy Vincent might have done the same and a few others. I’m not even sure that anybody noticed but I didn’t forget my trainers again after that.           

My coaching career at the club started almost immediately following the move out of juvenile football. I was interested in a career in teaching and was keen to contribute to the club while gaining experience of working with children. At the 1989 club AGM my name was in the hat for U12 football manager. I say in the hat but in reality in those days if you showed an interest you were in! Having secured the post the meeting progressed through the age groups to the minors. To say there wasn’t much interest in taking the team would be an understatement. With the title just won in ’88 and the club contesting 2 finals in a row there weren’t too many takers for the role as it was clear the leading players were now progressing to Senior. I think it was Paul Lynch who proposed me and before we had a chance to consider the implications myself and Davy Vincent (with promised help from Peter Fox) were in charge. Two 19 years old managing the 18 year olds. What could possibly go wrong? I see from Kieran’s article that we were not the 1st to take this team at such a young age as he did the same when he was finished playing minor and I’m sure there were others. 

To be fair it was a largely uneventful year. Young and enthusiastic we set to the task with everything we could muster. I remember us both going to the chemist at Suffolk and buying a can of freezing spray – we were sorted. I have memories of making grand training plans, discussing tactics on Davy’s doorstep for hours and of me recruiting players from my school (La Salle) to join with us on our great crusade. Apologies to everyone at this stage as I have to accept responsibility for Colm McCabe and Mickey McCluskey joining the club through these approaches. We ended up losing in the 1st round of the championship to a very good Johnnies side and that was that but it was a great introduction to coaching and we managed to work with some great players who went on to represent the club with great distinction. The afore-mention Colm McCabe, Stephen McFadden, Gavin Brown and Anto Finnegan to name just a few. I would continue my involvement with the club minors up to and beyond 1992.

My playing adult career with the club was largely in the reserve leagues though I am particularly proud of the fact that I managed to join the senior panel in the mid 90’s for a few years under the management of Brendan “Bandy” Lenaghan and Fitzy. I was never as fit in my life as I was under Bandy. Progressive laps were his speciality, those …. and running backwards. It was a great place to be and but for bit of bad luck here and there we could have pushed on to another senior final. I think we were beaten in something like 8 or 9 semi-finals over the course of a dozen years or so and one in particular v St. Gall’s at Casement was particularly hard to take when a clear goal was disallowed that would have taken us through. The highlight of my senior career was scoring a goal at Shaws Road in a senior league game past the great Sean McGreevy. My best days seem to have come when I’ve been put up in corner forward when we were stuck. Such managerial blunders that had me down as a defender all my days were obviously what worked against me my whole career!

We also managed to win an All County Junior Championship in 1996. That year we had just about sufficient numbers to field 3 adult football teams and the Junior Championship was competed for by the Division 3 team. We beat St. Malachy’s and Ballycastle in the later rounds including one of them in the semi and the other in the final at Casement  – I can’t remember which way we played them but the biggest game, outside of the final, was undoubtedly in the 1st round against Portglenone in Hannahstown. They were very fancied and weren’t helped by the suspension of their key man, Kevin Madden for the game. We won it with a few to spare and we knew then that the championship was there for the taking. To think that I would not only encounter many connections of that Portglenone team in later years but also contribute to coaching many of their juveniles when I went to work in the village school in 2002 seemed a million miles away back then. As a result I have always had a soft spot for the Portglenone club. They have a great GAA community with fantastic people involved and I would have to rank them as my 3rd favourite Antrim team! Our Junior Winning team was made up of many players I played throughout my career. Marty McCartney still talks about my inch perfect passes which for some reason he always struggled to catch as they sailed over his upright arms, his timing was out of course and it had nothing to do with my kicking skills. Davy Vincent (friends from our days in Mizen Gardens), our Mick, Mickey Seenan, Hugh Bugsy Prior, Brendan Totes Toland, Marty Tonto McCague, Ray Carso McCarthy and Big Mal Murray to name but several of my team mates from back then. Our keeper was Benny Lynch (RIP) and his passing a few years ago was deeply felt by everyone at the club.             

Throughout most of my adult playing days I got to both manage and play alongside my brother, Michael and that was something special, especially as we were both corner backs and as the older sibling I got to send him to whichever of the approaching corner forwards looked the fastest. He still hasn’t forgiven me for that though he was blessed with speed so he could cope. We weren’t from a GAA family at all. I was the 1st to play the games and Mick followed suit and we’ve both stayed involved which I suppose shows the value the GAA has added to our lives. My youngest sister Siobhan actually played on what was probably the 1st girls football team in the club. She recalls with great fondness as she and friends such as Ruth Matthews joined the club summer scheme and pestered the organisers to start up a girls team. They were listened to and Sean McKee and Barry Armstrong, who’s sister Finvola was another of the players, looked after them. The team only lasted a year, playing challenge games were they could get them and when I see the development of ladies football now I can only imagine what they would have contributed to the club in the long term. I also  have an older sister Sinead and I’ve no doubt if ladies football had been organised then as it is now we would have had another Gaelic footballer in the house as she was a great sportswomen excelling at soccer, running and tennis.

Juvenile Development:

Shortly after my move into juvenile management I was accepted into St. Mary’s to study teaching so the studies and the coaching were quite well suited in many ways. We had a fantastic youth structure in place under Bukey’s guidance and our Youth Committee was a dynamic and energetic bunch. If I’m being honest we trail blazed in many ways. Buke had worked in BELB schemes in Oliver Plunkett PS &Belfast City Council Summer Schemes in Andytown Leisure Centre as had I in Beechmount and he always had this idea that we could replicate a similar model within the club. In the days before Cul Camps this was unprecedented territory but we had a forward thinking senior committee and permission and funding were provided. I am pretty sure we were the 1st club to run such a scheme in Belfast in this way and on this scale and many other clubs followed suit from the following year. These were great summers and provided the youngsters with 3 full weeks of coaching, trips and craic. What’s more they took family involvement and support for the club to a new level. Parents were grateful that their children had an outlet at a time (last 3 weeks of August) when all of the other similar type schemes had finished. August was also a time of difficulty on the streets of Belfast and taking children away from that for the day was another benefit of the schemes. The number of players that went on to star for club (and County) and who attended the Summer Scheme is numerous and at the risk of leaving people out I would mention the Herron brothers, Christopher Lynch, Christopher Tumelty, as successful players to emerge from those times.

Another aspect of juvenile development at the club was the Annual Prize Giving evenings. I know they have grown to such an extent in recent years that they are now held outside of the club but back in the day the club house was the base for 100’s of young players keen to receive their rewards. Ann McCague was enlisted every year to organise the food and we were treated to wonderful spreads laid on by Ann and her band of volunteers including Deirdre McCague, Marie Fitzsimons, Maeve McPeake and others. A hallmark of those functions was the quality of guests that came along to present the prizes. Bukey was never behind the door when it came to approaching high profile guests and we welcomed stars like Peter Canavan, Dermot McNicholl, Joe Brolly, Anthony Tohill and many others to Hannahstown each year.

I was fortunate to inherit the role of Youth Chairman for a period of around 5 years. Bukey had built on the tremendous work of the initial youth committee when people like Jim Lynch, Barney Herron, Kevin McCambridge and Roy Irvine and had led the development of juvenile structures to a new level. Having served under him for a number of years I was well tutored for the role. People like myself, Dodger and Barry Armstrong were bringing our youthful exuberance to the table and anyone who knows Bukey will realise that while he was officially retired he was always behind the scenes to advise and direct. They were great years to be involved in the club. What we didn’t know was that the greatest year in the club’s history was just around the corner.

1992:

The year started with Jim Herron succeeding Pat McCague as Chairman. Shanty had been in the chair for something like 17 years I think and had been involved in every development the club had achieved in that time from the building of the club house, the changing rooms and of course the new pitch. Thankfully his expertise was not lost to us as he remained on committee and I was lucky enough to be elected to senior committee that year along with a few other youngsters who had come through the club systems. I actually served on several senior committees over the years chaired by Jim, Paul Lynch, Fitzy and Kieran Megraw. When Jim stepped into the chair I remember he produced a 5 year plan for the club at a time when no club was doing likewise. He identified the growth of female members as a priority at a time when females were largely relegated to tea making duties. Having witnessed the growth of female involvement in the club as it is now he was certainly ahead of his time. He was forward thinking in his approach and he delegated authority – new committee members such as myself were just as likely to be given responsibility as the more established members. Jim was also responsible for spearheading the campaign to have the club recognised throughout Antrim and beyond as Lámh Dhearg and not the more familiar at the time anglicised version of the club name (Lámh Derg). He got the agreement of the committee, wrote letters to the papers and led a great campaign. It wasn’t a success overnight though. I remember working in the social club and answering the phone a short time later and following the ne protocol I said “Hello, Lámh Dhearg”. The caller hung up only to ring back 3 more times before hanging up each time I mentioned the club name. When it rang again I said once again, “Hello, Lámh Dhearg” to which the exasperated caller blurted out “.. is that not the Lámh Derg!” Many people probably take the Irish version that we all use now as natural but it took Jim and his knowledge of the language and determination to begin the journey to get us there.

The list of titles won in 1992 is well documented elsewhere in the annals of the history of Lámh Dhearg, particularly in the excellent “1992 A Golden Year” booklet produced and edited by Bukey and printed by the late Harry Bleakley RIP and of course Paddy and Beansy covered them well in their article. The highlights for me on a personal level were the Reserve Football Championship and South Antrim League & Championship double as these were the teams I played on. I even got a player of the year award in ’92 – the 1st (and last) since the U12 one back in the early 80’s. Privilege to play on those teams with brilliant guys and good footballers like my brother Mickey, Joe McNeill Benny Lynch RIP, Malcolm Murray, Marty McCague, Carso, Bugsy Prior and Marty Mc Cartney etc.  Of course the Senior Football title was a tremendous accolade despite the circumstances and winning the clubs one and only Minor Hurling championship achieved at the expense of Loughiel will never be forgotten. Who could forget Gary Agnew’s tremendous saves that day or Paul “Maxi” Maxwell’s 20-yard pull that rocketed into the roof of the Casement net.

I wrote this article a few weeks ago and since then we have lost Gary. A nicer young lad you could never hope to meet and someone who gave everything in the pursuit of victory for the team. Someone who was a joy to coach and work with. There can’t be many players who literally put their body in the line of a sliotar travelling at 50 or 60 miles an hour. His saves were legendary and as a dual keeper we could always rely on him to “mind the square”. Our loss as a club pales into insignificance when compared to the loss suffered by his family and close friends and to Jim, Kate, Conor, Cathy and his partner Maureen we all offer our most heartfelt sympathy. It was so fitting that we gathered on Monday in such great numbers during the current crisis to bid farewell to the man who led us to a minor hurling championship, a feat made even more special when we reflect that the victory has yet to be repeated.   

But it will come as no surprise when I single out two winning teams in particular.

Managing the U21’s along with Dodger, Bukey and Shanty we managed to avenge the defeat to St. John’s of our own 1988 minors who had reached the U21 grade the previous year. It was great to win it, the club’s first at this grade and there is a great photo of Pearse Rice, our captain, raising the cup amidst the fading light of Casement surrounded by jubilant players and management. We had achieved the same feat that the Johnnies had done the year previously, won an U21 championship with a team made up largely of minors against a team with the majority of players at 20 or 21 years of age. I was particularly delighted for players like big Gavin Brown and Anto Finnegan as their age had just prevented them from being part of the talented squad of friends below them in the age ranks who had tasted success over the years.

But it is the minor football win that year that will remain with me as the greatest ever managerial achievement I have been involved with. Having been involved in minor management for 4 years at this stage and having lost the 1991 final the year before to a very good Cargin side we were due some good fortune. We had a fantastic team as we faced into the clubs 4th minor final in 6 years. A feature of that team was the fact that they had largely been together as a unit since U10 with few additional players joining. One who did join was Donal O’ Hara who had been playing hurling for the club while lining out for his native Pearses in football in his early juvenile years. He came on board when his home club could not field at U14 level and was a great addition to the team. The final itself has gone down in Lámh Dhearg folklore and Donal’s dad Tommy even wrote a great poem about it.

Playing a Johnnies side we had lost heavily to in the U16 final two years previously added some spice to the match. The actual game is a bit of a blur at this stage but the key facts are that we went in at half time 7 points down, came out and started a revival only to be rocked by another Johnnies goal before setting off on the greatest comeback I have ever seen, eventually winning the game on a scoreline of 2-12 to 3-6. This summary does not do any justice to this team’s performance but rather than all these years later concentrate on the game itself I tend to focus on the team when I think of that day. What made this team special was the bond they had. They were made up of characters. If I am honest at times they were maybe difficult to manage off the pitch but on it they were a united bunch. A group of kids, many of whom had been reared, like myself, on the streets of Lenadoon during difficult times combining with a similarly talented group of players from Hannahstown itself. They had a great mix of skill and determination and people like Cormac Kipper Carmichael, Donal O’Hara, Kevin Elliot, Collie Gorman and Beansy Elliot could have taken on the best in Ireland at that time. Players like Mickey McGuigan, Daryl Fegan, Robbie Murray while skilful footballers themselves also provided a physical edge across the pitch. Big Gary Agnew RIP, our regular keeper, now deployed in full forward was a revelation (I have to give Buke the credit for that master-stroke).

In their recent articles Daryl, Paddy & Beansy talked about the half time team talk and the brandishing by me of the newspaper that covered the minor hurling win a few weeks previously. The boys seem to remember that more now than any tactical instructions we gave them. The story behind that was that I was going out with my now wife Marie and she was from Ballymena so I was spending quite a bit of time there. Paddy McIllwaine is an All Saints, Ballymena man and he covered all of the games for the Ballymena Chronicle which I bought every weekend when I visited. The coverage Paddy gave then was second to none and continues today along with his brother John through Saffron Gael and he had given our historic hurling win great coverage. So I slipped a copy into the kit bag knowing that I could produce it if we were losing as a spur or if we were winning to focus the boys’ minds. I remember the article featured a great picture of a celebrating Kevin Elliot and when I took it out at half time it was the perfect storm. A Johnnies player had kissed the cup on the way off the pitch in full view of our players, another of their players had stuck his head round our changing room door and shouted “easy” as he passed through the Casement corridor and if the boys were not ready to burst through the changing room wall and over the terraces to get to the pitch at that stage the paper maybe provided that little bit extra motivation. The rest as they say is history and the result can never be changed! I think Joe Kernan must have heard about it when he famously threw his All Ireland runners up medal at the wall in Croke Park 10 years later to help secure Armagh’s 1st All Ireland title! 

Of course I can not talk about that team without mentioning our captain, Paddy Tumelty. I had the privilege of managing Paddy T. for many seasons and it’s hard to quantify in words his contribution. A skilful player in his own right, to coin an often used phrase Paddy would have gone through a brick wall for you. He inspired everyone around him to great heights and quite simply could always be relied on to give it his all in every game. A character in every sense of the word and someone who has never forgotten those who contributed to his love of Gaelic games and of Lámh Dhearg. I think this is epitomised by his leading of several players after 1992 to the tattoo parlour where they each cemented their historic year with a red hand tattoo. The social life this team enjoyed is best left without comment! Like many of the ’92 team he went on to distinguish himself as a senior club player for many years in both football and hurling and this is the real measure of our development work.              

I can’t pen an article about my Red Hand journey without mentioning Fitzy. He came into our football lives at minor level but the legend that is the man was already established in our minds as the most well-known personality of Lámh Dhearg across Ireland. You simply can’t go anywhere without his name being mentioned by anyone who knows the club. I have had the privilege of playing under him, serving on committee with him and picking up where we left off each time I meet him at a match. He has time for everyone, including the wives, though he gets over forgetting everyone’s name by calling every female he meets, “Love”. Both Fitzy and Marie were great people to introduce a new person to at the club and my wife can attest to that. Marie Fitzsimmons would never pass her by, something that was very much appreciated as I brought her to the club every Sunday night and disappeared into the big hall once I got her and Marie engaged in conversation. Fitzy is a great man for the yarn and we would regularly listen in awe at some of the stories he told. Like Shanty he’s been involved in every development at the club and along with people like Wee Joe Finnegan they have given a lifetime of commitment to the Lámhs and continue to steer the club in the right direction.  

Teaching in Oliver Plunkett:

I taught in Oliver Plunkett for 8 years between 1994 – 2002. The school had always been a fertile recruiting ground for the club and we were well supported in my time there in our efforts by the school principal, Gerry Barrett. Gerry saw the value of our work for the youth in the area and backed us in everything we did. He attended our juvenile prize giving nights every year without fail and he still pays his membership to Buke whenever he sees him (Buke hasn’t the heart to tell him it’s not a fiver anymore). My involvement in GAA at the school started before I started teaching there when we approached the club about providing coaching during curriculum time. As students we were off on Wednesday afternoons and the club funded transport and the booking of the Leisure Centre indoor hall for the two P4 classes. I think we ran it for 6 weeks and from memory myself, Dodger, Kipper and others who have slipped my mind gave up their time to run it. Brendan McComb talks about it as being his initial introduction to the club so it obviously worked at some level. To see Reg win a senior medal in 2017 really epitomised the importance of initiatives like that for clubs.  

2017 Senior Championship Win:

What can you say? After so many years of missed opportunities, hard luck stories and dare I say it underachievement the club reached the holy grail again at Glenavy in 2017. Wins in 1971 and 1992 were augmented by annexing the big one once again. I may have last played and coached for the club over 15 years ago but I have to say that win was as important to me as it was to anyone connected with the club. Relief at finally getting over the line was replaced quickly with elation at the achievement. You couldn’t help feeling the delight for everyone at that time and as I looked around the crowd on the pitch following the final whistle I saw the faces of people who had given a lifetime of involvement to the club such as Sean Maguire, Jamesy Agnew our longstanding groundsman and wee Joe etc  mingled with those who were more recent arrivals and everyone in between. The championship run this year was exhilarating and I was delighted as Chairman of All Saints that we were able to host the 3rd game in the Casements v Lámhs trilogy. Despite the disappointment of the replay loss in the final I really felt the team had given everything and should be rightly proud of their efforts.

Red Hands Pitch In:

There’s one thing about Lámh Dhearg – I might have moved away from Belfast over 20 years ago but you never lose that connection especially when funding is concerned. I have been a direct debit contributor to the club since the scheme was launched over 20 years ago and in more recent times I received a call from my good friend Dodger. After the usual pleasantries he got to the point and I am now donating as part of the new pitch development efforts. I shouldn’t complain as I heard a while back there that Shanty, Fitzy and Wee Joe were door-stepping people and refusing to leave without a substantial donation so I’m glad their sat-nav didn’t go as far as Ballymena! I have a small connection to the new pitch development. I was on the club committee over 25 years ago when we bought the land. Jackie Duffy was the contact once again and I’m sure Jim was in the Chair. We agonised over whether or not we could afford to buy it and after much soul searching went for it. That decision is sure to repay itself over and over again once the pitch becomes a reality. It always strikes me that the club has done so well despite the lack of playing facilities. When we were playing there was a single pitch and no 3g. At All Saints we are blessed with 3 pitches, one of which is a sand based floodlit pitch as the new pitch will be. Decisions were taken by the founders of the Ballymena club, funds were raised and all of this in an area where Gaelic games had previously struggled to get a foothold. Their determination to succeed is a road many clubs have trodden and the Lámhs are clearly doing the same. For me the decision to invest was an easy one. It’s always easier of course to give back when you have had the benefits over many years and I see that reflected in many of those involved in both donating and leading the development but it’s great to see so many new people supporting the project. I look forward to the day when the pitch opens and I can accompany a team from Ballymena to play on it.

Stateside:

I can’t let my Red Hand journey complete without reference to one of the biggest off-field initiatives I was ever involved in. In 1995 over 120 members, partners, family and friends headed off on a 3 week trip to North America. 4 days in Toronto playing hurling, football and handball were followed by a further 4 days in Orlando and 11 nights in St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast. Although we had a small organising committee the project was led by Paul Lynch and there was no better man to do so. When, during the 18 months of fundraising, appetites waned and hurdles were placed in the way big Lynchy would not be downcast. As we all know he is one of the most positive people within the club and failure is simply not an option for him. A great trip was had by all and those of us who were on it still talk fondly about the experience over 20 years later. A highlight of the fundraising that I was involved was the club Bungee Jump which attracted 100’s of people to the club and saw many of our club members take to the skies including Henry Clifford and our Mick who decided to go straight back up again after his 1st go and do it again.

As we arrived at the airport in Toronto that July day there were certainly a few worried faces as we headed through passport control. Thankfully all were deemed “eligible” to enter the country and the fun could start! My sister Sinead was due to get married a few days after the trip was due to start and when we realised the clash of dates there was nothing else for it …… she changed the date of her wedding. Fair play to her. I still don’t think she has forgiven me for that yet. There were many highlights while on the trip but we all remember the night Big Mickey Herron went to the wrong bar to meet up with everyone. We had decided to give our local, The Harp & Thistle a miss that night and headed elsewhere. The problem was that no one told Mickey and that’s where he headed.  We had all returned to the apartments and no one knew where he was and we were sitting outside having a nightcap when into the car park drives a police car. Big Mickey had met up with a few Irish holiday makers, stayed in the Harp & Thistle Bar and ordered himself a taxi home. Problem was he didn’t know where home was and ended up knocking the door of the wrong apartment. Needless to say the occupants, likely fearing for their lives when confronted with this big Irishman banging their door, phoned the cops who arrived and duly decided that the best course of action was to take Mickey on a tour of the St. Petersburg apartment complexes until he recognised his own. Mickey was one of our great club characters and we said our final goodbyes to him a few short months ago. He is a big loss to both the Herron and the Lámh Dhearg family.   

My mate Henry Clifford was a late convert to the world of Gaelic games so he’ll understand when I say that he wasn’t blessed with the natural basic skills of the game … but he was fast. At that time it was thought that Rocksy was the fastest man in the club. Nothing would do the pair of them but to find out in a straight race who was the quickest. It would have been too organised to do it on the pitch at training some night so they did the next best thing which was to race the length of the car park at the end of a Sunday night spent in the club. They both took off like rockets but the race was declared null and void shortly after when Rocksy took a tumble and ended up with a battered face and bruises everywhere. Henry claimed victory but we all know that Micky Boyle was most certainly the fastest man at that time but I think he was on his sabbatical back then.

Kieran O’Neill is another great mate with superb football ability and brains to burn but not so much common sense. We all worked behind the bar in the club on a Sunday night and it was Slippy’s first night. We showed him the ropes, taught him how to pull pints and what not. One of his first orders was for 2 bottles of Harp which he duly served up to the customer. There followed what can only be described as a Mexican standoff as both bar man and customer stared each other out across the bar. Eventually the punter gave in, ponted at his 2 bottles and asked Kieran if he wouldn’t mind opening them for him. Slow learner that Hannahstown lad! Big Fitzy pulled Kieran to the side at training one night, looked over at a group of us, myself included, and warned him against hanging around the Hunting Lodge with those boys. If only Fitzy knew the student dentist was as keen to get to the Lodge of a weekend as the rest of us. My friendship with “Jinker” goes back a long way and there’s a photo somewhere of us both with the flags on the day of the pitch opening.  

Friendships:

We all know that the GAA provides access to more than just sporting activity. It also facilitates the development of friendships that are started at a young age, many of which sustain into adulthood. My closest friends, both in Belfast and in Ballymena, are GAA club people. My social life revolves largely around GAA activity and I spend a great deal of my spare time working along with others to make the All Saints club as successful as it can be. Many people will know for example of my long-standing friendship with the Buke! It is said quite often that I am the only one who can stick him for more than 5 minutes! Many a family holiday has been dominated with discussions on the Lámhs and how a senior championship could be won. On one memorable night the Lámhs were playing the Johnnies in the Senior Championship at Casement and we were in Portugal. We were heading out for dinner and the Lámhs were down by a couple of points when we arrived at the restaurant. Well, the wi-fi in the restaurant wasn’t too good and the big man was beside himself. Anyone who knows him will know that patience isn’t one of his virtues. He was hanging out windows to get a signal and jumping around like a cat on a hot tin roof. Even the waiter came over to ask him if his steak was ok such was his angst. Buke being Buke tried to explain to the waiter the significance of a Gaelic football match being played thousands of miles away and the fact that the restaurant’s wi-fi service was a hindrance to his following of the “Big Game”. Suffice to say Miguel wasn’t very interested and realised like the rest of us that sometimes Bukey is just better left to his own devices and disappeared as promptly as he had arrived. Thankfully when he rushed us all out (without dessert) to get somewhere with a signal the boys had scrapped home by a point or two after being comfortably in the lead. The holiday was saved! The most appropriate line I ever heard about Buke was delivered to his long suffering wife Claire when she told the story of how his Mum informed her that Paul did not start talking until he was five to which Claire replied, “he’s making up for it now!”    

While I am not in as regular contact with many of my minor playing friends due to the fact that I don’t live in Belfast anymore it is great to know that bumping into them at a match or a chance meeting elsewhere always results in picking up where we left off last time and the conversation is easy. From time to time Dodger does even occasionally contact me for a normal chat, when he is not fundraising for the new field.   

The thing about GAA friendships is that the club structure assists in facilitating those friendships over time. Whether it’s meeting at the games or attending specific functions opportunities to grab a chat are plentiful. The Lamhs have put a great effort into organising reunions in recent year, some of which I have been able to attend. We had a great ’92 reunion in the 25th anniversary year in 2017 up in the club when we all got together and relived the days when the club really started to see it’s youth policy bear fruit. In 2004 we celebrated the 100th anniversary in style with a black tie affair in the Europa along with a series of other events to mark the historic milestone. At many of these occasions you get that chance to meet up with people you maybe haven’t seen for years whether they are living away or closer to home. Bill Molloy travelled home from Canada for the 1992 reunion as Owen O’Neill did from Holland. Colly Gorman and Paul Maxwell came from Derry and Kaneso travelled back from London. These were great events, well organised and attended and clear signs of a club that people feel strongly attached to. Recently I invited Anto Finnegan to attend our club dinner dance in Galgorm Resort and it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to the good old days in Lenadoon and Hannahstown. I regularly chat with Peter Kane at county committee meetings as we both serve our time as respective club chairmen. To think I coached him when he was a juvenile certainly makes me feel my age! I meet Barney Herron several times a year through his health and well-being work at County level, Paddy Tumelty and Brendan Toland as we give a little back through refereeing and countless others at a variety of organised events and chance meetings. It is of course Buke who keeps me most up to date with all things Lamh Dhearg. At the risk of singling him out over others I don’t believe there is a solitary person who has had a more positive effect on my Red Hand Journey that he has. In that respect I am one of many. His influence on me from initial involvement through to adult membership is nothing short of immense. To see that early involvement mature through to adulthood friendship really cements that “Lamh Dhearg” ethos most summed up in the club motto – . Ni neart go cur le cheile – There is no strength without unity.

When you invest as much of yourself in a club as I did you become part of the furniture. When I married and moved to Ballymena in 1997 I was still working in Belfast and continued my playing career with the club. I was even still attending committee meetings for a time. I have 3 boys (Kevin 19, Fintan 15 & Conall 10), all of whom are dual players for All Saints and when our 1st born (Kevin) turned 4 my fanciful ideas of putting him into the car and heading to Hannahstown for training every Saturday morning took a reality check. So it was up to FUNdamentals at Slemish Park and within a few short weeks I was contributing once again as a juvenile coach. That was in 2005 and after much soul searching I got on the blower and spoke to club stalwart and long serving secretary Sean Maguire to secure my playing transfer. I tried not to be too offended when he didn’t try to change my mind. 

Lámhs v Saints:

I played reserve football with All Saints for my last few years and as bad luck would have it we were drawn to play the Lámhs in an early round of the championship in Ballymena. I remember agonising over whether to play or not which now seems ridiculous but then was a major decision for me. I lined out in full back with Dodger in the corner for the Lámhs. As the full forward made his way towards me I asked Dodger who the youngster was and he smiled and said he a young lad by the name of Conor Murray. Needless to say I was glad he was moved out the field quite quickly. If my reluctance to countenance playing against the Lámhs was something that concerned me I soon found out that I needn’t have bothered. As I bent down to pick up a ball out on the far sideline I was met with an unmerciful thump on the back and I hit the deck. As I turned to see who the perpetrator was I realised it was Colm McKenna’s young fella who was glaring down at me and who neither knew me nor give a damn about my lifelong commitment to the Red Hands. I had to laugh but at that moment I knew my place in the present life of the club had come to an abrupt end. We won the game and ended up reaching the final only to lose to CargIn. Looking back it was a great experience to play against my home club. Playing against those you had played with for so many years brings with it a range of emotions but mostly it provided me with a period of closure that I probably needed. Even though I didn’t realise it at the time it played a small part in consolidating my future life in All Saints and in the town of Ballymena in general that I had perhaps been reluctant to accept. 

“So who would you want to win between Lámh Dhearg and All Saints?” I’m frequently asked – usually by my own children. Well, when you put as much effort into playing, coaching and administration as I did in Hannahstown over the years you know how much the club means to everyone involved. Every result is vital, every game is important. That’s why you want your club to win every game. That was me. It’s still me only this time my efforts are 30 miles up the road. To be diplomatic I want the Lámhs to win against every club they play … except one! I should also mention that Lámh Dhearg unwittingly provided one of the most frequent topics of conversation I encounter in Ballymena. It is the 1987 championship replay defeat to All Saints during the Ballymena clubs 1st year in the senior championship. I am frequently reminded of that result when a few of my friends up here decide to gang up on me to win a GAA argument. Another great aspect of the GAA ethos at play.      

So there I end my Red Hand journey. I haven’t even touched on the Monday night juvenile discos, the trips to Letterkenny, the 80 punt room cleaning bill as a result of a fire extinguisher that set itself off accidently in Gallagher’s Hotel, the craic working behind the bar in the club at the weekends and the great Sunday nights of celebration in the club with Ray on the mic and Marty on the decks. Wishing everyone good luck at this time of difficulty.

Lámh Dhearg abu.        

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