Brian McKee has been a contributor and a great supporter of the Saffron Gael in recent times. Unfortunately for us Brian is taking a step back to take over a much more important role in local GAA, chairman of the famed Ardoyne Kickhams GAC. Brian has penned a few lines to explain his deep love for GAA, instilled in him by his late father, a dyed in the wool Gael Uladh man, and how his love for Ardoyne developed. We wish him every success in his new role and thank him for all the support he has given us
IT’S MY DA’S FAULT
It’s my da’s fault. More or less from the time I could walk he instilled in me a love of all things gaelic. Like the day in 1963 when his beloved Gael Uladh were playing a football match in McCrory Park. We lived in Beechview Park at the time, literally right beside the pitch. The Gaels were short a few players, so he pulled a blue and yellow jersey on me and told me to stand at the corner flag nearest the wall. My mum couldn’t see me on that part of the pitch from our bedroom window. I was four years old. Start them young…
My daddy was a Falls Road man to his core. Lower Falls to be more precise, and yes, there is a difference. However, he was one of those Falls Road men who was lucky enough to fall in love with and be civilised by an Ardoyne woman. While she indulged him those few years of living back on the Falls, she had her own plan of action and it was only a matter of time before we were back home in Ardoyne.
Some things never changed for my daddy though. He was a Ton Street man all his life. Nothing could change that, and coming a very close second to my mum was his other passion in life, Gael Uladh. As a child I loved the closeness of being carried on his shoulders across the West Circular Road on his way to watch his beloved Gaels play in Corrigan or Falls Parks. Under strict instructions not to tell my mum that he was fighting on the sidelines when I got home, it was of course the first thing I spurted out as soon as I got through the door.
At one time Gaels had a clubroom at the top of Broadway opposite the Bee Hive pub. I remember the men with paint brushes and plaster carrying out the renovations. Great GAA men: Harry Spence, Sam Connolly, Big Al Austin, Donal Murphy, the Donnellys, the Wards, the McMahons and so many others. A real family club. This was at a time when players washed in the water trough in McCrory Park after a match and when a hot shower was something that you experienced when it rained in August.
While integrating into the Ardoyne community, my dad never backtracked on his loyalty to the Gaels, even after they folded! Ardoyne players would joke that my daddy refereeing was worth at last 3 points to Ardoyne, but he was Gael Uladh until his dying day. It was fitting that his coffin was adorned with his beloved blue and yellow jersey as he was carried out of Holy Cross Church on the day we said our final farewell.
What has all that to do with accepting the role of Chairperson of Ardoyne Kickhams? No true GAA man or woman would ask that question. It’s in the blood. It’s all about your club, and the club is all about your community and your sense of identity. While I now live in Ballymena, the parish of Holy Cross and the wonderful club that is Ardoyne Kickhams is where my heart is. I have a Falls Road man to thank for that. I know now why he never turned away from his beloved Gaels!
If your commitment to the GAA is reduced to winning championships, then we have robbed it of its soul. If the commitment of the GAA is about focusing on the elite to the detriment of Junior B, then we have robbed it of its soul. We are much more than that. We have the privilege of promoting our Irish culture and games in the hearts of our young people and at the heart of our different communities. We have the privilege and challenge of fostering the identity of our young people and communities in a way that embraces all and excludes none. We have been gifted with the greatest games and culture in the world and our role is to protect and nurture that gift for all.
Such a vision of the GAA is at the heart of Ardoyne Kickhams. Born in 1907, from its very beginnings it had an integral role in the parish community. Our black and white jerseys come from the black and white habit worn by the Passionists priests and brothers. That strong connection is now reflected in some of the jerseys our teams wear this year. The ’30s and ‘40s were good years for our club, especially in senior football and Ardoyne were senior football champions in 1937.
In 1969 we were on the brink of something special happening for our club. We had a very successful senior football team playing in Division 1B. This was alongside a talent filled U16 team who won the South Antrim final, just one week after over 140 homes were destroyed by fire in Ardoyne through 14-16 August 1969. The Troubles that followed saw not only those two teams, but the entire club structure rocked to its very foundations through killings, imprisonment and exile. We lost the use of our home pitch at Ballysillan Playing Fields. I remember the day in August 1970 when loyalists came through the gates and the ensuing battle down the Ardoyne Road back into the district. We never again played a home match until the mid 1980s, but we never failed to field.
Success still came on the field in both hurling, football and camogie but we struggled hard through dark days. Success was intermittent though, and longer term strategic progress and planning was difficult when the community about you was in the midst of a struggle to survive. While days are thankfully brighter now, the legacy is lasting. We are left with the challenge of attracting young people towards Gaelic games against the constant media coverage of soccer and pay per view. We struggle every week to find sufficient pitch allocation against the scandal of no dedicated Gaelic pitches in North Belfast. On a Sunday morning we can have over 6 teams marking out squares on the one pitch available to us, and then only for a few hours.
There is also the positive legacy of a club that has been at the heart of a community scarred by years of conflict. Ardoyne Kickhams now field at least 29 teams, the latest being our U6 camogs. We host Irish language classes and open our handball alley to local schools. After a number of years without a senior hurling team we are back at the table and pushing for success. Camogie is enjoying a revival and attracting young women from across North Belfast. These are positive signs that we are punching above our weight in terms of promoting Gaelic games and culture.
What does the future hold? I hope that Ardoyne Kickhams will be back participating in Scór competitions at all levels; that we not merely continue but positively develop our relationship with the local parish community; that we build upon our success in promoting the Irish language and culture; that we provide opportunities for our young members to participate in international experiences; that gaelic games become a natural choice for young people from Ardoyne and the surrounding community, and that we make the provision of dedicated gaelic pitches a reality in North Belfast. We will only do that though by working together as one club and with the support of the wider GAA community.
Up until recent weeks, Philip McTaggart was holding the reins as Chairperson of the Kickhams. Philip’s work and dedication to suicide prevention following the death of his son Pip is legendary across our community. In recent weeks this dedication has seen Philip evaluate and prioritise his time commitments. He decided that for the benefit of both this work and for our club that he would step away from the role of chairperson. He remains fully committed to the club and we are proud of the great service he offers to our community.
While two weeks ago I would have run a mile from taking on the role of chairperson, I now recognise it as an absolute privilege. An opportunity to give back even a fraction of what I have received from this proud club. Today in this club we stand on the shoulders of giants but we are up for the fight, and say what you want about Ardoyne Kickhams, we could never be accused of shirking a fight, on or off the pitch!
It’s a strange experience writing about a club you belong to with tears in your eyes and a smile on your heart, but that’s the GAA. It gets under your skin until you fall in love with it and then you just have to pass it on to others. If the GAA is not in your heart and if it’s not in your soul, then it’s not in you at all. Ard Eoin Abú! (Sorry daddy – Up the Gaels!)