Updated: Nov 8, 2018
I only recall the euphoric victory of the underdog. The delirium of overturning a half-time lead. The booming Kerry tones of Tom Lynch in the sanctum of the dressing room proving the catalyst for a gladiatorial slaying of Goliath as Rasharkin’s Minors sent packing a St John’s side laden with county players in the first round of the 2004 Antrim MFC.
Amidst the hand shakes, back claps and adolescent roars, I barely registered the wry smiles on the faces of the more elderly statesmen in the crowd at Dreen, nor the words of wisdom advising us to savour the moment appropriately, in case the wait for future success proved as long and heartbreaking as theirs.
Ask any Antrim Gael to name you the biggest rivalry in championship football and chances are they’ll opt for St Gall’s v Cargin, but in the late 50s and early 60s it was the hardy men of Rasharkin and St John’s that were dominating the domestic deciders.
With 24 titles, the Whiterock men lead the way on the Antrim Roll of Honour and St Mary’s Rasharkin were unfortunate to encounter them on the cusp of dominance, winning seven in a row from 1959 to 1965, a feat only surpassed by St Gall’s eight-in-a-row winning side of 2007-2014.
Jim Smyth, who played on the Rasharkin teams of the era, remembers clearly the heartbreak of defeat, but acknowledges the St John’s team as being a class act.
“It was a terribly depressing time, really and truly. You were living in hope from year to year and you were beaten back.”
“St John’s were a tremendous team, there’s no doubt about it. The Gallaghers, they were a tough bunch. There was a fella Gerry McCrory played for them, he was a great player.”
Michael Gallagher was one of several brothers on that successful side and he recalls the intensity of clan rivalry as being one of the stand-out features of the series, both sides bristling with set of brothers.
“The two teams were full of families, we had six brothers on the one team and they had the Hardys and the Dunlops, there were so many. Besides the football, you had the families coming together as well. It was good craic.”
Rasharkin’s John McAuley also highlights the importance that the family links had on the GAA at the time, and laments the loss of this great tradition.
“There were four McAuleys, three Hardys and three, sometimes four McGarrys, so you had the bulk of a team from three or four families, but that wouldn’t happen nowadays, you’d nearly need fifteen families!”
McAuley reserved special praise for Christie Hardy, renowned by many as the finest footballer to ever come out of Rasharkin.
“Christy started playing on the senior team when he was fourteen and then he just moved up. He was one of those players who never panicked, he had a great sense of position, he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.”
The Hardys are synonymous with St Mary’s Rasharkin, and Gallagher lavished praise on Willie, who he describes as the clinical, yet gentlemanly leader of the pack.
“Chris and John were tight, but we called Willie a gentle giant, a big lump of a man. Good people and good families.”
Hardy smiles wistfully at the notion as he casts his mind back to on-field tussles.
“I would have had to play the peacemaker quite a lot because I had the two brothers, John and Christy, that would have got into a few rows and I would usually get the nod to go and make the peace!”
Rasharkin celebrate their 75th anniversary this year, but were in their infancy back then, embarking on their maiden SFC voyage having won the 1958 Junior Championship in some style with victory over Sarsfields.
The St Mary’s men’s momentum carried them to their first Senior Final in 1959 with victories over St Gall’s, St Olcan’s and O’Connell’s before they travelled to Casement Park to face 1957 champions St John’s.
“After Rasharkin came up out of Junior they would have been well there for winning the league and the championship,” explains Mickey Gallagher, but midfielder Willie Hardy feels the Rasharkin squad of 1959 went into the final somewhat wet behind the ears.
“I think that first one affected a lot of our players. We won the Junior, came up to Senior and went straight into a final against St John’s, who were a bit craftier than what we would have been. They beat us by a big score and it knocked a lot of our boys off.”
In a paragraph that could grace any modern newspaper, the Northern Constitution report on the match bemoaned the use of the short pass, claiming that the ‘catch and kick methods which met with such success’ had failed to materialise as St Mary’s lost out by 2-07 to 0-05.
In the two finals that followed, the naivety of the 1959 encounter had seemingly dissipated, but Rasharkin found themselves with a more frustrating problem on this occasion.
Three goals in three first half minutes were ultimately enough for the Whiterock Road men to take the 1960 title on a scoreline of 4-04 to 2-01 as Rasharkin ‘spent the last half hour of the game in agonising torture as score after score was frittered away’, amazingly failing to register a score in the second half.
There was a sense of déja vu for the South West men in the 1961 Final as they again kicked away chance after chance before the Belfast men recovered to pull clear and snatch the title from Rasharkin’s grasp for a third consecutive year.
The team were maturing though and when they were drawn against the same opposition in 1962, it felt as though their luck was about to turn, and the Constitution report from the game told how there were ‘inches’ between the sides, John McGarry’s late effort zipping just over the crossbar rather than under.
Heartbreakingly, St Mary’s went on to lose by the slimmest of margins. Hardy recalls the event with a grimace and a shake of the head.
“There were two points in it and someone passed John the ball in a bit of space. He went for the goal to win it and it hit the bar and went over.”
Rasharkin’s fourth, and last Senior county final was played well into November, with atrocious conditions marring what was a ‘keenly contested match’. There were signs of disarray before the Rasharkin men even took the field as there were transportation issues that would have today’s meticulous managers baulking. In the superb book ‘Down the Lane’, McGarry recalls:
“I think we should have won that 1963 final. Three buses left the village that day and the players were divided among them with the result that some of the team were fifteen minutes late for the game.”
Widely regarded as the best side never to have won a Senior Championship, the Rasharkin team of the late 50s and early 60s was brimming with footballing talent, but it seemed the sight of the blue and white jerseys raised some sort of mental block among the Rasharkin men. It left many in the club at a loss to explain how a side who were at times scintillating could lose so often in the pressure-cooker of Senior Championship.
“I mean we won more carnivals than any other team that I can think of. We seemed to like the carnivals and we used to play maybe two carnivals in one week,” laments an exasperated Willie Hardy.
The carnivals Hardy refers to were a common occurrence throughout the summer back in the 50s and 60s, with the Lavey tournament the forerunner to the current Ulster Club Championship. The St Mary’s men’s talent flourished at the carnivals, where they put some of Ulster’s top teams to the sword.
“The Johnnies wouldn’t play at carnivals, so we went through as the runners-up to represent Antrim. You want to have seen the crowds that were at them, there was some great football played. Crossmaglen hadn’t been beaten in so many years, and we beat them.”
That both teams contested so many finals throughout this era is testament to the sheer talent and desire in both sides. Mickey Gallagher insists that those championships were wide open, with no team dominating proceedings.
“This last couple of years it seems to be that two or three teams are dictating but in those days you had so many good teams. Rasharkin came through, you had Pearse’s, St John’s, Rossa, the Creggan team with the Batesons and all. Sarsfields with the Wards and all playing.”
“Alright, we won probably more championships than anyone else, but you’re only talking about the kick of a ball. We didn’t win the league for five or six years. At that time there was probably 7, 8 teams who were all on a par and it was whoever did the trick on the day won the match.”
One consolation for the St Mary’s men is that they had a knack of getting one over on their famous rivals in league action during this period, tasting victory in 1961 in what the Constitution reported as a ‘real thriller, marked by a high standard of play from both sides’.
Rasharkin also had the upper hand in 1964, where to some extent they avenged the championship final defeat, comprehensively seeing off their old rivals at Dreen on a score line of 3-09 to 1-06 to deny them a league and championship double. Both McAuley and Hardy recall the bittersweet result with a great deal of clarity.
“We played the Johnnies at home in a match in the league and if they’d won they’d have won the league. We beat them by double scores,” recalls Hardy, while McAuley is crystal- clear in remembering that “in one particular match we beat them 18-9.”
While undoubtedly a gut-wrenching period in the club’s history, Rasharkin made a contribution to one of the great rivalries of what is regarded as Antrim football’s golden era. Indeed John McGarry played on the county side that clinched a Dr McKenna Cup title in 1966, contesting Ulster Championship Semi-Finals along the way in 1962, 1964, 1965 and 1966.
It is an era that players from both sides recall fondly. Mickey Gallagher wears a mischievous grin as he remembers how much more ‘robust’ football was in that era.
“Sometimes you got a slap in the ear and sometimes you would give someone else a slap in the ear – it was good fun. You went out, you battered away and sometimes it got a bit rough,” muses Gallagher, “but when the match was over, away you went and you were looking forward to the next time. That was the game and you just loved it.”
That robust edge is something also fondly remembered by both Hardy, who laughs in recognition at that particular quote from Gallagher.
“Well we were a big strong team, but I wouldn’t have counted us as a dirty team, we wouldn’t have deliberately have kicked anyone,” he grins, “we wouldn’t have been a fast team now, we were big but we were slow which maybe didn’t help us too much.”
John McAuley also reminisces of an era in which a game of football was the main form of entertainment for many of the area’s young men.
“People talk about burnout now, but in those days if you were winning, you played every night of the week between Antrim and Derry carnivals. Sometimes you’d two finals on the same night! There wasn’t much other entertainment then, very few players had cars, and not too many smoked or drank, because we hadn’t the money for that! Times are different now.”
As St Mary’s prepare to celebrate their 75th anniversary this weekend, the men who soldiered in the late 50s and early 60s can understandably look back with pride at their contribution to the club, with Willie’s son Michael currently holding the role of chairman. Michael is optimistic as he looks forward to the next instalment in the Rasharkin story.
“Well hopefully the future is bright, at juvenile level we’re currently experiencing a bit of difficulty in numbers, but looking from Primary 1 down, the numbers are really strong.”
“There’s a lot of good work going on at that FUNdamentals level and a lot of the recently retired and current Senior players are involved there, which is vital and will only reap rewards when that kind of work is put in.”
With strong managers in both codes, the idea of making their home pitch a fortress once again is one that harks back to this team, who had the incredible record of only losing twice at Dreen in five years of football, a feat that any team in the modern era would be hard-pushed to replicate.
While their disappointment at never making the breakthrough is evidently painful, the 1959-63 team will forever be remembered in the village as the most talented group of footballers ever to pull on the blue and yellow jerseys, and had it not been for that John McGarry effort shaving the wrong side of the post, they would have made it to the promised land.
Gallagher put it aptly – “the kick of a ball”.
This set of players were one kick from perpetual canonisation in the lanes and hills of Rasharkin.
They were mere inches from immortality.