“Larne Borough Council also accepts that such a decision would be distasteful to certain councillors who find the prospect of Loyalist gun-running Larne contributing financially to the strengthening of Gaelic games culture.”
Terry McLaughlin, Irish Independent, August 15th 1999
When the draws took place for the Antrim Hurling and Football championships last month, there was a notable returnee among the contenders for the Junior B Hurling title. Lining up in the Semi-Final against Loch Mór Dál gCáis, now in their third year of adult competition, was the name of Latharna Óg.
Back in 2005, the club were riding the crest of a wave. The enthusiasm delivered by their new facilities had seen the club fielding teams from U8 to Senior, a remarkable feat for the club. When the Senior side clinched the McCaughan Cup, North Antrim’s divisional Junior championship in the summer of 2008, momentum appeared to be building for the Craigy Hill Terrors.
Their achievements were rendered even more impressive due to the opposition they often faced from the local council, who were not overly supportive of GAA-activity in a town written firmly into Loyalist folklore.
“When we were using the council pitch at Craigy Hill, there was glass put all over the pitch,” grimaces Bergin, “I remember councillors saying ‘We’re arming these republicans with weapons’ if we put a pitch in Larne. It was sheer bigotry. Any obstacle they could have put in our way, they did.”
After years of ground-sharing with Shane O’Neill’s Glenarm, and despite fierce opposition from a unionist-dominated Larne Borough Council, the club opened their new pitch in 2005, adding a set of changing rooms before the official opening in 2008.
But by the 2009/10 season, the name of Latharna Óg no longer featured in the early-season championship draws. Senior player Gary Bergin claims there was no specific reason for the sudden decline.
“I think we’d just put so much effort into the season before and everybody just lost a bit of interest. It was the same even for the boys that wanted to play. It’s not really a great hurling town Larne, you would have an 80-20 split (in terms of unionism and nationalism). It wouldn’t be the easiest place to play hurling.”
There was a brief revival in 2014, as the talented U10 crop of 2005 began to come of age. The club fielded at Senior level again, but the flicker of hope was brief.
As the song Craigie Hill, reported to be about the Larne area, professes, they went “sailing over the ocean, for honour and promotion.”
“A good percentage of our promising minors went over to Britain for university or employment and some of them never came back” laments Bergin.
Conor Matthews was one of the talented young Larne hurlers whose love for the game took him to neighbouring clubs, with whom he made a telling contribution. Gary explains how the current renaissance was sparked in the summer of 2018.
“It was just Conor. I never thought I’d see it. When I got the message saying it was starting up again, I thought it was a waste of time. We’ve had so many false dawns you get brow-beaten to the point where you can’t really take any more, but Conor wanted to do it.”
There were only nine bodies present at the initial meeting, but the word soon spread, and by the first training session, in June’s searing heat, there was a much bigger crowd present.
“On the first night of training, the 11th June, in the middle of the hosepipe ban, 25 players turned up,” grins Bergin, “and we trained for twelve weeks with around 17 men each week.”
“It was in the middle of the heatwave and there was a great atmosphere. There’s nothing better than going to training in the summer, knocking balls over the bar. It’s a great feeling.”
"I couldn’t sleep that night, I was buzzing, lying in bed thinking ‘Maybe it will happen this year, maybe it could work’.”
The players were driving the resurgence, and clearly enjoying themselves. A driving force for many of them is the chance to play with their own club again, after years of sanctions and transfers to their neighbours.
“After playing for other clubs with effectively 14 strangers you take a certain sense of pride in training and playing matches with the people you grew up with, the boys who went on your stag do, the fellas who'll be at your wains christening.”
Bergin is looking forward to competing in the Antrim league with his home club again after a few seasons spent with Davitt’s in Belfast and explains that the club are hoping to make the most of it.
“We’ll see how we go in the league,” enthuses Bergin, “We’ve booked a bus for the trip down to Tyrone to face Naomh Columcille, it’s good for the team bonding!”
Despite their lengthy absence from adult competition, the East Antrim side are well-equipped for their return, with a number of their players featuring for county development squads at underage level. In fact, Michael Lismore, who hit 4-04 in the 2008 McCaughan Cup victory, went on to represent London.
“We have four players who played underage for the county – Ryan O’Donnell, Michael Lismore, Conor Matthews and Darren Martin.”
“They would improve any squad in the league, so we have some very strong players, but also some others who have never played before.”
It won’t all be plain sailing for the lads adapting to being Latharna Óg players again though. Bergin grins as he recalls how he heard about Conor Matthews’ plan to get the band back together.
“When I got the message from Conor about starting the team up again I was raging because I’d just bought a Davitt’s half-zip that I’ll never be able to wear again! We’ve a strict fine system in place too in the Senior panel. Soccer shirts and Glenarm shirts are banned, so I couldn’t wear the Davitt’s shirt to training!”
The experienced Bergin also feels that the club can tap into some of the positive sporting energy that is currently floating around the coastal town with the resurgence of Larne FC. The Inver Reds recently sealed the NIFL Championship title and with it, promotion to the top flight to build on their recent infrastructure redevelopment.
“There is a sporting buzz about the town too with the soccer team going well. We actually trained down at Inver Park a few times – you can rent out the 4G.”
This kind of multi-sport co-operation in the town of Larne would have been unthinkable back in 1999 when that DUP-led petition threatened to derail the mere hint of club development. With the hurling club once again active at adult level in the local area, Gary Bergin feels like Latharna Óg are riding a crested wave of positivity.
“Everything is looking positive and hopefully we can maintain that during the season, even if we take a few beatings. When you play for other clubs, it’s not the same.”
“We’re doing it for ourselves. The boys are there because they want to be there, and that can sometimes be half the battle.”
Whatever this season holds for Latharna Óg, everyone in the club will be delighted to see the blue and yellow jerseys glinting in the Bruston Braes sunshine once again.
Latharna Óg get their 2019 campaign underway this Sunday as they travel to Fr Maginn Park to face Con Magees Glenravel at 3pm.