Dunloy, Ballymena

© 2018 by Unit Updates.

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Lenadoon's Eclectic GAA Heartland

The entrance to Lenadoon Avenue off the Shaw's Road.

To stand on the pitch at St Paul's GAC on the Shaw's Road is to stand amid a staircase crafted by both nature and nurture.

In front of you, the vista of Belfast's sprawling majesty stretches to the horizon. Samson and Goliath glint in low sunshine far out to the east. The RISE structure, or the Balls on the Falls, are markedly white against its grey and red brick backdrop.

Craning your neck to your rear, the imposing Divis and Black Mountain keeps a careful watch over her city, and cradled in her lap, backed up close to St Paul's newly-build standing area, are the flats of Lenadoon.

With the proud GAA clubs of St Paul's, Sarsfield's and Rossa living cheek by jowl, their protective surrounds of Lenadoon, Stewartstown and Rosgoill have become the front line of the GAA recruitment battle in this particular part of West Belfast.

Add in St Teresa's and Lámh Dhearg, looking on from their vantage point on Hannahstown Hill, and the competition for members is further intensified.

The iconic Sarsfield's gates off Stewartstown Avenue.

Patrick Sarsfield's GAC's entrance on the Stewartstown Road is the most direct route from the site into Lenadoon and unsurprisingly, the club has drawn many of its members from the area since moving to their current premises in 1978. Club stalwart Michael Doherty explains how the Paddies put down roots in the area.

"The club and pitches have been located in Stewartstown Avenue in the Lenadoon area since 1978 after they were burnt out of their Dover Street premises by Loyalists in 1969, so the club has drawn many of its members from the Lenadoon area since it's been based there."

"We have strong links with the community. Numerous local groups use the premises and facilities for activities; for example we run our annual Christmas party for hundreds of local children and families, and work in partnership with Lenadoon Women's Group and St Vincent de Paul to provide clothes, toiletries and presents to local families and individuals in need."

Sarsfield's historical talks and events are highly popular in the area.

Just three years after their Dover Street site being burnt out, with a newly nomadic Sarsfield's now based in rented accommodation in Divis Street, a gun battle broke out between the Provisional IRA and the British Army in Lenadoon, in what later became commonly referred to as the Battle of Lenadoon.

Like many similar areas of Belfast, it became a flashpoint as tensions ran high. Doherty recalls the effect on the club as the Troubles threatened to engulf Lenadoon along with the rest of the North at the time.

"Throughout the Troubles, many of our club members were imprisoned for their political beliefs and others were killed as a result of conflict, which obviously had a big impact on the playing side of things."

"Players going to matches or training were regularly harassed by the RUC, British Army and UDR. Club members played a very active role, along with other GAA clubs, in supporting the campaign of the Hunger Strikers in 1980 and 1981 to be granted their 5 Just Demands."

Lenadoon's Paddy Tumelty lifts the 1992 Antrim MFC Trophy for Lámh Dhearg.

The seismic effect of the Troubles was also felt by Lámh Dhearg, who at the time were building their presence in Lenadoon through their influence in the local primary school. One of those recruits, Paddy Tumelty, explains how the journey up the hill provided respite for the young players.

"For a working-class family in Lenadoon or Stewartstown, getting up here to Hannahstown was getting away from it a bit, like a release. We loved coming up here."

"We ran a kids' disco on a Monday night” explains club PRO Paul Buchanan, “and there would have been 150 kids here and most of them came from Lenadoon. They didn't all play for us, but they would have come up."

"Every Sunday night, you used to have to queue up!" adds Peter Kane, who is the current club chairman.

Buchanan explains how the club provided a social aspect for the club's children and adult members that acted as a release from the turmoil and violence that was so prevalent around the city.

"But when the social club was in its heyday, in the late 70s, 80s, and Lenadoon a lot of people would come up from Lenadoon and we all grew up through the social club. It was our place to go out, the place on a Sunday night was Lámh Dhearg."

"We were only five minutes from Lenadoon, but there was no sign of troops, or army barracks or road blocks, or shooting or bombing."

With so many clubs jostling for position on recruitment in and around Lenadoon, the competition is fierce. Michael Doherty smiles as he rhymes off the list of competing clubs for the area's young talent.

"We have Sarsfields, Rossa and St. Pauls pitches and facilities adjacent to each other. St. Theresa’s are 500 yards from Shaws Road and Lamh Dhearg are less than a mile away. Many of the young people who live in Lenadoon also have family connections to St. Johns, St. Galls, Gort na Mona, Davitts and other West Belfast GAA clubs."

A Lenadoon mural depicts the various GAA clubs represented in Lenadoon.

Peter Kane lauds the competition between clubs in the area as a positive, but warns of the change from when they were growing up in Lenadoon.

"Everything's changed, there's so many options now for children to do, but there's lots of kids actually doing nothing, and there are untapped resources there."

As with many aspects of life, the rules, both written and unwritten, for player recruitment are less clear-cut in the urban setting than the clearly delineated parishes of the rural GAA scene.

With the demographics of the urban GAA fabric in a constant state of flux, the recruitment drive that operates in the countryside with effortless automation requires a great deal more strategic thinking.

"We envy the parish system and would love to go to a similar set-up," laments Michael Doherty, "I suppose over the past 5/6 years we have developed extensive community links with Lenadoon and many local Groups and individuals are using our facilities."

"More families in the area are now sending their sons and daughters to play for Sarsfields. We are now identified as the local GAA Club in Lenadoon, although many young people from the area play for other local clubs."

Sarsfield's in fact hit the headlines recently due to the growing number of juveniles of varying ethnicity who have been attracted to the club, including Syrian siblings Ahmed and Renad Soda who featured for their U14 Hurlers, Footballers and Ladies' Footballers this season.

Brian Healy from Lenadoon in action at the 2018 All-Ireland Feile in County Meath.

In an effort to transmit some of the parish thinking into an urban setting, the county board allocated clubs in Belfast to a nominated school. St Oliver Plunkett PS, the biggest school serving the Lenadoon area, went to Lámh Dhearg but Paul Buchanan, the Hannahstown club's PRO, feels that the strategy wasn't quite suited to an urban setting.

"There's really no territory marked out to say; 'That's Lámh Dhearg, or that's St Paul's or Rossa'. Belfast is a changing and growing cosmopolitan city. All clubs have members spread throughout the city."

Lámh Dhearg clubmen Buchanan, Paddy Tumelty and Peter Kane grew up in the shadow of Sarsfield's Bear Pit and were no strangers to the pitch in their early years, but keen recruitment, readily available transport and the lure of brand new facilities meant they made the journey up the hill to Hannahstown.

"We used to go to Sarsfield's sports days in the summer, because we were round the corner and it was something to do," grins Tumelty, "but we never actually played any games for them, we never signed."

"We used to go up to hit the ball about, but he (Buchanan) took us up to this brand new pitch, with big lights round it, and we were wowed. That's where I was hooked, the big pitch and the red and white fencing around it."

In the early 1980s, Castlewellan native Finnbar McCormick was introducing the GAA to a new generation of Lenadoon's youth in his role as a teacher in St Oliver Plunkett PS. At the same time, Buchanan was working in Carrigart Youth Club and was well-placed to encourage his charges up the hill to Hannahstown via some quickly-sourced transport.

"We used to meet at Greenways," adds Peter Kane, "and Pat McCague in the Volkswagen minibus brought us up the hill."

Those club minibuses turned out to be a recruitment masterstroke for the Red Hand club, as week-after-week, they would shuttle children up and down the hill for matches and training as the Lenadoon interest in the club continued to grow.

"Later on, with the demand we had to get two minibuses and our latest edition was the blue Transit minibus, driven by Davy “Shaker” McGarry, to pick up the kids at Greenways," explains Buchanan.

"If you went through Lenadoon, you would have had the McGuigans, who were next door to the Tumeltys, next door then you had the Tolands and the Mervyns. If you went into Mizen Gardens, every kid played for Lámh Dhearg bar Karl Stewart, who was obviously St Gall's."

The school did enjoy some success on the GAA pitch as a result of McCormick's hard work, and they clinched the Raffo Cup, the P7 Gaelic Football tournament in the city, in 1984.

The St Oliver Plunkett PS team who won the 1984 Raffo Cup.

Another man who came through the ranks alongside Buchanan is Jim Brady, who served as Lámh Dhearg Juvenile Chairman for a number of years. Brady is currently chairman of All Saints' Ballymena and principal of St Brigid's Primary School in the town. He spent eight years working in St Oliver Plunkett PS in his early career and explains the challenges in establishing a school link.

"We specifically started with P4s, because even then, we were thinking that P7 was probably too late. We wanted to get them in a bit younger - there was no such thing as FUNdamentals back then."

Lenadoon natives Jim Brady, Barney Herron and Paddy Tumelty enjoy the 1992 club dinner as Lámh Dhearg were named Ulster Club of the Year.

"The club then purchased a kit for the school as we tried to develop that link further. We had some great success as a school, Paddy and those boys won the Raffo Cup but we mostly played B championship during my time."

"It was hard to promote Gaelic Games. Oliver Plunkett had been the hotbed of Lámh Dhearg for so many years but it just takes that continued work to keep it going."

Sarsfield's Doherty agrees that the school-club links are fraught with difficulty in the city.

"I think it would be too difficult to regulate with so many clubs in South Antrim and family ties it won’t work. It would be worth a try to ask each club locally to nominate one school only that becomes their feeder school and only coaches from their club can go into that school."

"It is unfair that you have some clubs at U12, U14 with over 40 players whilst weaker clubs can only field 13 players. We need to ensure that players are getting plenty of game time but if you have a squad of over 40, then it's extremely difficult."

Ethan Mervyn, who captained Sarsfield's Minor Footballers to the Antrim B MFC title this season, pictured with Sean Cavanagh.

Current Sarsfield's chairman Paul Barr is optimistic for the future of the club-school link with St John the Baptist PS, which has recently had some positive developments.

"We have a mentor in at the moment during school hours and we hope to have another 2/3 involved in the coming months in after school clubs. We have opened up our facilities for the school to use with a match taken place next week."

"The school has also placed our training schedules on their social media platform. Over the coming weeks we hope to develop this link further for the benefit of both the school and our club."

While the sterling work that Sarsfield's have undertaken is currently reaping benefits in Lenadoon, Paul Buchanan, recently inducted into the Lámh Dhearg Hall of Fame, hails the historical link with the area as it continues to aid club development.

"When you look back at some of our major successes, the teams were backboned by children from Lenadoon. Pearse Rice captained the 1992 U21 champions, Pat McCambridge the 1988 Minor champions and Paddy Tumelty the 1992 Minor Football champions."

"We may no longer have that strong link with Lenadoon as time and history moves on, but the Lenadoon link is still strong and vibrant as many of our juveniles recruited in the 80s and 90s are now active and valuable volunteers within the club."

"Peter Kane is the current chairman, Gavin Brown spearheads the Finance Committee, Dominic McGuigan is the club Children's Officer and many of our juvenile coaches are from the area; Kieran Megraw, Sean Braniff, Paddy and Christy Tumelty, Brendan Elliott, Sean McLaren and Peter Martin McGuigan to name a few."

"The fact that we field 28 teams is a credit to the club considering we have such a small geographical base to work from. We are continuing to upgrade our facilities, with the state-of-the-art changing room refurbishment being the most recent, and we hope that the next generation of Paddy Tumeltys will be wowed by another big pitch with red and white railings."

With the local GAA clubs already falling over each other to bring their vision to the young people of Lenadoon, their logistical gymnastics become even more vital due to external competition from urban GAA's old nemesis, "the soccer".

Michael Doherty of Sarsfield's is keen to acknowledge the "vital role" played by clubs such as St Oliver Plunkett FC in providing opportunities for young people and explains how Sarsfield's try to work in tandem with local soccer clubs.

"We try our best always to work in partnership with local soccer clubs but it doesn’t always work out and sometimes that's down to individual coaches, but we actively encourage our players to take part in other sports."

"Increasingly from 15 years upwards lads are coming to us and saying that certain coaches don’t want them to play Gaelic and to focus on soccer only. It's worrying and is certainly not about developing the young person as an individual."

The inspirational Anto Finnegan celebrates with teammates after the 1992 U21 FC win over St John's, with current PRO Paul Buchanan on the right of the picture.

Former Sarsfield's Juvenile Chairman Michael Doherty welcomes the new Gaelfast project and hopes it will pay dividends in encouraging more young people in Lenadoon and across Belfast into the ranks of the GAA.

"The biggest issue facing Clubs in South Antrim at a Juvenile level is the lack of competition matches. They are getting games every week in soccer but are fortunate to get ten competitive matches in Gaelic or Hurling every year. If players don’t get enough competitive matches, then we will lose them to other sports like soccer."

The man charged with spearheading the Gaelfast programme is Regeneration Manager Dr Paul Donnelly, who hails from St Paul's, hosts of the highly popular Ulster Minor Football Tournament and located on the edge of Lenadoon.

Bellaghy captain Paul Cassidy lifts the Ulster Minor Football Championship on New Year's Day with Lenadoon providing the backdrop for the travelling Wolfe Tones support.

Donnelly is brimming with positivity about the impact the programme will have on areas like Lenadoon and beyond across the city.

"Individually and collectively, local GAA clubs in this part of west Belfast including Naomh Pól, Sarsfields, O'Donovan Rossa and as far as St Teresa's and Lamh Dhearg have played a vital role in developing and promoting Gaelic games. Looking at the sporting and social context for communities in this area, Gaelfast will be seeking to build on existing links between clubs, schools and local community facilities."

"We need to better understand the existing links exist between clubs, schools and communities and figure out together how these can be made even more effective for the benefit of everyone. Each geographical area has its own distinct features which bring challenges and opportunities and Lenadoon is no different."

"We need a balance between ensuring the highest standards across the county while also having scope for tailoring interventions to respond successfully to  local needs. That's why Gaelfast has been mobilising resources and expertise to help support the transformation needed for the GAA in Belfast."

Donnelly outlines the potential for development in the Gaelfast programme and the meticulous planning that has already been invested in it:

"A Games Development Plan encompassing all codes within the GAA has been designed for Antrim. With a team of Games Promotion Officers currently being recruited at present by Gaelfast, a new impetus will be brought to the implementation of this plan. Next month the Gaelfast Management Board will be convened for the first time and later this year we hope to launch a draft plan for Gaelfast."

The bottomless passion, pride and energy that all these clubs pour into their communities is no doubt the reason why the GAA continues to thrive in areas like Lenadoon, and the competition for numbers throughout the city keeps the rivalry healthy.

With the huge potential of Gaelfast, they will be hoping that regardless of the colour of their jerseys, the laughter of Lenadoon's children will light up local GAA pitches for many years to come.

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