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We hated the Army, but when a soldier was killed the same time as my son died I shared his mum's pain

The inside story of shifting attitudes at a GAA club in an area synonymous with IRA bandit country

Published 19/03/2016

Former GAA star Oisin McConville and his mother Margaret
Former GAA star Oisin McConville and his mother Margaret
Former GAA star Oisin McConville and his mother Margaret
Top club and county player Jamie Clarke says scars remain in village
John McEntee, Oisin McConville’s joint manager at Crossmaglen

The fanatical people behind one of Ireland's most successful Gaelic football clubs, Crossmaglen Rangers, have admitted that the Army - so long the scourge of their village in south Armagh - should probably take credit for their part in making the team winners.

A new BBC Northern Ireland documentary about the club, part of whose ground was once an unwilling home to the military, will reveal how the presence of their "antagonising" neighbours helped motivate the footballers to win dozens of Armagh county, Ulster and All-Ireland titles.

One of Crossmaglen's most famous footballers, Oisin McConville, who won All-Ireland glory with Armagh and who was until recently the joint manager of the Rangers, tells the documentary makers that the players who used to blame the Troubles for their failures later turned their siege mentality to their advantage to ensure they would triumph on the field.

He adds that it was great to stick two fingers up at the Army, who had sometimes landed their helicopters on the pitch, had "built their barracks on top of us", and had tried to intimidate their members.

And he says the message was: "F*** youse. We are going to win an All-Ireland anyway."

During the Troubles scores of soldiers and police officers were killed by the IRA in what became known as bandit country. Archive footage used in the programme shows an Army officer in a helicopter above Crossmaglen saying: "Everybody who lives in this particular area is violently pro the IRA."

After seeing that clip, Oisin says "that is some assumption to make for somebody flying in a helicopter over your town", and he adds that he had never come under pressure to join the IRA.

His friend and the other half of the Cross management team, John McEntee, says: "I know for certain I was never asked. (to join the IRA). I was too busy playing football, too busy getting educated, too busy trying to get on with life."

McConville is filmed by the programme makers meeting a soldier in Crossmaglen who contacted him with a view to returning to the town on a reconciliation mission.

The soldier, who was not named, is shown shaking hands with McConville, whom he admits he would once have seen as his enemy.

The soldier says that he would have been fearful of the GAA club: "In my head, the Gaelic club was where all the local volunteers in the local IRA active service unit would sit and come up with their plans to hit the Army patrols, of which I was a member."

McConville tells the soldier: "As far as I was concerned, you were the enemy." And he says that he did not think he would ever shake hands with a British Army officer: "It's something that proves how much everybody has moved on."

Another perspective in the documentary of the Troubles comes from Oisin's 79-year-old mother Margaret, who has been helping out at Cross for more than six decades as volunteer tea and buns and sandwich maker, although she was also the club secretary for seven years.

Mrs McConville, talks movingly of how the death of her teenage son Thomas in a swimming accident in Donegal in 1976 coincided with the killing of a young soldier in the village.

"His mother got a knock on the door that week, and so did I," she recalls. "The trauma and the grief were as great for her as they were for me."

And she adds: "We're Irish people. We'd die for Ireland surely, but not in those circumstances... just to take a gun and shoot another man. That's nothing to do with All-Irelands or anything else."

But True North: Crossmaglen Field Of Dreams is not just another Troubles documentary as it highlights the passion for, and pride in, the GAA club.

The programme makers filmed their documentary over two years, taking viewers on a behind-the-scenes journey as Cross battled for county, Ulster and All-Ireland trophies with all the attendant highs of victories and lows of defeats.

With unfettered access to the Rangers' dressing room, we see fiery team talks before games and rows over players breaking alcohol bans in advance of crucial matches.

McConville used his own addiction problems as an example to the drinkers.

He has written a book about how he was completely hooked on gambling, about how he considered suicide, and about how he spent three months battling his demons at a specialist addiction clinic in Galway.

In Field Of Dreams he says: "I was 14 when I started gambling with a simple bet on the Grand National, and I fell in love with it.

"It just spiralled out of control from there.

"I was financially and emotionally bankrupt with no self-respect, no self-esteem, no integrity. It takes all those things away from you."

McConville's words clearly sank home with his players, who talk of a "band of brothers" mentality in Crossmaglen and vow to go through a wall for McConville and McEntee.

For Margaret, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Rangers, the documentary was a chance to share her feelings that the GAA club is a way of life.

Mrs McConville, who keeps photos of Thomas on prominent display in her home, tells me that her late husband Patsy, who was a useful player himself for Cross in his time, was reluctant to leave the house after the loss of his oldest son.

But she says that she coaxed him back to the GAA club and his fervour for the game was rekindled after his other sons Oisin and Jim started to shine for the Rangers.

Mrs McConville adds that she might not have survived if it had not been for the football.

"Through bereavements and sad times, the GAA got people through and got them back out - it's that important," she says.

"I don't know what I would be doing if I hadn't the GAA and the matches.

"I would have nothing to look forward to. I might not even be here at all."

But throughout the documentary it is evident that the legacy of the Troubles is still a factor in Crossmaglen.

One of the Rangers' top players, Jamie Clarke, says: "It definitely has affected people. There are 15 pubs in Cross.

"It's a huge part of the culture of this town." And like other older residents of Crossmaglen, Mrs McConville, says that she remembers the village before the Troubles.

The producers have also unearthed footage of the way life used to be in Cross in the old days, when there were fair days and fist fights involving men with nicknames like the King of the Travellers.

Narrator Thomas Niblock, who was also assistant producer on Field Of Dreams, says that Crossmaglen was a place apart, given its location just a mile from the border

And his programme reveals that down the years the village also developed its own "language" with words that only residents of Cross can understand.

One thing that Mrs McConville is at pains to make clear is that even though her son has stood down from his position as manager of Crossmaglen, she has no intention of hanging up her tea pot anytime soon.

"I don't want to stop in case it brings them bad luck," Margaret jokes.

True North: Crossmaglen Field of Dreams, BBC One Northern Ireland, Monday, 9pm.

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