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Football in the shadow of the gunman... how Derry GAA clubs are keeping young people out of trouble

Around the corner from the spot in the Creggan where journalist Lyra McKee was murdered scores of youngsters turned out for a GAA tournament. As Declan Bogue reports, this is part of an initiative to give them a new interest, especially during the long school holidays

Derry GAA football star Conor McAtamney is mobbed as the team take to the pitch at Sean Dolan's
Derry GAA football star Conor McAtamney is mobbed as the team take to the pitch at Sean Dolan's

On Tuesday, May 28, Derry's senior county football team took their training session to Sean Dolan's GAA club. It was, by common understanding, the first time they had ever trained at a city venue excluding the county ground of Celtic Park.

The evening was sunny and warm. The games promotion officers of city clubs like Steelstown, Doire Colmcille, Doire Trasna, as well as Dolan's and others, had arranged a series of mini-games between their under-12 teams.

It was just like any joyous blitz tournament with the emphasis on enjoyment. Another fine day. It felt like a country club, only it was all framed by tightly built terraced housing.

There's more to it. It was just over a month since journalist Lyra McKee was killed at Fanad Drive. The scene is just around the corner from Sean Dolan's.

She was reporting on riots after the PSNI moved into the area intending to seize munitions ahead of planned Easter Rising commemorations that weekend. Petrol bombs were thrown and two vehicles were set alight.

Somebody, somewhere put a gun in the hands of a youth, captured on video, who began firing towards the police cordon. A bullet hit Lyra and a short time later she lay dead in nearby Altnagelvin Hospital.

Originally from Belfast, Lyra lived in the Creggan with her partner Sarah Canning. As a journalist, she went after the big issues. In January 2016 she published a piece called 'Suicide of the ceasefire babies' that examined how in the 16 years post-ceasefire, more people here had taken their own lives than died during the Troubles.

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Brendan Rogers is mobbed in a huddle
Brendan Rogers is mobbed in a huddle

Referring to one of her contemporaries, she wrote: "We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us."

The spoils never reached the wider community of the Creggan from its inception. In the Forties and Fifties the Bogside on the west bank of the Foyle had deteriorated into a series of tenement slums. Water ran down the walls of houses. Windows were left without glass.

Human rights abuses led to Civil Rights Associations, and from that point to this, it's unimaginable what went on between.

No wonder the Creggan has such an identity. That's why, when the Sean Dolan's clubhouse and parts of its pitch were destroyed in an arson attack in 2011, the club's committee met and vowed that, while they might have to exist only as a senior team for a few years, they would rise again.

One of those players, Tipperary man Brian O'Donnell, was appointed games promotion officer (GPO) and sent into the schools in the area, along with contemporaries from other clubs, such as Steelstown's Neil Forester, and began flooding the clubs with enthusiastic kids, building from the ground up all over again.

"From my point of view, there was no point getting this club rebuilt if we weren't going to have underage provision," says O'Donnell.

"I think once we made the decision we weren't going to let the club go, we had to do something. We had five years between the fire and we were open again. We only had a senior team and played on council pitches; the hurling club (Na Magha) here were very good to us, and other clubs (were) too."

There are obvious spin-offs in all this time and energy.

The population of the city is around 105,000, with almost a quarter of that number (22%) being under 16.

Spectators watch the U12 competition during the Derry senior team's visit to the Creggan
Spectators watch the U12 competition during the Derry senior team's visit to the Creggan

Given the entire county is 247,000, it means 40% of the population resides within the city area.

Neil played for his county for several years and is the full-time GPO with Steelstown Brian Ogs.

"I was the first in, way back when I was just out of university, so this is my seventh year in the job," he says.

"I've seen a huge change. The most obvious for me is that we had our Tower Cup, which was a tournament between the Derry city primary schools. In my first year there were six teams in the cup - five schools, one of the schools brought two teams.

"And then this year there were 26 schools competing across all the cups to qualify for the Tower Cup. We have gone from five schools to 26 schools taking part in Gaelic games in Derry city."

He was the first city player to captain his county, and soon grew weary of the reporters' questions vaguely hinting as to whether he might have preferred to perform in the red and white stripes of Derry City rather than the red hoop on a white jersey of his county.

Derry captain Chrissy McKaigue leads the team on to the pitch
Derry captain Chrissy McKaigue leads the team on to the pitch

He has it long figured out.

"In Derry city, there is a lot of social deprivation. There is a perception there that Derry city is a soccer city, but when you actually look at it, there is a lot of kids that don't have any organised sport whatsoever. And I think people don't realise that," he explains.

"Soccer is so available on TV and so on, but whenever you give these kids the opportunity to play Gaelic games, especially kids in Creggan and Galliagh to play football, they absolutely love it."

On the training night that was apparent. After they finished off their games, the Derry senior team emerged.

"It was absolutely class," says Derry manager Damien McErlain.

"When we arrived there were cars right down through the Creggan parked up. It was a good buzz. I explained to the lads the previous week that we were going to Sean Dolan's and why we were going. It was a great opportunity to see the facilities and so on. The boys were genuinely lifted by the buzz and the appreciation.

"Sometimes we give off about the lack of support we get but it was a brilliant thing to get that lift from it and to see that young lads look up to them."

Team captain Chrissy McKaigue is a man not given to the 'fluffy' side of football. The local celebrity and fringe benefits mean little to one as austere. But if anyone can appreciate the ongoing efforts in the city, it is the Slaughtneil man.

Over the past couple of years he has been behind a project to improve the standard of GAA football in the Limavady region through the Gleann na Ro initiative, which allows players to come together and play a higher standard.

He signs autographs for the kids
He signs autographs for the kids

"I think the Derry senior team attending the Creggan to train and meeting the local Derry city clubs also shows Derry supporters and the kids what the players are like as people," says McKaigue.

"Sport can transform people and communities in the key messages it delivers. People being involved in sport -not just GAA - for me is key in developing functioning communities. All areas, no matter what their location or history, face obstacles. Sport can often alleviate some of these problems and give people a pathway to a better quality of living. I think perhaps society now more than ever needs sport to help focus kids growing up because of the many distractions modern living encompasses."

In a couple of weeks schools will close and the days will be long for children. The challenge is how to fill them in the middle of summer.

"Sean Dolan's has been there for 40 years, but their development has been absolutely fascinating," says Kevin Campbell of Triax Neighbourhood Management, a matter of yards away from the scene of Lyra McKee's murder.

"You get the youth into sport and it takes them away from the negativity in the community. Sean Dolan's are doing a brilliant job.

"A sporting culture within the city has always been very, very strong. It is a very tight community. Creggan has always been a very strong, community-orientated area and people would band together in times of hardship.

"We see that with the clubs. They go out there and advertise themselves and what you notice is that the schools will close up for an eight-week period. These clubs all step into that breach to fill that gap for the youth. It keeps them occupied, off the street and focused at all times."

You cannot hide from politics and history in a city like Derry. It's everywhere, on every wall mural, every restored cannon.

All that you can do is move forward and provide neutral spaces.

"We don't get into the politics side of things. We know where we are and different people have different views and beliefs. We don't get into it," adds O'Donnell.

"When you come through that gate, football is the only thing that matters. We can provide an outlet for young people in the community, and it is a great community, the Creggan. You have good people around us and it is up to us to make it somewhere you can go and we can create and build something.

"We plan to make it a parish feeling in the city. Creggan people are proud of where they are from and we are proud of where the club is. That's a big part of it, we want a community club."

How good does that sound?

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