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Leona O'Neill: Welcome to Trillick, the model of cross-community harmony

Unionist councillors voting for a new GAA pitch? Nationalists applauding a local pipe band on Twelfth? Where is this model of cross-community harmony? Welcome to Trillick, Co Tyrone, writes Leona O'Neill

Community spirit: local mechanic Drew Mills with his Trillick GAA flag
Community spirit: local mechanic Drew Mills with his Trillick GAA flag
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

The Co Tyrone village of Trillick has something special; something that the rest of Northern Ireland can, perhaps, only aspire to: total community cohesion.

Last month, when Trillick Gaelic Football Club won the Tyrone Senior title, Catholic and Protestant alike stood shoulder to shoulder on the Main Street, cheering their boys home after their victory over Errigal Ciaran.

The GAA club also celebrated another victory recently, as plans for a full-sized pitch, complete with dugouts, floodlights, fencing, ball nets, paths and groundworks, were proposed, seconded and supported by councillors from the UUP and DUP.

Trillick had its fair share of tragedy during the Troubles. Patsy Kelly, a 34-year-old nationalist councillor and father-of-four, went missing after locking up a bar in Trillick in July 1974.

SDLP councillor Mary Garrity
SDLP councillor Mary Garrity

His body was later found, weighed down in a lake 20 miles away. No one was ever charged with his murder.

Robert Jameson (22), an off-duty UDR soldier, was murdered by the IRA while returning home to Trillick from work in January 1974.

Despite these tragedies, the community has grown strong together and many say that sport is the glue that helps bind the two communities.

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Mary Garrity is a local SDLP councillor. Born and raised in Trillick, her two eldest boys (of four), James (20) and Simon (19), play for the victorious Trillick team.

She says that Catholic and Protestants support the team and that Trillick has a "magic" that other towns and cities across Northern Ireland could learn from.

"GAA is woven in with the community here," she says. "It is focused on the youth, it is woven in with health, well-being and, of course, sport. Up the road in Ballinamallard, which would be a predominantly unionist hinterland, they have a football team, which enjoys a great following from Trillick. And the guys come down here to support us.

Trillick celebrate winning the Tyrone SFC title
Trillick celebrate winning the Tyrone SFC title

"Years ago, that would have been unheard of. We truly believe that a love of sport brings people together."

Mary says that religious division just doesn't factor into the day-to-day life of Trillick residents and that the foundations of community spirit are built on respect.

"Trillick would be a mixed village," says Mary. "I suppose there would be more nationalists here, but it is very well integrated and religion really doesn't factor into anything at all in day-to-day living. Catholic and Protestants drink together in the bars and we all support each other.

"We would have fleadhs and the Protestant band would have opened it. On the Twelfth of July, I was on the Main Street as the bands passed by and I was happy to be there.

"Often, we see people from other towns and cities being rewarded with funding to try and bring the two communities together. I think they should be rewarded for actually being a centre of excellence in community relations, like Trillick is. Sometimes, money is pumped into areas and it changes nothing.

"I think we could show them all a thing or two about doing it properly."

The village's main street
The village's main street

Mary says that there are Protestant young people and children of mixed marriages playing for Trillick, a fact the village is immensely proud of.

"We have a lot of mixed marriages in Trillick and that would be what would predominantly bring people in to the club to play," she adds.

"Then, we would have Protestant people who would be big supporters of the club. Everyone uses the facilities at the club also. There's a nice walkway around the pitch. It's great."

Malachy and Bernie McCarney
Malachy and Bernie McCarney

She says Trillick could well be a model of community relations best practice.

"Sport has really brought this village together in a way that can be a beacon of hope for other places. It's the only way to do it.

"I think, if everyone has a good-quality job and their mental health is good, which sport helps with, whether that is playing a sport, or enjoying a sport, everything else just falls into place. It is the simple things in life that matter.

Flying the flag: Patsy McCaughey, Trillick GAC honorary vice-president
Flying the flag: Patsy McCaughey, Trillick GAC honorary vice-president

"The word 'respect' is bandied about a lot, but actions speak louder than words.

"We have a genuine respect for each other here."

Locals say residents are part of Trillick GAC "from the cradle to the grave" and the club enjoys physical and financial support from both communities and the cross-community sentiments reach out far beyond the pitch.

Maura McGirr
Maura McGirr

Patsy McCaughey (86) is the honorary vice-president of the club.

He also organises cross-community events for older residents in the Trillick and nearby villages.

"I'm the chairman of the Trillick Senior Citizens and we have a great relationship with the unionist hamlet of Kilskeery," he says. "We've a cross-community group. We have dances and social gatherings.

Phillip Tunney
Phillip Tunney

“I think the secret of our great cross-community cohesion is respect, putting aside people’s religion. Religion just doesn’t be mentioned at all. It’s just people getting together. We have good leaders. Our parish priest and our minister are really excellent.

“Everyone in this village does things together and we go everywhere together. If there is a funeral, they are all at it, both sides of the community, and no one passes a remark. I think with us being a small community, it has helped us to bond. Everyone needs each other and everyone helps one another. We are all there for one another.

“I think a love of sport is a glue that holds this community together.”

Drew Mills is the village mechanic. He also leads Trillick Pipe Band. Drew was out cheering the GAA team home in Main Street when they won the Tyrone Senior title.

“Trillick is a lovely place to live,” Drew says. “Everyone pulls their weight and gets on with it. Religion doesn’t come into day-to-day life here at all. Everything is mixed. People come in here of different classes and creeds and they all get on well.

“I was really delighted to see the GAA club win the Tyrone Senior title. I was happy. I was up cheering them on in the Main Street. I was over the moon they won, they deserved the win, they put in a great effort. It’s a great achievement for them.

“They are a young team and they are fit. I’ve never seen a crowd as big in Trillick in my life and I’m here over 70 years. I was there clapping and cheering, too.”

Drew says everyone in the village supports one another.

He supports the GAA club and villagers come to support their band in the Twelfth of July parade.

“I would support the GAA club here and I would celebrate their great achievements,” Drew says. “I lead the Protestant pipe band here also. We practice up in the Orange hall up the street. And people come out to see us when we march on the Twelfth. That’s the way we want it. Everyone just gets on powerfully.

“You only go through life once, so you might as well take the good out of it and mix with people, enjoy life. We are all friends here, religions are respected. The way that I look at it is that there is only one man above and he keeps us right.”

David Sproule owns and runs the Vivo store on Main Street. He says the Trillick community has a “special bond”.

“Trillick is absolutely amazing,” David says. “I am here two years and the whole community has made me so welcome. My wife was originally from this area and the community here has made me one of the family. Both sides of the community shop here. I am into local sport, so I like to support all local games.

“I would help the GAA youths going away for games by giving them bottles of water and the like. Anything I can do for them, I do.

“The whole team did the village proud (winning the Tyrone Senior title). They are all great lads. And if you had seen the street when they came back from their win; there were thousands there. Everyone was cheering.

“It was just brilliant for the whole community and, even better, it increased our sales of Sunday lunches!”

David says that fusion can be easier for a rural community and that is the way it should be across Northern Ireland.

He adds: “I always say if you come to the west of the Bann, everyone just gets on with everyone else.

“It’s such a close — and close-knit — community that everyone has to get on. That’s the way it should be. I think when you are brought up in the country, it’s in your genes to get on with people.

“Trillick is a really special place with the bond the community has. I’m here two years and I feel like I’m here 22. Everyone is so friendly. It’s a pleasure to go into work every day.”

Across the street at Malachy and Bernie McCarney’s Nisa store, they say the village has a strong community spirit that the has endured through the years.

“Trillick is such a close-knit community,” Malachy says. “Everyone knows everyone else. It really is a community of not many people, but it has such a strong spirit. There’s absolutely no tensions.

“The magic of Trillick is all about the young people all growing up together in a small area. And it’s the rural aspect. Football is about the future and about the kids. On a Friday evening, we would have about 150 training in the GAA field and the emphasis is all on them.

“In this village, both sides of the community play sport together, drink together, shop together, do everything together.

“That is what it is all about. Sport has seen us through good times and bad times.”

Malachy’s wife, Bernie, says moving on from the past has been a key component in the village’s success.

“A lot of the young GAA players also play for the Ballinamallard soccer team,” she says. “There is just no difference between them. We grew up with the Troubles and we can put the past behind us and the other side grew up with the Troubles also. And if you keep looking at the other side as the enemy, then no one will get anywhere. So, there is no such thing in this village.”

Pensioner Maura McGirr says that even during the darkest days of the Troubles, Protestant and Catholic neighbours were always there for one another.

“I have lived here all my life,” Maura says. “A lot of my neighbours are Protestant and I would be very friendly with them. Religion isn’t a factor; we are just all friends and that’s that.

“When my husband had a bad farming accident in 1977 and lost both his legs, it was our Protestant neighbours who ran to his aid and also helped out in the farm afterwards. That was at the height of the Troubles.

“At Christmas time, the Masonic Hall is opened up and used by the whole community. Santa arrives there and the children all go to visit him to get presents. The Protestant band come and play at that event and they also play at the switching on of the Christmas lights. I think it’s a great thing. It’s great for the next generation.”

Fellow villager Phillip Tunney says that, whatever magic happens in Trillick, it “just works”.

“I think it’s amazing, I would be very proud of the community relations in this town,” Phillip says. “The gelling of this community just works so well. They are just together all the time — it’s something that is natural and organic.

“No one really tries too hard. It just works.”

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