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Slaughtneil joy is fused with the Cassidy spirit

By Declan Bogue

Across the Slaughtneil camogie jersies is the Irish 'Ní neart go cur le chéile' - 'There is no strength without unity'.

Which - considering where they have come from and their ultimate destination, Ulster and All-Ireland titles - couldn't be more apt.

All the while, they have had the spirit of Thomas Cassidy gently guiding them.

His daughter, team captain Aoife, made her victory speech from the steps of Croke Park after defeating Sarsfields of Galway on Sunday entirely in Irish.

It was over three years ago that Thomas Cassidy took on the role of camogie manager in the club. Talk to anyone from the hurling and camogie wings of Slaughtneil and they glow for respect and love of the man.

But one Friday in late October last year, Thomas was buried, having lost a long battle with illness.

With camogie training fixed for that evening, his three daughters - Aoife, Bronagh and Eilís - came through the windswept gates, their gear bags slung over their shoulders. Hurls in hand. Ready.

Two days later, his sons Eanna and Seán would help beat Loughgiel in the Ulster hurling club final. The girls would draw their Ulster final against Loughgiel, the curtain-raiser that day in Armagh.

"We had the match on the Sunday and we hadn't been training for it for a few days. We needed to get out and take a bit of tension out and I suppose a bit of grief if you could say that," recalled Aoife now.

Dominic McKinley, their joint-manager, remembers being struck by it.

"We were sitting at the bottom of the field and his girls arrived to training. There wasn't a dry eye left in the house," he stated.

"From that day everything just gelled and got even more close. What a wonderful thing to do. People call off matches because you see boys going to stag dos and all these silly things. Here's three girls that buried their father and they arrive to training that evening. That's the type of people that they are."

The Ulster final replay attracted 5,000 in Maghera when Slaughtneil finished the job.

Last month, they took care of Tipperary's Burgess in the All-Ireland semi-final and on Sunday became only the second club from Ulster - after Antrim's O'Donovan Rossa in 2008 - to win the senior camogie All-Ireland title.

Club chairman Sean McGuigan, whose daughter Denise was playing midfield on Sunday, knew the significance of losing his close friend Thomas, and that it was Aoife who got to lift the Bill and Agnes Carroll Cup.

"For him to start that team three years ago and for her to hold up that cup, honest to God, I would say it is the happiest day of my life. Because of that alone," said McGuigan yesterday while preparing the Slaughtneil clubrooms for a press event ahead of the footballers' appearance in the All-Ireland club final on St Patrick's Day.

He recalled: "I was up at the pitch three weeks before he died. I was putting on the lights just before it got dark.

"Thomas was there in his car and he couldn't look out the driver's door window of his car, he was that weak and sick. He looked out the corner of the windscreen that he could catch the girls, with the tail of his eye, training. His girls played through his illness all year and then in October when he died, no one knows what those girls did. They never missed training, they never missed a match, they just took their father's spirit through the whole team."

And when the game lay in the balance with Sarsfields levelling the scoreboard in the closing quarter, it was Eilís Cassidy who hit the crucial final two points that separated the two sides at the end.

After the game, Aoife eventually located her mother Anne Marie and for a sweet moment, the seven Cassidy children were united with their mum.

Anne Marie had gone up to the pitch on Sunday morning to see the team off. She bumped into McGuigan who had come up to do the same thing and the two of them shared the story of how proud Thomas had been of the first hurling team to leave this park to travel to the Feile Tournament in 1997.

After a dizzy spin home for some - Aoife herself is like many Slaughtneil players and does not touch alcohol - the bus pulled into the clubrooms at 10.30pm.

From the stage, McGuigan once again had the pleasure of welcoming a victorious team into the hall. A path was cleared for the team to walk through over 500 people. Outside, the pitches were covered in the cars of Slaughtneil supporters and other well-wishers along for the evening.

Now that he is back as joint-manager of Antrim senior hurling team, it was a final engagement for McKinley, who shared managerial duties with Damian McEldowney. It was some way to bow out.

"To see them, fathers with their daughters, big strong men and tears running down their faces," he slips into reminiscence.

"Basically, that's why you do things and that's the joy I get out of it.

"Seeing people express themselves and the buzz they get out of winning."

Now that they have an All-Ireland, he can walk away.

While Thomas Cassidy was suffering with his illness, he told McKinley to see out the job with the girls.

"Did we ever think this would come at the end of it?" he asks.

"No, not really."

For Sean McGuigan, the story begins with Thomas and ends with Aoife.

"I keep harping on about Thomas, and maybe now that they have won an All-Ireland I mightn't talk about it as much from now on," he says.

"But for Aoife to lift that Cup in Croke Park … it caught me," he adds.

"I will never forget what that girl did, she shook the life out of that cup."

Life still has many challenges ahead for the Cassidy family.

What they are left with now are memories and the knowledge that they have fulfilled their father's wildest dreams. But real life intervenes.

And when they look for him, he's not there physically.

Aoife explains: "There has been a lot of writing and talking done. But at the end of the day we are coming home to mammy.

"It is still very hard but the kind words, so many people are so kind, and they are there when we need them."

McGuigan adds: "One thing the Galway team couldn't beat was the spirit that Thomas put into them.

"Thomas Cassidy won that match for those girls. I am convinced of it."

Belfast Telegraph

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