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The club that refused to die: St Enda's overcame murder and mayhem to reach All-Ireland final

By Declan Bogue

Although there has been a positive energy pumping out of Hightown Road with St Enda's GAC, Glengormley preparing for their All-Ireland Intermediate club final today in Croke Park, not all are luxuriating in the warm glow.

Last week, a letter landed with the club from the local council. They wanted to know when the black and amber flags of the club colours would be coming down from the lamp posts. The same lamp posts that fly flags of paramilitary groupings undisturbed for months every summer.

"It's sad actually, that they have chosen to do that," says club stalwart Declan Steele with an air that conveys genuine pity for those behind the letter rather than anger.

For they know anger and they have been through worse. During the Troubles, this club had five members murdered.

There is no hierarchy, but Gerry Devlin's murder was a callous act in the winter of 1997. A father of two, he was 36 years of age and the manager of the senior team.

Devlin was going up to the old clubhouse to help finish up the kegs before they moved into the new facility. An LVF gunman shot him seven times. His brother Kevin found him.

At Gerry's funeral, Kevin just screamed at the skies, 'We're not going away!'

Others met a grisly fate.

"As a club, and as a community we will never forget the people who made the ultimate sacrifice and paid for promoting our games and culture with their lives," says Steele.

"We have had five members murdered throughout the Troubles, two of them I did not know, but Sean Fox, our 73-year-old president was tied to a chair and interrogated. I knew Sean, I played juvenile football the whole way up with his grandson.

"I played football with Gerry Devlin, and when he was murdered at the gates of the club I found that hard to take.

"And then Gerard Lawlor who I coached was tragically killed in 2002. I coached him from 13 years of age and he was a lovely young fella."

Steele was an experienced senior campaigner when Lawlor made his first steps on to the team. St Enda's were down to play Sarsfields in a game but something went awry with the timings.

In any event, they went ahead and trained. Steele had a conversation with the rangy Lawlor afterwards as they drained a bit of goodness out of a summer's evening.

But July was a bad month in the north. The following morning, Steele's phone rang. Lawlor had been shot three times by two men who pulled up close on a motorbike shortly after midnight along the Floral Road.

"I found it hard to take in," recalls Steele. He can be credited with laying the foundations of this team. Prior to this season he was senior manager for four seasons and handed debuts to most of this young team.

Steele himself actively got involved in recruiting a replacement, and they had a thought of the colourful duo, Frank Fitzsimmons and his assistant, the irrepressible Pat Hughes.

The duo had been for an interview with Armagh club Ballymacnab but something about the chemistry didn't feel right for them. Fitzsimmons admitted to feeling strange anyway taking St Enda's as he had never managed anything other than his club Lamh Dhearg, or his county at minor, under-21 and senior level.

They knew the resilience it took to play for St Enda's.

"We were living in a bubble in west Belfast. We weren't getting the attention they were getting specifically. They were being specifically targeted while us in the west were surrounded by our own, as such," explains Hughes.

"It was rough enough, don't get me wrong but it was nowhere near the intensity of what that club has went through."

Fitzsimmons chimes with that.

"Pat's right, west Belfast was hit hard in the Troubles too, but St Enda's was just out there on their own. Even going over there, you sort of had a bad feeling driving over the mountain to it. It was bad, bad times.

"It is an unbelievable credit to them, how they kept the club going through so many bad times."

It's so, so different now in peacetime.

Steele's wife, the well-known solicitor Sinead Larkin, is a perfect example. She moved to north Belfast in 2002 at a time when more outsiders woke up to the potential of the area and the affordable housing.

The AIB's sponsorship of club Championships has produced the cute marketing tagline of 'One Life One Club', but that has never really been the case for clubs close to cities.

Larkin herself comes from Dromintee in south Armagh. There was a time when she could have pictured herself living back there with Declan and their three boys Shay, Oisin and Senan, but she can't picture a life without St Enda's now.

The club chairman is Stephen Jennings from Ballycastle. Youth coaches Declan McManus and Seamus Lehany are from Roscommon and Donegal respectively. Health and wellbeing officer Roisin O'Hare is a Banbridge woman, the PRO Seamus Donaldson is from Crossmaglen and then you have Ciaran O'Neill.

From Cullyhanna, he registered as a player at the start of last year and has Antrim and Ulster medals to his name now.

There's the real club diehards such as Niall Murphy and Ciaran McCavana who had the foresight to start an Irish language school on their premises.

As registrar, Larkin is able to say: "We have roughly about 250 adult members and 500 juveniles and we are the biggest club in Antrim, that's from official figures.

"We could field three or four teams at juvenile level. We have to run players in a rota basis to get them games. There's a phenomenal amount of children."

She tells a story: "The best example of how things have changed, I was talking to a man who has three children in the club.

"He was from Glengormley but he never played himself. He said his parents would not let him as it was too dangerous."

Since they beat Gort na Mona in the Antrim final, the St Enda's support has been growing with wins over clubs from more illustrious counties; Doohamlet of Monaghan, Tyrone's Tattyreagh and Mullahoran of Cavan.

Galway's Spiddal were taken care of in the semi-final, and now they are in an All-Ireland final, the black and amber heading down to Dublin. Last weekend, the team went down for a closer look at Croke Park. A few had never, ever been there.

After they won their Antrim title, they trained up at Cardinal O'Donnell's club. Frank Fitzsimmons told them: "There is an Ulster title in this team!"

Their captain James McAuley shot back: "Never mind the Ulster title, I am looking for an All-Ireland!"

There's an All-Ireland final to be played against Kerry's Kilcummin. It's tempting to think that a win would deliver them into the promised land.

But they're already there.

"We're not going away!"

Belfast Telegraph

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