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The rise of GAA in south Belfast

By Declan Bogue

For many people, regardless of their sporting affiliations or level of interest, the act of former All-Ireland-winning Derry footballer Joe Brolly donating his kidney to clubmate Shane Finnegan was the most purely altruistic gesture that they had heard of in 2012.

Brolly's logic was simple. Here was a man in need of something. He was in a position to help and, as he mentioned himself, he was a clubmate.

The two men coach an underage team in St Brigid's, a club in Antrim that weren't in existence in 1998, but have since established themselves as one of the premier forces in Antrim football. They are, as they say, a club with a difference.

Underneath the club crest of a St Brigid's cross, there is an Irish motto that reads, ‘Mol an óige', which means ‘praise the youth.' It bears resonance to the intentions of the founding fathers of the club, Conor MacSherry and Dermot Dowling.

Back in the late '90s, both men were living in the Stranmillis/Malone Road area, working in the same office and sending their children to St Bride's Primary School.

The school had a Gaelic football team that competed in division four of the Belfast School's league. In previous years, the children would go onto second-level education and would drift into clubs around Belfast to play. But most never played football again.

“My son was coming to P7 and I had this notion,” remembers MacSherry, “I talked to Dermot. Basically we were going to try and form a club and have an under-12 team which would have been the P7's out of the school. He and I got talking and then we gauged the interest around the parish. We called a meeting at the school and had a good turnout and formed a club.

“Then we had a 'fun Sunday', when we gave out flyers around the schools and there was over 100 children turned up. That was around December of '98, over 100 boys and girls turned up and we thought, 'Jesus, we're onto something here.'“

They most certainly were.

They hastily formed a committee, with MacSherry as chairman. At one of the first training sessions for the newly-formed under-12 team, a group of 13-year-olds turned up asking if they could join in. One of their number turned out to be James Loughrey, the Antrim and Ulster back.

MacSherry got an under-14 team on the go to cater for them. Four years later they were assembling the senior team.

Men such as Eunan Conway and Frank Devlin of Tyrone pledged themselves to the cause. Hugh Martin McGurk from Derry. And of course, Joe Brolly.

He had been reluctant to join, but even more reluctant to continue the journey to Dungiven to play for their junior team as he thought his playing days were winding down. Instead, they were only beginning in one sense.

In their first year, they won the Antrim junior Championship. In recent times, those formative years have shaped Brolly's beliefs in the GAA. Before St Brigid's, he says, he would have “Been part of that GPA mindset, where the world owes me a living. Watching the club grow, and seeing the cement that binds communities together was deeply affecting and influenced my opinion. I really put my shoulder to the wheel and got myself in terrific condition to play for them for a long time.”

Darragh Edwards, the Armagh player transferred to the club. Former Derry captain John Mackle dusted off a pair of boots that hadn't seen grass in well over a decade and became their valued custodian between the sticks.

Others emerged from within the youth set-up such as Mark Sweeney, and a clatter of Mackles and O'Neills. MacSherry is often fond of saying that they are a city club, but with a country heart.

They had a tidy squad and they won successive promotions as they charged up through the divisions. Along the way, they tacked on the Intermediate Championship.

For entertainment value, Brolly alone was worth watching them.

By then he was seen as a veteran, and would amble up to his direct opponent with a big smile and a handshake, chatting idly throughout the match to him.

It was his way of avoiding a clout as he racked up the points. Within Antrim, they were different. For sure. A team

of boys residing around the Malone Road was always going to be different, but they took some brave steps and made friends in unusual places for a GAA club.

They trained at Harlequins rugby ground, and have a full-time GAA pitch there. They established links between the two clubs that are strong until this day.

They also played the PSNI's first Gaelic football team after scrapping the controversial Rule 21, which forbade members of the British security forces from playing GAA sports.

In areas of Belfast, graffiti appeared daubed on walls, “Shame on you Joe, Shame on you St Brigid's.” They never paid much attention, and went their own way.

A couple of years ago, Belfast City Council granted them use of a pitch in Musgrave Park. They have been in operation there for the past five years and after they extend their training pitch, they will have two full-sized pitches.

In underage, the under-14s won the Antrim Championship this year. The under-12 boys took the south Antrim Championship. The ladies' football team won the Intermediate Championship, following up their Junior title from two years previous.

They have started the ball rolling in hurling and they have competed in Scór over the past couple of years.

If they want a night out, they host it in the Harlequins complex. They do things their own way in St Brigid's. Any club that boasts a member donating a kidney is always going to be different.

Age old story of Mackle is well worth telling

By John Campbell

The tale of John Mackle is one that deserves a place in history when set in the context of St Brigid's early years.

He was 26 when he completed his Phd. His wife was expecting twins and he was captain of the Castledawson team that had just lost the Derry county final to Newbridge.

He needed a job and got one in Belfast that would eventually lead to his present posting as a system administrative manager of the computer network of mechanical engineering in Queen's.

You could say he is a bit of a high-flyer.

Four boys came in quick succession in the family. St Brigid's had been going in the area and when they came of age, John put them in the hands of Dermot Dowling and Conor MacSherry.

Once they progressed to senior level, John thought that he might turn up at the odd training session: ‘thinking a bit of recreational football on a Sunday afternoon would be good.’

“I was 42 at this stage,” he said. “I remember the first training session, Conor was there and Conor was in his element.

“There was a pile of young fellas there so keen and eager and I thought ‘my goodness, have I got the heart for this commitment?'

“This wasn't recreational football, this was a club going somewhere, that intends to play football.

“I said to Conor after the training session that I couldn't give the commitment of two nights a week and that's how it was.

“He said ‘great', shook my hand and said it was no problem at all.”

Within a few months, he was standing on the line, facing a last-minute penalty against St Gall's thirds.

He saved it and St Brigid's earned a draw.

He was hooked, as he explains: “We got to the junior final that year and on that team, I had just dusted down my boots, there was only four of that team older than my boots.

“We progressed through from there and we had five promotions in five years, brought in players as a successful club would do.

“I had four boys that would have played for a number of years.

“Kieran was a corner-back and I played behind him for a number of years and in fact there was even a match when I played with all four of them.”

Last year at 49, John Mackle finally called it a day.

Those in St Brigid's felt he put a good enough shift in, but they still expect him to turn up for pre-season training early in the New Year.

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