Lynette Fay: Youth the backbone of south Derry GAA prowess and community spirit

Slaughtneil camógs celebrate their victory in the All Ireland Senior Camogie Club Championship final at Croke Park last March

I WAS reared on a healthy dislike of Derry and Armagh, our neighbouring counties in GAA terms. There’s no love lost between them and Tyrone, rivalries epitomised by some of the big championship matches of the early 90s, now considered the stuff of legend.

Yet fast forward to 2018 and I find myself not only supporting but championing a small rural club in south Derry, Sleacht Néill. The club are current Ulster hurling, football and camogie champions. Sadly, the 2018 campaign has ended for the hurlers and the footballers but the camógs march on.

Across the fields from Slaughtneil, in Carntogher, is An Carn, a multi-purpose Irish language centre, founded in 1992 with the aim of promoting the regeneration of the Carntogher/Sleacht Néill area of Co Derry.

Irish is the working language of this centre. There are hundreds of families in the area for whom An Ghaeilge is their first language, and a lot of young local people are employed there.

Recently Foras na Gaeilge, the all-Ireland body for the promotion of Irish, bestowed the official status of Líonra Gaeilge, Irish Language Network/Community Area on An Carn.

My cousin, from Tyrone, lives in this community. Her son hurled for Sleacht Néill. Through visiting her and her family, I have been welcomed with open arms, and have had an affiliation with An Carn for the past 10 years. My respect for the work done here and its community has meant that my distain of Derry has paled into insignificance. Well, for most of the year at least…

During those 10 years, I have hosted radio programmes from An Carn, chaired discussions there and worked at the annual Feis Charn Tochair, which I enjoyed immensely.

My role during the feis was to conduct the ‘comhrá’ competition, which meant that I had to try to engage children as young as four in conversation as Gaeilge. This was as close as it came to School around the Corner for me, and I relished these conversations.

The children came from Ballinascreen, Maghera, Magherafelt, Bellaghy, Dungiven, Carn Tochair – places not far from each other but, as any country person knows, your townland and your club defines you and there’s no love lost between any of these clubs. After all, it is south Derry we’re talking about.

The beauty of talking to young children is that no one can predict how the conversation will go. We really should have made a TV programme from it.

When asked run-of-the-mill question about ‘caitheamh aimsire’ (pastimes), rarely were computer games or TV mentioned. Hurling, camogie, football – at a stretch, music, and repeat.

I remember talking to a group of eight-year-old-girls once – one from Ballinascreen, three from Maghera and two from Sleacht Néill. The conversation came around to a camogie blitz the week before.

The two Sleacht Néill girls told me they'd won, and received venomous glances from the others. Eight years of age and the camogie blitz was a matter of life or death. I laughed to myself and found their passion remarkable.

Milling around in the background at these events were teenagers, making the tea and sandwiches, helping out however they could. All of them fluent Irish speakers, some were actors, some musicians, some were very academically minded, all were members of Sleacht Néill Emmets.

I got to know the three Ó Casaide sisters – Brónach, Éilis agus Aoife, first as Gaeilgeoirí, youth leaders second, musicians third. Camogie is part of their DNA.

Last March, I went to Croke Park with my cousin and her family and we watched Sleacht Néill camógs win their first All Ireland title. Most remarkable for me that day was watching joint captain Aoife Ní Chasaide give a memorable winning speech as Gaeilge from the steps of the Hogan Stand. The hard work and sacrifice had all been worth it.

In that moment Aoife became one of the sport's great leaders and she expressed herself the only way she knew how, as Gaeilge.

Aoife’s late father Tomás was the man who brought hurling and camogie to Sleacht Néill; he was among the visionaries of the An Carn committee.

The drive and ambition of the committee mirrors the drive and ambition of the GAA club. There’s always a strategy, there’s always a plan. When one plan is completed, then comes the next level. And the youth of the area are its backbone.

Ní neart go cur le chéile – unity is strength – is their mantra. I’ll be cheering on the camógs tomorrow and hoping for another historic day for this remarkable community.

Lynette Fay – I'll be cheering on the Sleacht Néill camógs again tomorrow

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