The rise of Limavady Wolfhounds has been built on decades of courageous work
In the land of O’Cahan, where bleak mountains rise,
O’er whose brown ridgy tops now, the dusky cloud flies,
Deep sunk in a valley, a wild flower did grow.
Cara Dillon, The Gem of the Roe
TO understand what it would mean to the Gaels of Limavady to see two of their own climb the Hogan Stand steps on Sunday, you must first build a picture of what they’ve been through.
The Wolfhounds GAA club is home to one of those small, peculiar and brilliant pockets of people that had to fight tooth and nail to keep their nationalist values alive at the heart of a staunchly unionist town.
There had been Gaelic football in the area in the 1930s and ‘40s. The old O’Connors club was a strong contender on the north Derry scene at a time when the county was split in two for GAA purposes.
It survived, thrived almost, for two decades but fell away in the 1940s and for almost 40 years after, there was no Gaelic Games activity in the town itself.
The surrounding rural areas of the parish were a different story and as a result, the talent spread its wings. Glack was the primary home, while Magilligan, Drumsurn and even neighbouring town Dungiven were safe houses for those of the persuasion.
That break partly contributes to the lack of an All-Ireland championship medal in the club. Had there been the facility for it, it’s probable that John Somers would have played for Limavady rather than Dungiven.
His father Albert was a Magilligan native who did goals for Derry in the 1930s. John was born and reared in Limavady town, and he would win an All-Ireland under-21 in 1968 as well as Ulster senior titles in ’75 and ’76.
That was the club’s closest brush with a Celtic Cross. There are occasional medals dotted through the town, and in the Wolfhounds club.
Anthony Toner won an All-Ireland vocational schools in 1978. Damian Hasson and John McGuinness later won Ulster minors with Derry.
Paddy McKeown and Collie McCloskey all got National League medals in 1995 after they answered the call from Mickey Moran for the two pre-Christmas National League games at the time of a revolt by more established senior stars.
Derry lost the two games but when the tails were tucked between the legs, the core returned to win the League and the two Wolfhounds got medals.
And just to prove that there is a thing about goalkeepers in the area, John Deighan was on Paddy Crozier’s bench when the Oak Leafers won the National League in 2008.
It has always been a sporting town, whose outskirts catch the eye with the brown ridgy rooftops to which The Gem of the Roe refers.
On every corner on a Saturday afternoon you’ll find a soccer match. Limavady United, Roe Valley, Newtowne, Roe Rovers, so on. There are thriving rugby and cricket scenes too.
But GAA wasn’t welcomed into the fold.
In early 1980, a group of men came together and decided to start up a new club. Led by the parish curate at the time, Fr Irwin, they formed Na Cúnna, to give the club its Irish form.
The name was chosen to reflect the history of the local area – Limavady translates as Leim an Mhadaidh, meaning ‘leap of the dog’ – but also to reflect a sense of bravery, strength and courage.
Those virtues were very much needed in the early days.
Sean Bradley was the first chairman, Eamon Toner the secretary and men like Frank McWilliams, Anthony Mullan, Ned McDermott, Mickey McKeown and John McCloskey on the committee.
Limavady Wolfhounds fielded an under-14 team in its first year, 1980, and that crop of players would bear great fruits. Within a decade, they had won promotion from junior right up to senior football in 1990, winning the intermediate championship in ‘89.
THEIR first appearance in senior football came in 1981. Stuck for a pitch to play on, they applied to the local, heavily Unionist council to be given one. They were refused.
In the end, a field on the grounds of Christ the King chapel, located between the corner of the Scroggy Road and the Rathmore Road around the back of the town, was given to the club by the parish.
As the Wolfhounds took their turn to host a carnival cup, they ended up with an attractive final between neighbours Ballerin and Drumsurn for the Sunday.
But the local Orange Order was adamant that the games should not go ahead on the Sabbath. The RUC advised the Wolfhounds not to play it.
Bravery. Strength. Courage. They went on ahead and played it.
It brought repercussions. Christ the King was only five months into construction but on Sunday 12 October, 1981, nine days after the end of the IRA hunger strikes in Long Kesh, the UFF planted a bomb and blew the building up.
The terrorist organisation said the following day it was a warning to the GAA club and the provisional IRA that “further action may be initiated”.
These were tense times. Over the years that followed, the posts at the pitch were cut down five times. Broken glass was scattered across the surface. The grass itself was laced with chemicals intended to burn and kill it.
Limavady wasn’t a Crossmaglen, where a body of nationalist people were able to pull together amid oppression from the British armed forces.
This was a very small, brave core of people that hadn’t the relative protection of safety in numbers, and who because of their sporting persuasions lived under threat and suspicion from their own neighbours and establishments.
For every effort made to stop Gaelic Games in Limavady, the club became more resilient. Eventually the hostility subsided and from beneath it, the club drove on, providing inspiration to others around them.
Fifteen miles up the north coast, the political situation was almost identical in Coleraine. Eoghan Rua had been going since the mid-50s but there were motions to AGMs in the 1970s and ‘80s to wind up the club.
In February 1975, one of their players, 23-year-old Brendan Doherty was shot and killed on his way home from a university dance. His brother Chris, 19, was blinded in the same attack.
There was an air of fear around the consequences of involving yourself in the GAA club.
Help from the Catholic Church wasn’t so forthcoming for them either, with the parish selling off the pitch they would have used beside St Malachy’s church.
For years they had issues sourcing land and the numbers were so tight that simply fielding a team was an achievement. But like Limavady, they battled through and ended up remarkably winning a Derry senior football title in 2010.
It is hard to articulate, then, what it means to that small but growing core of GAA people from places like these to see their own represented in Croke Park.
Oran Hartin and Callum Brown weren’t born when all this was going on. They will be aware, perhaps, of the historical significance of what they might achieve on Sunday, but they’ve grown up in a different Limavady from the one that the Wolfhounds was formed in.
Tomorrow morning a huge crowd will descend on The Market Yard restaurant for their annual fundraising breakfast on All-Ireland weekend. They will stand in the centre of the town with their chests out, wearing the Wolfhounds’ blue and yellow with pride and without fear.
These days, it’s not unknown for the club to have Protestants playing alongside Catholics.
The dusky cloud has lifted from over bleak Binevenagh Mountain. Those brown ridgy tops provide a safe home to the GAA now. The wild flower blooms.
Bravery. Strength. Courage.