GAA Football

Naomh Éanna warrior Philly Curran standing on the cusp of history

Naomh Éanna ace Philly Curran will compete in today's All-Ireland final against Kilcummin, the club's first-ever appearance at Croke Park

FOR Philly Curran, it had come to this. Here he was on the biggest day in the club’s history condemned to the bench in Páirc Tailteann.

Fit to be tied.

Flanked by fellow substitutes Ger Crossey and Conor Devlin, the 34-year-old winced every time he looked up at the big clock in the right hand corner of the Navan stadium.

Unless there were injuries to goalkeeper Paddy Flood or the team’s full-back Damien Gault, Devlin and Crossey probably knew from the outset they would be unused subs in St Enda’s Glengormley’s All-Ireland Intermediate semi-final against An Spidéal.

Curran was of a different mind.

He'd been a regular in the side up until a quad muscle injury ruled him out of their tumultuous Ulster final win over Mullahoran of Cavan at the beginning of December.

With the Antrim champions coasting to victory over An Spidéal, the sideline official signalled four minutes of stoppage-time.

At that stage Curran was consumed by self-pity.

“I looked at the clock and there were 60 minutes played and I f***ing threw my gloves off and then Pat [Hughes] was screaming my name to come on.

“I was nearly thinking: ‘Am I going to stand on the sideline and the final whistle is going to go?’

“The fact that I got on and I was able to catch a ball, I was over the moon. I started every game all season and the only reason I missed the Ulster final was because I was injured and I pulled myself out of that game.”

Curran has had his shoulder to the St Enda’s senior wheel for the best part of 18 years.

He probably holds the record for most senior appearances at the Hightown Road club.

Through thick and thin, Curran was always present, the beating heart of the club’s football and hurling teams.

“As a kid, Philly always had that real desire to win,” says his underage coach and later a former team-mate Decky Steele.

“The thing about him was he was never intimidated by anybody, not just physically, but Philly never thought anybody was better than him. When you were playing the top teams you wanted Philly on your team.”

Beneath a cold winter’s sun in Navan the St Enda’s players and management team jumped for joy after the final whistle and were mauled by mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces and friends wearing black and amber.

Philly Curran was in the thick of it, wearing a smile that you swore touched his eyes.

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KEVIN Curran hailed from Kinawley in Fermanagh. The search for work brought him to Belfast in 1962. A publican by trade, Kevin ran the popular  Orpheus Bar in York Street.

A fine footballer, Kevin continued to play when he arrived in the city with St Agnes’s. He soon met his wife Maureen and together they had 10 children – nine boys and one girl.

They moved to north Belfast where Kevin was introduced to St Enda’s, Glengormley by Austin Hinds, Seamus ‘the Cavan Buck’ Boylan, Sean Hayes and Paddy Laverty.

“Glengormley in those days was a dicey place,” says Kevin, now 72, “but I went out anyway and got involved with the club. I was always involved in GAA down through the years.”

Kevin ensured that all his sons and daughter played Gaelic Games at St Enda’s.

The entire Curran clan threw themselves into GAA life on the Hightown Road.

Kevin ran one of the first bars opened by the club and along with club stalwart John Lawell took dozens of juvenile teams throughout the 1970s and 80s.

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IT’S a breezy afternoon and the club sits quietly under a beautiful mint blue sky.

The doors of Nailscoil Éanna and Gaelscoil Éanna have closed for the day.

The silence around Naomh Éanna is broken by the occasional sound of workmen’s drills and hammers.

From the main pitch you can see Mount Slemish in the distance.

A good brisk walk up to the right would take you to the Gerry Devlin pitch where the club is putting the finishing touches to an impressive £1.8m Halla Éanna community hub.

A car mechanic, Philly Curran runs his own business, GMS Servicing, down in Duncrue.

His phone buzzes constantly, perhaps calls from impatient customers wondering of his whereabouts.

Like a badge of honour, Philly takes me on a mini-tour of the club’s sprawling grounds.

This is an impressive place.

Philly, though, remembers more humble times.

“My earliest memories are of the old club, down in the old pitch, which from here is about two football fields away.

“The kids now are used to this pitch, which is completely flat. The old pitch was an up and down hill. If you go half way down the club lane and look right that’s where the old pitch was. The clubhouse then was so different to now.

“The green gate, the old entrance to the club, was famous among the young fellas: ‘Meet you at the green gate…’

“I remember when the new pitch was about to be built and John Lawell and Paudie McGrath taking us up to U12 training. I can remember going through these bushes; it was nearly like an adventure, into the mountain, where we are now.

“We would have stood here and Paudie and John would be telling us all: ‘This will be your pitch some day.’

“It’s crazy to think that it has come to this. I was only a kid then. I miss a lot about being a kid but there’s a lot I don’t miss.”

If you’re driving down the Hightown Road, the green gate may be camouflaged by shrubbery these days but it is still there.

It is the gate where in 1995 loyalist paramilitaries attached a bomb (disguised in a coke can) in the hope that Kevin Curran would be their next victim.

“They put a bomb on the gate one time for me to open,” remembers Kevin.

“I had a fruit shop on the Springfield Road so I sent my son Brian up to open the club, and a Protestant neighbour came running down the road and told him: ‘Don’t go near that gate, son. There’s a bomb put on that gate.”

“I knew the Protestant neighbour. He was a gentleman.”

It was one of countless loyalist attacks on the people of St Enda’s.

“Brian, my older brother, worked with my dad in the bar,” says Philly.

“I would've gone up and help clean the place. There was probably not that much cleaning being done as it was more of a baby-sitting exercise. You’d go up and get a bag of crisps off your dad and a bottle of coke and get a lift home…

“I think it was a Wednesday my dad cleaned the old club. That was the green gate entrance and you’d have to walk up that lane way. Walking up that lane was pretty f***ing scary because so many people were shot at in that lane. Paddy McKernan was shot at I don’t know how many times in that lane.

“This was before all the houses had been built around here once you went past Hightown School.

“I remember the alarms going off in the middle of the night and dad having to go up. How he did that I don’t know.”

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PADDY McKernan may have escaped death but Gerry Devlin wasn’t so fortunate.

A former chairman, player and manager, Devlin was one of the driving forces of the Hightown Road club.

On Friday December 5 1997, he was shot dead by a loyalist gunman upon leaving the old clubhouse.

Devlin was the fourth member to be assassinated by loyalist death squads that roamed the Newtonabbey area.

Devlin’s murder rocked the club to its foundations.

Philly Curran was a budding 13-year-old dual player at the time of Devlin’s murder.

“Strangely, I have a poor memory of growing up, but I’ve memories of that time. I can remember answering the phone from the Lemons.

"I remember my dad and the rest of the family were watching The Gerry Kelly Show on TV. I passed the phone over and that was the phone call to tell dad that he needed to get to the club because Gerry Devlin had been shot.

“I remember Gerry’s funeral, getting out of school and everyone walking behind the coffin. It was pretty intense.”

The first event in the new clubhouse, where both Philly and I are sitting for this interview, was Gerry Devlin’s wake.

As the adults drank inside, the kids ran around outside kicking footballs and hitting sloithars.

“I have distant memories of us running outside on the grass with Gavin Devlin, Gerry’s son, we would have been friends in school and his brother Aidan was friends with Louise, my sister, and I think Shauna, my fiancée (and Gerry’s niece), would have been running around out there at the time. It was a funeral. We were just kids running around.”

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GERARD Lawlor was a fearless young footballer destined for great things up at St Enda’s.

He was the team’s protector. A year older than Philly, the pair played midfield together throughout their underage careers.

Leaning back in his chair, Philly smiles: “Gerard was a tough nut, a really sound fella.

"I remember playing against Ardoyne out there – U16, I think – and they had a big lad called Corbett and Gerard and him would have gone toe-to-toe.

“Gerard was completely fearless, but that lad Corbett and Gerard built up a bit of a bond the fact that they knocked the malt out of each other.

“Growing up, Gerard was a good guy, a likeable guy. He would have been a messer at times, like most of us. As he got older he matured a wee bit and he turned into a smashing footballer.”

Gerard was working full-time as a forklift driver.

By the time he’d turned 18 he was celebrating the birth of his son, Josh, with Siobhan Ramsbottom, his partner.

They’d moved into a new home on the Whitewell Road.

The teenager had everything to live for.

Gerard had been with his St Enda’s team-mates earlier that day for a game against Sarsfields that never took place because of a mix-up over the throw-in time.

Some team-mates left the St Enda’s club for the Chester Park Bar further on down the Antrim Road while Gerard stopped off at the nearby Bellevue Arms.

Just after midnight on July 22, 2002 Gerard was shot dead by a loyalist gunman on a passing moped as he made his way home.

Back in 2002, news travelled slower. Before the days of social media, not everybody owned a mobile phone.

“I was 18 and my dad was giving me a lift to work. I was serving my time in Peugeot as an apprentice over on the Boucher Road,” Philly recalls.

“Dad hated driving on the Westlink so we drove across the Falls [Road] and I remember listening to the radio and hearing somebody was shot on the Whitewell the previous night.

“It never donned on me. I was in work and there was a phone call made to me. I had to go up to the office and my brother was on the phone, saying: ‘That was Gerard Lawlor shot dead last night.’

“I went back to my ramp and just stood there and the journeyman mechanic, Paul Mulgrew, asked me: ‘What’s wrong?’

“And I said: ‘That was my friend that was killed last night.’

“His face dropped and I started crying...

“I worked the whole day because I didn’t know what to do. My mum rang later asking: ‘Will we come and get you?’

“I said: ‘No, I’m alright.’”

Liam Canning, Colin Lundy, Sean Fox, Gerry Devlin – and now young Gerard Lawlor.

Five St Enda's members murdered over a 20-year period, their facilities burned to the ground no fewer than 13 times.

A message was sent around to all the players to meet at the club gates later that evening. There was a stunned silence among Gerard’s team-mates.

“We stood at the front gates, everybody just looking at each other for about an hour. We didn’t know what to do. It’s surreal now. Kevin McKeown was there and he was shot at near the Chester [Bar] that same night but the gun jammed. There were tears, ach…”

A week later, Philly was lining out for Antrim minor hurlers in an All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford at Parnell Park.

Just down the road, at Croke Park, the Antrim seniors were facing Tipperary in an All-Ireland quarter-final.

Prior to their games in the capital, the Antrim minor and senior teams’ request to wear black armbands as a mark of respect was declined by the GAA.

Minor manager Jim ‘Jingo’ McKernan made Philly captain of the minors that day and the GAA granted him permission to wear a black armband.

Senior hurler Brian McFall, who lined out against Tipperary, defied the GAA order and wore a black armband to remember the murdered St Enda’s man.

“Somebody said to me that we couldn’t get involved in this, but I went ahead and wore one,” McFall recalls, “because it was the right thing to do.”

Nearly 17 years have passed since that tragic day. Philly occasionally sees Gerard’s brother John.

“John is the best of fellas. He would never talk about Gerard and I would never talk to him about Gerard. I think it might hurt him too much. John and Gerard were close and very close in age.

“You know, I should think about him a bit more. Maybe that’s how people deal with these things. Maybe in Croke Park, if we win, that would be a moment where I will think about Gerard.”

Philly is transported back to the present – just over a week away from the club's All-Ireland final appearance at Croke Park – and wonders where Gerard would fit into the current team.

“I tell you one thing, Gerard would be some asset to this team,” he says defiantly.

“He was a fit, fit lad. He was big and strong and had everything else.”

With a mischievous grin, he adds: “I think if there were a Philly Curran and a Gerard Lawlor midfield against ‘Gibbo’ [Ethan] Gibson and Joe Maskey, it would be a highly contested midfield.

“A young, flying fit Gerard Lawlor and Philly Curran against those two boys. I’d bet Gerard to whack one of them!”

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WHEN Philly Curran galloped onto the field in Navan last month, the cheers from the St Enda’s supporters raised the roof of the old stand.

Through years of sacrifice and tough experiences no young man should have to endure, Philly Curran is still the beating heart of the footballers.

“Philly is a real, dyed-in-the-wool St Enda’s person,” says Decky Steele.

“If you cut him he would bleed St Enda’s.”

Over the last few months, the young generation - Odhran Eastwood, James McAuley, Eoin Nagle, the Healys, Joe Maskey - have a much deeper appreciation of what it is to be Naomh Éanna.

‘Courage in our hands. Truth on our tongues. Purity in our hearts.’

When they run out into a floodlit Croke Park tonight to face Kilcummin they know they are standing on the shoulders of giants.

And one of them will be right by their side.

“I literally have given a section of my life to this place,” Philly says.

“I’ve had setbacks and people say to you that a GAA club isn’t the be-all and end-all. But when you’re in it, when you’re in the bubble it basically is my life.

“It has been my life since I was a young fella. I never went travelling. I literally worked since I was 16 and just played in teams and knocked my pan in pre-season after pre-season.

“I think people know in the bar that I’ve given literally as much as I possibly can and I can give a bit more. Big Paddy Dornan played ’til he was 43.”

With a broad, optimistic smile, he adds: “Maybe I’ll play ’til I’m 43.”

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