St Kiernan's are chasing their own bit of history against Slaughtneil

At the foot of Carntogher Mountain, Slaughtneil GAC's historic triple Ulster senior championship captains, Aoife Ní Chaiside, Francis McEldowney and Chrissy McKaigue with their recently collected silverware as Derry and Ulster champions
Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

IN THE shadow of rugby’s reigning European Cup champions has grown a GAA success story that will give Slaughtneil its latest challenge on Sunday.

Based at Mill Hill, which lurks beneath Allianz Park where Saracens play their home games, St Kiernan’s have been working quietly towards this successful year for three decades.

For the first time in their 31-year history, St Kiernan’s became champions of London in the autumn, beating three in-a-row chasing Tír Chonaill Gaels on their own home turf.

That turf at Greenford will play host for the visit of the Ulster champions, who will seek to avoid becoming the first team ever to lose to the London champions at this stage.

For St Kiernan’s though, the afternoon represents an opportunity, and the extension of the best season in the club’s history. Three weeks ago, they saw off Tír Chonaill Gaels again and complete the clean sweep of four trophies. On top of a first ever senior championship, they won the Tipperary Cup and Conway Cup.

Set up first and foremost as a de-facto academy for young players in the 1980s, they played junior football until they won that Championship in 1997. Three years later, they progressed to win the intermediate title and have spent much of the time since in senior football.

The remarkable thing about their success is that half-a-dozen of their players list St Kiernan’s as their home club. The surnames and the legacies are distinctly Irish but the rearing was all London.

Tom Waters, Adrian Moyles, Brendan Mulrooney, Tommy Moriarty, Michael Donoghue and Ciaran Healy have all been with the club since U6.

Their current senior boss Chris Byrne, a native of Belmullet in Mayo, has been a central figure in their development. Their slightly out-of-date website still lists him as their U8 manager.

“I’ve moved on to the U12s,” he laughs.

He has been involved in the club since 1997, as coach and former player. He will have five of his fellow county men, including fellow Belmullet man Liam O’Donoghue, on the teamsheet this weekend.

There may be absentees. Both of his goalkeeping options are doubtful, with Brendan Mulrooney more likely to make it than Conor Campbell.

The participations of James Moran, Darragh Quinn and Michael Callery are also doubtful, while centre-back Shane McManus is out long-term after suffering a broken leg just before the county final.

There, they met a Tír Chonaill side featuring in their fifth straight final and who had beaten St Kiernan’s in last year’s final. The Gaels were overwhelmingly fancied to retain their title. But they were held scoreless for 18 minutes and well beaten in the end by 0-12 to 0-5.

As a rule, the London champions are expected to lose their All-Ireland quarter-final. In all the years of their involvement in the All-Ireland club series, none have ever been victorious - though some, not least Tír Chonaill Gaels themselves in the early 1990s - have come close.

Having travelled over to watch Slaughtneil’s Ulster final win over Kilcoo two weeks ago, Byrne knows exactly the size of the challenge facing his side.

But his expectation is that they will compete: “You get lads coming here and they think London football is a bit of a gimme, they see the London county team playing Division Four. But the senior championship couldn’t be gauged by how London go. It’s a bit of a step up.

“If we were in Sligo or Leitrim or those counties, we’d be hopeful of winning county titles in those counties as well, not just London.

“I said to the boys, we’re not going out to make up the numbers. I wouldn’t be involved in a team that was just going to go through the motions of it. These boys are serious about football, they’re representing the club and London.

“We’re not just a run of the mill team. Hopefully we’re competitive. We won’t just be going out to make up numbers. It is another step up, you’re playing the Ulster champions, and we don’t probably get the competitive games they get in Ulster. But we’d be hoping we’re there or thereabouts.”

His only two Ulster-born players come from the same neck of the woods. Mark Mulholland and Ciaran Carville both hail from the banks of the Annacloy River and played their football here for Teeconnaught.

Like the rest in London, the economic situation at home defines their annual turnover of players. Some years it’s bigger than others. The last few years, they’ve developed a relative stability that has helped them prosper.

He’s banking, too, on something of a system shock for their visitors. Slaughtneil will no doubt have spoken to their neighbours Ballinderry about what they faced in Ruislip three years ago, when Kerry Kingdom Gaels troubled them slightly in the second-half.

But Greenford is another world again. A delegation from the GAA recently visited to suggest the upgrades required to host a game of such magnitude.

At the bottom of Berkeley Avenue, just where the world looks to have run out of road, stands a park that is proudly but quietly emblazoned with a Tír Chonaill Gaels sign.

“It’ll be a bit of an eye-opener for these lads from Slaughtneil,” says Byrne.

“The pitch is not too bad, they put a lot of money into it but it’s not a pitch, it’s a park. The only real pitch here would be Ruislip. It’s been hard weather here so the pitch is in good nick, but it’s probably something the lads wouldn’t be used to. There’s no enclosure as such.”

Exposed, you could say. And if Slaughtneil leave themselves that way on Sunday, they could find themselves entering the history books in a manner they wouldn’t want to bring down their year.

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