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St Enda's Glengormley - a club that never took a backward step

St Enda's Glengormley clubmen (l-r) Ciaran McCavana, Philly Curran, Thomas McNulty and Niall Murphy are eagerly looking forward to the club's senior footballers' crack at Ulster glory in Armagh tonight

“Be big St Enda’s” – Gerry Devlin

ON December 5 1997 Gerry Devlin was calling to the old St Enda’s clubhouse for the last time.

Negotiations had finally concluded with a property developer to enable the north Belfast club to move to brand new premises, on the same site, the following day.

These were exciting times for the members of the Glengormley club.

“Friday the 5th of December was the last night of the old club,” Niall Murphy recalls. “The older lads were just finishing off the kegs, really.

“Gerry was shot dead that night. So the first event in the new club was his wake. Any time I walk into our new clubhouse Gerry’s never far away from my thoughts.”

The St Enda’s club, an isolated outpost of north Belfast, lost five members to loyalist violence during the northern conflict.

Gerry Devlin (36)

Gerry Devlin, aged 36, was the fourth member to be murdered.

“Our old club was highly secure,” Murphy says.

“We had an outdoor cage that you had to buzz into and as Gerry was at the outdoor cage he was shot. We think the gunman was hiding around the corner.”

Niall and Gerry were probably bonded by them both suffering bad knee injuries that cut short their respective playing careers with the club.

After his knees packed in, Devlin threw himself into football management.

“Gerry was a gifted footballer. When our first-ever team reached Division One he wasn’t going to be a part of it because of injury.

“As a manager, he was a visionary in terms of preparation and knowing the psychology of players.

“We published his diaries in a booklet and they were as meticulous as any notes I’ve ever seen on a sports team.

“This was 1993,” says Murphy, now a human rights lawyer.

“I don’t think county teams were as meticulously prepared as Gerry was. He knew every person who attended training; if they weren’t at training, why they weren’t at training, if there was an excuse or there wasn’t an excuse. So if a player came to him and asked: ‘Why am I not getting on?’ Gerry would have the stats.”

“Gerry’s call was always ‘Be big’,” remembers leading club member Ciaran McCavana.

“You would still hear that phrase in St Enda’s teams. Some people mightn’t be aware of why it’s said. Twenty-five years later, it’s Gerry still shouting ‘Be big’.”

Murphy used to love hearing Devlin’s goose-bumped rallying cry before games.

“It was a state of mind,” Murphy says, “a rallying call, a call to arms. When you’re on the pitch and things can be getting tough, it was used to stir the troops. It was a case of: ‘This is f****** it, lads’ – let’s get going here.’

“It was all about casting a shadow and not taking a step back – the next ball is your ball, and you’ve got to be big to win it.”

Devlin was ahead of his time – a “brilliant manager”, McCavana says.

After delivering promotion to Division One Devlin insisted the club bring in an outside manager.

In 1996 the much-travelled and wily Frank Dawson agreed to take the reins. One of the first items on Dawson’s agenda was to move their training location.

“We always trained down near the Valley Leisure Centre,” says McCavana.

“There used to be a rugby pitch and we’d steal some of their light. We hadn’t a washer.

“Frank couldn’t believe that 30 fellas in GAA kits were running around facing Rathcoole [a loyalist estate]. He thought we were nuts. We just accepted that it was part and parcel of life.”

Five months after Gerry Devlin was gunned down, the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

“The train of thought, societally, was that it’s over. It wasn’t for us,” says Murphy.

Liam Canning (19), Colin Lundy (16), Kathleen Lundy (40), Sean Fox (72) 

The club's blood-stained archive would bring a tear to a stone.

In 1981, 19-year-old member Liam Canning was shot dead by an off-duty UDR member.

Ten years later, budding footballer Colin Lundy, aged 16, and his mother, Kathleen (40), were burnt to death in their Glengormley home after loyalists poured petrol through their letterbox.

In 1993, club president Sean Fox (72) was tortured and shot dead in his home, just 200 yards away from the club.

“Sean Fox had a glass eye and was apparently tortured for four hours before they shot him,” McCavana bitterly recalls.

The fact that Gerry Devlin was murdered on the premises of St Enda’s hit the club particularly hard.

“The days after Gerry’s murder were harrowing and terrifying,” says Murphy.“They were difficult times for everybody. For us, four years after having our president shot dead at the bottom of the street, and this was well into the ceasefires.”

'Parents didn't want to come up to St Enda's with their children'

“Parents didn’t want to come up to the club with their kids,” McCavana recalls.

“There was a hard core that kept the club going. But it was taking its toll. Sunday used to be a big night in the club and then it was getting to the stage where there were five or six people in the club. The loyalists at that time were trying to break the nationalist community and they were turning and turning the screw.”

A half a mile down the road, where the Hightown Road meets the Antrim Road, has always been a busy thoroughfare.

Go the other direction and you’d soon find yourself on a narrow, winding country road, surrounded by sprawling fields, with a full moon the only thing disturbing the dark.

It was on this road where many impromptu security checkpoints wer­e set up and St Enda’s members stopped and searched.

During one of the club’s sports days an RUC Land Rover arrived and took down an Irish tricolour, while their clubhouse was burnt to the ground on more than one occasion.

“There was always low-level harassment,” says McCavana, matter-of-factly.

Nowadays, many of those fields have houses and streetlights on them and the once threatening country road that straddled the back of St Enda’s is not as dark any more.

Philly Curran, who is in the veteran stages of a brilliant dual career with the Glengormley club, is old enough to remember a bloody, brutal past.

Now 34, the imposing midfielder remains the beating heart of the footballers and hopes to experience Ulster glory in Armagh tonight.

“I can remember,” Curran says, “walking up the old St Enda’s lane to meet my father [Kevin] who was the bar manager.

“It was the scariest place in the f***king world, especially at the age of 12 or 13 when I was going up to mop the changing rooms.”

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Gerard Lawlor (18)

Curran doesn’t exactly remember when he first started playing with Gerard Lawlor. All he knows the join was seamless.

Throughout their juvenile days Philly and Gerard formed a wall across the middle of the field.

Gerard was raw as ropes but he ticked every box for a midfielder.

Six-foot plus, skill, desire and commitment, it was impossible to intimidate the fledgling midfielder.

“Gerard was an unbelievable player,” says Curran. “We played midfield together. We played Gort na Mona the week before he died [July 22, 2002] and he was a colossus that day. He was so strong, a leader.”

Gerard Lawlor (18) was one of five St Enda's club members that were murdered during the Troubles. Gerard was shot dead by loyalist paramilitaries in July 2002

Gerard (18) had just moved into his new home, off the Whitewell Road, with his partner Siobhan and young son Josh. He’d recently acquired his forklift licence.

Earlier that day St Enda’s were scheduled to play Sarsfields in a league game but it never took place because of a mix-up over the throw-in time.

It was mandatory the team went back to the club for a couple of drinks before going their separate ways. Gerard headed to the Bellvue Arms to meet a few friends and others travelled further down the Antrim Road to the Chester Park bar.

Even though this was supposed to be peacetime, anarchy descended on north Belfast that night. In the five hours leading up to Gerard being shot dead, five other attacks took place.

St Enda’s player Kevin McKeown and his friend Danny O’Neill left the Chester Park at around 10pm and as they walked past nearby Salisbury Avenue two masked men emerged from a white Nissan car and fired at them.

Initially, the two men didn’t realise they were being fired at until they saw “puffs of concrete” coming from a wall where the bullets hit.

Around two hours later, Gerard Lawlor was shot three times and died instantly on the side of the road as he made his way home.

Two masked men on a moped scooter were seen fleeing the scene.

“Gerard was wearing his football top,” recalls Curran.

“He was walking down the Whitewell. There was a dark, dungy path that would have brought him quicker to his house.

“I wouldn’t have walked down that path myself so he stayed on the main road thinking he was safer. He would have been alive today if he had gone down that path.”

The days of drive-by shootings were supposed to be consigned to our bloody past.

And yet, wives were still being left widowed, sons and daughters fatherless and parents burying their children.

This was the summer of 2002. Some violent elements continued to rage against the dying sectarian light.

St Enda’s, the most attacked GAA club in Ireland, was rocked back on its heels by Gerard’s murder.

Curran notes: “There was a group of people – Kevin Devlin [Gerry’s brother], my father, you could name other people – that just kept the club going, a few families kept it going.

“If you think now that we have 832 members between adults and kids… Back then it wouldn’t have been a quarter of that number.

“It’s important to remember what has gone on before.”

St Enda's players celebrate at the final whistle of their Ulster IFC semi-final win over Tattyreagh in the Athletic Grounds Picture Seamus Loughran.

St Enda’s is a story of an unbreakable will: a rare kind of courage, a warrior spirit that has always faced into the angriest of storms undaunted.

‘Be big, St Enda’s – be big.’

Thomas McNulty, senior team football coach and underage mentor, reckons the club lost two generations because of the ‘Troubles’.

But it was Thomas and his brother Gerard who were instrumental in growing the club’s youth membership back in the ‘Noughties’.

Gerard started sowing the seeds in the early-to-mid-2000s and was later joined by his brother.

There was no rocket science to the blueprint: just a million hours poured into the club’s youngsters, starting at U6 and, crucially, establishing links with local schools.

The senior footballers and hurlers always punched their weight, claiming a few triumphs along the way.

At juvenile level, the McNultys began to see the fruits of their labour at the turn of the decade, winning the All-Ireland U14 Feile (2011), tasting success in the Paul McGirr (2012) tournament before claiming a minor championship in 2015.

Apart from the likes of Philly Curran, Conor Maxwell, Damian Gault and Gerard Crossey the rest of the current football panel emerged on the senior stage through the guiding hands of Gerard and Thomas McNulty.

But Thomas McNulty is quick to add: “Ciaran McCavana, Niall Murphy, Philly Curran, Decky Steele, the Devlins, people like that – they were here when the troubles were happening. They deserve a lot of the credit for keeping the club going.”

During his three-year stint as senior football manager, Decky Steele re-established St Enda’s as a solid Division One outfit and dug the foundations for this season’s historic success.

And from former Antrim manager Frank Fitzsimons and Pat Hughes arrived at the club at the start of the season, the footballers have swept the boards at intermediate level.

After suffering four final defeats - in 1984, 1988, 1990 and 2007 – the club finally won their first county championship in football by beating Gort na Mona in October’s county decider, where their west Belfast rivals sportingly applauded their victors off the field.

Thomas McNulty, a key member of Fitzsimons’ backroom team, says: “These lads are all proper Gaelic men, good clubmen, and there is none of them that you have to push.

“I told Frank when he came here: ‘You’ll have no hassle from any of these lads. They are professionals. They train all the time. They set the standard – we don’t set it for them.’

“When he came on board he couldn’t believe it. That’s from Gerard putting the discipline in them from an early age and it’s brilliant to see.”

'Walking off the pitch against Tattyreagh, under the lights in Armagh, there were grown men hugging us and crying'

You would have thought their historic county championship success this year would have sated their appetite, but their glory trail continues in Armagh tonight when they face Cavan champions Mullahoran in the provincial decider.

They’ve already knocked out Monaghan champions Doohamlet and overcame Tyrone champions Tattyreagh in a dramatic finale, thanks to Michael Morgan’s two unforgettable points in the dying embers.

“Walking off the pitch against Tattyreagh, under the lights in Armagh, there were grown men hugging us and crying,” says Philly Curran. “The emotion on the pitch was unbelievable.

“This team is so confident – I’m always a pessimist – but the younger fellas feel they’re always going to win. James McAuley, our club captain, is one of the most confident footballers I’ve seen. He is definitely the best centre back in the county.”

The vast majority of the senior football squad weren’t born when the club was enduring the worst excesses of the conflict.

“We’ve actually talked about it this year to the younger boys,” says Curran.

“I talk to them about Gerard Lawlor. Gerard was a year older than me. I was with Gerard that day… It really brings it home what we came through.”

St Enda’s is a remarkable club. They have the biggest juvenile membership in Antrim, touching 500 kids.

In 2005, Naiscoil Enna opened its doors with just seven pupils. Today, 211 children are educated on the club grounds in their native tongue at Nailscoil and Gaelscoil Enna.

Formed in 1956, the club adopted a new crest at the turn of the millennium.

Inscribed around its yellow fringes the words read: ‘Courage in our hands. Truth on our tongues. Purity in our hearts.’

In 2012, they opened two new grass pitches and by next March their £1.8m community hub will welcome people of all creeds and colour into their bosom.

“For me, it’s a central part of my life,” says McCavana.

“If something goes wrong the club rallies round. I get more out of the club than I ever put in. If you ever see anyone in difficulty the club will help you. It’s more than just coming up to play hurling or football. It’s a way of life for a lot of people.”

Of course, Gerard Lawlor should be playing midfield beside his friend Philly Curran in Armagh tonight, taking one audacious shot at glory as the sun sets on their brilliant careers.

Gerry Devlin should be prowling the sidelines, cajoling, rollicking and inspiring like only he could.

Sean Fox, Colin Lundy, Liam Canning still in the mind’s eye, smiling at the prospect of an Ulster final.

As the players slip their boots on, Philly Curran – the heartbeat, the totem – will remind them of the people who made this night possible.

Many of them will be among the crowd, others in spirit. Niall Murphy wistfully adds: “I think it’s a native American phrase: ‘A man is not dead while his name is still spoken.’

"We keep people’s names alive at our club. We will always ensure the new generations know that times weren’t always as comfortable as they are now and that we were borne of adversity. It’s important they know that. That’s part of our psychology.”

Antrim Gaels are celebrating the supposed rebirth of St Enda’s, Glengormley - but that’s not exactly true.

It never died in the first place.

It never died because it never took a backward step.

Its members didn’t know how to…

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