The 'Fin edge: Aughlisnafin go in search of history

Just two years ago, Aughlisnafin couldn’t field a senior team. Two weeks ago, they claimed the Division Four title for the first time ever, and this weekend they will play in their maiden Down JFC final. Cahair O’Kane spoke to Rory Murphy and Gerard Lenaghan to hear their story…

The Aughlisnafin team that will take part in their first ever Down JFC final this weekend. Picture by Anita M Grant
The Aughlisnafin team that will take part in their first ever Down JFC final this weekend. Picture by Anita M Grant

August 7, 2016

Down Division Four Football League: Ardglass 10-23 Aughlisnafin 0-4

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IF the idea of going to Australia in your early 20s is to live a life of no regret, then Rory Murphy would admit he failed.

He and Barry McDonald had a great time, surely. It was there to be lived, and that’s what they did. While their housemates went off and played football on Sundays for Penrith Gaels, the Aughlisnafin duo nursed hangovers instead.

They’d gone out after the old Annsborough club that they played for at home had folded. They were around the GAA club in Penrith, even trained nights, but they never kicked a competitive ball. Then they had to sit and watch as their housemates took on and beat everything else in the southern hemisphere in 2000.

“I always regretted not playing,” recalls Murphy.

But what he missed out on in his early 20s, he’s now living in his early 40s.

On Sunday afternoon, at 42, he’ll be in the Aughlisnafin team that steps out on to Páirc Esler for the Down junior football final. It will be the club’s first ever adult championship final.

The idea of the GAA is that everyone feels a bit of ownership of their own club, especially on days like this. But it’s hard to think of too many that could feel the level of possession that Rory Murphy did.

So vexed were he and McDonald by the decision not to play in Australia, they came home on a mission.

First off they tried to reform the Annsborough club that had bridged the gap in the ‘Fin’s absence, but there was no interest in it.

They’d had a decent side but the downhill roll could be seen coming. They’d nothing coming through and did well to hold on as long as they did.

Aughlisnafin had picked from the east end of the Kilmegan parish, namely the village of Annsborough and the townland of Clarkhill. When the Annsborough move didn’t work out, Murphy and McDonald decided they’d reboot the ‘Fin and do things their own way.

That was in late 2003, and the men’s team started up again in the club the following year. But it would be more than two years before they’d win a game, beating Ballykinlar in a result so significant that it merited a story in the news section of The Irish News.

“There were very, very tough years. Even aside from the football, the money end of things is crazy and it just gets dearer and dearer,” says the ‘Fin veteran.

When they’d restarted, they did so using a local farmer’s field. A group of locals decided they’d level the pitch out and make it into a proper playing surface, but found a strong objection to the idea from DUP councillor Jim Wells.

They train and play now on a council pitch in Annsborough, which means they’re not allowed to charge for entry to games. As attendances have risen this year, so has the weight of Paddy Flanagan’s hat.

“He goes down the line with his cap out and people give donations. It’s all we can do to keep it running,” says Murphy.

They’re just a fortnight removed from winning their first ever piece of adult all-county silverware in the shape of the Division Four league title.

The jubilation of the changing room after a ten-point win over St Paul’s, and the two days that followed in Mulholland’s bar, couldn’t even be soured by Down county board’s failure to present them with the trophy on the day.

“We didn’t get the trophy until the following Wednesday at training. It came, we stood and got a photo and that was it, nobody was interested. The boys sat it down and away we went.

“But the changing rooms after the St Paul’s game was still phenomenal for five, ten minutes. And then we all went to the bar for two days.”

They had made a bit of progress under Conor Deegan in 2015 but all of this couldn’t have seemed a more distant dream in August 2016, when Ardglass beat them by 49 points.

The ‘Fin were no strangers to the sore end of a sally rod. But just two weeks before they were due to play Division Three side Drumgath in the junior championship, it seemed like the final straw.

Their hearts just couldn’t go through it again, and so they didn’t field for the championship game. 13 years after Murphy and McDonald had reformed the club, it seemed dead again.

“The lads just didn’t have the heart to go to it. That near broke my heart. We’d fielded in every match through all those years of misery, right to that point.

“In 2017, we applied to the county board to see if they’d let us play the boys in the first year of minor. But it had gone to Congress about that age bracket and we couldn’t use them, so numerically we couldn’t do it. The boys we had been using all those years were just burnt out.

“So we put fierce effort into the youth that year. We scheduled that we might take a two-year break [from senior football] but we were afraid that if we left it two years out, we’d maybe lose some of the boys we could depend on.

“We hit the ground running in ’18 and upped it again this year. It really is down to the youth that’s come through.”

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AUGHLISNAFIN itself is a small farming area penned in on all four sides. By water on one end, and by more high profile neighbours Castlewellan, Dundrum and St John’s around them.

Safe to say they’ve always been the junior partner, and one that’s been sporadic in its existence. The club was officially formed in 1927 but, with new parish priest Fr McAlea driving the idea of a single team in the parish, they joined up with Castlewellan in 1933, forming a St Malachy’s team that would win the Down senior championship in 1934 and ’36.

That broke up again as quickly as 1937, and Aughlisnafin was reformed again and stood on its own two feet alongside Castlewellan, who retained the St Malachy’s name.

But the ‘Fin folded again soon after and didn’t come back into being until the mid-1960s. They were motoring along nicely, wining East Down junior and intermediate titles, and had a budding young talent in Brendan McKibben, who starred for Down against Antrim in the Ulster SFC in 1970.

Sadly, though, he died from leukaemia the following January. With the heart knocked from them, the club folded again in 1973 due to a lack of numbers.

Annsborough – the village from which Aughlisnafin takes most of its players - became the replacement club of choice. They won a junior title in 1983, when current ‘Fin midfielder Oran Flanagan’s father Paddy played, and reached another final in 1990, in which Damien O’Toole played, with his son Oisin lining out at wing-back this weekend.

One of the members of the Annsborough pipe band that led the parade around the pitch that day was none other than 14-year-old Dolen Croskery, whose appointment as senior manager this year was a vital piece of the jigsaw.

He’s been a key figure in building up their underage structures, which were developed primarily by Gerard Lenaghan, an Ardglass native no less.

The club bobbed along taking beatings but fielding at senior level, but the destruction of it was inevitable again unless they could build some kind of underage structure.

So that’s what Lenaghan did. He’d moved into the parish and played for Annsborough first, and then threw his lot in with coaching the ‘Fin.

“When I first came, Aughlisnafin had no youth structure, and I knew it wouldn’t survive unless you had kids coming in year after year and supplementing the seniors.

“There are about 11 players now on the senior panel from the first group that me and Doley have taken from eight years of age,” says the club’s coaching officer, PRO and general everyman.

“When you do that, they know what to expect, and those players won’t expect anything less in the senior panel than what they’ve been brought up with. They realise they can’t saunter into training late.”

“He’s like the pied piper to those children, I’ve never seen kids react to anyone the way they react to him,” smiles Murphy.

Between Lenaghan and Croskery, they started looking about the club’s sustenance. Utilising Connor Rea as their strength and conditioning coach this year has helped them climb the ladder very quickly.

Their JFC final with Bright on Sunday will be played after the curtain-raising minor final between heavyweights Kilcoo and Burren.

Having amalgamated with St John’s, Drumnaquoile in recent years – a move requested by the young players themselves in a bid to progress – they played as Ballylough in the minor ‘A’ championship this year, facing both this weekend’s finalists.

“I was always ‘Fin, ‘Fin, ’Fin, and when the idea of amalgamating came up I have to admit I wasn’t all that keen. But the young lads were playing at school together, they wanted it and we were guided by them,” says Murphy.

“It’s been the best thing for the club. Those boys have been getting football at the top grade. They’re coming through on to the senior panel and they’ve pushed the thing to a new level.”

Despite having no base of their own, they do their best to make it feel like home. Referring to it as Páirc Baile Anna gives them a sense of ownership. Dragging in four towers of floodlights to make training possible this week gives them a sense of something very different, and very special.

Other pieces of the puzzle fell into place to turn them the right way at the crossroads. Having finished third in the league last year and reached a semi-final under Lenaghan and Drumaness native Willie Megoran, a lot of the early 20-somethings had come back from short-term emigrations to England.

The young lads were old enough to play senior, which they hadn’t been in 2017 under the GAA’s new rules, something that had a deep impact on their inability to field that year.

The old hands – especially Rory Murphy and brothers Sean and Ben Willoughby, who are the remaining trio from the team’s reformation in 2004 – have been pulled along by the infusion of youth.

To go from 50-point hammerings in just three years, for one of which they didn’t field a senior team, to winning the division marks their achievement to this point as extraordinary.

Adding a junior championship title would be the sweetest of icing for a club that’s looked dead in the water more times than enough, no further back than 2016.

‘Tada gan iarracht’ is their Irish motto of choice. ‘Nothing without effort’.

It was practically invisible at times, but the effort put into their youth for a decade has led them to the gates of Páirc Esler this weekend.

Aughlisnafin have never been more alive than they are now.