Reflections on a tumultuous year for East Belfast GAC
It hasn't been eight months since the idea of East Belfast GAC was just that – an idea. Now they boast teams in every code and 400 members, many of whom wouldn't have previously dreamed of joining a GAA club. Brendan Crossan spoke with some of the recruits...
East Belfast GAC’s first social media post. May 31 2020: ‘A new GAA club for East Belfast, if you're interested in playing, coaching or admin (More than likely all 3!) All ages, genders and backgrounds welcome. Please email EastBelfastGAA@gmail.com to register’.
FRIDAY July 17 2020 and a rainy night in Magheralin. You can feel the warm dampness and trepidation in the air. This was Gaelic Games coming into the light after four months of lockdown and the embryonic beginnings of East Belfast.
That same trepidation you feel in the air is written all over the faces of the St Michael’s club stewards at the gates.
They didn’t sign up for this; manning gates during a pandemic, keeping their distance over slate grey skies, only opening the gates for team officials, a couple of cameramen and reporter, and politely declining others.
Umbrella in hand behind the fence, club president Linda Ervine is here to watch this Division Four clash and history unfold.
Hosts St Michael’s are a big, imposing outfit and heavy favourites to spoil East Belfast’s debut.
In the opening moments Conor Duffy gets free and sends the ball between St Michael’s posts. A tiny footnote but another historic detail of the night.
Shea Curran is a calm presence on the East Belfast line. He’s probably not surefooted with all the names of his players. but his on-field instructions are clear, calm and concise.
Fifteen minutes in, the East Belfast manager makes his first substitution. Forward player Keir Herink is withdrawn.
The mizzly rain continues to fall. St Michael’s chip away at East Belfast’s early lead but the visitors battle on gamely.
KEIR Herink speaks with a soft English accent. His family moved here in 2004. His surname comes from his great grandfather who was born in former Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. He was named after Keir Hardie – the founder of the English Labour Party.
His mum was born in Magherafelt, his father in London. Their parents were born in India.
Covid put the brakes on Keir’s studies in medicine. When he was eight or nine he remembers joining his cousin for a couple of training sessions at St Gall’s, but drifted away before playing a bit of basketball in his teens.
It was early June when his friend Daniel Curry dropped him a text about the East Belfast social media post that went viral.
‘Have you seen the new GAA club in East Belfast?’ asked Daniel.
‘Yeah, it’s a good idea, I hope it succeeds.’ replied Keir.
“I didn’t think about going down to play or anything, but Daniel said about going down. So we went for a few training sessions and that was really the start of it,” explains Keir, aged 23.
“And I discovered a real passion for playing. It made me really regret leaving St Gall’s when I was young."
Keir made a good enough impression during those few training sessions at Henry Jones Playing Fields to earn a starting place in the club’s first game against St Michael’s. Daniel went along as team physio.
“We got to Magheralin and Shea [Curran] came up to me and said: ‘Just stick to the basics.’ And I thought he must be saying that to everyone. But I was in the starting 15.
“I can’t think where I was playing, somewhere in attack anyway. Things didn’t last too long on the pitch and I was substituted after about 15 minutes.
“You know when they read the team sheet out by just numbers; I can’t remember what my number was. I had no idea what I was doing. I was running all over the place.”
DAVID McGreevy, one of the club’s founding members, rang Shea Curran and asked him did he fancy becoming East Belfast’s first-ever senior football manager.
Curran played 16 years with Warrenpoint before retiring in 2015 and had since built up a solid track record on the managerial circuit in Down.
McGreevy had played with former Down footballer Kevin Anderson in New York a few years back. As it happened, Anderson worked alongside Curran at St Malachy’s High School in Castlewellan.
So, when McGreevy was on the look-out for a manager, Anderson mentioned Curran’s name. After a couple of conversations and trying to juggle his commitments with Bryansford minors, it was a done deal.
Curran turned up at Henry Jones Playing Fields at the end of last June to find roughly 60 players, all strangers to one another, ready to audition for the new club.
“There were guys who were learning to toe-tap the ball for the first time and there were other guys who’d played for years,” Shea recalls.
“Nobody knew each other so they were calling each other by the tops they were wearing - ‘Mayo’, ‘Wexford’, ‘Dublin’…
“I was encouraging the guys to wear the same kit in training the next night so I could recognise them. It was crazy trying to work these fellas out. So you’d be jotting down names. ‘Okay, so what’s your name?’ And so myself, Dave and Conor [Reilly, assistant manager] sat down and tried to work out a panel.”
Curran took loads of photographs during training, printed them off and jotted the names of each player above their picture.
He then set up a Google forum and asked all the new recruits about their previous experience, the club they played for and the level they played at and how they would rank themselves.
Aside from the small matter of grading 60 players, East Belfast was attracting incredible media attention ever since David McGreevy pressed the send button on their first tweet on May 31.
The club’s new committee was overwhelmed by the goodwill, support and offers of support they received to get them up and running.
But, of course, there was a small, shadowy element that didn’t want a GAA club in East Belfast about the place. New flags were suddenly erected in places where the new club trained amid pipe bomb hoaxes designed to intimidate and disable the new venture.
A couple of impassioned media interviews from David McGreevy, where he articulated the club’s desire to reach out to the Protestant/unionist community and other non-playing communities, helped them be understood.
Asked in an interview with The Irish News what the club’s dream is, McGreevy said: “To provide opportunities for different communities so they get to know each other. It would be great to see young kids from all backgrounds all mixing and making friends with each other and growing up playing sport together.”
Busy scribbling notes, going over warm-up routines, game-plans and individual instructions, the last thing Shea Curran needed before taking charge of his first game was a reporter saddling up to ask him about the religious make-up of his squad.
“A reporter rang me and the interview was going along the lines of religion and I said: ‘What’s this about because I’m not talking about that?’
“I honestly don’t know the mix of people at the club. I always refer to players as fellas that are new to the sport. Their religious background isn’t important. If I was to put players in a line-up and was asked to work out their background, I wouldn’t have a clue, I really wouldn’t.”
CAOIMHE O'Connell put on some old training gear, climbed into her car and typed ‘Henry Jones Playing Fields’ into Google Maps on her phone, her hand shaking like a leaf.
Originally from west Belfast, the 32-year-old fluent Irish speaker now lives “on the cusp of south and east Belfast”. She dabbled in camogie in primary school but that was the height of her sporting involvement in the GAA.
Like the vast majority of his 400-strong members of East Belfast, Caoimhe saw the social media posts in the summer and curiosity got the better of her.
“I was so nervous. I squeezed into some old O’Neill’s gear that I had, I took my boyfriend’s hurl, which was about eight sizes too big for me, and I drove myself up to Henry Jones and I never looked back.
“I remember I didn’t get out of the car straight away. I wanted to watch to see what was going on. And then I spotted people at the far side. I walked over and a girl called Nicole said: ‘Hi, are you new? I’m Nicole…. Do you want to come in to have a puck about with us?’
“They hit the ball to me and I think I dropped it. I said ‘sorry’ and that was the first apology of many,” laughs Caoimhe.
“I would associate where people were from and their accents – so I’d go: ‘There’s Strabane. There’s Laois…’"
During the East Belfast camogs' first season, Caomihe never missed a training session and practised with her partner at Cherryvale Playing Fields any chance she got.
She has been one of the resident corner-backs from the beginning.
“Ah, that first match against Kilclief,” Caoimhe sighs. “It was July 22, my mum’s birthday. I don’t know what it’s like to go to war but I can only imagine… see when that ball went up in the air, the fear that was in me…
“I barely remember what happened in the match. We were absolutely hammered and the heavens opened at the final whistle but we were so elated, so proud of ourselves. The WhatsApp went on until about two o’clock in the morning. It was just a wonderful, wonderful day.”
These wonderful things weren’t supposed to happen through the darkness of a pandemic.
And who in the right mind thought starting a new club, with all its demographic sensitivities during one of the worst years in the last 100, was a good idea?
Over the last 10 months, unbreakable bonds among people of all walks of life have been established, nurtured and cherished.
Caoimhe, the club’s first Cultural Officer, is proud of herself that she has mastered the skill of hitting the sloitar on the run – but it’s not just the game itself she loves.
“It’s the camaraderie with the girls,” she says. “Say, one of the girls that has had no experience whatsoever, watching them dip a ball, catch it or hit it 50 yards… and the feeling of watching my team-mates.
“I know what we’ve been through together the last few months and being on that pitch with them… Because I play in the full-back line, whenever we do score a point, I get to see my whole team jump all at the same time, I get to see it all.”
Caoimhe adds: “The way those girls pulled together. If somebody ended up in quarantine we passed their address round, and people took it upon themselves to bring something to them – donuts, coffee or books – now you’re talking about girls who didn’t know each other six or seven weeks before that.”
ANDREW Breslin blames a few Friday night beers for getting entwined in the hurlers of East Belfast. There are good things to come out of social media. Without it, East Belfast GAC might never have got beyond first base.
Like many others, Andrew Breslin pressed the send button and got a reply at 8.05am the following day supplying him with training session details with the club’s hurlers
He remained living in Belfast after his university days but never tired of travelling back down the road to represent the Fermanagh and Lisbellaw hurlers. But 2020 brought a new challenge and more hurdles than anyone cared to imagine.
With hurling paused back home, East Belfast turned out to be a Godsend for the 37-year-old full-back.
“I couldn’t sleep one night and I was flicking through social media and I saw the hurlers looking help basically.
“A few days passed and to be honest there were a few beers that had crossed my lips and the decision was made. It was about half-one in the morning I sent the message.
“The next morning I thought: ‘Ah shit.’ But I got a reply giving me the details and to make myself known, and the rest is history.
“I’d no club hurling because Armagh couldn’t facilitate Lisbellaw in their league because of Covid and our county hurling was up in the air. So I’d a wee bit more time on my hands.”
Like Keir, Daniel, Shea and Caoimhe, Andrew became another one of those self-conscious strangers with a kit-bag trying to identify the whereabouts of their new team-mates at the Henry Jones.
After a couple of weeks, the Lisbellaw man was snared and recruited into the hurling management set-up alongside Brian ‘Sir’ McGuigan.
What was supposed to be a few post-training beers was in actual fact an impromptu committee meeting. The previous manager had left after a couple of weeks. Whether they had coaching plans or not, Andrew and Brian were now co-managers.
“You were working with lads with a range of experience and skill levels, some were totally new to the sport. But the intensity and their willingness to learn was unbelievable,” says Andrew.
One of their players came to be affectionately known as ‘Slasher’. ‘Slasher’ came from a hockey background and made himself known around the hurling squad.
“I wouldn’t like to say how many injuries ‘Slasher’ has inflicted on our own boys never mind the opposition,” Andew smiles.
“He was outstanding in some of our trainings and matches. It’s like anything, you throw them in at the deep end and give them a platform to go and play. ‘Slasher’ is still about and is very involved at the club.”
In their debut season, the ‘East’ hurlers competed in the Betsy Gray Cup in Down and held their own in most games. They'll be back stronger in 2021.
LIKE every sports club in the country, East Belfast’s three men’s football teams, the two ladies football teams, the two hurling teams and the camogs are doing their zoom fitness classes, keeping in touch via WhatsApp with the eternal hope being Covid can be beaten back and that their youth section (up to U11 in all codes) can take flight in 2021.
Amid all the misery, some good things did happen in 2020.
East Belfast GAC is living proof that childish dreams are the best kind of dreams.
“For us, reaching out to others is the most important thing,” says Caoimhe. “That drives all of our decisions.
“People maybe don’t see the things that we’ve turned down because of the sensitivities as we feel it might turn one side of the community against what we’re trying to do, things that are okay for other clubs but aren’t going to be okay for us and we’ve already decided to take a stance on some things.”
“From my point of view,” Andrew says, “we need to be looking to Protestant/unionist areas and showing the GAA is inclusive.”
Keir, who is planning to resume his medicine studies in Dublin later this year, says he is probably weaved into the fabric of East Belfast GAA for life now.
“There are a number of people who are from a Protestant/unionist background and people who weren’t from that background but who had never played before – to give them the opportunity to play is important,” Keir says.
“I know there have been ‘events’ that have happened. It’ll take time but hopefully it’ll end in a case where it’s just a Gaelic club down the road.”
Keir enjoyed an upturn in fortunes on the football front after being substituted in his first game down in Magheralin.
He moved to corner-back and won Player of the Year. His friend Daniel, who acted as physio that night, won Most Improved Player.
The awards night was via zoom.