GAA Football

A swing and a smile: AJ McMinn's journey from the other side of the interface to the East Belfast camogie forward line

“I don’t want this story to be: ‘Protestant girl plays camogie’,” says AJ McMinn. Pic: Hugh Russell
Andy Watters

A SWING. A miss.

Another swing. Another miss.

AJ McMinn picks up her sliothar again, tosses it in the air and grips her hurl.

“This time,” she thinks, gritting her teeth.

A 21-year-old camogie nut practising in the garden? That’s not so unusual, but AJ’s path from the loyalist side of the North Belfast interface to East Belfast GAC is.

“I don’t want this story to be: ‘Protestant girl plays camogie’,” she says.

Is it that? Well, yes, but it’s more.

It’s also about freedom of choice, the magic of Gaelic Games, breaking down barriers, making friends, being part of something and finding what you love and running with it.

AJ always loved her sport and at school had a go at everything from football to hockey to basketball and tennis to athletics. She cheered on Linfield and is a Belfast Giants season ticket-holder.

“Anything and everything to do with sport, I threw myself into it,” she says.

Home was where Protestant/Loyalist Upper Ardoyne meets Catholic/Republican Ardoyne. The people on the other side of the divide did their thing, the people on hers did theirs and rarely the twain did meet. When they did there was always the potential for trouble.

“When I was younger it was always a tradition in our family to walk home with our local band on the Twelfth,” AJ explains.

“From the age when my mum pushed me in the pram until I was about 12 or 13 I watched the parades and then I made the decision that I would rather stay at our caravan and play football with my friends.

“I wouldn’t say I was forced to go but it was like: ‘This is what we do, this is our norm’ and I did it until I was old enough to make my own decision.

“I saw the violence and the riots, petrol bombs being thrown at police officers… When I think back on it now all I can remember are the negatives. I don’t remember walking home thinking: ‘Oh my goodness, this is so fun’, maybe I did enjoy it at the time but, reflecting on it, the thing that comes to my mind is seeing the violence on the Ardoyne interface.

“When I got to a certain age I just didn’t want to see it anymore because I had Catholic friends and Protestant friends and Muslim friends – my circle has always been very mixed.

“My best-best friend is a Catholic girl who grew up on the other side of the interface; we had the same lives but Protestant and Catholic. The more I was with my friends, the more I didn’t want to do the parades thing. I saw it as me fighting with my friends. I didn’t want to see the violence, I’d rather be having fun.”

Now in the third year of a Sports and Exercise Science degree at Jordanstown, AJ is on placement with her basketball club, the Peace Players. The club is a cross-community organisation which visits primary schools around Northern Ireland bringing together kids from Protestant and Catholic areas using basketball as the catalyst. It was at the club’s annual multi-sports camp that she first discovered Gaelic Games.

“I had always wanted to try camogie,” she explains.

“I played hockey for the Ulster Elks, I was goalkeeper, so I had a bit of experience of stick sports.

“I suppose I had some kind of ability with a stick in my hand, but a hurl is completely different.”

Yes, a whole different ball game - and not just on the field.

Joining a club is straightforward on one side of the interface but it’s not so simple on the other where the GAA is regarded suspiciously as “the sport of them ‘uns”.

“I remember being told that if I wanted to play I’d have to like ‘swear in’ and pledge my allegiance to the GAA,” AJ explains.

“I don’t think it was lies, it was more mis-information in a sense.

“It was daunting and I stopped looking because I was told all this extravagant stuff that put me off. Anyway, in my area in north Belfast the clubs have been around for years so it was more intimidating – not even as a Protestant but as a newbie – to go to a really established club at my age.”

Then something amazing happened. A handful of visionary individuals got together and came up with the idea of forming a GAA club. It was a new club with a come-one-come-all ethos and they didn’t care if you were from Ballysillan or Bogota, all that mattered was that you wanted to play Gaelic Games and join in the fun. The club was East Belfast GAC.

So how did AJ get involved with ‘East’?

“It was the power of Twitter,” she explains.

“I knew a girl through the ice hockey. She’s a Protestant girl and she had posted that she had joined the team and I started followed her journey.

“I was thinking: ‘I kind of want to get into that but I’m going to hold off for now’. I was watching her travel through it all. Then East put up that they were recruiting new players and members so I thought I would go and have a nosey.

“I messaged the girl and asked who I could talk to just to get an idea about it; I wasn’t fully convinced I just wanted to chat to someone and she gave me the email address.”

An exploratory email led to an invite to join the WhatsApp group and within two days AJ was enjoying a puck-about in the park with some of her future team-mates.

And so, 48 hours’ later…

“I was in East Belfast gear at training!

“I went over and literally within 10 minutes I was taken to the side by Sean (one of the coaches) and we worked on ground striking, catching, handpassing and then actual striking. Within 15 minutes I was playing a mini-match and I felt so welcome from the get-go.

“I was like: ‘Yes, I love this, I’m all over this!’

She took to East like a duck to water but pucking a ball? That took a bit more work.

“I’d played hockey so I could hit it on the ground but see hitting it in the air… it was the hardest thing ever,” she says.

“I went home and practised against my wall for two hours I was so embarrassed.

“I was thinking: ‘I actually can’t make any connection with this ball!’ You have to get your hands right on the stick, it’s a different grip to hockey – in camogie, your good hand goes to the top, in hockey it’s the other way round.

“I had funny hands for the first two months! It was exciting but it was just so weird getting my body adapted to a completely different sport.”

You can imagine the phonecall home: ‘Hi mum, guess what I was doing last night…’

The McMinn family had to adapt to the news that AJ had developed a passion for chasing a ‘sliothar’ around fields in county Down while wearing a helmet and carrying a lump of ash in her hands.

“I’m very accident prone,” she says with a chuckle.

“I’m so clumsy, I fell over my own two feet at training last year, landed on my shoulder, tore my trapezium muscle and ended up in a sling for the rest of the season.

“So my family’s main concern was: ‘Hang on, you fall over your own two feet and somebody has given you a stick?! Are you sure? Are you wise?’ But they see how happy it makes me and that’s all that matters. They’re very supportive of me diving into new things and anyway they know they can’t tell me ‘no’.”

After three weeks’ of training, her first game was for the East Belfast development side against St Enda’s (ironically from just up the road in north Belfast). As a substitute, she watched from the sideline before she was thrown in for a taste of the action late in the second half.

“I was really nervous,” she admits.

“It was my first camogie game ever. It wasn’t just my first game playing… it was my first game, like, ever.

“It was the first game I’d watched, the first time I’d seen the skorts, the first time I’d actually seen the rules. Training is one thing but for a match you’ve got to get there early, get the boots on, warm up, get the jerseys handed out… It was very surreal!

“I just thought: ‘If I’m going to do it, there’s no point doing it 90 per cent, I’ll give it 110’. I was only on for 10 minutes and I got into a couple of rucks in the back line, fighting for the ball and getting it cleared and then I was off.”

St Enda’s won that one and East had to wait until a couple of weeks ago to record their first-ever win in a challenge match against Belfast newcomers Mary Anne’s.

“Their girls were the same as us,” says AJ, whose England-born boyfriend Ryan (she describes him as “a real-life James out of Derry Girls”) is now playing football with East Belfast.

“They were all just there for the craic and a lot of them were brand new to the sport. It was a similar skill level and I learned a lot. I was playing at full-forward which was completely out of my comfort zone! But I loved every minute of it, I chased every ball, made every tackle I could…”

She says she was “battered” by the end but sure every bruise was a medal of honour and she came agonisingly close to getting her first score after she pulled on a loose ball and sent the sliothar scooting towards the goal.

It got to the line but, despite her entire club willing it on, refused to go over it.

“One of the girls knocked it in and I chased it and hit it. Their ’keeper blocked it on the line and it was me, her, and two backs just swinging… My heart was going 100 miles an hour, I was kicking and swinging to try and get it in but unfortunately, no, I didn’t get my first-ever score in a game.

“But it’s coming. It is going to happen!”

Scores or no scores, she sees camogie as a vital release now and being involved with the cultural phenomenon of East Belfast has given her “confidence and joy” as well as friends and fun. Along with team-mates Kimberly and Laura, she went to the Pearse Og grounds in Armagh recently to cheer on clubmate Jess who was playing for Down against Armagh.

“They had this traditional band, they had the Irish flag and the flags of the two counties flying and it was all very eye-opening for me in a sense,” she says.

“It was unbelievable, I loved every single minute of it.”

She adds: “The only politics in sport there should be is the jersey you have on – the crest that’s on your chest is yours, that’s your team, they’re your people and that’s it.

“What happens outside your little bubble stays outside and I think the only politics you should have should be within your team. Sportsmanship, respect yes. Anything else, no.

“I think using sport to fight against wrongs in society, like the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is good, it has created so much awareness. I believe sport can be used to crush barriers.

“I met my best friend through my basketball club, she’s a sister to me, at East Belfast we are more than a team, it’s like a family. I think people just want to move on (from the Troubles), you can’t change the past but we can learn from it and move on.”

Tomorrow she will take a coaching course run through the club and intends to coach kids at East Belfast. She signed up it in the knowledge that there will be new hopefuls out there just like her who’d never had the opportunity to play. They will get it now.

“I want to be there,” she says.

“I want to tell those kids: ‘It’s an amazing sport, you’ll have so much fun and you’ll love every minute of it’.

“I love it. I’m completely comfortable wearing East Belfast gear in my area. I go outside and there’s a Union flag on the lamppost and I’m putting my hurls in the boot and walking around in my O’Neills gear with my head up high. I have yet to have someone make any other comment apart from: ‘Oh my goodness, you play for East Belfast?!’

“For every negative comment I’ve had about playing GAA, I’ve got 50 positive ones.”

She keeps a sliothar and a hurl in the boot of her car because, you never know, she says: “You could find a good ’oul wall and think: ‘Oh that would be class to hit off’!”

It’s another step towards making her camogie dream come true.

“The one thing I want - and I struggle with it, I beat myself up over it - I want to be able to score a point from the 45-yard line,” she says.

One of these days she’ll have the ball in her hand and the posts in her sights.

A swing. A smile...

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