Me and 'Granda Bobby' - Erin Sands on family, friends and social media frenzy that followed All-Ireland win

Erin Sands found herself at the centre of a social media frenzy following Down’s All-Ireland junior triumph last week and, as Neil Loughran finds out, family history is not lost on the 19-year-old…

Erin Sands was part of the Down panel that claimed the All-Ireland junior title at Croke Park. Picture by Mal McCann
Erin Sands was part of the Down panel that claimed the All-Ireland junior title at Croke Park. Picture by Mal McCann

A WEEK on, the events of last Sunday are still hard for Erin Sands to completely wrap her head around. The joy, the madness as Down edged past Limerick to claim the All-Ireland junior crown at Croke Park, she had never been part of anything like it.

The celebrations that started on the field ramped up on the way home, then a banquet in the Canal Court with friends, family, team-mates, management - everybody involved in the journey there in the one place - before a red-eye flight left Belfast early on Thursday for a team holiday to Portugal.

The days between would become an almost perfect blur.

Hours before boarding Erin was still out at a swarmed St Patrick’s Park in Saul, coaching kids beneath the patron saint’s shadow as the sun showed its face for the first time in too long, the trophy proudly passed from one pair of hands to the next.

It was the culmination of a fairly intense family affair for the Sands clan too, with Erin’s dad Gerard providing the catering for the team throughout the year while mum Paula, Down LGFA treasurer, was there every step of the way.

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“It’s class,” says the 19-year-old, who is going into the second year of a sports studies degree at Ulster University.

“The connection you have with some of the girls… like I’m friends with 30-year-olds. That’s the craziest part! I’ve played on development teams the whole way up with Down but this is a whole new level.

“I love the seriousness, the professional approach, getting food after training…”

Erin Sands is a granddaughter of Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike in 1981
Erin Sands is a granddaughter of Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike in 1981

“She has to say that,” smiles Paula.

“…all the different coaches you’re working with, the improvement you make. You get so many different perspectives on the game and so many unbelievable experiences.”

They don’t come more special, or unique, than last weekend.

Yet while her team-mates were able to filter out of Croke Park with minimum distraction, Erin – one of the youngest members of the panel - became the subject of social media frenzy when an image of her holding the cup aloft went viral.

“Bobby Sands’ granddaughter Erin raising the junior All-Ireland for Down at Croke Park… our revenge will be the laughter of our children,” read a post from the Irish Unity Twitter account - one of many in a similar vein - while her Facebook flooded with mentions as one hour rolled into the next.

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Erin is extremely proud of the connection to her “granda Bobby”, who died during the Republican hunger strike in 1981, but the online reaction in the wake of the game came as a shock.

“There’s this one group on Facebook we would be part of, it’s just all family members of blanketmen, and I kind of expected it to be put on that because if we ever have a match it’s always ‘good luck Erin, good luck to the team…’

Erin Sands with proud parents Gerard and Paula
Erin Sands with proud parents Gerard and Paula

“But I didn’t actually expect to see my friends sharing it on Facebook, and then the photo, it was,” she says, slowing her speech before cringing slightly, “lovely…

“There’s mixed emotions about it. [Down team-mate] Niamh Scullion, every single post I see she’s commenting underneath - ‘I know her, I know her!’ And then there’s people obviously saying things that aren’t very nice.

“You just have to turn a blind eye and get over it. There’s nothing you can do about that at all - people have their opinions and you can’t really take that away from them.

“Thankfully the majority of people are saying so many nice things… how my granda would be so proud of me.”

Being asked about him is nothing unusual, but the family are understandably guarded about delving too deeply into the past. Having lived in the sleepy village of Killough for the past 17 years, their lives are far removed from the reality of the Belfast streets where Bobby Sands grew up.

“We love it down here,” says Paula, “we would never even think of moving back.”

Erin Sands lifts the All-Ireland junior trophy after Down's victory over Limerick
Erin Sands lifts the All-Ireland junior trophy after Down's victory over Limerick

“My daddy’s a Down supporter now,” laughs Erin, “he doesn’t say he’s from Antrim anyway, even though I tell him he is.”

“We grew up down in Ballyhornan through the years,” continued Paula, “my sister Nicola used to run about with all the Sharvins from Kilclief, so we were the only house in Ardoyne that had a Down flag out in 1991 and ’94…”

Still, despite the decades passed, Erin has retained a natural curiosity. Dad Gerard was seven when his father died, yet she laps up any anecdote or bit of information that comes her way.

“Growing up you just hear stories...”

“He tells you funny stories, doesn’t he?” says Paula, “Bobby used to keep him his tin of Coke when Gerard went up to see him in prison…”

“There’s a wee man in Ardglass, Willie Mulhall,” continues Erin, “you go round to get something because his is the only shop that’s open all the time, and you get a story about my granda.

“It’s so nice to go round and hear the different stories, every time it’s like ‘I didn’t know that one – you caught me off guard there, Willie’. Because stories are all you have.”

Children in Saul join in the celebrations following Down's All-Ireland win
Children in Saul join in the celebrations following Down's All-Ireland win

And last Sunday at Croke Park added another to the family tapestry, Erin’s gratitude for the role played by managers Peter Lynch and Caoibhe Sloan, as well as coaches Kevin McKernan and Mark Poland, clear as she talks through a first solid campaign at senior level.

Yet, despite a long-standing appreciation for a certain Donegal legend, she is the first to admit football was far from her first love.

“I only started playing when I was in first year, one of my friends asked if I wanted to start training at Saul. I would’ve done Cul Camps out in Kilclief when I was younger, but that was about it.

“It’s funny, everyone else is like ‘I’ve dreamed of this since I was five’, but that wasn’t the case for me, though I did look up to Michael Murphy the more I got into it…”

“She made a clock in school once,” smiles Paula, sparking the pair into a back and forth.

“Don’t put that in…”

“She made us go to his shop that time in Letterkenny…

“I did, but he wasn’t there. Raging.”

Instead, Erin has been lost in song for as long as she can remember, with her rendition of the ballad ‘Grace’, alongside Damien Quinn, receiving 1.4 million views on YouTube. On another occasion her two passions combined when, with nobody to sing the national anthem ahead of a Down league game, Erin took the microphone and belted out Amhrán na bhFiann before trotting back to her position.

It’s in the blood too.

“I was probably thinking I’m going to be a pop star when I was growing up.

“Anywhere I go, any family events, I’m just singing. If I go anywhere you’re going to hear 'Grace' whether you like it or not!

“Granda Bobby sang and played the guitar, all the Sandses played instruments... I’d be more confident getting up in front of a crowd of people to sing, whereas if you wanted me to get up and talk, or give a speech, I’d be like ‘get me out of here’.

“But football gives you something else, the last few weeks were an unbelievable buzz for everybody, then Sunday was a proud day - one none of us will ever forget.”