The St Brigid's story so far ahead of county semi-final date with Cargin
Both of Sunday's semi-final combatants are celebrating significant anniversaries this year but, while Cargin are well used to competing in county semi-finals, St Brigid's are hoping to break new ground. Neil Loughran looks at the journey that brought the south Belfast club to this point…
Northern Switchgear Antrim SFC semi-final: Cargin v St Brigid’s (Sunday, Dunsilly, 2pm)
BETWEEN the clinking of glasses and the constant din of conversation from table to table, the night of November 25 may not afford much time for quiet reflection.
Like any significant club anniversary, familiar faces will be reacquainted and old yarns recounted, often with a couple of added plot twists, leaving memory lane in need of relaying by the time last orders are called.
But, even looking around as the revolving door into the Europa is crossed ahead of a gala dinner in the hotel’s ballroom, there will surely be a brief moment of pause for some of those whose involvement with St Brigid’s stretches across the 25 years of the south Belfast club’s existence.
From a small gathering of parents inside a classroom at St Bride’s primary school in December 1998, just eight months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement as Ireland embarked on a new journey of its own, to this.
How did we get here? And, perhaps more importantly, where are we going?
On Sunday, St Brigid’s face county kingpins Cargin in Dunsilly, a place in the Antrim senior football championship final at stake. For the Toome club, currently in the throes of its centenary anniversary celebrations, this is terra firma.
Their tally of Antrim senior titles stands at 11, with over half those coming in the last eight years. St Brigid’s have been to the semi-final stage three times before, but never beyond.
On the last occasion 12 years ago, they lost so heavily to St Gall’s that the Andersonstown News reported overhearing one of Milltown men’s number saying their subs would have given them a better game.
In terms of pedigree and know-how, there will be no comparison when the clubs cross the white line on Sunday afternoon. But, whether the Padraig MacNamee Cup is special guest at the Europa Hotel or not, St Brigid’s have their own history to be proud of.
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SO where did it all begin? Back in the late '90s, Conor MacSherry and Dermot Dowling both lived in the Stranmillis/Malone Road area, working in the same office and sending their children to St Bride's PS.
The school had a Gaelic football team that competed in division four of the Belfast school's league but, in the absence of a local club to feed into, some would go to the likes of Carryduff, Bredagh, St Gall’s or St Paul’s. Many others, though, would leave the sport altogether.
“There wasn’t really an avenue to play, but there was a great interest, and a great need for it,” says current chairman and former senior football manager, Eunan Conway.
“The ultimate aim was to provide an avenue for our kids to play Gaelic Games.”
A Tyrone native who started Queen’s University in 1985, before a post-grad at Jordanstown, Conway trained with Carryduff, Bredagh and O’Donovan Rossa after settling into city life. As the case for a new club gathered momentum, he rowed in behind.
Dowling, MacSherry, Frank Cassidy and Greg Blaney became founding fathers, St Brigid’s given life in the local parish hall as 1999 lurked around the corner, it’s motto ‘Mol an óige' – which means ‘praise our youth and they will come through’ – proving the guiding principal in the quarter of a century that has followed.
“It was largely those from a country origin… there was a couple involved who were south Belfast natives, but mostly culchies if truth be told,” says Conway.
“We started off trying to cater for our primary school pupils first, a team entered in the Jack McCartan tournament was the first we ever put out. We borrowed jerseys, then we entered teams in south Antrim.
“Eventually we got our own jerseys, designed the crest… it was actually decided to run a competition in three local primary schools [St Bride’s, Cranmore Integrated and Stranmillis] to design a kit and badge, as they were our making.
“Hence the badge incorporates all three – the St Brigid’s cross, a tree (Crann Mor), a stream (Stran Milis) - while the winning kit is the blue and gold worn by all our teams today.”
A committee was swiftly formed, with MacSherry as chairman. At one of the first training sessions for the newly-formed U12 team, a group of 13-year-olds turned up asking how they could get involved.
Among them was James Loughrey, who would go on to represent Antrim, Cork and Ulster. An U14 team was soon brought in to facilitate the growing interest. Men such as Frank Devlin of Tyrone, Hugh Martin McGurk and John Mackle, both from Derry, as well as a certain Joe Brolly, thrust their shoulders to the wheel.
“The idea was, although you can never look too far ahead, that eventually we might have teenage teams and some of those guys might go on to play adult football, camogie and hurling,” said Conway.
The dream was soon realised.
Alongside intermittent underage success through the decades, a junior championship in 2004 was followed by the intermediate triumphs of 2006 and 2017 for the senior footballers, with last year’s U20 county final triumph, allied to previous U21 successes, helping bolster the senior ranks.
The ladies’ senior footballers won a junior championship in 2009 before adding intermediate crowns in 2012 and 2015, while the senior hurlers claimed the Antrim junior B title last year.
“Our adult teams are bearing the fruits of the teams who have progressed through the years.
“We have continually developed youngsters in conjunction with our schools, a lot of those kids go to Our Lady and St Pat’s, a lot to Aquinas, Methody, Inst, Rathmore, St Mary’s on the Glen Road, St Joseph’s on the Ravenhill Road, and a number to local integrated schools.
“And of course, we have always had people who move in, but likewise we have lost an awful lot of players who have moved out of the Belfast area or emigrated. It’s just the nature of the city club.”
In spite of those comings and goings, St Brigid’s has managed to stabilise and sustain its efforts, now across all four codes.
Yet it is in this area that some of the narrative which surrounds the club this year has stuck in the craw.
The arrival of the Downey contingent – Shea, Matthew, Calum, Enda and Oran – following transfers from home club Lavey has seen St Brigid’s subject to snipes and sneers in some quarters, their ranks bolstered with some undoubted inter-county class.
Yet Conway is keen to point out how the losses of men like Loughrey, and former Antrim players Mark Sweeney, Deaglan O’Hagan and Ronan McGrady, has stifled their progression in the senior stakes.
“There’s a strong family connection and a strong affinity [between the Downeys and St Brigid’s].
“The boys’ grandfather, Frank McGurk, is one of the stalwarts of the club, has been involved in underage coaching in the three primary schools in the community, while there are other strong connections too.
“The boys live in the south Belfast community, they work in the family business, so it’s the only club they really would’ve joined. They have contributed well, they’ve settled into the club, integrated very well.
“They have obviously helped to raise standards on the playing front, they come from a strong GAA background like many others in the club and they realise the commitment it takes to be successful.
“We’ve lost loads of players, a lot of people work in the IT sector, and they’re at the four ends of the earth. The story within our club is not really about who has come in, it’s who has left.”
THE Downeys’ arrival has undoubtedly altered the dynamic of John and Patrick McGuckin’s young panel, but the transient nature of senior success is only ever one strand of the story.
For years the club has trained at Harlequins rugby ground, and have a full-time pitch there as the relationship between the two clubs went from strength to strength.
In 2003, an advertisement from Belfast City Council appeared in the Belfast Telegraph, inviting local clubs and organisations to apply for the facilities management of a number of sites, including Musgrave Park.
Five years, almost £500,000 and a huge amount of behind-the-scenes work later, St Brigid’s celebrated its 10th anniversary by cutting the tape on new pitches at Musgrave Park – with GAA president Nickey Brennan and then culture minister, Gregory Campbell, attending the official opening.
However, as their numbers continue to grow, so too does the need to accommodate all comers. With available land at a premium in the Belfast area, it's a conundrum they are still trying to solve.
“We have three teams at U13 boys, two teams at U15 boys and 50 players at U15 football – we’re comparable to Carryduff in terms of our youth, and we will need to provide floodlit facilities, 3G facilities, so we need to actively seek other areas.
“We’re trying to work in conjunction with Belfast City Council to seek other means by which we can develop facilities. We are developing a strategic plan for the next five years, but volunteers are obviously the secret sauce to bring that about.
“We have ambition, but it’s hard to realise.”
On the field, the ambition has always been to push on and challenge the county’s elite. Sunday grants the club’s footballers the opportunity to do that, with Cargin representing the ultimate acid test.
St Bride’s PS recently held a club colours day as interest soars, with the buzz reverberating around since Rossa were toppled in the last eight a fortnight ago. As ever, though, these days are tinged with sadness because the late Fionntán McGarvey is not there to share in them.
Yet the talented 18-year-old, who died in early 2022, will always remain a part of this group, and a part of St Brigid’s, through the good days and the bad.
“Fionntán’s presence was a gelling factor in us winning the Antrim U20 championship last year, because that was Fionntán’s team,” said Eunan Conway.
“He was a remarkable young man, his parents are salt of the earth, and his loss is still felt very deeply amongst the senior players at the moment.
“It is tragic, but it has gelled those players who were his peers together. He is never too far from the thoughts of any of us, and that will be no different on Sunday.”