Naomh Colum Cille hoping to cause upset against Carrickmore in Tyrone SHC Final
AS a "wee brother" often has to do, Naomh Colum Cille are well used to battling against the bigger boys.
The hurling club representing the Coalisland and Clonoe areas has broken one part of the Tyrone club hurling duopoly, defeating Eoghan Ruadh of Dungannon in the county SHC semi-final.
This Saturday they will take on the kingpins of the caman code in the O'Neill County, Carrickmore Eire Og, who are targeting a hat-trick of titles, and a 29th senior crown overall.
NCC have never won Tyrone senior; indeed this is only their second final, having lost the 2011 decider to the Carmen crew.
The challenge is daunting, but NCC chairman Damien O'Neill is up for it. NCC always have to fight for attention in the football hotbed of east Tyrone.
Aside from the Fianna of 'the Island' and the O'Rahilly's of Clonoe, it's not far to Brackaville, or Derrylaughan, or Derrytresk, while the club has links to Ardboe and Moortown as well. Brocagh, Killyman, and Stewartstown are close too.
Still, the red and black flags have been going up around Coalisland, Clonoe, and the surrounding countryside: at Aghacolumb, Aughamullan, Kingsisland, Lisnastrain, Lower Annagher, Washingbay Corner...
Initially founded in 1986, as a juvenile team, the driving force was Moortown man Henry McNally, recalls O'Neill:
"Moortown had a hurling tradition and Henry taught us how to play the game. That lasted for a couple of years and then revived again in '93 as a senior team right down to the youth.
"I was one of the lunatics playing out on the road in the Eighties… There wouldn't have been too many cars about, you'd have had somebody at the top of the road and somebody at the bottom of the road to keep an eye out for cars. The football would have been going, then the hurleys would have been taken out."
It's much more often footballs, of course, O'Neill acknowledges: "As you know, we're surrounded – football is the religion. I suppose we're all mad about the football ourselves.
"We opened the first hurling field in Tyrone, in 2006, Pairc Chlochog named for the townland in Clonoe parish.
"Within a two-and-a-half mile radius there's a huge amount of Tyrone football titles won and finalists too.
"We're like the wee brother trying to join the big brothers on the roll of honour. The Benburb Cup, that's the big target for any club in Tyrone."
O'Neill was gracious about their semi-final success over near neighbours Eoghan Ruadh, a club still grieving the devastating death in the summer of their leader and icon, Damian Casey.
"It's been a very tough year for Dungannon. The loss of Damian Casey is an awful blow. We were playing a Dungannon team that's in mourning, really.
"We'll know exactly where we are after the match on Saturday because we are meeting a very strong Carrickmore team that is going for three-in-a-row."
One of Casey's great mates was Chris Kearns, a Dunloy native who has boosted Naomh Colum Cille in recent years, to O'Neill's delight:
"He could have gone anywhere, he's a very talented player, with two [Antrim] senior championship medals.
"He married a local girl and they actually live in one of the places where our club began, an estate in Coalisland, Lower Annagher.
"We often laugh about it – he lives on the road we used to hurl up and down. He couldn't have come to a more appropriate place as regards our club. I know there were a lot of clubs after him when he settled here. He went with the local club – we hadn't the biggest profile, but we always appreciate that. He plays football with the Brackaville club.
"He has won an Allstar now, for the Rackard Cup, and the youngsters all look up to him, it's a great shot in the arm he has given the club with that national profile."
NCC have played their part for Red Hand hurling, despite the club crown being shared between Carrickmore and Dungannon for the past 26 seasons, since Killyclogher St Mary's won in 1995:
"Chris Cross has two or three All-Ireland medals with Tyrone, and Michael Gorman would have been playing in those teams too. We've always had two or three players on the Tyrone county team."
O'Neill is hoping to make history, not have it repeated: "This is our second appearance [in a senior final]. It's sort of a repeat; we had a win over our neighbours Dungannon in that 2011 semi-final and then met Carrickmore in the final. It got away from us pretty early – Carrickmore's experience and that, they got a couple of early goals that set them on their way."
That was an eighth triumph in 10 seasons for Carmen and a win on Sunday would be a seventh in nine for the Eire Ogs.
A Coalisland coaching heritage has played its part in this year's senior progress, says O'Neill, praising their team boss Paddy O'Farrell, son of the late Martin, who's still revered at St Patrick's Academy in Dungannon:
"As for the senior team, a lot can be attributed Paddy O'Farrell. Paddy has the background – he has two senior [football] championship medals with the Fianna, I think he captained Tyrone minors, played Tyrone seniors too. He's been excellent after coming in the year.
"We won the Tyrone Junior for three-in-a-row, and had a very good management team there as well, with Darren Murphy, John Joe Coney, and Lee Canavan. Those fellas brought a lot of stability into the senior set-up."
This may have come too soon for NCC, but O'Neill has reason to believe it won't be another 11 years before they're back:
"We had reached the All-Ireland Junior Final in 2010, and were beaten by the Limerick champions, Blackrock, in the final at Croke Park. They had a few Limerick players – Richie McCarthy went on to win an All-Ireland with Limerick.
"We lost some players to emigration or just leaving, three or four strong players. We sort of reached a wee peak, we won the Tyrone League in 2010, and we took the eye off the ball with the youth.
"We didn't expect to find ourselves in the senior final this year, to be quite honest. We've had four or five years of pretty strong development at the very youngest age groups – under-5.5, 7.5s, 9.5s, 11.5s, and that's where the real strength of the club is
"We started camogie too in 2021 at those very youngest age groups too. We have been building strong foundations for the youth to come through."
Quite literally. O'Neill says "there have been pitch and ground developments too, there is a new energy about the club" and their ambitious development plans including a ball alley, playground and walking track, indoor hall facilities, access lane, parking, and floodlights upgrade.
The total cost will be £660,000, through Cairde Cholum Cille and grant aid from the local council and other funding sources, including the Department of Rural Development.
"The GAA is about a sense of belonging, about families and people, somewhere that you feel a part of. The medals and championships are wonderful, that's the focal point, but the key thing is people helping each other and being part of a community. That's more important than ever, keeping people together.
The hurling community of east Tyrone will be in Healy Park this Saturday, cheering on Naomh Colum Cille, hoping for the "wee brother" to flex his muscles.