CLANN Eireann is a club that encapsulates everything that is great about the GAA.
The senior men’s team is important, of course, but it’s fair to say they don’t take precedence over anyone else involved in the club, whose catchment area stretches from the shore of Lough Neagh right into the heart of the Kilwilkie estate.
The Lurgan-based club is absolutely thriving at underage level in particular, picking up quite the collection of titles in the last decade – you name it and they’ve probably won it.
Ladies football is also flourishing, and they’ve been comfortably the best team in Armagh over the last 15 years, producing a number of top intercounty players to boot.
But they’re so much more than that. There’s plenty of competition for membership from neighboring clubs in the town, so they’ve made sure they cater for everyone, no matter their interest levels in the GAA.
They opened a new youth centre with help from the Department of Education last year; a state-of-the-art two-floor facility with changing rooms, toilets, disabled access, reception area, offices, a kitchen and the main sports hall (and that’s only on the ground floor).
They’re doing everything in their power to keep young people interested, but that’s not to say they don’t harbour aspirations of adding to their collection of senior championship titles.
The men’s trophy in Armagh is named after Gerry Fegan, a Clann Eireann and Armagh legend.
He was a brilliant administator, and they’d dearly love to win a third senior championship (their previous titles were won in 1954 and 1963).
The Armagh Senior Club ladies trophy is named after another Clann Eireann legend, Marie Hoy, who founded the ladies club 25 years ago, and it’s also worth mentioning that they’re the only club in the county who have produced a GAA President, namely Alf Murray.
So even though they are a forward-thinking club with a brilliant health and well-being committee, they have plenty of history to draw upon, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they add a few more chapters in the none-too-distant future.
IF your club is struggling at underage level, you could do a lot worse than take a leaf out of Clann Eireann’s book.
They’ve completely turned around their fortunes at underage level in the last two decades; where once they couldn’t win an underage tournament for love nor money, they’re now without exaggeration the standardbearers in the Orchard County.
It wasn’t an overnight thing either; the club, embarrassed by a lack of success, took the bull by its horns and slowly but surely their fortunes started to improve.
Their u-12s got the ball rolling with a championship title in 2010, and since then they haven’t looked back as the club’s youngsters have claimed a further 22 titles since that breakthrough success.
Barrai McConville, a member of the committee and former chairman, said: “We hadn’t won an All-County title since 1969 at any underage level. It wasn’t the fault of the coaches – there just wasn’t enough of them!
“Armagh were riding high but I remember someone in a committee room saying the u-10s hadn’t won a match all season.
“A football committee got together to improve things and we focused on coaching the four to six-year-olds. Brian Turbitt was chairman and that committee is still going today.
“At the start we managed to win a few wee tournaments at places like Clonduff and Bellaghy, and it spiralled from there as we won Feile and u-16 titles. The Feile was a real target for us, I think we were the first team from north Armagh to win one when we did it in 2012 and since then we’ve won six or seven of them.
“I’d put a lot of down to people, we’ve so many coaches and so many helpers.
“We’re proud of our facilities – our social club, our pitches, handball alleys and our new youth club but it’s all about the people at the end of the day.”
We could reel off title they’ve won since they’ve got their act together – but there’s barely enough space, so here’s a few highlights: they triumphed in the Paul McGirr u-16 Championship in 2015, recently won two u-21 championships, a rake of u-14 and u-16 titles, and it’d be remiss not to mention the club’s massive contribution to St Ronan’s Lurgan historic Hogan Cup success two years ago.
Eoin McCluskey, Jack Haddock, Tiernan Kelly, Rioghan Meehanand Ruairi McConville all came through the Clann Eireann ranks and made a particularly big impression on the road to All-Ireland glory, and there were four other panel members who also played their part.
Current chairperson Donal McCarthy says it’s been a major shot in the arm for everyone in St Ronan’s catchment area.
“We took pride in it but I think the entire GAA community in Lurgan and South Antrim got a real lift.
“Seeing St Ronan’s reaching those heights gave us all a real belief of what is possible and that was reflected in the attendances at training.”
But it isn’t all about winning; the most important thing is participation, and they’re doing their utmost to ensure players stay involved when they leave for university and so on.
McCarthy said: “Traditionally we’ve had big enough numbers at underage level, but drop-off has been an issue so we’ve done a lot of work with the older underage groups and that’s paid off with two u-21 titles.
“We feel it’s really important to keep the lads involved so we endeavour to make sure everyone gets meaningful football.
“We started a new programme last year to make sure everyone has game time and we’re going to make sure that’s the case going forward, right through the age-groups, as you just never know how someone is going to develop.”
COVID may have scuppered the celebration plans, but this is still a very special year for the Clann Eireann ladies.
It’s 25 years since Ladies Football was started up in the club by the late Marie Hoy, and her daughter Martina is still instrumental in keeping the show on the road.
It’s been an unbelievable success story as they’ve dominated the Armagh Ladies scene for the last 15 years, winning senior championship title after senior championship title (nine in all since 2006).
Fittingly, the trophy is named after club legend Marie Hoy, and they’ve also contributed handsomely to the Armagh ladies team’s successes in recent times.
Martina said: “We’ve been dominant in Armagh.
“There’s five or six teams now in Lurgan but for years we were the only team that competed. It’s taken time for the other clubs to establish themselves.
“About a decade ago we would’ve swept the board at u-12, u-16 and minor level, and we won the club of the year a number of times as well.
“We had six or seven players on the county squad that won the All-Ireland Junior Championship in 2005, and we had seven girls on the team that lost the All-Ireland Senior Championship. We had five when Armagh won the All-Ireland Intermediate in 2012 and Mags [McAlinden] was captain that day.”
And Mags McAlinden is particularly relevant to this year as well. She’s another club legend, and it was a massive lift to the entire community when she battled back from cancer to return to the field of play in a league match against Dromahill on August 1.
It was a poignant occasion and she told Gaelic Life after the game that “the power of the GAA can help you through the tough times and I will be forever grateful to my Clann Eireann family who were simply immense.”
Martina commented: “She wasn’t expecting to be back playing so soon, but she was still out at the training. Even the fact she was around the team was a great boost for morale. It was amazing to see her back and we were all delighted for her.”
Clann Eireann were knocked out of the championship by Armagh Harps in this year’s championship, but their magnanimous vice-chairperson Roisin Bell says they were happy to see the Harps go on to win the tournament outright.
Roisin said: “To be honest I think it’s good for the game in Armagh. It’s created more of a buzz about the ladies game and the senior championship was better attended than it has been in a while because it was so different.
“Hopefully next year will go better. A few of our senior players weren’t available due to Covid – Meabh Moriarity for example couldn’t play as she lives with her parents, and we had a bit of bad luck with injuries as well.”
Martina, meanwhile, hopes that the extra competition in Armagh will pay dividends down the line, especially as Clann Eireann have lost out on a number of occasions to Monaghan queenpins Donaghmoyne in the provincial area.
“We struggled in Ulster as Armagh football was so poor, but now we have that competition. It might be a shock to the system but it’s great in a way as we want to improve ourselves.
“The nine times we won the championship, we were probably beaten seven times in Ulster by Donaghmoyne.
“In fairness we always give them a good game and they say they fear playing us, and now the competition is getting better in Armagh maybe we’ll get over the line some day.”
Health and Well-being
CLANN Eireann’s flourishing health and well-being committee was borne out of tragedy.
Michael McConville, a highly respected coach and player with the club, took his own life on New Year’s Day 2016, and the club have endeavoured to honour his memory and undoubtedly always will.
They established their health and well-being committee in the aftermath of his tragic passing, and his legacy was already set in stone as he coached the trailblazing team which won the Paul McGirr tournament in 2015.
Michael is always in their thoughts, and committee officer Carol McCafferty says that’s why mental health is such an important facet of their work.
“We try to create a sense of openness in our members from a very young age. We hold a lot of workshops and send out a message that it’s okay to not be okay, and that our coaches are there for you.”
Health and well-being is taken so seriously that they even have a dedicated Facebook page, and the amount of activities organised by the committee runs as long as your arm
“When the football season is over, that’s when we really kick in. We have our own bespoke programme called Generation Transformation and last year we had 350 participants from the ages of 2 to 82.
“There’s all sorts of activities keeping everyone involved over the Winter months. We also have breast screening and drugs awareness workshops, and we connect in with different community groups.
“During lockdown we connected with a lot of different community groups.
“We headed up Lurgan Area Community Aid. We started it off ourselves by providing sport aid to the community and then we teamed up with other clubs and it became a cross-community thing, linking in with the rugby team on the other end of town.”
CHARLIE Shanks has led the way on the handball front in the club with some remarkable performances down through the years – but he says it’s a ladies handballer who’s deserving of the headlines at present.
Shanks, who retired from the court this year, says that there’s no reason why Megan McCann can’t follow in his footsteps by winning an All-Ireland title at senior level.
“I’d really like to emphasis that Megan McCann is an Armagh senior player now and that is where the next Senior All-Ireland is going to come from. She’s come through the ranks at Intermediate level and is closing the gap at the very top. She’s sitting in the top four or five players now and she has all the potential to do it.”
Shanks says that handball isn’t as strong as it once was in the club, but they have three new one-wall courts and that should really help down the line in terms of participation.
“Handball was at its strongest in the mid-50s when there were three outdoor courts built. Then I became involved in the mid-90s when we developed our 40×20 court. You had teams from Belfast travelling into Lurgan to play and we had a team in Division One in the league.”
“It’s like anything, it comes and goes. We’re not as strong as we were were but in 2015 at the World Handball Championships we had five or six girls playing fantastically for us, they won the world titles so they were the best of the best.”
While Charlie himself had a fantastic career, he admits his record in All-Ireland finals wasn’t the best. The Software Engineeer by professional still has much to be proud of, and Clann Eireann can also point to the fact they produced one of the finest handballers in the country.
“I lost to Paul Brady in All-Ireland finals in 2010 and 1011, and then I lived in New York for two years and finished number one in the Pro Tour which was the best achievement after winning the All-Ireland.
“I came home and got to a couple of finals and won one, then lost another when going for the back-to-back, so it’s not a good record!
“Covid has brought things to an end for me. I’ve taken up golf and running – you name it I’ve tried it in the last year.
“It’s only now I look back and realise what a crazy commitment it was, going into the court by yourself first thing in the morning and squeezing practice into lunch-breaks.”