By Colm O’Hare
ARMAGH Harps GFC (Na Cláirsigh Ard Mhacha) was founded in October 1888 to generate the spirit of Gaelic games and national culture in Armagh. The club played its first game against Young Ireland’s, Dundalk on St Stephen’s Day that year. Following its formation, the club quickly rose to prominence winning the Ulster title two years later.
From humble beginnings Armagh Harps has become one of the oldest, largest and best known clubs in Ulster, boasting a significant role of honour. Today the club fields 18 teams, catering for both male and female, ranging in age from u-6 up to senior and has been hugely successful, winning leagues and championships at all levels.
Armagh Harps is an integral part of the local community and the home facilities at Abbey Park and the social club are in frequent use. It provides a focus and outlet for the local community, instilling a sense of pride in our games and a sense of belonging to a vibrant club and local community.
The club has always been managed by committed and hardworking members. Paul Gribben (chairperson), who has led the club for the past 10 years, was keen to ensure that although Armagh Harps is a sporting, community and voluntary organisation, the club was run and managed in a professional manner. The committee is dedicated to the future direction of the club. Sub-committees have been established to ensure the wider programme and objectives of the club can be met.
The elected committee members bring dynamism and a huge range of skills to the table. The modern GAA club requires its management committee to address a wide range of corporate governance issues. Harps has a strong vibrant committee with the professionalism and skillset to meet all the demands.
Paul Gribben in paying tribute to his committee said: “The committee is made up of hard working committed members of all ages and both genders. The members have a wide range of skills and knowledge coming from the business community, the public sector or with a financial or legal background.
“The current An Runaí Art McGinn and current PRO Colm O’Hare have served the club in an administrative capacity for a combined and unbroken 50 years! We also have recent graduates who bring a different perspective to the table.”
The club is indebted to the many volunteers who contribute to its successes.
The strong and dedicated committee is ably supported by approximately 160 devoted mentors, coaches and helpers, working tirelessly throughout the year to provide football for all. The club has a large membership base which offers support in both on- and off-field ventures.
There is an ever present band of volunteers in their wonderful playing facility at Abbey Park and it’s unusual not to find Aidan, Stevie, Seamus, Oliver, Paula and the two Shaunas on site.
Parents and guardians play a prominent role, particularly at underage level and are instrumental in helping develop young members into the stars of the future. It is a tribute to Harps that its members are extremely active and generous with their time to the club. In addition to volunteering with their own club, many somehow also manage to find the time to assist with additional community activities. A number of members are actively involved with the local hurling, camogie and handball clubs too.
Other members are representatives on various county board committees. Members are actively engaged and take lead roles in parochial, voluntary and charitable organisations. Indeed it’s a regular occurrence for volunteers to be recognised for their endeavours at local, district and national award ceremonies.
The club has a strong community ethos, encouraging facilities to be used by local community groups both within and outside the GAA family. The club has developed an ‘openness’ to encourage involvement from all sections of the community regardless of age, gender, religious or community background.
The strong volunteering ethos and links to the local community were recognised during the spring lockdown in response to Covid-19. The club immediately supported the local Covid response team and provided much-needed resources, both financial and physical, to assist the most vulnerable in our society. The club made a significant donation to the hardship fund and volunteers, from all aspects of the club, including senior ladies and men’s ranks, assisted in the delivery of hardship parcels throughout the community.
Indeed the senior players arranged for financial donations from the squad and they too were able to present a substantial sum to help those most in need in our community. The club was proud to learn that visits by these young men and women to the most vulnerable in our society during this difficult time was also helping with well-being issues.
The club owns a c.7.5 acre, fully enclosed playing and training complex, with viewing and spectator facilities, at Abbey Park. A licensed social club with members bar and lounge catering for approximately 200 is located nearby on the Loughgall Road.
Harps have developed and maintained close links with many local community and sporting organisations and local schools and provides them with access to all Harps’ facilities. When legislation allows, a wide range of activities can be found taking place in Abbey Park, ranging from the local art club, through keep fit classes to Tae Kwon Do.
The club was always proud to own the playing facilities at Abbey Park and with the foresight of progressive committees always aimed to improve the site. In 2009 the then Committee drafted a proposal for a new community hub in Abbey Park. Following a successful bid for investment from the Social Investment Fund (SIF), the club was delighted when work commenced on the new £1.4 development in January 2019.
The new development, The Jack Bratton Centre (named after Harps legend Jack who passed away in 2010), was completed at the beginning of this year.
The state of the art building comprises of an indoor sports hall, gym, modern changing facilities, kitchen facilities and a Naíscoil. The existing JD pitch (named in memory of the late underage player John Darragh) was also changed from a grass to a 3G synthetic surface.
This was only part of the re-development as there were ambitious plans to improve parking facilities on site, erect new fencing and catch nets, increase the playing surface size, provide new dug outs and erect LED floodlighting.
The support to prepare Abbey Park for the next generation has been incredible. The club introduced a fund raising scheme ‘Buy-A-Tile’ to support this ambitious project and thanks to the generosity of members, businesses and the wider community the dreams were realised and the new modern facility was completed earlier this year.
Unfortunately due to the global pandemic, the facility has not been available to be fully utilised by their members and community but they look forward to the day that all can enjoy this tremendous asset.
The members’ social club is widely used. The club has a bar, lounge, snooker room, beer garden and kitchen and was fully refurbished in 2017. It proudly displays the 5* catering certificate. It’s available for hire for a variety of functions and receptions. The club regularly hosts a number of birthday and anniversary parties and wedding receptions on an on-going basis. Members have also been grateful for the support from the social club at times of bereavement.
Each week the social club provides a range of entertainment including regular snooker and darts competitions for the benefit of our members.
The club has competed at the top level since its formation. The role of honour dates back to the nineteenth century and includes numerous county and Ulster Championships. The club won the Gerry Fegan Cup (as Senior Championship winners) in 2017 and are currently competing in Division 1A of the Armagh Senior League.
A raft of players have represented the county at senior level over the generations. Household names such as Jack Bratton, Gunner Campbell, Joe Cunningham and Gerry Wilson represented Armagh in the 1953 All -Ireland final whilst many others have worn the county and Ulster jerseys with pride in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
When Armagh reached the All-Ireland final in 1977, the two Seans, Sean Devlin and Sean ‘Dingle’ Daly, were proud club representatives.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, players such as Johnny Corvan, Benny O’Kane, John and Mark Grimley, Dominic Clarke and John Toner were regulars in the orange and white. The Grimley twins also represented Ulster and Ireland.
Indeed the Grimleys were not the only players to have represented Ireland at international level. Charlie Vernon and Colin Holmes both wore the Ireland jersey with pride and distinction. Colin, who starred for Tyrone, is Harps’ most decorated player, having been an integral part of Tyrone’s All Ireland Senior Championship successes in 2003, 2005 and 2008.
Harps players backboned Armagh’s one and only All Ireland u-21 success in 2004, with Gareth ‘Nippy’ Swift, Peadar Toal, Joe Quigley, Kevin Morris and Gareth Richards all receiving winner’s medals and the current vice-chairman, Colm Marley, was part of the management team.
The club continued to provide players to the county set-up in the new century. In addition to representing the county at senior level, current club senior player Declan McKenna had the honour of captaining the county minors and lifting the Tom Markham Cup on All-Ireland final day at Croke Park in 2009.
Senior team captain Charlie Vernon dedicated 12 years to the county cause and played alongside his current club team mates Paddy Morrison, Karol Loughran, Lorcan Oliver, Ryan McShane, Conor White and Joe McElroy. Additionally a number of the current senior panel, such as Oisin
Hughes, Conor and Darragh Murphy, Tom O’Kane and Conn Stevenson, represented Armagh at minor and u-21 level.
The club also fields a Senior B team and they are the current county champions.
Following the disjointed 2020 season, players are looking forward to getting back to a routine under the new management team led by former player Benny O’Kane.
A significant emphasis is placed on youth development, which is evidenced by their on-field success. This includes a lengthy roll of honour at youth level and is reflected by the number of players who have represented their county, province and indeed, country.
The club has ambitious plans to continue this success and fields teams at all underage level for both boys and girls.
Armagh Harps has achieved the Gold Clubmark in recognition of excellence at underage and is involved in the GAA Nursery Programme. Each June Abbey Park is alive with the chatter of young and excited voices, as the facilities are opened for the annual Harps Summer School. In excess of 100 boys and girls, of primary school age, are taught the skills of the game, in a fun environment. At the end of the week, all leave having further developed their skills and made new friends. Critical to the success of this scheme is the dedication of club coaches from senior, underage and ladies teams.
The club also has a strong emphasis on ladies football with an enviable roll of honour at underage and senior level. Underage success has developed into senior success and like their males counterparts, the ladies are significant contributors to county teams across all age groups.
Kelly Mallon from our senior ladies, captains Armagh, and she is joined on the current panel by Megan McShane and Tiarna McVeigh. The senior ladies, under the management of Paddy McShane and Joe Feeney, have been a work in progress and after winning the Senior League in 2019 – after a 26 year break – crowned that achievement this year by winning the Senior Championship, following a 22 -year hiatus.
These achievements came about after years of hard work and dedication. Paula Powell-Enright, Shauna Agnew, Shauna McVeigh and Philippa McShane have invested heavily in the coaching, mentoring and development of the club’s young ladies. They have achieved success at u-12, u-13, u-14 and u-16 in recent years and now are proud county senior champions.
The club is indebted to the generous support it receives from the wide cadre of local businesses, members and the local community. McKenna’s Bar, Nugent & Gibney, O’Kane’s Superstore, Mulberry Bistro, McShane Packaging are just a few of the long term local businesses sponsoring club activities. A host of other local businesses regularly rally to the call when the support is required. The club is grateful to all sponsors and strongly encourages members and the local community to support them, particularly at this difficult time.
In implementing good governance, the committee established a development sub-Committee, the pride of Declan Toal, which identifies and secures funding from various public and private sector sources.
The club is keen to generate its own income and monies earned from the social club, club run events and activities, match day fees, Abbey Lotto etc are reinvested in youth development. The new facility at Abbey Park will also provide much-needed revenue.
However, the global pandemic has severely impacted a number of these revenue streams and treasurer John Vernon and the finance committee are actively pursuing alternative sources of income.
Having such a long and successful history, there are numerous matches that would be foremost to the mind of many members. The wonderful history of Armagh Harps written by our club historian the late Phil McGinn to celebrate our 120th anniversary, encapsulates many famous battles from the club’s formation. The book is a ‘who’s who’ of Harps greats throughout the ages. A must read.
However the current membership will proudly recall the achievements of the superb teams towards the end of the twentieth century.
Armagh Harps ended a long gap of 31 years when they defeated St Paul’s in the 1989 Senior Championship final on a score line of 3-9 to 2-8. Harps had started out in the preliminary round, defeating Killeavy before overcoming Sarsfields, Clann Eireann and Silverbridge, to reach the final. The Harps performances were marked by strong all-round team efforts, with Dominic Clarke, John Grimley and John Toner featuring strongly and midfielder Mark Grimley turning in several man-of-the-match performances. Goals from John Grimley, Andrew Clarke and Malachy Gribben sealed the final triumph over a gallant St Paul’s side, and the presentation of the McKillop Cup to captain John Grimley was to start a week of great celebrations on the north side of the city.
Harps’ won their second Senior Championship title in three years, when they overcame Maghery on a scoreline of 0-11 to 1-7 in the 1991 final. Harps’ path to the final was far from straightforward, receiving a scare from outsiders Dromintee in the opening round, before overcoming championship giants Clan na Gael and Crossmaglen Rangers in the quarter-final and semi-final respectively. The final itself was a tense affair, with Harps losing full-forward John Grimley to an early sending off and conceding a goal midway through the second half. However it was the introduction of star forward John Corvan – who had returned from Australia for his brother’s wedding – who steadied Harps’ nerves and saw the City side across the line by a single point. The McKillop Cup was presented to Harps’ captain Adrian Moore at the final whistle.
2017- An unforgettable year
Undoubtedly 2017 will go down as one of the most memorable years in the club’s modern history.
The Féile competition begins the competitive season and when in January 2017 Harps u-14’s began training, who could have predicted the success that year would bring.
These young men brought the first award to the club when they won the County Féile, defeating Keady in the final at the Athletic Grounds. Of course this qualified them to play in the All-Ireland Féile in June and the lads were seeded in the extremely tough top Division. Undaunted the boys demonstrated their qualities winning through to the quarter-finals, succumbing only to the runners-up and winners!
This was a significant achievement by the lads who are now playing at minor level and looking forward to joining the senior ranks in a couple of years.
Fast-forward five months from the Féile! When referee Kevin Faloon blew the long whistle to bring to a close the county final on the evening of Sunday, October 15 it cemented another chapter in the club’s illustrious history. When you wait 26 years for a county title, you savour the moment. Everyone associated with Armagh Harps did just that!
The Athletic Grounds resembled Croke Park after Armagh’s All Ireland victory over Kerry in 2002 – except it was the white and blue of Armagh Harps that was on display and Harps’ players and management being lauded.
This achievement did not come easy- there were many heartaches and sacrifices along the way. The boys had lost the 2014 and 2015 deciders to Crossmaglen Rangers. Belief that the squad could win the Senior Championship was important. Bainisteor John Toner, who ironically kicked the winning point against Maghery to win the club’s last Senior Championship crown in 1991, had faith in his players. Belief and a huge amount of commitment and hard work led to this achievement. Losing was not an option.
At half time following a cagey opening half, Maghery led 0-5 to 0-2. Harps trailed by three and defending champions Maghery were comfortable. But so too were Harps’ in their changing room. There was no panic and John Toner and his management team reassured the boys that this game was still there for the taking. And how right they were!
The game swung decisively in Harps’ favour when they hit two superb goals within seconds of one another in the early stages of the second half.
Following a Maghery point, keeper Paddy Morrison, with a two-step run-up, delivered a perfect pass to Karol Loughran on the right wing. Karol with superb vision picked out Ryan ‘Mini’ McShane further down the line. The lively forward played a one-two with Rory McGrath before unleashing an unstoppable low drive to the back of the net, reducing Maghery’s lead to a single point at 0-6 to 1-2.
Loughran again was to the fore in the next move. He lofted a ball into full-forward and man-of-the-match Ultan Lennon turned and rifled a thunderous shot past a stranded Johnny Montgomery in the Maghery goal. Two goals in just three minutes changed everything. Harps had shocked Maghery and hit five points without reply between the 38th and 51st minutes to take charge – Lennon firing over three of them.
Going into stoppage time, Harps led by four. Maghery’s Aidan Forker pumped a high ball to the edge of the square, Ben Crealey fisted it goal wards only for Paddy Morrison to make a miraculous diving one-handed save.
Moments later Harps’ were champions again and the celebrations – which lasted a day or two – began.
P Morrison; S Farry, K Loughran, C Stevenson; R McGrath, D McKenna, M McConville; J Loughran, C White (0-1); R McShane (1-1), J McElroy (0-1 free), L Oliver; C Vernon, U Lennon (1-5, 0-3 frees), S McCoy.
Subs: T O’Kane for R McGrath (34), C Coulter for S McCoy (52), C Murphy (0-1) for C White (60), P Kelly for L Oliver (64).