It’s a busy weekend ahead for four Glenullin cousins. On Saturday they’ll dance at the All-Ireland Scór finals in Castlebar before running out at Celtic Park on Ulster Championship duty less than 24 hours later. Michael McMullan went to meet them…
THE fluttering green and gold flag at the end of the lane lets you know you’re deep in Glenullin territory. Stepping out of the car, the sound of a piano wafting from the front room tells you it’s a musical house.
The door opens and Dónal Close gets the kettle on. The welcome is warm. It’s Friday evening and football training is less than an hour away. His younger brother Rónán appears. Oldest brother Fearghal noses his car into the yard. Before long Eunan Boylan, their cousin from across the field, is also seated at the kitchen table.
It’s a rare 30 minutes of peaceful bliss at the end of a week of spinning plates. Study, dance, music and football. Throw in Eunan’s hurling involvement with the neighbouring Emmet’s and you soon get a taste of the hectic schedule.
After the Glenullin squad go through their paces in the chilly November air ahead of an Ulster clash with Galbally, there’s a break to freshen up and the dancing shoes will be on. It’s all about perfecting the symmetry and polishing the turns that the judges in Castlebar will run their eyes over.
In Glenullin, Irish culture is everywhere; a local community at its brilliant best. A championship success always shortens the winter.
The quartet were part of the recent football success. Fearghal’s scoring tally for the championship odyssey, including points off either foot in a Player of the Match performance in the final, was only bettered by Neil McNicholl and Eoin Bradley.
Rónán, Glenullin’s fifth top scorer, kicked points from wing-back. Dónal, plying his trade as a midfielder, was part of the winning squad.
Eunan Boylan’s nimble footing saw his number two berth swapped with a role at centre-back tracking Drumsurn play-maker Ruairi Rafferty in the final.
Glen’s dancing team, including camogie star Clare Gunning, will take part in the Céilí dancing this weekend, but set dancing is the Glenullin group’s preference. And, it’s great craic.
“You are a lot flatter on your feet and more rhythmic,” Dónal explains of the difference. “Set dancing, to the untrained eye, would be more like tap dancing and it would be a bit more relaxed.”
Their Granny, May Allen, founded the Allen School of Irish Dancing and their father Thomas has handed the baton down.
“He was always more interest in set dancing, he grew up doing and had so much fun doing it, so he wanted us to have the same experience,” Dónal explained.
A native of Moneyglass, he married Maeve Boylan before moving to Castledawson and eventually residing in Glenullin where he has been the driving force behind the development of Scór.
“I was P5 when I first entered the Scór, in the sets, for Glenullin,” Fearghal. “The year before, I danced for Glen, Maghera in the Céilí dancing and I’ve been involved since then.”
With the dancing school rooted in Maghera, they danced for Glen before Glenullin became established, with Derry star Brendan Rogers also among its students.
“We only moved to Glenullin when I was in Primary Two and Da was a real driving force in getting teams out there, especially with the dancing,” Fearghal added.
“Mammy was good with the music, she is a musician and through.”
When Glenullin competed in Scór Sinsear (the senior grade) last year, it was Thomas and his three sons on the team until their cousin Eunan became old enough to join and push his uncle into the full-time role as teacher.
“He joined our class in Primary Four after moving from Derry… me and Eunan would be the same age,” Rónán recalls.
And there was culture on his side too. Eunan’s father Ruairi, a championship winning midfielder in 2007, played the flute on Glenullin’s All-Ireland Scór na nÓg winning instrumental music team with sisters Sheila (fiddle) and Clodagh (concertina) also part of the club’s first national success until the junior ballad group emerged victorious this year.
His mother Ann took part in the céilí dancing with her native Magherafelt and later Glenullin.
“I was originally in Derry and moved into P4 from Good Shepherd,” Eunan said. “We didn’t get into the music, but we were all involved in the dancing…me and Maeve really stuck at it.”
As the years passed, the development continued. Sisters Tiegan and Chloe Mullan will be on stage this weekend. Their father Brian, the current senior captain, was involved in Scór back in the day. As was his brother Stephen with club referee Dan Mullan also on board.
“The guts of the (current) team have been there from the start,” Dónal points out. “The likes of myself, Fearghal, Tiegan and Chloe.
“They have been there since day dot. Obviously as we get older we have roped in the younger ones.”
Rónán is one of the newest on the team, one of the most decorated junior competitors on the land, a holder of six Derry and four Ulster set dancing titles. Add in three Derry instrumental music and quiz titles, Derry céilí dancing title and novelty act titles, as well as competing in the ballad group. It’s quite the list.
For all their outings, All-Ireland honours have escaped them. Getting that far is an accomplishment.
“There are always so many strong teams from the likes of Clare or Kerry, folks who are doing it all year round,” Dónal outlined.
“The nerves dissipate when you take the result into account. It matters if you win, but if you don’t, it’s all a bit of craic.”
The judges begin with a score of 100 before docking points as the performance rolls out in front of their eyes. Competitors get the feel it’s going according to plan if there is symmetry, the spaces are perfect and all eight dancers judge their turns to the last second.
“If you do that right, you are always in with a chance and if you come up against a better team who are more experienced, then there is not much you can do about that,” Dónal added.
Thirteen months ago, there was no precision as Glenullin footballers sank to a 0-19 to 1-13 defeat in an Intermediate relegation play-off at the hands of Slaughtmanus, who leant heavily on five points from play off the boot of substitute Gavin McShane.
Eoin Bradley wasn’t togged out due to soccer commitments and John O’Kane hobbled off ten minutes after his 37th-minute appearance from the bench. It was that sort of night. The best team won and after an early Cathal Hasson goal Glenullin were always chasing.
But for Derry CCC choosing not to fully reshuffle their leagues, the result would’ve sent them into the unthinkable wilderness of the junior grade.
Eleven of the team started their county final win over Drumsurn, with Fearghal Close kicking three points with his brother Rónán adding one. But that was the only symmetry with last month’s victory at the same venue.
Former club and county star Paddy Bradley came on board as manager with a demand for total commitment from everyone. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
After a league campaign that saw Glenullin finish bang in the middle of a division of 10 teams, an unbeaten championship run, littered with comebacks, took them to county final day when Daniel O’Kane kicked a dramatic winner with the first point of his career to land the silver.
“In hindsight it was a maybe a good thing that we had such a poor year last year, it gave lads a kick up the ass to go hard and get ourselves out of this hole,” Fearghal said.
His four points – with five from Neil McNicholl – pushed Glenullin far enough in front to cushion Limavady’s late goal in the quarter-finals, a first championship knock-out win of Fearghal’s five years of senior football.
“When the shit hit the fan, the young boys blamed the old boys and the old boys blamed the young boys,” Fearghal said of what went before. “We all got on okay, but there was an air of blaming each other.
“I think the real difference was that Paddy asked everybody to buy in and everybody did. In previous years there wasn’t as much buy in and that’s where the blame came from.”
A team-building weekend and the constant demand for high standards united the camp. Age was irrelevant. It was all about Glenullin and stepping up the ladder.
“Plus, everyone there knows what Paddy has done in the game,” Dónal added.
Rónán chips in with the influence captain Brian Mullan cast across the group.
“He sets the standards… completely,” he said. When he talks, everyone listens.
“You’d hear a penny dropping two miles away,” Dónal quickly adds.
“’Tiddles’ (Mullan) has been playing senior longer than any of us are old,” Fearghal adds, scanning around his three team mates seated at their kitchen table. “He said his first ever medal was a James O’Hagan Cup was in ’96 and I was born in ’99.”
The Glenullin mettle was tested in every game, with their acid test coming in the final when Drumsurn spun away into a 1-2 to 0-0 lead.
“From watching it all unfold from the bench there were no heads down and nobody was chucking the towel in,” Dónal said.
Fearghal explains the difference the buy-in and commitment made to their ability to dig themselves out of the trenches.
“Every other year I have played in the senior, if we go three points down, we throw the heads and all of sudden we’d be nine points down,” he said.
The average age of the Glenullin starting 15 sits at 28. Brian Mullan (42), Eoin Bradley (38), Eunan O’Kane (37) and John O’Kane (36) help prop it up. The rest have plenty more years to give.
The club’s underage teams have started to find their way back into finals and Grade A football has Glenullin’s name back in some of its competitions.
Increasing numbers have helped and manager Paddy Bradley insists their intermediate success must be an inspiration for others to follow into the footsteps who have gone before.
“We have had a few boys coming in from the outside, from the Ballymoney direction who were friends with boys at school,” said Eunan Boylan, who, at 18, is the youngest player on the team.
“If boys met them when playing soccer, some of them have come out to play for us. Some of the lads have a rugby or soccer background so that helps.”
There were 17 in Fearghal Close’s primary school class in Glenullin and by the time he left some of the classes had 32 on the roll – nearly double.
Getting the right people involved in coaching the teams has helped, with many of the 2007 winning team now having kids coming into the underage scene.
When the club first opened its gym, Derry All-Ireland winner Richard Ferris came on board to run it and helped with the rolling out the fundamentals.
“A lot of the boys who were on the team that won the senior title have kids and they are going to want to coach them.”
The memories are engrained. Eunan recalls a photo at home with Maeve, his father and the John McLaughlin Cup, while Fearghal’s 2007 personal imprint comes from playing in the half-time games.
Now it’s about mixing both – dancing and football. Thomas Close made a call from Celtic Park minutes after the final whistle in the county final to get the wheels in motion for a Sunday football slot this weekend.
Eunan’s hurling team mates Brendan Rogers and Gerald Bradley have a background in dancing with Ballinascreen’s Carlus McWilliams in the same boat.
“It gives you decent base level,” Dónal points out of the fitness gained from dancing. “You’d be sweating buckets after it no matter what fitness level you were at.”
The preparation relies on compromise and the lads have been indebted to the girls on the team being able to move their lives around Glenullin’s football preparations. Assembling eight people is easier to sort than an entire football squad. But give and take also goes the other way.
“There is the odd time there are clashes and you have to weigh them up at the time before you make any decision,” Fearghal explains.
“Sometimes you have to look at what percentage of the team you are for either side. You are more a part of a group of eight dancers than you are in a panel of 25 odd footballers.”
A dancing competition is weighed up against a football league game and Thomas Close – their standby dancer in the case of an emergency – adopts a simple logic.
“We are convinced by Da that there are subs for the football team, but there are no subs for the dancing,” Fearghal points out. “They will be able to field a team, but if we don’t show up to the dancing then they’re not able to field anybody.”
Looking ahead to All-Ireland weekend, it’s a nice problem to have with another championship Sunday in Celtic Park thrown in.
Dancing won’t take too much out of the limbs. It’s the logistics and travel that need factored in. Thankfully Castlebar is closer to home that Killarney were previous Scór finals have taken place.
Glen dancers, littered with Ulster and World champions, will be there with their footballers and their clash with Errigal Ciaran part of the Sunday double bill in Celtic Park.
For Dungloe’s novelty act group, they’ll have to settle for online updates from their footballers first foray in Ulster against Dunloy.
The Boylan and Close clans will load up the cars and head on another weekend of trekking the highways and backways of Ireland. They wouldn’t have it any other way.