By Daragh Ó Conchúir
The Slaughtneil phenomenon is one to engender hope in us all.
The manner in which a parish spirit was built entirely around a GAA club, how An Carn community centre emerged from that and how a de facto Gaeltacht was established out of nothing, is an inspiration.
When the Gaelic Football, Hurling and Camogie teams each won their Ulster Senior Championships in 2016, the sound of glass shattering was met with glee.
The Camogie squad only went and won the AIB All-Ireland Senior title – just four years after getting over the line for the first time in Derry. They were only the second Ulster side to do it and completed a three-in-a-row 12 months ago. Today, they are back facing their victims of 2017 and 2018, Sarsfields (Galway) and an hour from joining Buffer’s Alley (Wexford) as the only other side to go four seasons unbeaten in the competition.
In this place, nothing seems impossible.
They needed each other though when news emerged on New Year’s Day that 19-year-old Michael Óg McKenna had been killed in a car crash.
“A lot of the younger girls on the team would have been friendly with him” says Louise Dougan, one of the central cogs of the humming Robert Emmets machine.
“He was a member of Slaughtneil and it affected the whole community. I didn’t know the wee fella but it was just so tragic. It devastates you. There’d be something wrong with you if it didn’t.”
Using such a tragedy as motivation is always a delicate balance. Dougan is experienced and nuanced enough to get the tone just right when asked about it.
“It’s always in the back of your mind that you’re representing those people that have sadly passed. It’s all part of Slaughtneil. Every club goes through it but it gives us that bit more passion to work hard.”
Dougan is a strong personality, a real character, on the pitch and in the dressing room. Her influence as a sweeper in the really big games is monumental. She tends to weigh in with a point or two as well, not content to just represent an iron curtain in front of her full-back line. And she is always barking out instructions.
Outside the white lines though, Dougan is generally just a matter of seconds away from a quip and is invariably involved in hilarity. Take the mistaken belief she is or was a zookeeper.
“It has become a kind of annual joke from the first All-Ireland, so I just stuck with it. When we were first asked our occupation for the programme that year, I said I felt like I never was away from the training pitch to even get to work, so I’d go with zookeeper, playing with a crowd of animals daily.”
It makes you wary when you hear the explanation of her nickname, Louise Tad.
“That was away back from when Mammy was younger. It came from Grandad. The story is that they were out in a field one day and Grandad fell into a pond full of tadpoles. And that’s where the Tad came from, as ridiculous as that sounds. It’s the whole family now. Mammy is Dympna Tad, I’m Louey Tad, there’s a whole squad of Tads.”
Dympna Dougan is Chairperson of the Derry Camogie Board for the last three years and was a member of the management team that oversaw the pioneering campaign of 2012, from which the subsequent history has blossomed.
“I have to give her credit. She pushed me out when I didn’t want to at that rebellious stage, but it all paid off.”
It is interesting to hear Dougan recount the type of experience that many other sportspeople have described as their worst nightmare: engaging in well-meaning interactions they fear will drain them.
But up around Slaughtneil, it’s one-in, all-in so Dougan adopts a positive slant.
“These last couple of weeks are usually the most enjoyable. All the hard work has been done and it’s just the wee, fine details, tidy it up.
“It’s a good vibe around the community as well. You can’t go out the door without people asking how things are. Some people might get fed up with it but it’s not every time they’d be able to ask you. Next year is a different year. It might never come around again. Just take it all in your stride. Enjoy it while it lasts.
“Going back 10, 15 years ago, when we weren’t winning anything, if you’re playing League matches, Championship matches or All-Ireland, everybody looks at it the same. You’re representing the club, people are looking up to you.
“It’s the centre of conversation in the community because it is in everybody’s blood. It is passion and it is just what everybody knows. It’s no different now. It’s just we’re finally getting the rewards.”
The 29-year-old played her first adult game of Camogie at 12 and while that is no longer allowed, the policy of introducing youth remains central to the club’s progression. And it isn’t a problem because they are in sync with the culture of Emmets and Slaughtneil.
They are down three significant players from last year – Bróna Ní Chaiside, Eilís Ní Chaiside and Faoiltiarna Burke but back then it was Clare McGrath who was away, having a baby. She has returned while Eilís McGrath and Clíona Mulholland have stepped up from the bench.
“Belief is one of our strongest points. It comes from winning and losing. It’s part of the process of both. You can’t teach somebody how to believe in themselves and believe in other people. It’s just a process through all the years of the victories and the defeats, that we have gained from it.
“Whatever we’re doing, it must be working. When you see those younger girls coming in, that weren’t there from the start, they have that belief too.”
The sweeper role seemed to come naturally to her.
“It’s about the mind as much as anything else, reading the game… Cutting out the ball is one thing and then it’s what you do with it when you get it. It’s just all eyes on the ball at all times.
“In our team, if you stopped for a few seconds, you’d soon get a mouthful to get you into the zone but sure you need that as well… And I wouldn’t really be the quietest on the pitch either Daragh, so, I play my part there as well!”
It is no surprise to hear that they are not discussing a four-in-a-row. What is noteworthy is the admission that she actually looks forward to retirement so she can enjoy what has been achieved. At the moment, it is about doing it.
“To be honest, I can’t wait to get to that stage, when I am looking back, not running around like a lunatic. It is quite surreal. Right now, you don’t really have time to reflect. When this season is over, you’re straight back in training for the League. So I’m looking forward to looking back.
“To be even able to say you have one All-Ireland is unreal. Unreal stuff.”