When people talk of hurling strongholds, they don’t tend to look north but Loughgiel Shamrocks is a true bastion of the real beautiful game writes Daragh Ó Conchúir.
Sometimes the garlands handed out to these regions are patronising but the Antrim club’s achievements on the biggest stage have long since outgrown such condescension.
Two senior All-Irelands have been won by the crew representing a tiny parish, the pioneers of 1983 celebrating as hard as anyone when they were joined in the history books by the men of 2012.
Bróna McIntyre glows at the memory of that unforgettable St Patrick’s Day three years ago and the heady festivities that followed. Now though, it’s camogie’s turn they hope and as is normal around Loughgiel, everyone is rallying around.
This has always been a united parish where the camán and sliotar is concerned. One word is painted onto the gable-end wall of the Pound Bar, just up the lane from the clubhouse.
It is their mantra.
Excitement is bubbling ahead of the AIB All-Ireland senior club camogie semi-final with Oulart-The Ballagh but if they’re honest, this wasn’t the initial target.
Having dominated the Antrim championship in recent years, they were caught on the hop by none other than neighbours and fierce rivals, Dunloy Cuchulainn’s in the first round in 2013. It was a shock to the system, one brought about by complacency.
So this year, Johnny Campbell and Mark ‘Duck’ McFadden took over the reins and shook them up. The duo were key men at Croke Park in 2012, with the former an inspirational captain. Their impact was immediate.
Loughgiel restored their Antrim supremacy and followed up by chiselling out a one-point win over Eoghan Rua in the Ulster final. Given how hard the Derry side pushed Milford 12 months ago, that was a fine victory.
“Johnny and ‘Duck’ just brought a whole new level to everything” explains McIntyre. “We only thought we were working and they just changed it up completely. It was something different. We set out the stall that we wanted to rectify what went wrong. And we did. We trained hard and everybody was all guns blazing. We won by a cricket score in the county final.
“We knew that the likes of the McGoldricks, Grace McMullan and all them wouldn’t make it easy for us in the Ulster final. Again, everybody was up. And for a lot of us that was our first Ulster medal. That was a big boost as most years, you went straight into an All-Ireland semi-final.
“Although we only won by a point, we were six or seven points up at one stage. There was a ridiculous wind that day. We had it in the first half and we knew they were going to come at us in the second half. Credit to our backs, the likes of Laura Connolly and Emma Connolly, they were solid.
“The year the boys won the All-Ireland, we both had won the county championship the year before together but Oulart beat us in the All-Ireland semi-final. But the boys won and it was such a big deal for the parish. The whole place went wild for weeks. And now the boys have come in with us.
“There’s so much respect there because they know what it takes. They’ve brought a whole new intensity. And the whole parish is getting behind us this year because the boys are out of it. So it’s up to us.”
Grainne McGoldrick had to go off early for Eoghan Rua in the provincial decider through injury, but despite that, and the disappointment of defeat, she took the time to deliver a key message in the Shamrocks dressing room, one that brought them back to that word plastered on the Pound Bar wall.
“She spoke to us all and told us how we’d do well. She told us that what stopped them was their own belief. They didn’t have the belief in themselves. Credit to Johnny and ‘Duck’, they have pushed it into us that we’re good enough. The usual thing is that the Ulster team isn’t good enough. But every one of our team believes that the work we’re putting in will pay off.”
There is plenty of experience there. Nuala McAuley and Siobhan McCloskey are survivors from the last time Loughgiel actually got to win an Ulster title on the pitch, in 1997. Most of the team has played for Antrim.
They have the memory too of being well beaten by Oulart at this juncture three years ago. With three players that have captained Wexford to All-Ireland success (Mary Leacy, Una Leacy and Ursula Jacob), they are a power-packed unit.
“They’re star-studded compared to us but we played them the last time and they absolutely destroyed us. They ate us up but this year, while we’ve respect for them, we’re going to be going in on a lot clearer basis. We had no idea what we were up against that day. This time around we do. We feel we’re a different standard. We’re gonna go for it.”
Whatever happens, McIntyre will be involved in spreading the gospel on a wider basis, as the Central Council communications and PR representative. It has opened her eyes to what goes on behind the scenes, and such issues that players might take for granted such as the extreme difficulty in finding venues for camogie games.
Bróna supports the Camogie Association’s efforts to increase the profile of the game nationally and get more people to games.
“It’s getting better but it’s about getting people involved, trying to promote the game at all levels, not just senior level. You’re trying to help the smaller clubs as well. Social media has had a big impact and it’s really taken off. Everybody’s on it. Unbelievable work has been done such as by the likes of Anna Geary from Milford. She’s basically become the ambassador for camogie without even realising it. All the stuff she’s doing makes a difference.
“The Women’s GPA is going to help. My Twitter feed (the night of the launch) was just crazy about it.
“And finally, Liberty Insurance sponsoring both the hurling and camogie and AIB doing the same for the GAA and camogie club championships is very important too. We’ll keep working at it.”