Photo Credit: John Merry
AS SOMEONE involved in high performance sport his entire adult life, having played in All-Ireland Finals with Derry and Slaughtneil, and spent three years as a professional Aussie rules player in the AFL with Sydney Swans, Chrissy McKaigue has had no shortage of tremendous mentors and role models writes Daragh Ó Conchúir.
As he faced the media in the fading light at the Athletic Grounds on October 23rd, having given a tour de force as captain of the first Slaughtneil team to win an Ulster senior hurling title, McKaigue thought only of Thomas Cassidy, and a seminal moment from 16 years previously.
“I owe a lot to Thomas Cassidy” reflected McKaigue. “He made me captain of the U12 team that won the Championship for the first time in 2000. People tend to forget those things. It snowballed from there.”
McKaigue hadn’t forgotten and now, more than ever, the memory burned brightly. Just four days earlier, Thomas had passed away after a lengthy battle with illness. McKaigue was anxious to expand on the man’s influence.
“He was the man that was coaching, he was the man that was driving us around”. He was the man who was fighting the lone battle when hurling wasn't that fashionable. Football was the main kid in town, so Thomas drove hurling. And it's just so sad that he is not here to see this.”
Shannon Graham spoke in similar terms after the Camogie Final. Such was Thomas’s passion for the game that he bought a rundown mini-bus to ferry the children around in and beyond Derry in search of challenges to test and improve them. He managed the hurlers to an intermediate county title in 2000 but it was his work at underage level that had the lasting impact.
With three daughters among his brood of seven, he turned his hand to Camogie and wrought a similar product. As he grew weaker, he brought in Antrim great Dominic McKinley to form a triumvirate management team with Damien McEldowney last season and left his sickbed to take in another county final victory.
The Ulster Final was played as part of a double header with the hurling. There was no question that Seán and Éanna would tog out for the hurlers; Aoife, Bróna and Éilís would do what needed to be done for the camógs. Their game ended in a draw but a week later, they finished the job.
Thomas’s fingerprints are all over both these successes and with the manner of the Camogie side’s comeback from three points down with five minutes remaining to win the replay, one would be tempted to think that he might still be working the oracle.
For nothing trumped the pride and passion and love he felt for his family, club, community and the Gaelic culture.
AOIFE Ní Chaiside answers her phone.
“Dia Dhuit” comes the lilting greeting.
It isn’t a nod to a passion for the native tongue shared with the caller. She doesn’t know who is on the other end of the line. It’s what she does, how she speaks, who she is. This is how it always was. Thomas made it natural for them.
He extended that passion to the community and it is no surprise that the locals had their sense of identity heightened even further by his passing, and the Ulster Final double-header that took place two days after his burial.
“It’s crazy” says Ní Chaiside of the mood around the district now, with the 300 or so families basking in the glow of an unprecedented three Ulster senior titles annexed by the Camogie, hurling and football squads.
“It’s fantastic and the buzz is really good going around the club with three teams training for an All-Ireland Semi-Final. That’s all the chat at the minute and it’s all the chat has been for a long time now.
“The Sunday the Ulster Final was played, everybody knew we were going to go out and play. All our aunties and uncles were all there, though they are not living in Slaughtneil anymore. That was really important.
“It’s our family and friends, people we had grown up with since we were young, and people Daddy had grown up with and played with; they were all there. It was hard for us but we got through it and the support from the local community and the club was something else and helped us get through that hard time.”
Reining in the emotion was difficult, particularly in the drawn game but they were completely aware of the importance of doing so.
“We knew it was going to be difficult but we had to get it in our minds that we were going out to play an Ulster Final. It was a Camogie match. We had to go out and play like we loved the sport, which we do. It was in everybody’s mind but we tried not to use that emotion because it would just drain your energy, and the energy levels weren’t good to start with that day.”
Having survived the initial encounter, thanks to a Mary Kelly point, they were much better prepared second time around. Still though, it wasn’t looking good with the clock ticking down. Éilís was among the scorers as the three-point deficit was wiped out.
They were happy to take a draw at that stage, even when Kelly had a goal disallowed. The ace predator would not be denied though, and her brilliantly-taken goal soon after sparked delirious celebrations.
“It was unbelievable. When I think back on it now, it was surreal. What a way to win an Ulster” chuckles Ní Chaiside.
She laughs at the thought of Thomas still pulling the strings. Mostly though, she is heartened by the impact he had not just on the club but on where they live. His sense of identity was such that he was never going to stop with hurling and Camogie.
He was involved in the establishment of the local community association that has sprouted to such an extent that a gaelscoil was established and is flourishing, while the sign at the gate of Emmet Park bears the new motto adopted by the club, which is also on the front of the Camogie jerseys.
Ní neart go cur le chéile.
There is no strength without unity.
“Gaelic was always a part of our house and Daddy had a very keen interest in the language, in the sport and in the music. Every summer we would have gone to Gweedore on holidays and he would have attended a course.
“Then himself and a few other men in the area set up Carntogher Community Association, which was there to promote the Irish language outside the school setting. It began small of course, with classes and different kinds of things. Over the years it developed and we now have a great community centre called An Carn, with an arts centre called An Coire alongside it.”
They are all in this thing together and the Inniskeen Grattans club should prepare for a large convoy of vociferous men, women and children who will be pucking every ball in the AIB All-Ireland Semi-Final and fighting every battle.
Burgess-Duharra provide considerable opposition, having had 10 points to spare in the Munster Final over an Inniscarra unit that beat All-Ireland champions Milford in Cork, but Slaughtneil will not be changing a winning formula at.
“We tend to concentrate on our own game plan, what strengths we have and what we’re gonna be doing. We know they’re gonna be strong, physical, highly-skilled camógs but we just have to work with what we have and look at how best we can utilise that.”
A more fitting legacy her father could not have wished for.