The GAA club that saw off an army
The GAA club that saw off an army



A documentary on the Crossmaglen Rangers club in south Armagh highlights the difficulties it has faced throughout the conflict. By Seán Moran (for the Irish Times)


The most extraordinary aspect of the Crossmaglen Rangers story, as so compellingly told in the BBC documentary by Natalie Maynes in the True North series, is how the GAA transformed perceptions.

There is reference to how the principal town in the south Armagh parish of Upper Creggan is now best known for the feats of its footballers – six All-Ireland titles in 16 years – rather than for its bleak reputation as the epicentre of The Troubles. It was “the town the army took over”, in the words of former long-serving secretary Margaret McConville, through the 1970s and 1980s.

It’s an irony that Gaelic games were also intrinsically bound up in that reputation, as the club’s premises and playing pitches were requisitioned in 1971 and it stood for more than 25 years as a symbol of the association’s importance in the community – which was seen by locals as the primary reason for the occupation – and the conflict on a broader level.

In a way it was a double injustice because against a backdrop of the twisted morality of insurgency and counter-insurgency, the casual reference to ‘bandit country’ became almost a geographical term.

In the programme, there is a telling moment when former player and current joint-manager Oisín McConville is shown a clip from a television programme made in 1980, during which soldiers serving in the town are interviewed. One helicopter pilot talks as he flies over the area.

“We’re approaching Crossmaglen now; it’s about a mile north of the border. It is without doubt the worst area in the whole of Northern Ireland and has been responsible for one-in-six of all the security forces killed in the present campaign in Northern Ireland.

“It just happens that everybody who lives in this particular area is violently pro-the IRA and therefore it’s always been a stronghold of republican feeling and I think has now identified itself more closely with the cause or the struggle or whatever – the terrorist campaign – than any other particular area.”

McConville’s understated demeanour registers a slight lift. “Some assumption to make for somebody flying in a helicopter above your town.”

The documentary doesn’t dwell on details of the British occupation beyond the impact it had on the community and individuals and striking images of military activity and intrusion. It was, though, one of the GAA’s most recurrent challenges during The Troubles.

This is what happened in Crossmaglen. In May 1971, soldiers were seen playing soccer on the Rangers pitch. Complaints were made and eventually apologies came, after what would become familiar rigmarole querying the incident and half denying that it had happened.

Within a year, helicopters had started to use the pitch for landing, sometimes when matches were in progress, as was famously captured on grainy footage from the time.

The harassment of the club intensified. In 1974, some of the club’s land was requisitioned for a helicopter pad, and two years after that, a right of way over the front of the club was also requisitioned,

Club officials at the time believed that in 1976 only the intervention of the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Garret Fitzgerald, prevented the whole club premises being requisitioned.

Two years later, in 1978, an under-14 match had to be moved to a different venue when the army refused access to the pitch. This brought about the involvement of GAA president, the late Con Murphy, whose dedication to the club’s cause is still fondly remembered, and who can be seen in one of the archive shots in the documentary.

For years and years, the GAA unanimously passed a motion proposed by, initially Gene Larkin, and then Gene Duffy, at each annual congress that “all property that is requisitioned by the British authorities be returned immediately to its rightful owners, Crossmaglen Rangers”.

It took until the congress of 1999 for the matter to begin to be laid to rest. The then president , Joe McDonagh, said that he had received assurances that works to effect withdrawal would commence within weeks.

By then Crossmaglen had won their second All-Ireland title. Over the course of the years they have in the All-Ireland stages beaten clubs from seven different counties and across the other three provinces. They are known as the greatest club side in history and their mark on Armagh’s first All-Ireland title in 2002 was indelible.

The manager was Joe Kernan, who had guided the club to its initial domination of three All-Irelands in four years, and McConville, the McEntees and Francie Bellew were all on board.

In a joint-address in January 2013 to the GAA Games Development Conference, the then Crossmaglen officers, chair Tony Brady and coaching officer Peter McMahon, spoke on what could be learned from the club. There was a sense of completeness in the idea that the club whose plight had been raised at so many congresses should now be centre stage at what is the GAA’s biggest gathering of the year.

“I hope you won’t be too disappointed by the ordinary nature of the club,” said McMahon in introductory remarks.

An ordinary club from a town of around 1,600 that saw off an army and re-wrote history – and more importantly, its own story.

* True North: Crossmaglen, Field of Dreams is available for download in the BBC Store and also on the BBC iPlayer.

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