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23rd Nov 2017

Slaughtneil don’t have a GAA club, they’ve way more than that

Niall McIntyre

They don’t make them like they used to; they don’t make them like Slaughtneil anymore.

There’s magic in that small rural community at the foot of the Sperrin Mountains. There’s magic between the 300 or so families there.

Chrissy McKaigue is the face of that movement. He is the captain of their hurling team, he’s a leader of the footballers. For people like me, from Tipperary and with no inside track on the south Derry kinship, he is Slaughtneil.

When you listen to him talk, when you listen to stories about Slaughtneil, it’s really no wonder what they’re doing and why what they stand for is adored all over this country

Pride of place abounds when he speaks. Slaughtneil is everything. You get the impression that he could talk all day long – as long as the conversation was about his parish.

It’s handed down through history, that pride. Even as a 28-year-old, McKaigue talks about the club’s establishment in 1953 as if he had a seat in those early committee meetings. He talks about the club’s first ever county hurling title in 1965 with such a glint of pride in his eye that you would think he was playing himself.

It’s not a self-righteous air. It’s the air of a man so submerged in the parish he lives in that he wants to do good for his comrades. Because he is a leader, and because he is the club’s highest profile player (ever since he was Derry captain and International Rules star and ever since he scored 0-4 from play from centre back marking Diarmuid Connolly in February 2017) he has a lot of responsibility to Slaughtneil.

We all want to know about Slaughtneil. We all want to know how they’re winning so much recently. We all want to know about what the hell that magic is.

The same magic that has brought them the following successes:

  • Five-in-a-row Derry hurling titles in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.
  • Back-to-back Ulster hurling titles in 2016 and 2017.
  • Four-in-a-row Derry football titles in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.
  • Ulster football title in 2014, 2016 and a place in this year’s final.

That’s just the men. The women are doing just as good.

  • Two-in-a-row Derry Camogie champions 2016, 2017.
  • Two-in-a-row Ulster Camogie champions 2016, 2017.
  • All-Ireland Camogie Champions 2017/2017.

They may be a small area, but size has never limited their success and McKaigue is the man to tell you all about it.

He does so with honesty. When he speaks, he speaks not just for him or his hurling and football teammates – he speaks for the children of the area, the schools, the teachers, the old folks, the camogie team, the mothers and fathers. He speaks for Slaughtneil.

They are more than a GAA club. Their GAA club is a community. Their community is a way of life.

“Definitely I’d put it down to something large,” McKaigue said at the AIB GAA Provincial Club Finals Media Day. 

“If you go to Slaughtneil, there are so many different schemes and projects going on for the last number of decades.”

Just think of the community the youngsters of Slaughtneil are being born into. They see men like McKaigue. They see the joy the GAA club brings to the area.

They see the lifestyle these heroes lead and they just want to follow them. They see this Irish culture. You better believe they want to keep it going.

“You would see that in our young people nowadays. They’re just driven to play Gaelic Games, they’re very aware of their heritage, they’re very aware of what Slaughtneil represents and when you have that, you can create a good culture,” the distinguished centre back said.

“And I don’t care what anybody says, if you don’t have a strong culture in a team or a community, you’re going nowhere. That’s one thing Slaughtneil doesn’t lack.

“We’ve really honed in on the area of promoting Irish culture, Irish language. We’ve our own Irish primary school, there’s an Irish secondary school just formed about five or six miles up the road. So all them things have really helped because: 1) there are jobs which means people aren’t emigrating. We’re hanging on to all our players and: 2) we don’t have any other sports to actually compete with.”

This unity hasn’t spawned because of success. This success has spawned because of constant unity. Let’s not forget, Robert Emmets Slaughtneil won their first ever county senior football title in 2004 – 51 years after it came into being.

“It’s not just the en vogue thing at the minute. Slaughtneil was formed in 1953 and for a lot of years, there wasn’t any success, but our games were always well-attended – hurling, football and camogie.

“There was always the support for them whether they were a successful team or an unsuccessful team. That’s the barometer. There’s no point just going out to support teams if they’re winning. That’s not what we’re about as a club or as a community.

“We’re about hanging in and supporting each other. It just so happens that we have a group of players in all three codes that are pretty talented and pretty committed and success has followed them so far,” he said.

Slaughtneil must be a quiet place when there’s a GAA game taking place. Scrap that, it must be a quiet village every Saturday and Sunday.

Most Irish GAA clubs focus on either hurling and football and they still have troubles in organising training and arranging logistics. Most Slaughtneil players are involved in both codes – they’ve two different managers in Michael McShane and Mickey Moran – but everything is smooth.

“The amount of people who have been asking me over the last number of years as to what are we doing. If we’ve a hurling game this weekend so we’re just going to train for the hurling game and a football game next weekend, we’re just going to train for the football game,” McKaigue said.

It’s common sense. It’s the simple things. They perform them to a tee.

“Then we’ve quite a few guys that fall into the bracket of one code believe it or not.They have a smaller group session. We haven’t reinvented the wheel as such. We’ve just went with the common sense approach and maybe a wee bit less emphasis placed on the league this year and trying to get boys right for the crux end of the year which is championship for us,” added the broad shouldered Derryman.

Slaughtneil don’t have many flaws. If they do, you don’t see many of them. Not these days anyway.

“Our best trait as a club and a team is our unity. It makes up for an awful lot of the other flaws that we have.”

There’s always drive, hunger and ambition for more. That comes from every single member.

“Last year hurt a lot (All-Ireland final loss to Dr. Crokes), but I think the fact that we won Derry this year, the fourth title in a row, and we now join a band of teams that include two, ourselves and Bellaghy, they won four-in-a-row back in the sixties. That in itself was a massive thing for the club, to actually do that. After that it was just kind of step by step,” he added.

This Sunday, the club take part in their third Ulster football final in four years. Hungry as ever. Appreciative as ever.

“Sometimes it’s very easy to get caught up and lose a sense of perspective, because until 2004 we had never won a county football title. We’ve made decent progress.”

He’s ready for war again. Slaughtneil are ready. They’re always ready.

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