Northern Gaels making an impact in Mayo
By Cian O’Connell
On and off the field of play something is stirring in Kilfian and Lacken. At the end of last year the clubs came together in a co-operation agreement to form Northern Gaels, who have competed in the Mayo Junior Championship.
Hope has been restored. Promotion from Division Four was secured in the league before a rollercoaster championship group. A 27 point turnaround on the last day ensures Northern Gaels will now face Cill Chomáin at the quarter-final stage. Northern Gaels defeated Tourmakeedy 4-12 to 0-6 and with Shrule/Glencorrib beating Ballycastle by nine, a much coveted place in the knockout rounds beckons.
Following years of demanding times with numbers dwindling, footballers in Kilfian and Lacken have embraced the new venture with real enthusiasm.
“It has been a success, we were looking down the barrel of a gun at the end of last year thinking would either club have football this year,” Lacken Sarsfields’ secretary Michael Callaghan says about the venture.
“In the last six or seven years definitely we've been struggling. You might only have seven or eight at training, you'd be trying to pull 16 or 17 together on a Sunday. It was the same with Kilfian, struggling with numbers.”
Pat Murphy, Kilfian treasurer, is hugely encouraged about how the Northern Gaels story continues to unfold. “It has gone above expectations really and truly, we are delighted with it,” Murphy remarks.
“The approach we took with it to get it off the ground was very important. Michael McKenzie was key in that, he is the North Mayo Board Chairman. He is part of the demographics committee the County Board has, I'm on it myself.
“We asked Michael McKenzie to mediate between the two clubs, to get it off the ground. That was vital. Michael McKenzie has a document done up now for any two clubs going forward, who want to do this. There is a procedure in place to make it easier for them to do it.”
The manner in which Lacken and Kilfian embraced Northern Gaels has helped according to Murphy. “I think you have a lot of clubs in the same situation as ourselves on the western seaboard,” he adds.
“It has worked out brilliantly. What helps too is that the young lads playing together went to school together in Lacken Cross, a lot of them. Also a lot of them played with Naomh Pádraig, the underage amalgamation we have in the area with Killala, Ballycastle, Lacken, and Kilfian.
“So the young lads were vital to this and they all get on well with each other. That is what is all about, it is for them, it is not for the older people. It is for them playing football.”
Callaghan shares similar sentiments. Gaelic Football matters deeply. “A lot of them would have played underage together too so for us and them it was really a no brainer to join up,” Callaghan acknowledges.
“At the moment you only have one National School in Lacken, there is no Post Office, a pub is going to be reopening. So if the football went there would have been nothing left in the parish.”
With interest rekindled and a team making an impact, the value of sport has been underlined. Pat Murphy highlights how people have contributed handsomely. “The GAA is in every parish and community in the country,” Murphy says.
“It is vital in times of tragedy, when things happen, you realise the value as people help out. Since we got together, the first championship match against Ballycastle in Kilfian here, I never saw a crowd like it at a championship match in Kilfian before. The crowd was huge.
“The interest in this co-operation as it is called at the minute is huge. Damien Lavelle, who has Lavelle's Pharmacy in Killala and Belmullet, I met him one day in Belmullet.
“I was telling him what we were intending to do last year, he said if that goes ahead I'll sponsor a set of jerseys. That is the way forward, and in fairness to him, he came through with that and sponsored a set of jerseys.”
Callaghan is equally satisfied about how Northern Gaels are being supported. “Before this year you'd get a handful of people at games, now you're getting between both clubs at home games and some of the away games, you could be getting a couple of hundred at the home games,” he says.
“Lacken played all of our Junior Championship games last year, but we were getting well beat in each game. For young lads coming up through the ranks, when they are seeing that and then coming into the senior fold, they aren't wanting to be getting beaten by 30 or 40 points.
“The same with Kilfian. If that continued to happen with both clubs, I think you'd have a big fall off in players. The enjoyment isn't there going out every week like that. The camaraderie that is there now and when victories started to happen, you could see the morale building.
“It is just great to see the young lads winning games, it is spurring them on a small bit. Getting promoted out of the league to a higher division and for the first time I can remember, qualifying from the championship group too.
“The management team that is there are terrific, they are working wonders. To have the experience of Micheal Collins, Michael Fitzmaurice, and Brian Forde, the three of them are working wonders with the lads, who are all buying into their methods and philosophy.”
Momentum has been generated ensuring Murphy is optimistic about the future, while also recalling a memorable day from he past. “At the beginning of the year the operations committee between the two clubs, we set out a goal that we'd get promoted in the league and to get out of the group in the championship,” he says.
“Since the group championship format neither of the clubs got out of the group in 15 or 20 years.
Neither of the clubs reached a quarter-final stage and we have reached the quarter-final stage this year. The feeling around is unbelievable, it is an achievement.
“The quarter-final is on Saturday, we are playing Kilcommon, probably the favourites to win it.
"You never know, there is no pressure on us, it is being played in Ballycastle.
“All the Kilfian lads will remember 34 years ago we went down to play Glenamoy which is Kilcommon now and at the time Glenamoy were the best team in the county, we beat them after extra-time, totally against the run of expectation.
“We can feel that ourselves. If they give a good performance next Saturday, we'd be happy with it.”
Those who previously served the Lacken and Kilfian causes haven’t been forgotten either. Paddy Connor made a rich contribution with Lacken and is fondly remembered by Callaghan. “He was pushing for a co-operation or an amalgamation between the two clubs for a while,” Callaghan says.
“He was talking about it, he tried to get it going, it just kept falling off. For him, if he was here, he'd be delighted to see it too.
“To honour him really this has happened, he'd be over the moon to see the team going up a division and qualifying from the championship group. He would be stuck in the middle of it.”
There is still a burning passion for Gaelic Football in Kilfian and Lacken.