DERRYNOOSE ENJOYING GREAT REVIVAL
Barry McGurgan understands the fact that he has only been living in Derrynoose for 10 years means he’s still a blow-in by the standards applied in rural areas, where a decade is but the blink of an eye.
However when credentials are measured by active contribution rather than the arbitrary passage of time, McGurgan has already emphatically proved he’s an asset to the local community.
The Derrynoose name will presumably be up in lights at this Saturday night’s sold-out Armagh LGFA Junior Awards in the Carrickdale Hotel, considering the club has done the Division One league and championship double at both Under 14 and Under 16 level this season.
In spite of wearing other hats as Armagh LGFA’s Development Officer and manager of the Under 16 county team, McGurgan has been a driving force behind what is shaping into a remarkable revival for the once formidable Derrynoose.
Derrynoose used to be an established stronghold for ladies gaelic football back before McGurgan’s time and in an era where the sport was in its infancy compared to these days when All Ireland finals are regularly attracting crowds of over 50000.
A quarter of a century ago, Derrynoose were crowned Orchard county champions and subsequently picked up Armagh Junior and Intermediate titles in 2002 and six years later respectively.
The club supplied players to the county team, most recently when Kelly Mallon played in Armagh’s All Ireland Intermediate decider victory over Waterford in Croke Park though by then the struggle to stay afloat had become a losing battle.
Difficulties fielding a side saw star turn Mallon move to Armagh Harps and ladies football fold in Derrynoose but they began again some five years ago with McGurgan and Anthony Farrell key figures in instigating a successful second coming.
“We started at the bottom age group and a concerted effort went into recruiting and coaching girls for an Under 12s team. In our first season we were runners-up in the Division Two league and reached the championship final,” recalls McGurgan.
“In the end the final didn’t take place due to registration issues but, unusually in terms of how these things work, I asked if we could regrade upwards for the following season as I believed the potential was there.
“That belief was justified for our Under 12 team won the Division One league and championship double that year. In our third season, that core group of girls, now as Under 14s, won the Feile Cup in Armagh and got to the Division Two Cup semi-final of the All Ireland Feile where we lost to New York.
“Last year, the Under 14s became All Ireland Feile Shield champions at Division Two, an exceptionally high grade for Armagh, and in doing so were the first female team from this county to win an All Ireland title at the Feile since Harps won the Division Four Cup in 2004.
“On the back of that, this season just finished has been exceptional with the double double for our Under 14s and Under 16s. Our Under 12s were Division One league runners-up and our amalgamated Minors team won their Division Two championship.”
The amalgamation McGurgan is referring has seen Derrynoose and neighbours Middletown join forces under the umbrella banner of Craobh Ciaran these past three seasons at Minor and adult level.
West Armagh, or what could possibly best be described as the St Patrick’s High School Keady catchment area, is very much camogie country with a strong cluster of clubs including Madden, Middletown, Derrynoose, Keady, Granemore and Ballymacnab.
Of those six, recently crowned Intermediate champions Granemore are the only one of those clubs with their own adult ladies side in the big ball code at present but there is encouraging growth in interest.
South Armagh is the Orchard county’s ladies football powerbase but it is surely significant that the aforementioned camogie heartland has four high-ranking representatives on Armagh LGFA’s current executive committee.
Vice-Chairperson Michelle Loughran and Treasurer Vincent Mallon are from Middletown while both Development Officer McGurgan and PRO Conall McGinnity are Derrynoose clubmen.
McGurgan and the aforementioned Farrell are both involved in managing age group county teams while the latter and Derrynoose Chairman Niall Woods are also investing in Armagh ladies football through their respective businesses being sponsors.
Farrell’s Bureau de Change gives generous backing to Armagh’s underage county teams and age group club competitions below Minor level while Woods’ Taranto are one of two subsidiary sponsors for the Orchard’s senior side.
“That significant financial investment is indicative of their strong commitment to ladies football. Anthony has been with me right through taking underage teams for club and county, while Niall has been strongly supportive as club chairman.
“Camogie has been the dominant code in this area but ladies football has its own niche now and it’s all about young girls being given the opportunity to play sport and enjoy the benefits from that.
“That’s also why we’ve partnered up with Middletown where Vincy Mallon was working to get ladies football going. Before that there were some young girls from Madden and Keady playing with Derrynoose but none from Middletown.
“Craobh Ciaran has had an adult ladies side for three seasons now, playing in the Junior Championship, which combines Middletown girls who were exclusively camogie before with some of the emerging talent.”
After triumphing in a high-scoring thriller against St Peter’s in Lurgan, Craobh Ciaran bowed out of the Buttercrane Junior Championship with a semi-final loss to last season’s runners-up, Clonmore.
The combined Minors reached last month’s Division Two Championship final where they powerfully pulled away from Silverbridge in the second half to take the haul of trophies won by footballers from Derrynoose this year to five.
That triumph put the icing on a cake comprised of those outstanding doubles by Derrynoose at Under 14 and Under 16 level, with Division One league title and championship successes for both age grades.
“The nucleus of that Under 16 side are there from the start and have only been beaten twice in five years. We’ve had a good rivalry with Clan na Gael but won this season’s semi against them by 20-odd points and then Mullabrack in the final.
“Derrynoose Under 12s, Under 14s, Under 16s and Craobh Ciaran Minors will all be playing in Division One of their respective age groups next season and playing against the best sides in the county can only help our players progress individually and collectively.”
There were Derrynoose players in every Armagh age group panel below Minors this season with more than a dozen spread across the Under 13s, Under 14s, Under 15s and an Under 16 squad by McGurgan, Farrell and Mallon.
Vincent’s daughter Orlaith Mallon and Middletown clubmate Clodagh Gaffney were also Armagh Under 16 players in 2019 while Derrynoose names to look out for in the future include adaptable back Anne McKearney, powerful midfielder Aideen Farrell and prolific forward Maeve Lennon.
Plenty of teams in ladies football are often reliant on too few scorers but both Craobh Ciaran and Derrynoose apparently possess a useful spread of threats up front and the future seems bright for ladies football in that area.
Derrynoose should be capable of fielding at adult level in their own right in the relatively near future and the hope would be that eventually Middletown may be able to do so too, as ladies gaelic continues to grow in the Orchard county.
Although heavily involved in his adopted Derrynoose, where he not only takes two female teams but also works with the Under 21 men and Under 16 boys sides, that wider development is McGurgan’s brief when wearing his Armagh LGFA hat.
“My father was secretary of the Keady Dwyers club and the GAA is in my blood but it wasn’t inevitable that I’d get involved in ladies football for I’ve no daughters, just two sons,” reflects Barry.
“I blame (the then Armagh LGFA Chairperson) Owen Reel for roping me in but I genuinely love ladies football because it’s so fresh, honest and pure in a way which isn’t maybe always the case on the men’s side of things.
“At the start (as an Armagh age group team manager) I was handed a bag of footballs and other basics but told I’d have to charge the players £1 per session to help cover costs.
“I suppose that partly prompted my desire to get involved with the County Board as Development Officer, trying to work with others to make things better for Armagh teams and young girls wanting to represent their county.
“Now we have more age group county teams and maybe 5-6 coaches working with each. There were over 450 tickets sold for the Armagh LGFA Junior Awards night next weekend which shows the interest there is now.”
McGurgan, who has stepped back from managing Armagh Under 16s ahead of next season to focus on his Development Officer role, has been heavily involved with county chairperson Sinead Reel in the hugely ambitious McKeever Park project.
More than £100,000 has already been committed to developing the first dedicated ladies gaelic training facility anywhere in Ireland and McGurgan promises that the new surface will be ‘second to none in the county’.
Like others, he may have essentially got involved with ladies football by chance but Barry McGurgan is one of those influential figures making a difference for the sport locally, not least through the key role he continues to play in the remarkable resurgence of his adopted Derrynoose. Not bad for a blow-in!