Richard Bullick writes,
Their new adult ladies side has yet to win a single game but that didn’t stop Wolfe Tones picking up the Club of the Year gong when the Armagh LGFA annual awards were handed out earlier this month.
It was actually a case of double delight for the Derrymacash club as their leading light Margaret McCorry was also honoured with the Volunteer of the Year award on the back of her tireless service both in her own backyard and as a County Board officer.
Although there should hopefully be more successful seasons ahead on the field for their senior side, the ladies section at Wolfe Tones is thriving, vibrant and growing rapidly thanks in no small measure to the drive, vision and sheer enthusiasm of McCorry.
“Margaret is our Registrar and has also taken on the role of Development Officer for the incoming year. Always eager to help in any way, Mags has assisted with our Under 13 academy and continues to make herself available for any jobs while also being a driving force in her own club,” said Armagh LGFA in their Volunteer award citation.
The county team trained in Derrymacash on a Thursday evening all last autumn and, in the Club of the Year announcement, Armagh LGFA referenced Wolfe Tones’ wider contribution in not only making facilities available but providing personnel.
“Wolfe Tones are a fairly new club on the ladies scene, established in 2017, and now are fielding a senior side for the first time along with Under 12 and Under 14 teams, and running a successful academy for the Under 6, Under 8 and Under 10 age groups,” the citation said.
“The club has been very good to the county cause, providing their top-class facilities as a neutral venue for club championship matches and a training venue for Armagh seniors. Wolfe Tones also supply the County Board with working members and match officials.”
Hosting Armagh brings together the sport’s most elite athletes locally with a club still in its infancy but with the hunger and ambition to drive forward from humble beginnings based upon laying firm foundations and harnessing local interest.
Margaret is heavily immersed in that rewarding grassroots work but, like all Armagh followers, has loved watching the Orchard heroes doing the county proud in recent months, including from a ringside seat at the All Ireland semi-final against Dublin.
“The standard at the elite end of the sport is unreal but the Armagh girls showed they can go toe to toe with the top teams. Their performances won widespread admiration and have helped raise the profile of ladies football in the county and really energised everyone,” she says.
Far from being an Aimee Mackin or Clodagh McCambridge back in the day, Margaret confesses to no notable playing background but has always loved gaelic football and never been shy of putting her shoulder to whatever wheel needed a push.
“I didn’t play when growing up. Ladies football wasn’t really a thing then, it was more camogie, though I wasn’t much of a player in it either. I always loved coaching though, am a qualified fitness instructor and got involved with my son’s (football) team 14 years ago.
“So my coaching was with the boys but our club got involved with the LGFA’s Gaelic For Mothers and Others programme a decade back now and I was always passionate about that. I felt that if we could get female football going it would keep young local girls in the club but a few efforts failed over the years.
“However, 2017 was the club’s centenary year and I put myself forward with a proposal to give it a go. I put together a Gaelic For Girls type programme, for girls aged 8-12 and advertised it for six weeks.
“In 2018, we fielded an Under 12 team, our first female side, and they had a great first season. The following year, a lot of those girls were involved with our new Under 14s which won the Feile Shield and that was just brilliant for us.
“We now have football for girls from 6-10 years old, so there should hopefully be a conveyor belt of players coming through to the older age groups and that, in turn, will make our senior side sustainable.
“I’m the club’s ladies secretary and also look after the coaching. At the outset I was looking at a 10-year-plan as it isn’t easy to get something off the ground. but I was in it for the long haul and not intending to give up even if (ladies football) took time to become established here.
“However, a lot of girls contacted me in the latter part of 2019, including three or four who were real driving forces, asking about setting up a senior team. I agreed to advertise it and told those who were on to me to come along and bring a few friends with them.
“We had an initial meeting last January, which 23 people attended. That was really encouraging, though I wasn’t sure whether we still had the numbers to enter a team. Initial interest can fall away, or something can gather momentum. We took the plunge and now have a senior panel of 32, which a lot of clubs couldn’t count on.
“In terms of where we were getting our players, you’d have some from the Derrymacash camogie team, girls who have come back to us from other clubs, some not from the immediate area who have been brought by school friends and so forth.
“I was inundated with interest, both before and after we got the team up and running even though our scorelines were no enticement in themselves! It was a strange year with the pandemic, meaning the club season was delayed and condensed, but we went ahead.
“It’s no secret that the senior team didn’t win any league games and were beaten by St Peter’s in the first round of the Junior Championship, but the enthusiasm was always there and seeing the girls would have done you good.”
There’s a real evangelical zeal about the Wolfe Tones ladies section, epitomised by Margaret and manifested in the club posting pictures of very young girls getting little weekly awards and so forth.
“We made Monday nights all about female football. Our underage girls football would have been on Mondays anyway, and our senior players were good getting involved taking the ‘Tiny Tots’, which was our equivalent of the ‘Tiny Tones’ for the boys.
“People have put their hands up to help and I really haven’t had difficulty recruiting volunteers, which is very encouraging as that’s what we need to ensure ladies football is sustainable in the club.
“I manage our Under 14s and will stick with that age group. We’ve already three girls on county panels so the talent is coming through. Our senior side is a slow burner but with the foundations we’re putting in place I’d be confident we’ll become ever more competitive moving forward.”
Although they had no female teams of their own then, the club hosted the 2016 Ulster Intermediate Club final in which Shane O’Neills beat Kinawley from Fermanagh in an entertaining goal-fest.
“I can’t remember who I dealt with from the Ulster Council regarding the staging of that game, but being at that final really brought home how much we needed ladies football at the club so I’d say it gave us an important push to get started.”
Having Armagh’s top players training at Wolfe Tones every week over recent months has been inspiring too, as was a previous visit to the club by Orchard skipper Kelly Mallon, who the young girls in Derrymacash have ever since felt a real affinity for.
“Our 4G pitch isn’t long finished and the walking track has opened. A wee girl down walking with her mummy was amazed to see her heroes there in the flesh, so she kept her mum going round and round for an hour and a half until they were finished training.
“Aimee Mackin and Tiarna Grimes are her favourites, so when they posed for photos afterwards with her, she was just so happy. Obviously if the coronavirus restrictions weren’t there we could do more in terms of getting girls in to watch some sessions or whatever.
“Although just starting out as a ladies club and still trying to forge our own identity, we’re very proud to have an association with the county team. We’re Armagh through and through and those top players are great role models for young girls to look up to.
“Before our Under 14s went to the All Ireland Feile, we were wanting to make a big deal of it while still keeping them grounded, so we invited Kelly to come and take a session with the girls.
“She was fantastic with them and really, really patient. They still talk about it, so it’s really exciting when they see Kelly on television kicking scores for Armagh or lifting the Ulster trophy in Clones. She’s such a hero to them and a credit to the county.”
McCorry also has warm words for the county’s off-field figurehead Sinead Reel, the Armagh LGFA Chairperson who helped persuade her to come on board and now wear two County Board hats never mind one.
“When we got going as a (ladies) club, I began attending County Board meetings. Just like throwing myself into it in other ways, I’d have actively participated in meetings. Sinead asked me if I’d be interested in taking on the Registrar role and I agreed.
“I’ve enjoyed it, it’s given me an insight into all that’s involved in running ladies football across the county, which I’d hardly have realised. I’m in my third year now and have taken on the development role more recently too.
“I think the Armagh LGFA executive committee is a great team and we work well together. Sinead as Chairperson is a real leader and teacher, a woman with ladies football and Armagh in her heart and she’ll be like that until her dying breath I’d say!”
As if her heavy commitments with club and county wasn’t enough, Margaret reveals that she is also involved with the LGFA at national level, having applied in 2015 to become a coach / tutor for the governing body.
“They only accepted 20 people from all over the country to the programme, which carried a qualification from Sport Ireland. It took place over a five-month period and we had to attend Marino College in Dublin at weekends.
“The course was run by a man called Liam Moggan, who made a big impression on me, and it included people from ladies football, camogie and the Special Olympics movement. We had a graduation from the University of Limerick in 2018.
“I’ve continued with the Registrar role, which is fine, though there’s another new electronic system coming in at the minute, but Development is really more my thing and I’m delivering an online course for participants without our own county on February 4.”
With Clan na Gael and Eire Og also starting to field at adult level in recent years, the emergence of Wolfe Tones means there are now no fewer than seven active clubs in the general Lurgan area including neighbours Sarsfields and town outfits Clann Eireann, St Peter’s and St Paul’s.
There should be a sufficient playing population to sustain all seven and, while the likes of former Armagh captain Maebh Moriarty had to go to Clann Eireann in the past, future stars will be able to play football for their local club.
“Because of the pandemic, pitches have been emptier than they should have been for long stretches of the past 10 months, but I was talking to our vice-chair the other day and he mentioned noticing a group of girls walking along in Tones gear. That’s happening now we have female football in the club.
“These awards will help put us on the map too and offer real encouragement that we’re doing something right and are playing our part in the Armagh LGFA family. I knew the club had been shortlisted but had no idea that I was in the running for the volunteer award.
“I’m passionate about ladies football and developing it, not just within the club but throughout the county, and of course it’s nice to be recognised but the other award meant even more. It’s a huge honour and a big boost as we’re really still just starting off,” reflects Margaret.
“As well as Wolfe Tones being part of the Armagh LGFA landscape, ladies football is now an integral part of our club. We’ve volunteers getting involved in internal roles and some like myself willing to help out with county roles.”
It will be a while until the Tones ladies are challenging for the county’s top prize on the field but, with a woman like Margaret McCorry as such a driving force, we can certainly expect the trajectory for ladies football in Derrymacash to continue upwards in the years ahead.