May 12th, 2021


Richard Bullick

As the reluctant Crossmaglen goalkeeper who Aimee Mackin beat eight times after being brought on at half-time by Shane O’Neills in that Armagh Senior Championship quarter-final last August, Sarah Cairns could be described as local ladies gaelic’s Malcolm Nash.

Nash was the Glamorgan bowler who suffered the indignity of being smashed for six sixes in an over by Nottinghamshire’s West Indies great Garry Sobers in a county championship cricket match way back in 1968.

Taking such unprecedented punishment couldn’t have been much fun for Nash at the time but became his cricketing claim to fame and, now with some distance, Cairns can be reasonably sanguine about being on the receiving end of Mackin’s scoring spree.

Since then, the Shane O’Neills star has gone on to be crowned All Ireland Player of the Year so those eight goals she scored in Camlough that summer evening have been further elevated in gaelic footballing folklore through regular references in features about her.

Although well-travelled, as explored elsewhere in these pages, as a relatively young woman from south Armagh it’s hardly surprising Sarah isn’t well-versed in prolific feats from English county cricket more than half a century ago.

However, with her having been away from these shores for the best part of a decade, Cairns also admits to an almost similar lack of familiarity with the local ladies gaelic scene, even confessing to somehow getting Niamh Marley and Aimee Mackin confused!

She sure knows who they are now though, from physically and metaphorically painful personal experiences in each case when Crossmaglen played Lissummon and Shane O’Neills on consecutive Saturday evenings last August.

When Cross went to Lissummon for what was effectively a Division Two title decider just a few weeks into the condensed season, Cairns was deployed as emergency goalkeeper, though her inexperience positionally wasn’t as striking as her naivety in relation to Marley.

When notoriously physical Lissummon captain Niamh bore down on the Crossmaglen goal, Cairns came charging off her line like a steam train.  There’s brave, and there’s foolish!  Clearly, the visiting netminder didn’t know who, or what, she was clattering into.

“When you go away for so many years, you really don’t know who opposing players are.  I thought that I was quite strong, that I’d come out hard and go into the tackle.  The collision shook me to my core!” she recalls, with a shudder.

The third Marley sister has a fearsome reputation well beyond the Orchard county and Cairns has since seen that great photo from Armagh’s match against Kerry in 2019 with a Kingdom girl strewn like roadkill after coming off second best against Niamh.

Marley is used to being the windscreen while opponents play the fly but, having got to her feet first after the collision, Cairns insists: “I feel like we were two windscreens!  Thankfully we won but it was a strange experience.  That was my first time ever in goals my whole life!”

The second time was seven days later in what looked an intriguing tie in the quarter-finals of the Buttercrane Senior Championship against Shanes for whom double All Star Aimee had had a first run-out the week before since tearing her cruciate the previous July.

A good first half from Cross earned them an interval lead but the introduction of Mackin changed everything as she raised an incredible eight green flags in that second period and Shanes ran away with what had hitherto been a tight game.

“I’d heard the name but didn’t really know anything about her to be honest and I think people didn’t want to tell me too much in advance!  After a few goals went in, I said to a Shanes man ‘is she actually going to stop?’ but he said it was pretty typical really!

“As we later saw with Armagh, Mackin’s completely unbelievable.  Even if I’d been a really good goalkeeper, I think a lot of her shots would’ve beaten me.  She looked so elegant and her placement is so precise.

“I felt bad at the time to let so many in obviously, but I didn’t really blame myself either.  There was a bit of banter around the town about whether my back was sore picking the ball of the net but I enjoy the craic.

“We’d done very well in the first half and, in spite of what happened afterwards, there were still positives to take from that match.  There’s a great spirit in the team, we’re all really good friends and we’ve a serious squad developing for future years.”

Everyone enjoyed getting back on the field for Crossmaglen last season after a delayed start but, in Sarah’s case, it was a lot longer since she had pulled on the Rangers jersey due to being in self-imposed exile for much of the previous decade.

“I’d done the normal J1 visa summer-in-America thing as a student, going to San Francisco for a couple of summers, and then about 7-8 years ago I’d moved to Manchester to do my teacher training, followed by periods in Australia and London.

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“I hadn’t played for Cross for seven years, so it was exciting to get back, alongside some girls I’d played with before but also so many fresh faces including my teenage cousin Faye Fitzpatrick.  It was really nice getting to play with her at last.

“It was an amazing feeling to be back with the girls and nice for us to win the Division Two title, which we wrapped up with a home win against Killeavy in September, and get a bit of silverware.  After the lockdown it was a special little season and we all really loved it.

“When things are taken away from you, you appreciate them more.  It was so good getting back to it last summer and, even now, when we’re hearing positive sounds about being allowed back, you just feel the excitement.

“When the light evenings come in, you always look forward to club football being back, to going and having the craic while taking it seriously too.  Even chatting to Aveen (Bellew), Aislinn (McMahon) and Faye at work there’s already a positive vibe about the year ahead.

“In the Cross squad, we have unbelievable players with serious skill and most of them are still really young so the team has great potential to keep improving.  We’re lucky to have fantastic managers in Maria (O’Donnell) and Pete (McMahon), so we have the ingredients.”

Cairns reveals that her brief but eventful goalkeeping career came as a result of Crossmaglen’s ongoing need for conscripts in the position combined with her having picked up an injury dabbling in martial arts!

“I’d always been a corner back with Cross, half back the odd time, and I generally played half back when I was in America and Manchester.  However, I’d started jiu-jitsu in London and hurt my quad at training before that Lissummon match,” she explains.

“I’ve taken up indoor rowing since last season and am probably the fittest I’ve ever been.  I haven’t played camogie since I was 16 but might give it a try again this year.  I’m definitely not going back in nets for football though!” she laughs.

Like Nash’s association with Sobers, that brief flirtation with the goalkeeping gloves means Sarah can dine out on her role as an extra in the Mackin show but, with her rich range of life experiences, the convivial Cairns certainly isn’t short of other great anecdotes to share!


Crossmaglen ladies gaelic captain Aveen Donaldson Bellew enjoyed having an old buddy back in amber and black last season with the return of globetrotter Sarah Cairns to the Rangers ranks.

When Cross claimed the Division Two title by beating Killeavy in September, Bellew wanted a photo of herself, fellow stalwart Marie Luckie and their long-lost contemporary Cairns with the trophy as the current group’s golden oldies.

The trio go back a long way to when they came through together during Crossmaglen’s glory years, rubbing shoulders with Armagh greats such as Bronagh, Alma and Maria O’Donnell, Sharon Duncan and Patricia McAvoy who were the club’s leading lights at the time.

Aveen and Sarah’s paths have diverged greatly over the past decade with Cairns generally living in various far-flung locations and Donaldson keeping the home fires burning at their local club before establishing herself as an Armagh regular relatively late in her career.

Now though they’re back together, not only as team-mates but also teaching colleagues at St Patrick’s Primary School in Crossmaglen, and Cairns expresses pride in her club captain’s contribution to the Orchard’s productive campaign last autumn.

Starting with a resounding victory over Tyrone on Aveen’s home pitch at St Oliver Plunkett Park, Armagh reached the All Ireland semi-finals and won the Ulster title, with Bellew wearing the orange No 9 jersey long associated with the iconic Caroline O’Hanlon.

“Myself and Aveen played football together from the start and we’ve been great friends going back many years.  It’s nice to be back playing with her and I was so proud watching her doing so well with Armagh last autumn and really enjoying it,” enthuses Sarah.

“I’d say Aveen hasn’t always believed in her ability but increased confidence has come with experience and now she has shown her worth at county level.  She was humble about receiving an Irish News Ulster All Star in midfield, but she does the unglamorous jobs.

“A girl recently told Aveen she was always watching her playing football when she was growing up.  Aveen would be easily embarrassed by that adulation but she’s a great role model and very well respected round here.

“The O’Donnell twins, Bronagh and Alma, were big heroes in Cross and beyond back in the day and we grew up idolising them.  Now young girls locally really look up to Aveen and aspire to play with her for the club as they get older.

“She’s a teacher here and it’s very special when you work in a school as the children are interested in your life outside school.  The pupils were so excited ahead of Aveen’s big game last autumn and all had their flags.”

Until last summer, Cairns hadn’t featured for Cross since 2013, when they were beaten by Grange in an Intermediate final replay, so wasn’t around four years later when they won the second tier Championship along with the Division Two title.

Now, with the club back in Division One and an exciting new generation of talent emerging, the future looks bright for Cross and the return of an experienced player like Cairns is a timely boost considering her previous pedigree and how well she has fitted back in.

“I got club Player of the Year when I was 16, back in what we could call the glory years for Crossmaglen ladies.  Ourselves and Clann Eireann had a great rivalry in those days but that great team broke up and the club went through a leaner period.

“However, when Pete and Maria came on board as managers, the club began building again.  The girls won that Intermediate title a few years ago and now we’re going to be playing at the top league level too.  It’s a largely young squad which can keep progressing.

“My fondest memories were playing with the twins, Sharon and those ones who were great role models for us.  We were really young then but now we’re the older ones so the wheel has come full circle.

“Mind you, I’m told that I don’t seem that old and also that I look 25 so I’ll run with that rather than the fact the birth certificate says 31,” laughs the vivacious Cairns, whose spirit and sense of adventure helps her relate easily to those many younger team-mates.

“Playing a team sport is brilliant and wherever I’ve gone I’ve made really good friends through gaelic football.  Now I’ve come home and made new friends.  Socially, it’s good getting to hang out with all ages and having no barriers between us.

“I’ve enjoyed getting to know the younger girls like Alex Clarke, our other county panellist from last autumn, another with whom there’s a big age gap and who wasn’t involved when I was around the club before,” says Sarah, who also struck up her friendship with musical sidekick Aoife McMahon through Crossmaglen gaelic club.

“A lot of my friendships come from football.  Being part of a squad brings people out of themselves and gives you a support network.  It was sort of all that we had growing up and those are still some of my best memories – playing with friends, winning underage competitions, going out with the older ones,” she reflects fondly.


People have been trying their hands at all sorts of things during this surreal past 12 months and also finding new forms of online entertainment while curtailed from going far or doing much compared to normal times.

One silver lining of the pandemic is that the musical talents of Crossmaglen gaelic football buddies Sarah Cairns and Aoife McMahon are no longer a best kept secret but have found an appreciative virtual audience on social media platforms.

The talented duo have been overwhelmed with the outpouring positive reaction to what they have produced during lockdown despite each admitting to a tendency to hide their metaphorical lights under a bushel previously.

The pair’s paths fortunately crossed through Crossmaglen gaelic last summer, schoolteacher Sarah after returning home from many years in exile, while 23-year-old Aoife finished her nursing studies in Southampton the previous September.

“I actually was very shy singing when younger so didn’t do much, but I’ve always loved music and bands so San Francisco inspired me when I went over there as a student, just going to gigs and so forth,” reveals Sarah.

“Don’t know if it was the cool funkiness of the place perhaps, but I’ve been in bands ever since.  When I came back from California, I started a band locally and between then and now I’ve been in bands in Manchester, Sydney and London when living in those cities.

“I’m still with the band in London, but it’s just an online thing at the moment.  I started putting up videos of myself singing and playing guitar to some covers at the start of lockdown last year to keep busy.

“Then after football started and I got friendly with Aoife, we did some together, which was great.  I’d just seen a video of her (performing), but the important thing was that we really hit it off as people.  She’s a strong, reliable footballer and a talented musician.

“We practised over lockdown, put some stuff online and people loved it.  It was great to get that positive feedback.  We’re intending to do a wee acoustic set and plan on playing music around home when the situation improves.

“Aoife is a brilliant singer-songwriter and I write music with the band also so, although we have just been playing covers together, we will probably write some stuff too.  It’s been fun during lockdown and our followers seem to be enjoying it.”

The oldest of four footballing sisters now all eligible to play for a Crossmaglen team jointly managed by her dad, Peter McMahon, Aoife featured for Armagh Minors when they won back-to-back Ulster B titles in 2014 and 2015.

She ‘enjoyed very minute’ of her three years in Southampton though it meant the dual player missing some sport with her club during a period when Cross won an Intermediate football title and Junior and Intermediate Championships in camogie in consecutive seasons.

“I moved home in September 2019 and have been working as a nurse in the Cancer Centre in Belfast City Hospital since.  I love my job and I’ve been extremely lucky to have one through these difficult times,” Aoife explains.

“Last September, I wasn’t there the night we won Division Two.  It was just unfortunate, but you can’t get shifts changed all the time.  I’m excited for the season ahead, especially with all four of us sisters now eligible to play senior.

“I think we’re all just looking forward to getting our boots on again and getting back out onto the field when we’re able,” enthuses Aoife, for whom music was another real passion since she was a very young girl.

“I have been singing from an early age, especially in primary school.  I took up the guitar when I was 12 and haven’t put it down since.  I’ve performed at family weddings and parties, and talent shows throughout school, but for some reason couldn’t pluck up the courage to put anything on social media until recently.

“Collaborating with Sarah has been amazing; connecting with someone who shares the same passions as myself with both sport and music is hard to find around home.  Hopefully we will have plenty of opportunities to sing and perform when restrictions are lifted.”

While waiting until less constrained times, Sarah and Aoife are continuing to practise together “with the intention of putting up covers every few weeks and maybe working on some of our own material” and their highlights can be found on Facebook and Instagram.

Those social media clips and associated photos show off a more glamorous side of Sarah beyond her sporting game-face and football kit, but the friendship with musical sidekick Aoife came through the gaelic club reflecting how diverse spheres of life fit together.

“I’m multi-faceted and like having different groups of friends.  You can have separate passions but there’s often overlaps too.  Life is such a rich tapestry and a lot of that is the people you meet and the experiences you get to taste,” says Cairns.

“We can mix and match and not conform to stereotypes.  Take even that daft notion that you can only look nice or play sport.  I probably look very different when I’m gigging to when I come off a tough session on the rowing machine but am very comfortable with both.”

As a young woman who has recently lived in London and is of similar age to her tragic namesake Sarah Everard, it would almost seem wrong not to raise with Cairns the dreadful abduction and murder earlier this month which has shocked and sickened everyone.

The aftermath has brought uncomfortable truths to the surface about how women constantly live in a degree of fear in our supposedly civilised society.  What was Sarah’s experience of life in Britain’s capital city and how vulnerable did she routinely feel?

“It would’ve been dark going to football training.  Some of the girls would’ve given me a lift.  That place (where the abduction took place) seemed quite safe.  It’s such a built-up area.  It’s a shocking story which has got a lot of attention and will unnerve everyone for a while.

“As time passes though, women will have to try and get on with reasonably normal lives, like people getting on planes again after the twin towers attack.  You have to live, though in places like London you do have to keep your wits about you.

“In my time travelling around, I’ve stayed in a lot of hostels in different cities and countries so I’ve been in vulnerable situations.  Sometimes in unfamiliar foreign places you don’t realise until afterwards just how dodgy a particular area might be regarded as.”

Sadly, life isn’t without risk or the world without some malign individuals but, just like teaching has given Cairns professional capital anywhere in the world, likewise what we could loosely call ‘the GAA’ has given her a useful support network wherever she has gone.

She feels for the younger generation whose experiences have been badly constrained for more than a year now and, when the pandemic permits, she’d still encourage them to try things, spread their wings and follow whatever their dreams may be.


She reckons her feet may always be a little itchy but the much-travelled Sarah Cairns hasn’t been feeling claustrophobic being back in Crossmaglen even in these times when coronavirus restrictions make life fairly limited.

A free-spirited, sociable, expressive person who has lived life to the colourful full since finishing school, Sarah has found herself at home in some of the world’s most iconic cities including San Francisco, Manchester, Sydney and London during the past decade.

Variety has been the spice of life and, in each location, Cairns has sought to immerse herself in the local culture, though gaelic football and teaching have been supportive pillars wherever she’s gone.

“As students, we went over to San Francisco for four months on our J1 visas and that was such an experience, feeling like home away from home, yet exciting, new and different at the same time,” she recalls.

“We won the North American Championships, the finals of which were in Chicago that year, which was amazing.  Over there, you have to be 21 to drink but we may have found our own way to celebrate!  We also went to Las Vegas.

“They paid for our flights to come back the following summer and we got to the final again that year.  I loved San Francisco, a place everyone can be themselves and nobody minds tattoos.  I got a smiley face one there,” says Sarah, who also has love hearts on her arms.

“I’d done Civil Engineering at Queen’s but, after finishing my degree, I moved to Manchester and trained as a teacher there.  I played for the St Lawrence’s club for a few seasons and was captain when we won the Lancashire Cup.

“My next stop was Sydney.  I was in a band there and played a wee bit of ball but found the weather a bit hot to be honest!  I was in Australia for nearly three years, mostly based in Sydney though I also travelled around a bit.  I liked Sydney, but really loved Melbourne.

“I bought a van, covered the east coast, checked out Adelaide, did the famous Great Ocean Road and drove right across the country from Melbourne to Perth.  I loved camping too.  The stars at night were spectacular and the clearness of the sky striking,” says Sarah.

Interestingly, those last remarks mirror observations by local sports star Leah McGoldrick about Perth in her series of postcard pieces for the Gazette when she spent several months Down Under this time two years ago.

“However, when you’re away and come home, you appreciate the natural beauty of Ireland.  We live in the most beautiful place ever.  Locally, I can swim in Lough Ross.  I’ve (toured) part of the Wild Atlantic Way,” she digresses.

“I taught some in Australia and did farm work too.  Traffic control jobs (like her Crossmaglen clubmate and Gazette columnist Orla Donaldson when she was living in Sydney) are also popular among Irish girls while over there.

“On the way back, I stopped off in Las Vegas and New York.  I lived in Connecticut for four months with Tina Lenaghan, another Crossmaglen girl who was in San Francisco that first summer and has stayed on in America.  I drove down to New York to work every day, deep-cleaning subways with her boyfriend’s company.

“After that I thought I’d try London, not least as I really wanted to do music there.  I was there from October 2019.  The plan was to join a band, do a bit of teaching and it might get me out of my comfort zone.  I’d started writing songs but didn’t get to gig as the pandemic came.

“I came home to Crossmaglen but the schools started back before the summer holidays as they break up later in England, so I went over again for five weeks to finish out the year.  I’d joined a London team but only got to play sevens with them before lockdown.

“After finishing the term teaching, I came home here to play football but planned going back to London in September or October and then after Christmas but the pandemic continued and it became clear things were actually getting worse again so I stayed put.

“I’m trained in secondary level Mathematics and taught that in Manchester, worked in special needs education while in Sydney and then was a primary school teacher during my brief stay in London so I’ve quite broad experience.

“Thankfully, teaching is something that can be done anywhere.  I started getting days in St Patrick’s PS here in Crossmaglen last September and was in during lockdown when we had key worker children in school.

“Since coming home, myself and Niamh Murphy (the recently retired Armagh county footballer from Mullaghbawn who had been based in London for six years, is similar age to Sarah and also a primary school teacher) have also become great friends.

“We started doing the indoor rowing, which Aveen Bellew was already doing really well at.  We ended up competing in the Irish National Championships, which were held virtually.  She won gold in the women’s 1000-metres heavyweight category.

“I actually won the 500-metres lightweight title.  I never thought I’d get an all-Ireland gold medal!  Recently, both Aveen and I set Irish records, her in the one-minute heavyweight category, and me in the one-minute lightweight and the 100 metres lightweight.

“If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have been back home and not developed the friendships with Aoife and Niamh or experienced the music and rowing highlights which have materialised through that,” is Sarah’s positive perspective.

“I actually can’t explain how good it has been being back here.  Of course, I’ve found it tough at times like anyone else, but have found fulfilment in my music, sport and work.  Me and my sister have gone swimming in Lough Ross regularly.

“I’m appreciating the people and the beauty of the place.  I remember even during that Shanes game noticing the picturesque backdrop.  I don’t think I’ll ever be fully done with travelling but, for the first time I could see myself basing myself here.

“I’ve bought a van here, like in Australia, so that will still give me a sense of freedom and the scope to explore.  With all the restrictions and lockdowns during the past 12 months you hear people saying they’ll never say no to anything again.  Well, I never did!” she proclaims.

Sarah’s spirit of adventure has seen her take roads less travelled and experience plenty along the way.  She loves life and will always look to live it to the full but, for now anyway, that’s set to be closer to home and she’s finding it fulfilling.  As such a people person with a warm manner who could fit in and flourish anywhere, that isn’t so surprising really.

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