February 24th, 2023


Richard Bullick

There has been much to celebrate over recent months in purely sporting terms for Caitlin McCormack but these hard-earned achievements have been tinged with sadness for this talented teenager as she comes to terms with the heart-breaking loss of her dad in October.

Popular Portadown man Aaron O’Neill collapsed and died aged just 36 while his beloved daughter Caitlin was away at an Ulster Schools gaelic football trial, which he was looking forward to hearing all about having wished her well that morning.

The previous Saturday, he had watched with huge pride in the Athletic Grounds as Caitlin, playing alongside mum Brenda and aunt Kate, helped Ballyhegan ladies lift their highest honour to date with victory in the Armagh Intermediate Championship final.

That should have been the start of a memorable week for McCormack, who was shortlisted for Young Sportswoman of the Year at the following Friday’s ABC Junior Sports Awards in Armagh City Hotel, but by then the 18-year-old was sadly mourning her dad.

Just a week after his funeral, Caitlin lined out in Ballyhegan’s Ulster Club Championship match and, the following Wednesday, bravely returned for the final trial and delivered an impressive performance which clinched the Ulster Schools All Star she had her heart set on.

With her adoring dad not there to share the delight, it was a bitter-sweet triumph for the outstanding St Catherine’s College captain but this courageous, resilient young woman has kept pressing on with heroic resolve to honour his memory and continue doing herself proud.

At the start of this month, Armagh Minors captain McCormack was crowned County Player of the Year for that age group on the back of steering her young Orchard team to victory with a Player of the Match performance in their subsidiary Ulster final against Derry in April.

The night before that Celebration of Champions event in the Carrickdale Hotel, the Armagh GAA Awards took place in Newry’s Canal Court and Caitlin had the honour of helping pick up an award which reflected her father’s passionate support for Armagh gaelic football.

Aaron O’Neill was the man behind the iconic ‘Garvaghy Road Orangemen on Tour’ banner and, when Mickey Savage chose to confer his ‘Chairman’s Award’ on the Armagh fans, it was fitting for Caitlin to be asked up to receive it with Ballyhegan clubmate Roy Tiffany.

Caitlin’s classy elegance couldn’t be detracted from by the battle scars from earlier in the week, a strapped hand being the visible legacy of fracturing a finger in the full-blooded Ulster Schools Cup derby battle against St Patrick’s Academy Dungannon.

With St Catherine’s trailing, the formidable McCormack returned to the field in spite of the incapacitating, painful injury and drove her team to a thrilling comeback win which sets up a semi-final against Cavan school Loreto after Christmas.

Top prospect Caitlin has also received a deserved first call-up to Shane McCormack’s Armagh senior county panel preparing for the forthcoming National League campaign and can also look forward to the schools interpros with Ulster.

There is so much more to come from the hugely promising McCormack, who was her dad’s pride and joy, and Caitlin knows that her hero will remain with her in spirit every step of the way as she strives to fulfil those shared dreams.

It speaks volumes about McCormack’s character that, two weeks to the day after her dad’s death, the teenager not only shone in that final Ulster Schools trial but captained Ballyhegan Minors to a landslide victory over Tir na nOg in a club championship match that night.

The formal leadership roles she has held this year for school, club and county teams are testament to the popular McCormack’s substance and the great respect she has earned in each of those environments.  Each accolade Caitlin receives is richly deserved.

Image preview