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St Enda's long, dark road to Croke

By Joe Kearney

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  • The Troubles
image copyrightNiall Murphy
image captionSt Enda's, on a recent familiarisation tour of Croke Park, ahead of Saturday's final

Set at the end of a dark lane in Glengormley, St Enda's GAA club was the definition of a soft target during the Troubles.

Five of the men who came to know it as a home from home were killed and its north Belfast clubhouse was targeted by arsonists, gunmen and bombers dozens of times since being established by a priest in the 1950s.

Back then of course, while sectarianism was very real, the thought that it would cost the club so much was as far-fetched as playing in a Croke Park final.

But St Enda's journey is one pock-marked by tragedy more than triumph.

On Saturday, a swashbuckling team with an average age of just 22 will contest the All-Ireland Intermediate Football Final against Kerry champions Kilcummin.

But while those now wearing the amber and black club strip are post-conflict children, they know well the very real sacrifices which have brought them all the way to Croke.

image captionA win over Connacht champions Spiddal helped St Enda's secure their place in the All-Ireland Intermediate final

The club's vice chair, Niall Murphy, describes Saturday's game as "the most significant sporting event in the history of the club".

"We're 63 years old. To have the opportunity to represent our club, to represent Antrim and Ulster at Croke Park, the holiest of grails, is just extraordinary," says Mr Murphy.

"It's something that we are taking full enjoyment out of. The wider club and community, the support and solidarity and expressions of goodwill have been mind-blowing and humbling."

In total, five men who lived and breathed for St Enda's lost their lives during the Troubles, two of them specifically because of their association.

Loyalist murders

In December 1993, UVF gunmen tortured and shot the club's honorary president, Sean Fox, in his home just a few hundred yards from the club grounds.

Four years later, senior team manager Gerry Devlin was shot dead at its gates by the LVF.

To this day, Gaelic football clubs in north Belfast compete for the Sean Fox Memorial Shield and there is no chance of the young men who cut a swathe through the opposition en route to Croke forgetting those who brought them here.

At the time Father Richard O'Rawe established St Enda's, Glengormley was being populated by families from across Belfast, with loyalist and nationalist areas sitting cheek by jowl.

Those who murdered Gerry Devlin and Sean Fox struck what could have been final blows to St Enda's, but this is a club with a defiance and resolve forged in the fire of adversity.

image copyrightSt Enda's
image captionSt Enda's current team

A new clubhouse had been all but completed when father-of-two Gerry Devlin was gunned down and at his funeral, his brother Kevin urged mourners not to be deterred by the murder, but to help build up the club.

"It's what Gerry would have wanted," he said.

The following April, the Good Friday Agreement was signed and a month later, then president of the GAA, Joe McDonagh, officially opened a new clubhouse.

The passage of time has improved life for St Enda's.

Glengormley has also seen a change in demographics.

There are now half a dozen Catholic primary schools in its catchment area, with almost half the pupils playing Gaelic games.

Twelve years ago, the club had a little over 200 members - now it has more than 850.

image captionThe number attending the club has more than quadrupled in a decade

Success, however, is more than a simple mathematical equation, and it was a special pool of youthful talent that saw St Enda's clinch Division Two of Féile na nGael, the All-Ireland competition for under-14s in 2011.

A year later, the under-16s were Ulster champions and in a four-year period, they produced a dozen inter-county minors.

Since 2017, former Antrim manager Frank Fitzsimmons has been the man ensuring an amber orchestra packed with talented soloists combine to make the sweetest of on-pitch tunes.

Player Peter Healy said Fitzsimons' "experience and confidence" in his players is the reason St Enda's have reached the final.

image captionPlayer Peter Healy praised manager Frank Fitzsimons for his faith in the team

"The moment he came in, he told us there was an Ulster title in this team. We were saying, 'Frank...that's a long way away'," he told BBC Sport NI.

The last Catholic killed in The Troubles was also a member of St Enda's.

image copyrightPA
image captionGerard Lawlor was shot dead by the UDA in 2002

He had spent that afternoon with his St Enda's teammates and on his way home from the pub, was killed by loyalists who had made a number of unsuccessful attempts to kill a Catholic over the course of the evening.

Reflecting on the past ahead of Saturday's game, Mr Murphy adds: "It's going to be a very poignant time when we all assemble in the lower decks of the Hogan stand as our thoughts will go to those members that should be there and aren't.

"Through our experience of murder and bomb attacks and arson, there has been an inner resolve or resilience that would not be a feature of most sports clubs, but it is of ours. There's inner steel that permeates the psychology of the entire club."

On Saturday, the men of St Enda's will line up, hoping to write a chapter in the club's history not stained by the tears of grief, but rather those of unbridled joy.

Few would begrudge them.

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More on this story

  • Peter Healy says Fitzsimons' arrival as manager sparked St Enda's run