They say that lightning never strikes twice, but try telling that to Naomh Éanna, Glengormley, Ireland’s most attacked sports club.
The thriving dual club located on the outskirts of Belfast made headlines around Ireland last year when their senior footballers embarked on a journey that saw them claim a maiden Ulster title followed by a trip to Croke Park for an All-Ireland intermediate football final.
Naomh Éanna were the toast of the nation throughout the latter part of 2018 and into early 2019 as their success on the football field helped shine a light on the club’s tragic past that saw five of its members brutally murdered during the Troubles.
It started in 1981, one of the most bloody and brutal years of the conflict, when a 19-year-old Liam Canning was gunned down by an off-duty UDR (Ulster Defence Regiment) officer. For 10 years that was the only tragedy that had befallen the club, despite numerous attempts to burn the place down.
However, in 1991 the horrific murder of 16-year-old Colin Lundy set off a chain reaction that saw four other members lose their lives over the next decade.
Ciaran McCavana is a lifelong member of Naomh Éanna. Speaking to Pundit Arena earlier this week, the Antrim county board chairman gave a harrowing insight into what exactly this club has gone through.
“Colin Lundy was my friend, he wasn’t just a school friend, he was a friend outside the school and he was my teammate. He and his mother were burnt to death. He was only 16 and had just left school to start an apprenticeship.
“Then they (UVF – Ulster Volunteer Force) murdered Sean Fox (72) who was the president and brought me to the club. They tied him to the chair, an old man, and tortured him.
“Gerry Devlin was our manager but he was a natural leader within the club, he might not have been the chairman at that time but he was one of those natural leaders and you would have put your house on him being a chairman and being there today, still heavily involved in the club (Devlin was gunned down by the LVF – Loyalist Volunteer Force outside the club in 1997).
“And then you have Gerard Lawlor. That was the biggest sucker punch to be honest because we thought them days were behind us (Lawlor was shot dead in 2002 in what was officially known as the last murder of the Troubles).
“I used to have to go and pick Gerard up. He was a big lump of a lad, them sort of boys sometimes slip through the fingers when they’re not playing senior so I was picking him up and bringing him to play reserves until he graduated into the senior side.
“He would have been a great asset if he hadn’t got killed. That was the one that sucker-punched us the most because in the old club we expected to be targeted and we expected the place to be burnt down.
“In the new club, we were told we were in an era of peace.”
While honouring the memories of their fallen members is vitally important for all associated with Naomh Éanna, they don’t want to be defined by tragedy. Nobody does.
Instead, they are focused on keeping the spirit of the club alive, both on and off the field. Not only do they have a thriving traditional music scene but the club also boasts an Irish language school.
As well as this, their playing facilities are among the best in Ulster, if not Ireland. It’s a far cry from a club who at one point struggled to keep the doors opened.
“We set up the Gaelscoil and it’s open about 12 years now and up to 250 children at the school. The main sport is football, hurling and camogie, I’ve two girls there myself.
“Now, we’ve other schools in the parish and we are quite lucky. But it’s all about building more than just a team. Niall (Murphy) and I have been on the committee a long, long time, probably from our early 20s and it was never about trying to build just a team but a hub or a centre.
“Hopefully at the start of December, we’re opening up a £1.8 million community and sports facility and that’s another string to our bow.
“It’s funny that initiative has gone through three different chairmen, Michael Scott, myself and Stevie Jennings so it’s a long time coming.
“Like, I grew up in a totally different atmosphere, we had a field when I was under-10 where if you were playing right corner-back, you couldn’t see who was left corner-back such was the dip in the field.
— Naomh Éanna CLG (@NaomhEannaCLG) July 5, 2019
“The first year our footballers got promoted to Division 1 back in 1995, the county wouldn’t even let us play on our home pitch because it wasn’t fit for purpose. The main facilities we have now, though, would be to the envy of many.
“We’re now the largest club in Antrim with 998 members. When I was growing up you would have maybe played under-10, under-12 and under-16 just to make up the numbers. We were struggling but we always kept playing football and hurling the whole time, we didn’t have the luxury of calling ourselves dual players, we just played both because the club needed us too.”
The sacrifices made by people like McCavana, Niall Murphy, Dara Woods, J.J Lawell, Stevie Jennings, Kevin Curran among many, many others were repaid in full last year with that maiden Ulster title.
However, not to be outdone by the footballers’ success, the club’s hurling side has got Naomh Éanna back on the road again in 2019. After finally getting over the line in Antrim following years of heartbreak, they’re just one game away from emulating their football brethren by taking an Ulster title back up the Hightown Road.
It’s been a fantastic season so far as the club not only secured a long-awaited county hurling title but also promotion to Division 1 for the first time in their history.
“To be on the road again this year with the hurlers is fantastic.
“They have come very close to winning championships, just coming up short on a few occasions but we always believed that a county title was there in the next few years.
“When you get out of Antrim you don’t know what you’re getting so the games can be tight. To be honest we only got promoted from Division 3 last year and our goal was to stay in Division 2 at all costs. We thought we’d be hanging around the bottom of it but we ended up finishing third.
“To be honest a few years ago we didn’t think we were ever going to end up in Division 1 but we’re there now. Hopefully, we can win on Saturday and go on to hold our own in Division 1 of Antrim hurling.
“It would be a great honour if we do hold our own because no hurling side has ever been there in our club. The highest we had ever been in hurling was Division 2 and we were in Division 4 for a long, long time so all of this is a dream come true.”
Naomh Éanna could well have had both sides representing the club in Ulster last year only for the hurlers’ heartbreaking defeat to St. Gall’s in the county semi-final. However, in hindsight, McCavana feels that things have worked out for the best.
“Four or five of the footballers were involved with the hurling last year and we had a poor day in the county semi-final. It was a very tight match between us and St. Gall’s who then went on to win Ulster.
“In hindsight, maybe someone was looking down on us because it would have asked a lot for us to carry two squads but I always thought there was an intermediate championship in this team, if not an Ulster title. They definitely have the skillset.
“I’m going back eight years ago maybe. At the time we were Division 4 in hurling and we set our stall out over what we wanted to achieve. Now we’re playing Division 1 and to be honest, that was beyond our wildest dreams.”
They haven’t got there all on their own, however. The club recently appointed an outside manager in the shape of Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton, Antrim All-Star and GAA Hall of Fame recipient.
However, while Sambo may be a proud Cushendall man, he’s had a long love affair with the North Belfast club.
“Terence is an unassuming person, we like to keep him going about his All-Star and that but he actually has connections to the club through his wife Ursula whose family would have been a big family within the club back in the day.
“When I was a kid we were a very poor club, Terence would have been up doing my prizegivings. He would have come and did our dinner dances, our prizegivings and stuff like that.
“So he always had a connection to the club. He had a soft spot for the club through his family but also a soft spot realising what we had suffered and he knew we were battling to keep the spirit of the GAA alive and at one time the flame nearly went out.”
Fortunately for Sambo and everybody else associated with Naomh Éanna, the flame still burns bright as they look to honour their fallen members once again with a second Ulster title in as many seasons in a second sport.
A remarkable story of turning tragedy into triumph.