Article originally published August 31, 2019.
There’s a small GAA club made up of just 125 members, located in the parish of Lower Drumreilly, Co. Leitrim who will be hoping for nothing more than a successful second attempt at the drive for five.
Aughawillan is one of the most unique clubs in all of Ireland. Despite having an extremely small playing pool, in one of the smallest counties, they have repeatedly punched above their weight time and time again. They have forged a history for themselves seldom seen from a club so small.
They are the most successful club in Leitrim, with 12 county titles to go alongside their 19 titles in the women’s game, and boast Leitrim’s first-ever All-Star (the county has two). The club is riding on the crest of a wave at present following a 20-year barren spell having won three of the last five Leitrim County Championships. However, the stars of today have a long way to go before emulating Aughawillan’s greatest ever side – the three-in-a-row winners from 1992-1994.
That great team won four titles in five years. The backbone of the team was an individual who may not have been born in the area but has Aughawillan coursing through his veins.
Declan Darcy is Jim Gavin’s right-hand man and the Aughawillan great stands on the brink of immortality as Dublin look to secure a first-ever five-in-a-row.
Peter Prior came through the underage ranks alongside Darcy. With Darcy as captain, the pair won a Connacht U21 title together in 1991. Prior, who is still lining out for the club’s junior side at 49, vividly remembers the first time he came across the fresh-faced lad from Dublin 4 who would go on to etch his name in Leitrim folk-lore.
“The first time we had Declan playing with us was at the opening of our club grounds in 1982,” Prior told Pundit Arena.
“There was a under-12 game between ourselves and a local club named Carrigallen and that would have been the first time I played with Declan. I would say some of the older heads around this place saw something in this lad from Dublin 4 that made them think it’d be great to have him come down the road.
“His father Frank was a huge influence at the time. He was heavily involved in starting the club back in the early 1970s and he was training the players based in Dublin. Frank would have won championships with Aughawillan in the ’70s and Declan was up and down probably every weekend. In fairness, the club owes Frank and Phil (Declan’s mother) Darcy huge gratitude for putting in that effort early on, long before Declan showed signs of what was to come.”
According to Prior, he was a pure footballer who could have played anywhere.
“As a player, Declan could play anywhere but for me, he was best in any of the three positions between centre-back, centre-forward and full-forward. He obviously made his name with Leitrim playing at number six and he was a really good ball-player there and a great man to come up the field and kick long-range points.
“Declan himself would probably say he was more of a natural forward, he was a great man for winning his own ball and playing it forward. I remember one county final in 1993 against St. Mary’s our management made a surprise move and placed him on the edge of the square and he got Man of the Match in both the drawn game and the replay. I think he was also a very good centre back for Leitrim because he played as a forward. He thought like a forward with how he tried to deliver balls inside.”
Despite his long list of achievements, Darcy’s father, Frank, is held in equally as high esteem as his famous son.
Aughawillan’s other famous son is none other than Mickey Quinn, the man who won that first All-Star for Leitrim. The towering Leitrim legend shares a unique link to the Darcy family in having won championship medals with both father and son.
“Frank was a great Aughawillan player… sorry, he was a great Aughawillan man and a club man who was very committed to the club and Declan would have picked up on that and I suppose that’s how he got involved with Aughawillan,” Quinn told Pundit Arena.
“I would have won two Championships with Frank back in 1976 & 1978 with Aughawillan and Declan would have been a mascot in one of the finals. Then we won five or six together. Declan was on the 1989, 1992, 1993 & 1994 winning teams.”
Unfortunately for Aughawillan, they came up against some fantastic teams in what was a golden era for Connacht football. They reached two Connacht finals in 1992 and 1994 but lost both. In 1989, they nearly pulled off the mother of all upsets when they took the six-in-a-row champions, Clan na nGael of Roscommon, to a replay in what became known as ‘The Battle of the Fog.’
“There was a number of years we were so close. Clan na nGael in 1989, they had won five or six Connacht clubs in a row and beaten in two or three All-Ireland finals and we brought them to Aughawillan and drew with them then the replay was in Johnstown,” Prior recalls.
“Looking back the conditions were horrendous you couldn’t see in front of you and I remember it was 0-3 to 0-1 at half-time and our manager at the time, Pat Prior, said: ‘should this go ahead?’ When you’re in the middle of it playing you want to keep going but in fairness, it should have been called off at half-time. Declan and I and three or four others were only 19 at the time, beaten by Clan na nGael who went on to get to another All-Ireland final.
“In 1992, Knockmore beat us in the Connacht club final in bad conditions and in 1994 Tuam Stars beat us and that was definitely the one that got away. We were four or five points up at the half, then Ja Fallon got a goal and the game kind of got away from us, we were beaten by two or three in the end.
“Some of those teams went on to All-Ireland finals which shows how close we were but it was also a reflection of club football in Leitrim at that time. We were very close.”
They may not have reached the provincial promise land, but they brought the Aughawillan club to the forefront of people’s minds. According to Mickey Quinn, those championship-winning years would not have been possible without Declan Darcy.
“Declan, in 1989, he would have been about 18/19 years of age. The year of the Battle of the Fog… I’m not too sure whether he took part in the battle or not,” Quinn says jokingly.
“But definitely in the three-in-a-row, he played a massive part in us winning it. There’s no doubt we wouldn’t have won without Declan and it was a massive thing to complete in in 1994 because it was the year that Leitrim were the best team in Connacht and it was a great achievement to win it in that particular year for the club.”
It’s 25 years since John O’Mahony led the O’Rourke County to that Nestor Cup triumph with Declan captaining the side from centre-back.
Darcy was somewhat of a poster boy for Leitrim’s glory years. But it arguably would never have happened had he not been ably assisted by Quinn, who had been a member of the Leitrim senior panel since 1978.
“I would have been playing in my seventeenth season with the Leitrim seniors at that stage, and I had been captain over the past couple of years before, So, I knew I was coming to the end of my tenure. Declan took over and, thankfully, then we went on and won the Connacht final in 1994.
“I was 35 by then so I was just happy to finally win one. It was a great achievement at the time, it might not be much to look back on now when u look at what Dublin are going for but it was great achievement with Leitrim and John O’Mahony.
“John would say himself it was as good an achievement winning a Connacht final with Leitrim as it was winning an All-Ireland with Galway and I would have to say John played a massive part in that. He gave Leitrim a self-belief that wasn’t in the players before that, we could play any team in the country Dublin, Cork, Tyrone and give any of them a good game.”
Quinn is sure that working under a legend such as John O’Mahony helped shape Darcy into the successful coach we see before us today. According to the 1990 All-Star winner, Darcy was always open to learning and was always a deep-thinker when it came to football.
“Absolutely he would have been picking up on that stuff all the time. Declan was really into learning and improving his game, looking exactly where he could improve things on the field. Declan would have been picking things up along the way especially from John O’Mahony.
“You could see that Declan really studied that end of the game. He’d be a deep thinker of the game and he’d be really interested in improving and doing well and getting on as a manager or as a coach that would have been his interest, you know. You could see he was really interested in that at an early stage.
“Dublin would be so meticulous and that’s exactly like Declan, He’d have been so meticulous before a match and I think that Jim Gavin and the management team would have the same professional approach but we all would have seen that in Declan from the outset.”
Upon reflection, Peter Prior remembers a teammate who was very much ahead of his time.
“The way he prepared for games was top class, whether it was league or championship, whether it was club or county, he prepared absolutely 100% for every game,” said Prior.
“I think he was a bit ahead of his time in terms of gym work as his physical conditioning was always top-notch and it’s no surprise he brought that into his coaching as players respected the way he prepared himself.
“He never was one for thumping tables in the dressing room or anything like that but he’d a huge will to win at the same time and as I said it was all about how he prepared and how he expected others to be prepared.”
The Dublin team that Darcy has his handprints all over will attempt to go where no GAA team has gone before and Aughawillan couldn’t be prouder that one of their own is involved.
“We would be very proud of Declan in Aughawillan for what he has achieved. We had him down last January to present medals to the team that won the Championship last year and we were very proud to have him there. He’s always kept a keen interest in Aughawillan,” Quinn says.
Peter Prior echoes Quinn’s sentiments while also singling out the two people that made Declan Darcy’s involvement with Aughawillan possible, his parents.
“He’s just one of these lads that’s never forgotten where it started and I suppose both Aughawillan and Leitrim are extremely fortunate to have someone like Declan Darcy.
“I know he’d have very strong family links with the club and county. But it was a huge bonus to get someone like that and Declan was someone who played with us from 15 right up until 28. The club and Leitrim definitely got the best of Declan Darcy from a playing perspective but we were absolutely blessed to get someone like him.
“I suppose it’s great the effort Frank and Phil put in in the early years, the success that Declan and Ken (Declan’s brother) enjoyed early on was definitely enjoyed by them but it was richly deserved. They’d put a huge amount of work in over the years travelling down and bringing Declan into the Aughawillan family.”
The Aughawillan family are fully behind Declan and Dublin.