Aoife Cassidy has always been right in the thick of it where Slaughtneil hurling is concerned. Nine years ago she was on the club's U-14 team that reached the Division 2 quarter-finals at Féile na nGael in Laois/Offaly.
Cormac O’Doherty, a key member of the Slaughtneil’s senior hurlers who made history last winter by becoming the first Derry club to win the Ulster title, remembers it well.
“I was a couple of years younger than her and ‘playing up’ for Féile but Aoife was our centre-back and captain. She was our best player,” he states unequivocally.
He is talking about the club’s U-14 hurlers.
Cassidy was already an underage camogie star but, as the only girl on the club’s hurling counterparts, was also good enough to play two pivotal roles for their boys.
Only Cuala's defeat of their hurlers last weekend has stopped Slaughneil chasing an incredible All-Ireland club treble
On Sunday, she’ll be in Croke Park giving the same kind of leadership when Robert Emmets Slaughtneil take on Sarsfields of Galway in the AIB All-Ireland senior club camogie final.
As captain and number six she’ll be stretching every sinew to try to help this tiny rural Derry club pull on the glass slipper at the end of their Cinderella season.
Only Cuala’s defeat of their hurlers last weekend has stopped Slaughneil chasing an incredible All-Ireland club treble.
They’ve already clinched an unprecedented Ulster club treble of senior camogie, football and hurling titles and the Cassidys are woven into the heart of it.
The three girls – Eilis (24), Aoife (22) and Brona (20) – line out for their camogie team and two of their four brothers are dual stars, so they’ll be back in Croke Park on St Patrick’s weekend to support Seán in the football final. Seán and Eanna were both also on the hurling team who tried so valiantly to match them.
Slaughtneil is little more than a collection of 300 houses in the shadow of the Sperrin Mountains.
It may be a scattered rural community in south Derry, situated between the village of Swatragh and the town of Maghera (both also GAA strongholds) but Slaughtneil’s size has never limited its ambition.
There’s no shop or pub, only a GAA club whose legendary teenage disco of the ’80s and early ’90s attracted kids from across the county and funded the infrastructure for their current success.
Slaughtneil’s vision doesn’t rest with sport though, as Aoife explains.
“There’s a community centre which has a craft shop and an arts theatre in two different buildings. The school’s next to them and then, on a different road, there’s the pitch and clubhouse. We’d be looking down on the pitch from our house, we can see it when the lights are on at night.”
The 'An Carn' community centre has hosted the likes of Sharon Shannon and John Spillane. Part of its remit is also to rejuvenate this Gaeltacht area so it also hosts Irish language and music classes.
That helps explains why the Cassidy girls are always named ‘as Gaeilge’ in match programmes. Family holidays always took them to Gweedore and centre-forward Eilis is now an Irish teacher.
Aoife could have followed her but chose to study podiatry in UUJ yet still speaks Irish daily. Traditional music is also part of their heritage and full-back Bronagh is reportedly a beautiful singer whose repertoire includes Sean Nos.
Their parents were both central to introducing Scór na nÓg in Slaughtneil and their father, Thomas, was a founding member of the community centre and a massive loss to Slaughtneil’s sporting and cultural vibrancy when he died last winter after prolonged illness.
“We’ll never repay the debt we owe that man as a club and community,” said Slaughtneil chairman Sean McGuigan, a view echoed throughout the area.
Stories of Thomas Cassidy’s dedication and generosity are legion, like the time he sold a car to buy a bus to bring people to games, or the extra space he included when he was adding a garage to the family home, just in case any visiting GAA players needed to stay over.
To his children he was coach, mentor and motivator but, above all, their dad.
For Aoife, the high point of their sensational camogie run wasn’t winning the Ulster title after losing last year’s final nor their subsequent surprise defeat of Tipperary’s Burgess-Duharra in the All-Ireland semi-final, but “winning the county final against Ballinascreen . . . because Daddy was there.
“He was on that much medication that week that he wasn’t right with himself. We left the house thinking he wouldn’t be there because he was so low.
“He’d said to Mammy ‘what time is it, I need to get ready for the match?’ She couldn’t believe it. Seán and Eanna were in the house and Daddy went to lie down for a while but he landed up at 2pm saying ‘we need to go’.
“At the end of the game, when I was getting presented with the cup, he was coming walking across the pitch,” she says, her voice faltering. “It was unreal.”
Slaughtneil’s women only won their first county senior in 2012. Her dad and Dominic McKinley managed them since 2014 and this season’s historic Ulster title defies every definition of bittersweet.
They drew with Loughiel the first day when their club made history in the men’s final. The Cassidys buried their beloved dad just two days earlier and he never got to see her raise the Ulster trophy a week later.
“Unreal” is a word she uses a lot and it is an adjective that is loaded with emotion.
Slaughtneil’s success has been touched by such tragedy that it is difficult to see how the Cassidys have kept going but Aoife says it has carried them.
“Being with the team has helped us so much to get through it but it is a bit strange without Daddy,” she murmurs. “He was always in the car first with the balls and the bibs and we were always coming after him, running.
“I think losing him is part of the determination too of the team since,” she adds. “The club has been brilliant.
“You just know everyone is thinking of you. You know all the work he’s done and the players he’s coached. He’s been in contact with a lot of people through the years, of all ages and different clubs.
“We miss him terribly but there’s a lot of other people missing him a wild lot too,” she says, her soft voice dropping to a whisper.
“We find that a bit hard to believe but that’s a nice thing too, that he had such a lot of impact on so many people.”
Slaughtneil were underdogs in the semi-final and will be again on Sunday (3.15) when they face Sarsfields in a game preceded by the intermediate decider (1:30) featuring Myshall (Carlow) and Eglish (Tyrone).
“We’ll try and bring the same intensity to the All-Ireland final that we brought to the semi-final,” Cassidy says.
“We’ll try and not let the occasion get to us and stop us playing as well as we can but we could never have dreamed we’d get this far.”