‘I was afraid that our future stars would fall through the cracks’
When the ground opened up at Magheracloone GAA club, the community didn’t buckle
Magheracloone Mitchells GAA Club grounds and Community Centre, with the crack caused by a collapsed mine clearly visible. Photograph: Pat Byrne
In Magheracloone, the season can’t end. Not because they don’t want it to – although it’s true that they don’t, at least not yet.
No, it’s because no season can end – not this one, not the next one, none of them – until they get back home. They will play Galbally of Tyrone in the Ulster Intermediate final and it will be a great thing. It’s not what they’ll remember these times for, though. Not even close.
If the name of the club doesn’t mean a whole lot to you, the accompanying photographs will likely ring a bell. Late on a Sunday night in September 2018, a mine collapsed beneath their club grounds in south Monaghan, resulting in a lightning fork-shaped crack appearing in the pitch and an adjoining field. As the ground subsided, it caused a crack in the clubhouse wall as well, and, by Monday morning, the local school and five houses nearby had to be evacuated.
That was just the start of it. Both local roads were closed that morning, one of which took a full 10 months to be reopened. Profuse and repeated apologies from Gyproc, the company who owned the mines, could only go so far. Life in the small hedgerow parish was torpedoed overnight.
“It was a massive impact on the community,” says Tommy Freeman, the former Monaghan attacker still turning out at corner-forward. “Not only from a football point of view but from just a life point of view. For the whole parish, something as basic as roads being closed meant disruption in everybody’s life. You had to go different routes to get to where you were going, so it was something that affected everybody.
“More serious was the fact that there was half a dozen families who had to leave their homes and couldn’t go back. It happened 15 months ago and some of them haven’t been back and I don’t think for some of them that they will be getting back. That’s the real kick in the teeth. When you raise your family in the house that you have built your life around and to find out that you can’t go back, it’s a terrible thing.”
For Magheracloone Mitchells, the damage was instant and grievous and, worst of all, permanent. Clubs have had buildings burnt down in the past, others have had pitches cut up, property vandalised. Hard as anyone could think, nobody could come up with an equivalent to this. The pitch was gone, their clubhouse was gone and the land beneath them both was unsafe – now and forever.
Just like that, they had no home. Like any rural club, the grounds were more than a field and a fence and a building. It was a hub for everything and everyone. It was the physical manifestation of who they were, a tiny club that had held its own at the top level of Monaghan football for over two decades. They’ve been in six senior finals in their history, all of them in past 15 years. A model club, on the field and off it.
“The FÁS men came in on a Monday morning to start work as normal and this is what they found,” Freeman says. “It was like something you’d see after an earthquake. So they called the local authority and it was sealed off pretty quick. And that was it, the club had no ground, no clubhouse, no facilities. What you had on a Sunday was gone on a Monday morning.
“When the dust settled and everyone was safe, the first thing we had to do from a football point of view was we had to find somewhere to train and somewhere to play. Life had to go on. We’d still need to play the games.
“In a way, the one thing we had going for us was our own location. We are basically on the border of four counties – we’re in Monaghan but we’re right next to Cavan, Meath and Louth as well. And we’d have to say that all the local clubs have been very, very good to us. Everybody was very quick to offer their support to help us out.”
In the months that followed, they found themselves holding the whole thing together with sticky tape and bubble wrap. Heartened though they were that other clubs would be so generous, they couldn’t keep sending one team to train here and another to train there and another to play elsewhere.
People will put up with plenty in times of emergency but eventually they will do what’s handy. It wouldn’t have taken too many in the locality deciding to find an easier life somewhere else for the club to have been in real peril.
“The big thing that I was really worried about was that we would lose some of our juveniles,” says Freeman. “I was afraid that our future stars would fall through the cracks in the months and years that it’s going to take to sort this out.
“But in fairness, the people who made sure that didn’t happen were the parents in the area. In any family, there might be a kid at under-six and another at under-nine and they could have training on a Saturday in two different locations, maybe an hour apart in different counties. You had families that were spending the bulk of their Saturdays in the car driving all over the place, and it would have been very easy for some of them to just decide to do something else with themselves.”
Eventually, they found a saviour in a small club in Louth called Annaghminnon Rovers. Situated about a 20-minute drive away, on the far side of Carrickmacross, they offered Magheracloone the use of their pitches. For training, for playing home games, the whole shebang. The relief when it was eventually sorted radiated through the club. They had found square one and could start again.
“That gave everyone a focal point. It was tough on other clubs even just to be helping us out, good and all as they were to do it. In the bad weather, even for training, clubs hardly want their own teams on there ripping up the pitches, never mind having us come in and do it. That’s understandable. So that was such a massive help and it was the key thing that kept the club going. Annaghminnon Rovers have been so good to us, they’ve basically given us a home ground again.
“Look, as hard as it is to accept, everything can be replaced. You have to remember that the day before this happened, we had 200 kids at a blitz on those fields. There was an under-17 match due on that pitch the following Sunday morning and we had our senior championship semi-final coming up as well. So somebody was looking down on us as a community that this happened in the middle of the night when there was nobody around. If it had happened when there were kids there or a match going on, God knows what we’d have been looking at.”
Somewhere in the middle of it all, Magheracloone leaked out of the top division and lost their senior status. Freeman hadn’t been able to commit between one thing and another in 2018 but, as the year turned, he decided he couldn’t sit idly by and watch them slog away at intermediate. He’s 38 now but has kept himself in shape enough to still be on the teamsheet at corner-forward.
“It took a good conversation with my wife all right, but I think she knew to look at me. We were senior for 21 years and anything I could do to get us back up to that level, I felt I had to. And as soon as we went down, it was very easy for everyone to say, ‘Ah sure, youse’ll go straight back up.’ But it’s not easily done.
“It’s great that we were able to do it and it’s even better now that we’re going to get to play in an Ulster final. It’s a completely different thing for everybody. There’s a buzz back in the parish after everything that happened.”
They will reset and rebuild – of course they will. The plans are in motion for a new ground, half a mile down the road from the old one. It will take four and maybe five years to get there, but Magheracloone will get back home at some stage.
For now, an Ulster final is no bad place to rest their heads.