If it’s November and the costume ghouls have come and gone and the countryside is lit with harvest moons, then it’s a fair bet that Crossmaglen Rangers are on the prowl. The mid-Ulster marvels are part of the autumnal furniture.
There's an unforgettable scene in the True North documentary on Crossmaglen featuring Oisín McConville and John McEntee, Cross' friends and club stalwarts who share both a glittering haul of All-Ireland medals and a killer line in droll humour. The pair, joint managers now, are walking down the town discussing the game-health of an unspecified player.
“Is he injured again?” McConville barks.
A look of concern crosses McEntee’s face.
“I was chatting to him about the weight issue,” he says delicately.
What makes the episode priceless is that two bucks are heading towards the clubhouse armed with white boxes filled with cream buns and éclairs they’ve just picked up from McNamee’s bakery.
Maybe not the orthodox way to deal with a man’s ‘weight issue’ but tea and buns are a sacrosanct part of the team’s pre-match tradition and it has stood them in good stead.
The national museums of actual countries are less crowded with artifacts and treasures than are on display in Crossmaglen’s trophy cabinet: 44 Armagh championships in a history dating to 1887; 11 Ulster titles since 1996; six All-Ireland titles since 1997, not to mention the scatter of marquee-forward scalps kindly donated by Francie Bellew upon his retirement.
All this from a community with a population of 1,500 people. To my mind, that is not so much a sports story as a sociological phenomenon. Just how many buns did they eat?
How did they achieve that? How do they keep turning up year after year and decade after decade? How can one wee market town turn out talents like the aforementioned bucks along with Jamie Clarke, the Kernan brothers, Tony McEntee, the underrated Kyle Carragher, Jim McConville and then the golden horde of yesteryear – Joe Kernan, Gene Morgan et al.
Although Crossmaglen are celebrated for their prowess on the national scene, their run of 18 county titles in 19 years, from 1996 until 2015, is arguably their most remarkable feat.
What are you meant to do with such magnificent greed? It meant all other clubs must have come to regard Cross’ with a combination of envy, hatred, admiration and a fatal despair; they were beaten almost as soon as those black and amber striped jerseys materialised on the field.
Field of Dreams, the BBC film by Natalie Maynes and Thomas Niblock, followed the Rangers from 2014 to 2016 and was broadcast last year.
It’s essentially a film about community and because of that ended up a quietly brilliant observation of sport in life as well. The cameramen get plenty of access to the inner sanctum of the Rangers’ dressing room but the audience is given precious little insight into how the town creates these beasts of football teams, winter in, winter out. What we hear is the stuff common to most dressing rooms.
“All we want is score after score after score,” demands McEntee during one tense half-time moment. Don’t we all!
“If we can’t get their respect, then we put our hands down their throats: AND WE PULL IT OUT,” roars Jonny Hanratty, advice that, while motivational gold, would be a nightmare to execute tactically and almost certainly result in a slew of black cards – not to mention an outbreak of tonsillitis.
All of this is good value but the true heart of the film resides in the energy and atmosphere in the town through the peaks and troughs of the football season.
Because of the town’s high-profile history throughout the Troubles, there is a wealth of archival footage on the infamous occupation by the British Army of part of the club’s land.
The location of the barracks directly beside the GAA pitch and the common sight of the helicopters flying low overhead during games became one of the symbolic images of those mad decades, when the town was seen as the nerve centre of a Republican citadel infamously tagged as ‘Bandit Country’ by Mervyn Rees, secretary of state for Northern Ireland in the 1970s.
The True North team had a soldier revisit the town to explain how they regarded the GAA team as a sort of sporting extension of the Republican movement.
In fact, the pulsing health of the GAA club gave young people growing up in Cross’ an outlet through which to express their frustration and resentment at the Army presence.
“Scared shitless of it, to be honest,” McConville said about the idea of joining the IRA. “It was life or death.”
The football was a distraction, the team a source of pride and the successes an opportunity for Crossmaglen to shake off a reputation that local people resented.
Not that those triumphs leave people immune to the routine demands of life, nor from its occasional troubles and tragedies. Just this Friday, a former long-serving club officer appeared on court in Belfast facing serious historical sex abuse charges and was remanded in custody without bail.
It’s the grimmest of news for any community – and any sports club, which is designed to be a safe haven –- to absorb.
This weekend, the club football and hurling championships are reaching the stage that pits county champion against county champion. These games, more so than the more glamorous summer All-Ireland championship, represent the true essence of the GAA. In some ways, the raw cold of November Sundays and the wild skies enhance the experience.
There is something special about two communities caught up in a furiously hot hurling or football match on an afternoon when most of the country is bunkered down, fire lit and door bolted.
Scan the fixtures list at this time of year and you see the habitual survivors – the hurlers of Ballygunner, Ballyhale, Na Piarsaigh and Mount Leinster Rangers; Dr Crokes, Scotstown and Corofin in the football. These places have nothing in common except for the burning vitality of their GAA clubs; an energy that Crossmaglen have exemplified over the past two decades.
Its source almost defies explanation and is often attributed to sport’s favourite catch-all word: pride. But it takes something far, far beyond that to keep those clubs flaming year after year.
It’s more like a kind of inheritance that the community accepts and maintains on the understanding that if they ever allow what they have to quench, then it probably won’t return.