June 16, 2024

Wolfe Tones GAC

An Caisleán Glas

Women leading the change at Wolfe Tones

When Wolfe Tone GA&CC folded in the early 1970s it was struggling to get 15 men to pull on a green and white hooped shirt to represent their parish. The club had been a mainstay of the community for almost forty years at that point and had fielded teams, with some success, in hurling, football and camogie.

Trinkets and mementos were kept by the old guard which told the story of a thriving club in the heart of Greencastle. Many of the surnames found in Whitewell, Felden, Arthur and Bawnmore districts today feature in the old, annotated photographs, kept for decades with minutes from committee meetings and telegraphs informing players that they had been selected to pull on that hooped jersey, whilst wedding photos where the happy couple are given a guard of honour by camógs in black tunics show a club that was the beating heart of its community.

Nostalgia is, after all, an idealised and false account of the past, and it must be remembered that these districts suffered through untold levels of deprivation and unemployment and it is fine testament to these pioneers that they sustained the club for so long, but with the M2 motorway carving its way through the clubs old playing fields, mass emigration and the initial phases of The Troubles in full sway, Wolfe Tone GA&CC faded into memory.

It would be a further three years before the Ladies Gaelic Football Association would be formed in Hayes Hotel in Thurles, symbolic as the location where the GAA was formed ninety years hence. Almost a quarter of a century would pass before Antrim LGFA was formed with a handful of West Belfast clubs participating in the big ball game for women for the first time and another generation of footballers would come and go before Wolfe Tones rebirth on the fringes of North Belfast and Newtownabbey in 2019.

The Wolfe Tones project, which started out with the idea to field a team from the Greencastle district in a challenge competition, would eventually snowball into what is now a club around 300 members strong. Core to that development and growth has been the inclusion of women in the club and Wolfe Tones stands alone as the only club in Antrim to have a majority female membership.

Although impeded by the Covid Pandemic and the start-stop nature of Gaelic Games for the period between 2020 and 2022, Wolfe Tones pressed ahead with its plans for firmly cementing itself as a core component of the community. From behind computer screens on Zoom calls, the foundations were laid for setting up women’s sections within the club.

Although the club had included provision for girls in its juvenile structures, it was a limited trial of the Gaelic 4 Mothers and Others programme which saw female numbers explode. With over 30 women regularly turning up for sessions, a desire for competitive games within the group pushed the club to affiliate with Antrim LGFA and after a number of challenge games in the autumn of 2021, Wolfe Tones for the first time entered a ladies football team in the Antrim Leagues in 2022.

Despite being the newest club to enter the competition, the Wolfe Tones’ ladies acquitted themselves well, and finished top of Division 3B, recording victories against Lámh Dhearg, Naomh Comghall and Naomh Pádraig in their maiden season. After an early exit from the Junior B Championship by a mere 3 points at the hands of Randalstown outfit Tír na nÓg on a rain-soaked night in Larne, Wolfe Tones organised the first Martha McTier shield, which saw four teams competing over two weekends at The Valley. Facing Naomh Comhghall for the third time in a year, with victories tied one apiece, Wolfe Tones – led by captain Bláthín McBride, ran away with the victory and lifted the shield to give the club its first post-reformation football silverware. Wolfe Tones have committed to holding the competition annually for teams eliminated from the Junior B championship regardless of how the club itself fares in the competition.

Further success came in the selection of Maebh McAtamney for the Antrim Minor team for 2023, as Maebh is the first Wolfe Tones player to line out in Saffron in any code.

Credit: Elaine Kelly

The pandemic gave a lot of people the time and clarity needed to evaluate how they wanted to live their lives, and with an increased focus on health and wellbeing, as well as community, Wolfe Tones has benefitted massively from the great number of ladies who have sought an outlet to express those desires through Gaelic Games.

What started as a fleeting recollection that Rounders was also a Gaelic Games code, Wolfe Tones became the only Antrim club to register with the Rounders Council and subsequently establish a team. The only Gaelic Games code to allow mixed-gender team, the non-contact elements of the bat-and-ball game attracted a new cohort of players and supporters. Traditionally played by competitors later in life, there’s been great enthusiasm for the code within the club, including sending a team to Ulster Rounders tournaments and even hosting an invitational at The Valley.

With juvenile units in football, camogie and rounders growing every month Wolfe Tones has become a paragon for women’s sport in an area traditionally bereft of any Gaelic Games. The boundaries broken down go beyond the inclusion of women though, and members come from communities that, traditionally would not have participated in Gaelic Games. With starting players on the senior ladies team from traditionally unionist areas playing for the love of the game and the club leading the way, these pioneers are opening the way for the players of tomorrow to realise that Gaelic games are for everyone.

The on-the-field picture is only half the story; women play key roles in the administration and development of the club, and the most visible female figure in the club is Angela McIvor, whose father Danny McLarnon had been one of the key figures in the old club. Danny sadly passed in July 2020 but not before he saw his daughter become Club Secretary. Possibly the most popular member of the club, Angela’s enthusiasm for everything Wolfe Tones means she’s at the forefront of almost everything the club does and is a constant presence at nearly every club activity – from Sunday morning juvenile training, chasing membership fees on cold winter nights under the lights at The Valley to wearing the green and white hoops as a member of the G4MO team. Without Angela, Wolfe Tones simply couldn’t function and it was fitting that she took away the Club Person of the Year gong at the inaugural Club Awards night in 2021.

The Club Committee also values and thrives upon the input and work of its female members who occupy important positions, such as Childrens’ Officer Mary Baillie who ensures the safety and wellbeing of our most vulnerable members, Katie Mulvenna, who despite her young age led the first ever Wolfe Tones Community Festival Gaelfhéis na Casca in her role as cultural officer, Bronagh McLaughlin who has revolutionised the clubs financial procedures and other voices like Michelle McKernon and Maria McCourt who have contributed so much to the organisation of the club.

Other club volunteers who make everything tick, such as Katrina McDonnell who leads on our club gear and merchandise and our G4MOs who have done so much fundraising for the club we’ll never be able to pay them back.

Wolfe Tones is in the enviable position now where we feel well prepared for the next phases in our journey, and it would be remiss to say that women have been merely involved in these changes – they have been central to them and without the contributions of so many strong women to the Wolfe Tones story we simply may not even exist as a club.