Football – The Beginning
After the turbulent years in Ireland’s history in the mid 1920’s, a Mayoman called Liam O’Connor, who had been doing his share in the fight for Irish Freedom, came to County Derry – first to Glenullin where he played Gaelic football for the newly formed John Mitchel’s club. He was soon to move to Cargin on the shores of Lough Neagh, but in 1926 he eventually settled in Lavey where he found employment with Mick McGlade in Knockloughrim. It was to this west of Ireland man that can be attributed the foundation of the first Gaelic football club in Lavey, indeed he was also instrumental in the formation of the first Derry County Board. In 1928 he immigrated to America from which he has long since returned to settle in a prosperous business of his own in Tullow, Co. Carlow.
Despite such a short mission Liam made a notable contribution to the promotion and development of the infant G.A.A. in Co. Derry. His efforts did not go unnoticed, for prior to his departure the County Board presented him with a gold medal in recognition of his services to the game – not only was Liam O’Connor a pioneer of the association, he was also a player of undoubted ability who had played for and captained the Derry team. Returning to the origins of the Erin’s Own Club, the record books reveal that the team was originally known as Knockloughrim Erin’s Own and did not assume the title of Lavey until after its reorganisation in 1933. O’Connor christened the club Erin’s Own in memory of his home club in Co. Mayo, which bore the same title. It is not without significance that the famous Cargin Club in Co.Antrim, which Liam O’Connor had founded during his brief stay there, is similarly known as Erin’s Own. The very first committee to serve the Knockloughrim Erin’s Own club were: Chairman -Liam O’Connor, Secretary – Eddie Toner, Treasurer – Mick Crilly, Anthony McGurk and Joe O’Neill also assisted on that committee.
The First Team
The absence of early records relating to Gaelic football in the parish gives rise to considerable speculation as to the identity of Erin’s Own’s first opposition. However it is generally agreed that the first ever game was a challenge game against Cargin, which is not unlikely in view of the O’Connor connection. This game took place at the bottom of McNicholls field in Broagh, now owned by Robert Leach and more commonly referred to as the “Green Hill. The players stripped in Jimmy Dowds house at the “Road Head” – a notable ceili house and focal point in the district, the remains of which still exist. Knockloughrim lost that game, as they did their next game at Lissan. More is known about their next a home fixture, which took place in Hugh McGurk’s field – also in Broagh, with Glenullin providing the opposition. The Knockloughrim team contained the following players – Dan McCrystal, Johnny Donaghy, Jimmy Grant, Frank Dillon, Jim Dillon, Jim Brennan, Mick McGlade, Liam O’Connor (Capt.)., Otherson, Dan Kane, Jimmy Kane, Frank Diamond, Henry Kelly, Jack McGlade, Hughie Young, Tommy Shaw, Hugh McGurk and Eddie Toner.
Once again the Erin’s Own team tasted defeat, by 13 points to 4 points – in fact it is said that in their first year in South Derry football they never won a match. However, while they still had their tradition to earn, there was nothing untraditional about their colours – green jerseys with a gold hoop and a white collar – emulating the men from the kingdom of Kerry. Perhaps the performances of the Knockloughrim team in their first season did not do justice to those jerseys, but who cared? The game here was in its infancy and could only go from strength to strength. What was more important was the fact that a new team had been born another chapter in the history of Gaelic football in Derry was written.
The next two years were frustrating years for the want of an organised league – the shortage of recognised teams in the South Derry area did not permit a successful league. Newbridge compensated by playing in the South-West Antrim league, while for a time Ballinderry operated in Tyrone. On the face of it many of those early fixtures in Derry were little more than friendly games, although a combination of parish rivalry and local enthusiasm might occasionally have made the term ‘friendly’ seem rather out of place. By 1928 some of the Erin Own players such as Dan McCrystal, John McKenna and Frank Diamond had switched their allegiance to Newbridge in search of competitive football. Such players represented a huge loss to the Erin’s Own team, but the departure of Liam O’Connor to America proved the ultimate blow to the club and signalled its collapse soon afterwards.
The loss of their founder member, whilst a sad occasion for everyone connected with the club, was temporarily forgotten when on the eve of his departure a farewell party was organised in his honour, in Josie Donnelly’s pub in Gulladuff. All reports suggest that it was a night to remember, with people turning up from the length and breadth of the county to show their appreciation of a man whose contribution to the early game in South Derry had been enormous. The highlight of the occasion was the aforementioned presentation of a gold medal by the County Board, while the music, song and dance lasted into the early (or not so early) hours of the morning.