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A bullet in the post and being harassed on the way to training - Gaels living with the Troubles

Down’s Conor Deegan and Antrim hurling legend Terence McNaughton recall the experiences of living through the Troubles.

Deegan Sambo

THE DIFFERENCE WAS about four or five miles.

That’s the distance between Downpatrick and Loughinisland, two small rural areas in Northern Ireland.

The former is home to two-time All-Ireland winning footballer Conor Deegan, and a bar called Dick’s Cabin. Deegan refers to it as Luby’s. Just down the road is Loughinisland and O’Toole’s Bar. 

On the night before the 1994 Ulster SFC semi-final between Down and Monaghan, Deegan was working on the door as security in Luby’s. He was following the pre-match advice they had received from management about the importance of maintaining routine to stay relaxed before throw-in.

That same evening, the Republic of Ireland were playing Italy in the USA World Cup. An early goal from Ray Houghton gave Jack Charlton’s side a famous victory but the result will be forever entwined in a chapter of Northern Ireland’s long history of violence.

Two doors in two different establishments were broken in that night. Deegan was standing behind one of them, trying to keep out what he thought were intruders.

“Luby’s was one of the places the police were more worried about,” Deegan tells The42 as he takes up the story, while referring to the threat of violence which was never far away during the time of the Troubles.

“Luby’s had an awful lot of getaways from it and I think that’s why the police were probably aware of that scenario. There were four or five different ways people could get away from it.

“I remember the police pushing through the door and me pushing them back out. Not fighting with them but I didn’t know who was trying to get through the door.

“And then they started filtering word through who it was and what they were.

“So, yeah looking back in hindsight, it was one of the places that could have been targeted. Plus the fact that Downpatrick is largely a Nationalist town and would have lended itself to it.

“But it just happened to be in a house bar in Loughinisland and to this day, it’s just a horrendous thought.”

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June 18, 1994 later became known as the Loughinisland Massacre. Armed Loyalists stormed into O’Toole’s bar and opened fire on those who had innocently come together to watch a game of football. Six people were killed, five were wounded.

The Ulster Volunteer Force [UVF] claimed responsibility for the attack but no-one was ever charged.

Despite the horror of what had just happened, it was decided that Down’s Ulster semi-final against Monaghan should proceed the following day.

In his recent Laochra Gael programme, the then-Down football manager Pete McGrath explained the logic behind that call, saying that not playing the game would be “bending the knee to terrorism”.

Loughinisland native Gary Mason, who was coming back from injury at the time, was a key player on that Down team. The Belfast Telegraph reported at the time that Mason had considered withdrawing from the squad for the game, but was persuaded to play by friends and team officials.

He kicked six points in a 0-14 to 0-8 victory for Down. The Mourne County would finish that year as All-Ireland champions for the second time since 1991.

“Even to this day, you’re sitting wondering, ‘How was it allowed to go ahead?’ says Deegan thinking back now.

“I think Pete described it going ahead as not to let them win type of scenario. That was the mindset. So that was horrendous because you were at an age where you obviously had strong opinions… there were people we knew who were killed.

“We had a night in Loughinisland last year before the pandemic took over. Talking to them, you almost felt guilty but they said it was the right thing to do. In some ways, there was relief from it as Down progressed. The people of Loughinisland got a few hours of reprieve and not having to think about it.

“Obviously, when the game was over, it was back to normal. But in some ways, it certainly helped a little bit or eased it and that was a good thing.”


Deegan’s memories of the Troubles were formed mainly through the TV screen. As a youngster, his understanding was that the violence was happening elsewhere.

down-senior-football-1995-conor-deegan Conor Deegan pictured in 1995. James MeehanInpho James MeehanInpho

“A few people shot and a couple of bombs” is the tally of his direct experiences with the conflict. That, and suffering through multiple checkpoints while travelling to and from training sessions and matches.

There was another occasion, during a visit to the Ardoyne club in Belfast to present medals, when Deegan was advised that his car would have to be supervised by someone for his safety.

“They said to make sure there’s not a bomb when you come back out,” he says of the chilling warning he was given at the time.

A grim history of encounters for any other location in Ireland, but in a land where violence was common place, Deegan escaped much of the dark times from that period.

Antrim hurling legend Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton was far less fortunate. Growing up in Cushendall in the Glens of Antrim, McNaughton was in the safe surroundings of the Ruairí Óg GAA community.

In a seaside village of about 1,500 people, he could play his sport freely and show his identity proudly. But not everywhere was a welcome environment for Gaels, Catholics or Nationalists.

“You couldn’t avoid the Troubles as we knew back then,” he says. “But it wasn’t really the Troubles, it was the UDR [Ulster Defence Regiment] or the British Army or the police [who] stopped you.

“I lived in Belfast and worked in Belfast, so you were always coming into contact with it there.

“If you were reared in certain areas of Belfast, you didn’t want your kids walking about with hurling sticks because once you did, not only did it say that you play Gaelic Games, it says who you vote for, there’s a label attached to it.

“I was born in ’64 so really [when you were] growing up, you were always aware of where to go and what to do and where you couldn’t go and what you had to wear. You couldn’t walk about in GAA tops. That was always an issue.”

McNaughton endured several dangerous brushes with the Troubles that placed a real threat on his life.

At one point, McNaughton had a job installing windows in Belfast. He began working with a young apprentice from the Shankill area and the pair became quite friendly.

McNaughton was shocked when he later discovered that his colleague was arrested for his involvement in a shooting and was sentenced to life in prison.

“Everyone was always aware of where they were and there was never a conversation between us about the Troubles. He ended up doing a life sentence for shooting a Catholic taxi driver.

terence-mcnaughton McNaughton once worked with an apprentice who was jailed for shooting a Catholic. Presseye / John McIlwaine/INPHO Presseye / John McIlwaine/INPHO / John McIlwaine/INPHO

“I never had any sense… he was only a kid at that time. Looking back, he was probably part of the reason I had to leave because the police warned me back then that I was on a hitlist and that’s why in 1986 I left and went to America. I had to basically get out of Belfast.

“It’s just something you got used to. You did have to vary your way to work at times. You try not to do the same thing all the time and you were always aware of your surroundings. It became second nature and instinctive.

“Even when I went to work in Guinness, there were certain areas that I could never go into and certain areas I had to go to because of who I was. I would have done South Armagh all the time because of the GAA. There was no problem there.

“But there were other areas I never went to and that’s why Guinness always employed Catholics and Protestants to do certain areas.”

McNaughton never had to obsess over the threat of an attack but keeping vigilant was the key to keeping out of trouble. He received a bullet in the post on one occasion with his name engraved in it, but thankfully, that event amounted to nothing more than a memory of a dark time in his life.

Deegan had issues in his working life too on account of the Nationalist/Loyalist divide. He was a trainee manager at a Dunnes Stores in Park Centre in Belfast when a threat was released that was aimed at Gaelic footballers.

“The boss took me off the floor and said, ‘You’re not going to be exposed to that.’

“It was retracted about three or four days later but it was the exact same thing the other side unfortunately, ‘We’ll target hockey or rugby players or whatever.’ It was the usual tit for tat and something was going on.”


The checkpoints were a major symbol of the Troubles; an oppressive and intimidating method of inspection that was supposedly intended to keep order in Northern Ireland.

Some checks went smoothly but many of the encounters could take hours and the environment could become quite hostile.

Deegan recalls how the Down football team had a set location for their training sessions. The authorities soon became familiar with their patterns which led to disruptions for the Down team.

conor-deegan Deegan says they were harassed and intimidated at checkpoints. Presseye / Philip Magowan/INPHO Presseye / Philip Magowan/INPHO / Philip Magowan/INPHO

“Our biggest issue,” he begins, “was the likes of driving to training and getting harassed going to training. Being taken out of the car, gear being dumped upside down on the road and things of that nature.

“The difference was that they would have known the nights we were training because we were fairly religious on our nights of training. It was first name terms nearly, which is slightly unnerving in some ways but to be honest, when you grew up here, it was par for the course.

“I wouldn’t say you accepted it but it was just the way it was.”

The checkpoints were a routine part of McNaughton’s life too. At a rough calculation, he reckons he had about four or five encounters per week.

On the way to a disco with his wife in Ballymena, a member of the UDR pointed to the hurls that he had at the time and sarcastically asked, ‘What do you use these things for?’

On another occasion, he was returning home after attending a medal presentation when he came to a checkpoint and was held there for three hours.

“That was probably the worst,” he remembers.

“This one soldier at the top of a mountain. I only saw one soldier but obviously there were a lot more. You sit there for hours and then your mind starts to play games. If you drive on, they’ll shoot and say you went through a checkpoint.”

Co-operation was the only way to get through the unpleasant process, but repeated acts of intimidation and coercion often caused frustration. Sometimes words were said.

“There was many’s the time you did,” Deegan admits.” I remember going to an U21 game and I was coming back. Something was said [and] we were kept for two and a half hours sitting on the side of the road for no reason, just other than they could.

“In the great scheme of things, you look at what’s happening in Israel and the Palestinians, what we went through was Mickey Mouse stuff really. But it was largely there to antagonise, and upset and annoy. It was always about that antagonism. It was, ‘We can do this and that’s the way it’s going to be.’

“There was nothing we could have done about it.”

Crossing the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland presented challenges for GAA people too.

McNaughton was an instrumental figure in the Antrim team that reached the 1989 All-Ireland final against Tipperary after stunning Offaly in the semi-final.

During his years hurling for Cushendall, he also helped the club to six Ulster titles.

That provincial success brought them to the All-Ireland series where they competed against clubs from the south. But the unrest in the North discouraged clubs from staying overnight in the North to play Cushendall, and would travel to one of the border towns instead.

“We played Buffers Alley, Birr, Midleton and the only team that came and stayed for the weekend was Midleton in Cork,” says McNaughton. “Birr and Buffers Alley would have stayed in Dundalk. I had a lot of friends in the GAA over the years who were never over the border.

“They obviously didn’t feel safe. For challenge matches and things like that, why would you risk coming up to the North when you could get a good challenge match up an hour up the road. Teams didn’t travel to the North in those days, they wanted to avoid it like the plague I suppose.”

Deegan says that crossing the border into the south was a relieving experience for people in Northern Ireland. It gave them a break away from the discord at home.

He lived in Dublin for a time, and played football for the Kilmacud Crokes club. He would later take over the side as manager in 2013.

Deegan recounts one time when a challenge match was arranged between Kilmacud and his native Downpatrick. There was some apprehension among the Crokes players as to whether or not it was safe to venture up to the North.

“There were a few guys worried about coming up,”he continues. “I was telling them that there was a ceasefire and that we were going to be ok.

“That’s when the Enniskillen bombing arrived that Saturday night and it scared the be God out of them.”


The Antrim hurlers have made an impressive start to their 2021 Division 1 league campaign. A stunning victory over Clare was followed by another encouraging display against Kilkenny earlier this month.

They were level with the Cats after 43 minutes before losing out by seven points in the end. They also fell short against Dublin last weekend.

As the landscape in Northern Ireland has changed through the implementation of the peace process, so too has the population of people playing hurling in Antrim.

“The Yuppies play Gaelic Games now if you know what I mean,” beams McNaughton. “Everyone wants to play Gaelic football or hurling because it’s trendy now.

“We even have a GAA team now in east Belfast and things like that. That would have been unheard of. The closest town when I was growing up was Ballymena. We could never go there in our Gaelic gear or club tops back then but now it’s no different. You go into the shops and every kid is wearing every GAA top you can think of.

“It’s fantastic. My own kids have never been stopped by the British Army or the UDR. They wouldn’t know what it’s like.”

Bringing the Sam Maguire up to Down was symbolic for Deegan, particularly in 1994. The Louhginisland Massacre wasn’t something that was discussed among the players in the team, but there was an understanding in the group that a second All-Ireland title “would be good for our county and good for Northern Ireland.”

Pete McGrath suggested on his Laochra Gael programme that Down’s triumph “may have lifted people in key positions” and potentially paved the way to tensions being resolved in Ulster. An important legacy that transcends GAA.

From a place where violence was never far away and minimal distances separated people from life and death, to a time of peace for Gaels in Northern Ireland.

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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