Widely celebrated for its GAA club that dominates Derry in the three codes of hurling, Gaelic football and camogie, Slaughtneil is also home to a community association investing in the future of its area through employment, Irish language promotion and sustainable environmental measures that have seen the biodiversity of the area improve. Odrán Waldron talks to Joe Ó Dochartaigh of Carntogher Community Association to discover the secrets of Mid Ulster’s most feted community.
“You really need to go back to about 1905; that’s where the inspiration came from,” Ó Dochartaigh says, telling the story of the association’s history. “There was a really strong Irish language programme in the area at the time. One of the current directors’ grandfather used to teach Irish classes in the old school. There was a great focus on youth, which we continue to this day. They won Féis Loch nEachach three or four years in a row and were awarded bronze shields which are still held in the school next door. I believe it was Roger Casement who presented those shields to them.
“There was a strong tradition of the language here and around 1992 the area was in an economic decline with a lot of people moving out so local people set up a committee with the aim of bolstering the local area, which is where Carntogher Community Association came out of. At that time the aim was to keep people within the area, to provide employment and a hub for the community. In 1993, the first rural naíscoil in the North was set up, Naíscoil Charn Tóchair, which was based in Slaughtneil Hall and the following year another naíscoil was set up in Maghera. Around 2000-2001, this building was built and a part of Drumnaph was purchased by the Woodland Trust in conjunction with ourselves. It was earmarked as a place that would be very beneficial to the community, there was around 110 acres of ancient and new planted woodland that they took as a joint venture.”
When we acquired Drumnaph in 2013 the ground hadn’t really been worked on in an intensive way for 30 or 40 years, there was no fertiliser put in the ground. It’s unique: there’s a river in it, an ancient woodland, cutover bog, raised bog and an old loch, Loch Bran. It’s very diverse and unusual that all these things are together. A huge array of indicator species has been found in it, which is excellent.
Much more than a community hub has been created. Within the headquarters of the association lie An Carn and An Croí, a shop and café, with An Cóire, where the area’s arts centre and sports hall are to be found, next door. The entire operation employs, by Ó Dochartaigh’s estimation, a dozen people full-time, along with at least another dozen part-time. Next door on the other side are St Brigid’s Primary School, Tirkane and Bunscoil Naomh Bríd, the English and Irish language primary schools that share grounds. The 110 acres purchased by the Woodland Trust eventually grew into Drumnaph Nature Reserve, fully acquired by the community in 2013.
Such a range of amenities allows Carntogher Community Association to be diverse in the programmes and classes it offers. Ó Dochartaigh explains the breadth of activities on offer in the townland at the foot of Carntogher Mountain: “As a community group, we have five or six different projects within the group. We have a very strong Irish language project and then we have different projects with regards to environment and more craft-based classes that are geared towards community involvement. Weekly there are pilates, dancing and yoga classes. We used to have an IT suite and have done IT classes for the community. The building is in use every night. Within the Irish language project, we have an array of classes. This morning we had an Irish for the family class. Last year we developed a learning resource called Gaeilge don Teaghlach that was primarily for families.
They run workshops, bringing in people from outside the area to educate on specialist subjects such as beekeeping, natural beekeeping, more so for the sake of pollination than honey. They’ve planted orchards and hedges over there through hedge laying courses. There’s a real mix of traditional crafts and environmental protection.”
“Drumnaph is more so about outdoor lifestyle, learning about environmental protection. There is a bat talk coming up shortly where we will be taught about the different types of bats here and how to look after them. In September, we actually came across a species of butterfly that hasn’t been found in the area for 40 years. The marsh fritillary butterfly; it’s an indicator species for biodiversity in the area. It’s a big one for us as it shows that we’re doing the right things. When we acquired Drumnaph in 2013 the ground hadn’t really been worked on in an intensive way for 30 or 40 years, there was no fertiliser put in the ground. It’s unique: there’s a river in it, an ancient woodland, cutover bog, raised bog and an old loch, Loch Bran. It’s very diverse and unusual that all these things are together. A huge array of indicator species has been found in it, which is excellent.”
The nature reserve is managed by a family from England, who have engaged with the community since their arrival, with both of their children attending the bunscoil and going on to attend Gaelcholáiste Dhoire in nearby Dungiven. “Their focus on the minute is on developing Drumnaph without overly developing it,” Ó Dochartaigh says. “They’re making it accessible for people while maintaining its environmental importance. There is about 7km of paths through Drumnaph, there are interpretations all around to explain the different habitats within the reserve and the benefits that they bring to flora and fauna.
“They secured funding last year and have a really strong volunteer programme going now. They run workshops, bringing in people from outside the area to educate on specialist subjects such as beekeeping, natural beekeeping, more so for the sake of pollination than honey. They’ve planted orchards and hedges over there through hedge laying courses. There’s a real mix of traditional crafts and environmental protection.”
Communal allotments have been built at Drumnaph, along with a mixture of rare breed cattle and sheep, they have created a varied and sustainable community supplier. “The idea was to mimic what you see maybe in larger city setups where people can rent a space for gardening and growing plants. What was agreed was that people wouldn’t have individual plots but would work together as a community to grow everything at the one time. People can take what they want and leave what they don’t. It’s all focused, no pesticides, all organic and it’s going really well,” he explains.
“The animals are for grazing and we follow a low intensive practice. Normally farmers in the local area would house their cattle indoors over winter and the sheep indoors for lambing season, but everything stays outdoor in Drumnaph. There’s a rotational grazing pattern going on and that improves soil health and increases the biodiversity. With the lack of fertiliser and herbicides in the soil, there’s much greater biodiversity, which increases the diversity of butterflies, birds and bigger predator species like buzzards. It all works, as it should, in a cycle. We also use the meat; with the ground that we have, we don’t want to grow the herd too large so we use the meat, which you can get at An Croí.”
Side-by-side with the growth of the community organisation has been an unprecedented level of success in Gaelic games. Robert Emmet’s GAC, Slaughtneil have conquered all around them this decade, winning four Derry Senior Football Championships in a row, along with three Ulster championships and an appearance in the 2017 All-Ireland final. In hurling, they have recently completed a never before achieved seven Derry championships in a row and became the first ever Derry club to win an Ulster senior title in 2016. It is camogie, however, where Slaughtneil truly reign supreme, having won three senior All-Irelands in the last three seasons. When it is put to Ó Dochartaigh that this can be partly attributed to the communal spirit fostered by the association, he is hesitant to claim any credit.
“It would be very difficult to claim any of the club’s success for Carntogher but what I will say is that the two are linked in that it’s the same people,” he says. “It’s a very close community within the area and there are good ties between ourselves and the club. I couldn’t claim that either success was bound to the other, but both are integral in the community. There’s a very strong drive in Slaughtneil; nobody’s there to win a county title for themselves. It’s ‘can Slaughtneil get seven-in-a-row?’ not ‘can I?’ We’ve had people move into the area for the Irish language projects that are here because they’ve seen something special happening here and that brings new people into the club and new people into Carntogher so everything is pushing in the one direction.”
It would be very difficult to claim any of the club’s success for Carntogher but what I will say is that the two are linked in that it’s the same people. It’s a very close community within the area and there are good ties between ourselves and the club. I couldn’t claim that either success was bound to the other, but both are integral in the community. There’s a very strong drive in Slaughtneil.
When Slaughtneil first came to national attention due to their sporting exploits, the narrative was of a rural area with a love for sport and language on its way to becoming a Gaeltacht. This, Ó Dochartaigh says, is not really an aim for the area: “As we see it, we are not a Gaeltacht area and will probably never be a Gaeltacht area. We say that because Gaeltachts are very special areas with an unbroken heritage of language. Our goal here is for the Irish language to be accessible for everybody and that within 50 years the Irish language would be the main mode of communication for the majority of the people here. We are on track for that, the majority of the children in the area go through Irish language education. We talk about being a breac-Gaeltacht or an emerging Gaeltacht.”
Carntogher is one of five areas designated as a Líonra, or Irish language network, area, along with Belfast, Ennis, Loughrea and Clondalkin. “Líonra is probably the best indication of what we are,” Ó Dochartaigh says. “That came out of the Irish language act in the south, Acht na Gaeltachta 2012, the need to classify these types of areas as something else. You’ve got Gaeltachts and then below that level is Líonra areas that can’t classify themselves as Gaeltachts just yet.”
A real sign of progress for Ó Dochartaigh has been the evolution of the narrative that the area had nothing but its club: “Slaughtneil rose to prominence and the media became aware of it; I noticed that at the start of that process that the media narrative was ‘look at this tiny community without a shop or a bar, all they have is this club’. The next year, when the media was back, they realised that something else was happening here. There is a shop, there is a post office, there’s an art centre, there’s this massive movement that isn’t really happening elsewhere. The shift went from look at this tiny club, all they do is sport, to look at this community. I thought that was a better indication of what this place is really about,” he concludes.