As Northampton’s Sons of Erin GFC prepares to celebrate its 60th Anniversary the club’s treasurer and manager Anthony Dixon says it’s looking back with pride and forward with great optimism
By Damian Dolan
On 1 June, the past, present and future of Sons of Erin GFC will gather to celebrate a club, which for the past six decades has flown the flag for the GAA in Northampton.
A special Dinner Dance at the Park Inn in Northampton provides the focal point of the club’s weekend revelries, with the legendary Michael O’Miurcratigh the guest of honour.
More than 300 members, current and past, are expected to attend what will be a celebration of the club’s longevity, as much as a recognition of its successes on the pitch.
It promises to be evening befitting a club whose contribution cannot be measured in mere silverware alone, although they are pretty rich in that department.
“There’s been some tough times, but we’ve always kept it going,” treasurer and manager Anthony Dixon told the Irish World.
“Like any club, there’s always been one or two people who’ve made it their life’s work. They’re passionate about the club and you do need people like that.”
Although he wouldn’t say it himself, Anthony is one of those. But he’s far from the only one at Sons of Erin.
From Co Mayo, Anthony’s first port of call when he came to England was London. He won a junior title with the now defunct Sam Maguires in 1993.
He was encouraged to move to Northampton at the behest of a friend, who played for Sons of Erin. The rest, as Anthony puts it, is history.
While the friend eventually returned to Ireland, Anthony remained and 23 years on, he’s “entrenched” not only in the club, but the Irish community in Northampton at large, as the owner of the Swan and Helmet – one of the town’s oldest Irish pubs and for the past 15 years the club’s ‘base’.
“As soon as the club set out training that particular spring in 1996, I went along. I ended up playing for 20 years before getting involved with the management of the team,” he said.
Anthony was one of those that took up the mantle in 2009 when John Healy – the club’s talisman since the 1960s – stepped aside and passed on the baton.
It’s thanks to the Clareman, says Anthony, that there’s a Sons of Erin still around today.
John came to Northampton as a 16-year-old in 1960. He’d go along and watch the team’s games, but didn’t join the club for another few years.
As well as playing for the club’s senior team from 1968 until his retirement in 1986, he was on its 1984 Warwickshire senior championship winning team at the age of 40.
He also served as secretary and manager for more than 25 years, and is now vice president.
“John kept it going through some really lean times. He gave the club solidity and continuity during the late 1980s and 1990s when things weren’t going well,” said Anthony, whose wife Teresa plays a leading role in the club behind the scenes.
“He drove things on for many years. He got the underage going and when lads stopped coming from Ireland, there were second generation lads to pick up the slack and they kept the club going. John is a massive part of Sons of Erin.”
It’s first meeting took place in the spring of 1959 at St Patrick’s Hall in Northampton. Long since gone, it became their base.
Some of those present were Fr. Flanagan, Tim Kenneally, Paddy McDonagh, Matty McManus, Jerry Fay, Ignatious Campbell, Leo Connor, Paddy Dineen, Packy Sheehan, Joe Creighton, Jim Bonner, Bill Bonner, Danny Brennan and Tyrone native Frankie Corr.
Now 87, Frankie is still involved with the club, as president.
Another stalwart is Sean Griffin, who has been involved with ‘The Sons’ since the early 1970s.
From Leitrim, Sean spent many years as chairman and was joint manager with John for a time. He’s now vice chairman.
Even with 23 years under his belt, Anthony is still a relative a ‘new-boy’ in comparison.
Fr Flanagan is credited with giving the club its name and purchasing its first set of jerseys. The choice of red and white stripes was simply down to most of other colours having already been taken.
It wasn’t long before Sons of Erin was enjoying success. The club entered the Warwickshire football league in 1959 and two years later they won the junior championship.
The following year the club reached the senior county final – losing out to John Mitchel’s – but a new force it seemed had arrived on the Warwickshire GAA scene.
The driving force in the club’s early years were the Sullivan brothers from Monaghan – five in total played for the club during the 1960s and early 1970s.
However, Sons of Erin would have to wait another 22 years before getting its hands on the Warwickshire senior championship trophy.
Runners up in 1962, the club reached the senior final in its own right on more than ten occasions, only to come away second-best on each occasion.
The most painful of those defeats came in 1978 when ‘The Sons’ played St Brendan’s of Birmingham in Northampton. For John Healy, it was the ‘near miss’.
‘The Sons’ led by seven or eight points with less than ten minutes to go, only for Brendan’s to salvage a draw. On ‘The Sons’ team that was Liam Donoghue, who played for Mayo. Brendan’s won the replay in Birmingham by two points.
“I couldn’t believe it, but that’s football for you,” says John with a laugh. “As a club, we’ve had our ups and downs, but we just keep going.”
Not just a Gaelic football club, in 1964 Sons of Erin spawned a hurling club, St Patrick’s, also based in Northampton, but its existance would be short.
By the mid-1960s the club was flourishing. The club’s own ‘history’ mentions that ‘many people, both men and women, devoted lots of their time to fundraising; numerous hours were spent organising raffles, running dinner dances and taking care of team jerseys’.
By the late 1960s Sons of Erin had become the social hub for the Irish community in Northampton. Its influence spread far beyond taking to the pitch on every Sunday.
“They were the best years of our lives. The boys were coming over in droves at that time. It was mighty; good Craic,” recalled John, whose sons went on to represent Warwickshire and played at Croke Park in the 2002 World Games.
The 1970s also proved fruitful. The hurling club was reformed and in 1973 won a junior hurling championship and league double. It would eventually, however, fall by the wayside 15 years later.
In 1984, in the GAA’s centenary year, the club enjoyed its most successful-ever season.
Not only did it win the senior title for the first and only time – as part of an amalgamation with O’Rahillys of neighbouring Corby – the club also won the intermediate championship, in its own right. Ironically it was O’Rahillys they beat in the final.
‘The Sons’ also walked away with three other cups that year.
While a second senior title (and one won in its sole name) has continued to elude the club, they have been no strangers to silverware in the mean-time.
In 1995 they won the junior league and championship double, and the JFK Cup.
And since 2011 the success has continued. In 2012, Sons of Erin clinched an intermediate league and championship double.
A junior championship and league double followed in 2016, with the club in the midst of a “purple patch’.
Last year it added another junior championship title, with a team a third of which was homegrown. Anthony expects that figure to rise.
It’s a point of particular pride and credit to the work done at underage by Mark Quinn, from Down, who has helped to revive the club’s once hugely successful underage.
One of those to ‘step up’ after John Healy handed over the baton, Mark is a former senior footballer with the club.
A teacher, Mark introduced Gaelic football at his school eight years ago, and it “took off from there” with Saturday morning training sessions following.
Now, the club can boast underage teams from under 8s right through to Minor, and the senior team is starting to reap the benefits.
Another to ‘pick up the mantle’ was Noel Cotter, who played for ‘The Sons’ in the 90s, only to return ten years later as manager.
While its current chairman, following in some auspicious company, Mayoman Neil Campbell, is another.
It’s the likes of Campbell, Dixon, Quinn and secretary Sean McCarthy who have taken the club on, with Healy, Corr and Griffin – the club’s very own ‘Three Wise Men’ – there if and when needed to provide a reassuring word or two.
“Those boys are the ones keeping it going now, and we’re just helping them out,” said John.
“And fair play to them, they’ve gathered up a nice little team now – they’re a lovely team.”
Anthony said: “Underage has been a big part of keeping things going and helping us to survive, because the players just aren’t coming over from Ireland. It’s been a massive help in feeding the senior team.”
Now, for the first time in a “long time” the club once again has a successful underage structure that is beginning to flourish.
It means that Sons of Erin can face the future with confidence, and that second senior Warwickshire title is still out there waiting to be won.
But if not, the club will continue to fly the flag for the GAA in Northampton, just as it has for the past six decades.