If Louth LGFA was a person appearing on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, its friend at the end of the phone line would be Dermot Woods. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
If Louth LGFA was a person appearing on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, its friend at the end of the phone line would be Dermot Woods. In an era where campaigns pertaining to females in sport are humming, nobody else - man or woman - has done as much for ladies’ Gaelic football in this county.
His three terms, across as many decades, as County Board chairman have coincided with an upwardly mobile level of interest that continues to peak annually. It’s a trend he and a loyal band of lieutenants, many of whom remain involved, have contributed significantly towards since LGFA in The Wee County got on its feet once and for all in 1992.
For those unfamiliar with the Shelagh man, he’s an omnipresent figure at games of all grades and a reservoir of fun, forever trying to make others laugh and smile. A larger than life character brimming with yarns and tales, he has his own story.
“I probably was the lesser talented of seven brothers who played for Naomh Malachi, but it - my career, if you like - was cut short by illness really,” he tells The Democrat, almost hesitating to disclose any further detail.
Spells in hospital through the 1980s were returning little in the form of a resolution to his condition. There were blackouts and seizures until finally a Dublin-based consultant joined the dots and diagnosed his epilepsy. No more playing football was the advice and, oddly enough for a man more accustomed to doing his own thing, Dermot listened.
Instead, over the years to follow, he served as his club’s first-ever PRO and as the Mals’ County Board delegate for nine years, a role which, little did he know, would give him the grounding required for a prolonged period presiding over the ladies’ game.
“That game made national headlines, an ordinary league game.”
Prior to his playing retirement, Dermot and his six brothers were part of a breakthrough success for Naomh Malachi, as the Courtbane men earned the junior championship title in 1979, just over a decade after their formation.
“We came very close on a number of occasions around the mid-70s and in 1979 we won our first championship, which was a special, special day that’s still talked about in the club,” he adds.
“We’ve won four championships since, but the people who were around in ’79 still reflect on that day. Your first championship win for your club is special and for us, as a family, it was equally satisfying in the sense that three of us played on the team and the other four were among the subs.
“Even yet it’s great that we played such a role in the success.”
Modest in trying to distance himself from the triumph, given he was listed among the reserves, Woods has his medal and there came a time when all seven brothers would field together in the royal red.
It’s a feat they’d have dreamt of in their childhood days playing in the garden. With two older sisters having married young, eight remained, his youngest sibling, Lilly, being the odd one out.
“We used to play four-a-side on a small green in front of the house and she would be right in the middle of it. She got as much a kickin’ about as I did!”
The rough and tumble clearly served her well, though. Lilly (Dowdall) went on to become a star for the various teams in the Hackballscross area before Naomh Malachi formed a ladies’ side, with Dermot a founding member, in 1993.
She starred for Inniskeen in the meantime, but made her presence felt upon coming back to line-out for the Mals, as one of Woods’ long-time County Board allies, Johann Fedigan, can vouch for.
“In 1995 we beat Hunterstown, 6-10 to 2-4, to win the Division Two league in our second season competing,” Dermot recalls, giggling: “Our lassie scored 6-4 in that game. Johann played in goals for Hunterstown and she still talks about the hammering she took!”
All in good humour, mind, considering both Lilly and Johann remain serving executive members. But there have been tough moments amid Dermot’s involvement across both codes. Having served as a referee for almost 20 years, the highlight of which was whistling the 1994 intermediate championship final meeting of Lannléire and John Mitchel’s in Ardee, he learned to take abuse. Albeit, he reflects, not all that often.
Yet there is an incident which remains etched on his mind. It had an effect and left an incisive mental cut.
“I’d say I was one of the few referees at the time, in the early ’90s, who liked to let the game flow as much as possible, but that can backfire, as it did in that instance.”
A league game involving Newtown Blues and Stabannon Parnells turned nasty when Louth star Colin Kelly suffered a leg break. Match abandoned, but distress was palpable, in the referees’ room especially, until a legend offered some solace.
“It would be fair to say that prior to the incident, in which he got his leg broken, he was fouled and I gave him an advantage.
“He got away from his marker having been fouled, but the second tackle is where he received his broken leg. As a result, some of the spectators said that I should have blown for the first foul. Thus, the incident wouldn’t have taken place.
“The injury was horrific, but one of the things I’ll always remember is going back to the dressing room and feeling a bit anguished because of the extent of the injury.
“There was a knock on the door and I just expected more abuse, but it was Jim Mulroy, a legendary Louth player and Blues’ manager at the time. He said he saw exactly what I was trying to do, ‘I was trying to give him an advantage and while some of our people aren’t happy about it, feel no guilt over it’. He said I’d done nothing wrong.
“Coming from a man like that made me feel a bit better, although the injury was serious for Colin Kelly.”
And then, on his third coming as chief of Louth LGFA, there was the sudden death of team manager Micheal McKeown, in 2018. Woods, the man who gave the Channonrock native the post, had to appoint a boss mid-season as The Reds sought All-Ireland junior glory 20 years after first winning the title. He chose Darren Bishop.
“It was a very hard situation to be in as you had to get a replacement strategy in place while trying to be sensitive and making sure everyone was feeling okay.
“Darren was a close friend of Micheal’s and knew the squad having been involved in a small way before Micheal passed away. So I knew he was the man and I stuck by that decision even when the pressure came on after the All-Ireland final defeat that year by Limerick.
“People wanted a change in management, but we stuck by Darren and it delivered at Croke Park last September. From something so dreadfully sad came what Micheal had taken the job to achieve. Darren, I knew, was the right man to drive that mission.”
“Ladies football became fashionable and clubs began to pop-up all over the place. I think we went from five in 1996 to eighteen 10 years later.”
Having, with the help of a group including Kitty Begley, Paddy McArdle, Seán Moley and Dympna Lenihan, got ladies’ football going in Naomh Malachi, acting as chairman and manager of the club, Dermot joined the LGFA County Board as a delegate in 1994, serving as vice-chairman under Joe Sheridan in ’95 and the following year before landing the central role unopposed in 1997.
Football was strong at the time, with St. Joseph’s a major force and an incredible Cooley Kickhams outfit emerging. While the Mals were summoning a side which would challenge for the best part of the next 15 years.
Joe’s, winners of the championship in the year Dermot took charge, won the subsequent Leinster junior title, yet Louth, on the inter-county circuit, weren’t what the chairman wanted. And he made his feelings known.
“We’d some very good people on the County Board at the time. Bob Doheny was secretary and Anne Marie King, a legendary St. Kevin’s player and a wonderful person, was involved. Sue Callan came in as well and Johann Fedigan came on board around the time too.
“It was just a matter of making sure the games were played, we didn’t have as much bureaucracy to deal with, but one of things I said when assuming office in ’97 was that the profile of the game had to be raised and I set about doing that. Match reports had to be in the ’papers and all the rest.
“The county team weren’t reaching their potential at all at the time either and I said that had to be improved. The performances simply weren’t matching the ability that was in the squad.
“I did ruffle a few feathers and people weren’t happy with comments I made at meetings, but I would argue what I was saying was justified because performances picked up over the years to follow.
“It was clear that the players were there, it was just a matter of getting them organised properly and getting the commitment that was necessary. If players see things not being done in a professional enough manner they will shy away, but when they see things being done right they’ll come back.”
And they did. In ’98, under Tony Melia, Louth won the junior All-Ireland, piping Roscommon in the decider at Croke Park having seen off Tyrone in an infamous semi-final, played to a finish in near darkness at Páirc Naomh Malachi just days after the Omagh bombing.
The following year, with Alo McGrath in charge and Dermot Agnew and Joey Kirk remaining as selectors, the intermediate title was won, Kerry and Cork having fallen to Louth along the way, while the team played regularly in Division One through the early noughties.
Meanwhile, the club scene was becoming ferocious despite Cooley’s dominance. Kickhams tasted county and provincial glory at junior and intermediate level over the same years, while, in 2000, they defeated Ballyboden St. Enda’s in the Leinster senior final, only for a successful objection to see their crown dislodged in the enforced replay.
“That was a sensational Cooley team. Nuala Murphy could run from one end of the field to the other all day long; Anne Marie Murphy is probably the best forward Louth has ever produced; Lorraine Muckian: a sensational player; Elaine Rogan in the middle of the field… so many good players all over the field and they were all feeding into the Louth team.”
Stepping away after five years at the helm, Dermot’s focus returned solely to his club as an incredible era got underway. The men’s team won the intermediate championship thrice between 2002 and 2009, while his ladies’ outfit knocked Cooley off their perch, taking the senior grade’s coveted prize five times in six years, with Orlaith Kirk and Caroline Lynch major players.
“There was nearly a championship every year for five or six years; it was great. When the girls were playing in the finals there was fantastic support for them and likewise with the girls going to support the boys. It was just a great time all round.”
So good, in fact, that Dermot got a wee bit forgetful…
“My daughter used to go with me to every game; from she was 18 months old I could go nowhere without her.
“After one of the championship finals we ended up in the Lisdoo and most of the players were carrying her around.
“It was time for me to go home at whatever time and I went home… with no Laura. You can imagine what was said when I got home to the house, so I had to race back to the Lisdoo and retrieve my daughter.
“Not that there was a bother on her because she was being treated like royalty by some of the players.”
Looking back, he quips: “We all make mistakes!”
“They say you shouldn’t go back, but I did... twice.”
But, by 2007, he had returned as chairman. The first of two firefighting missions.
“I’ve done three terms as chairman of Louth LGFA and the reason I’ve come in is either because there’s problems to be sorted out or that there was nobody to do the job.
“I got the call in 2007 to go back and, like a fool, I did, and I stayed until 2010.
“Louth were going very badly at the time and so I went for the old reliables, Alo McGrath and Dermot Agnew, to steady the ship and by 2010 we were back in the All-Ireland junior final.”
Requested to clear up another sorry state of affairs in 2017, he obliged, completing a further two years before relinquishing the post once more to take over PRO duties. A fourth tenure, he feels, isn’t on the cards.
“It’s well organised and there’s more people of high calibre involved at County Board level now. The delegates are probably as good as ever and the meetings are very constructive.
“The future is definitely very bright with so many talented young players coming through and for me when I leave a job I like for it to be much better than I found it. I’d like to think that any time I came in I did the best I could and left it in a good place.”
What has he got out of it all?
“There’s nothing like the satisfaction you get when you put in so much and then see the players running out at Croke Park, because they’re fulfilling their dreams. I was never good enough to play at Croke Park, but to play a small part in the players achieving their dreams, that’s what it’s all about.”
Are there regrets? Well, the Mals folding in 2011 was a disappointment given the success they had - 14 championship finals in 17 years - yet there are so many fond memories. The same with Louth. 1998, winning at HQ, trumps all.
“Nothing will ever beat winning the first All-Ireland at Croke Park.”
Although watching his niece, Sinead, play her part in last year’s victory ranks highly, possibly just below his club’s JFC capture of 41 years ago.
Not bad for “the lesser talented of seven brothers”.