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Spirits are high in Cushendall as big All-Ireland club hurling showdown looms

By Declan Bogue

Few grown men are prepared to admit that they believe in the supernatural.

Less again would go as far as to admit that they are cautious when it comes to the 'Little People'.

Not Neil McManus though. The Cushendall hurler getting ready for the St Patrick's Day All-Ireland club hurling final explains his rationale comes from his surrounds and upbringing.

"It's hard not to be affected by it. Cushendall is in my blood. The Glens of Antrim… like, I feel strongly about my traditional music, about the folklore that surrounds the different places and the Little People.

"There is lots and lots of folklore about the fields around here, about the Little People and the Faerie People and stuff like that."

Read more: Liam Neeson urges Cushendall Ruairi Ogs hurling team to capture the All-Ireland trophy on St Patrick's Day

He can tell you about Tierveragh, a small hill nearby with a volcanic plug; a Faerie Hill where the trees only grow on one side of it.

You don't have to believe yourself, of course. People are naturally cynical and science and media have all but obliterated old customs, but they tend to live on longer in places like Cushendall, hemmed in by the sea and the mountains.

"That's why the Gaelic language was spoken here right into the late 1800s by everyone. Access was only gained via the sea to Cushendall, and the main town next to us was Campbelltown in Scotland. That was where you travelled to for business and trading," McManus adds.

The Scottish connection offers explanation of why hurling has such a grip on this area. While the ancient sport was popularised between villages over the flat grasslands of Munster, hurling in the Glens was almost entirely influenced by the Shinty game, played on the beaches of Cushendun and Cushendall.

There are few journalistic duties as joyous as the press day of a team preparing for an All-Ireland final. The community is engaged and children of all colours are scattered all over the Cushendall pitch with their hurls and sliotars, pucking about and hunting for autographs from men who are their neighbours.

Positivity clings to you for days afterwards. To think that men engaged in healthy activity can be role models for their own community is growing rare in sport.

Effectively, players become ambassadors for the sport and for the area.

Another Ruairi Óg man, Karl McKeegan, explains: "During the summer we have a lot of visitors here and they all come to watch hurling. One day I was down at the ball wall and there were people from all walks of life. They are so interested in hurling and they have heard so much about it.

"It's mad, like. You walk down the street and there are kids just banging balls at each other.

"Everybody now, you can walk through the street and people will know you. Not that you want to be recognised walking down the street, but now they are, 'ah, there's Karl! There's Neil!'"

Those that regard the GAA warily or with suspicion, should really tune into the BBC True North series next Monday to see Thomas Niblock's excellent documentary on Crossmaglen Rangers.

Two central characters of the narrative are Oisín McConville and John McEntee. They answer plenty of questions about the effect the Troubles had on this area and how they were conditioned not to engage with the British Army.

Within the programme, a former soldier who had been based in Crossmaglen returns to the village and talks with Oisín, their barriers of misunderstandings breaking down. They part on friendly terms.

A club like Crossmaglen shielded McConville and McEntee from paramilitary activity. Asked if they had ever considered that path in life, McEntee answers: "I know for certain I was never asked. I was too busy playing football, getting educated, too busy trying to get on with life."

McConville admits that he would have been "scared s***less".

Playing for their club gave them a standing in the community. When McConville acknowledged his own gambling addiction and went into rehab - an issue confronted head-on - it was the club that picked him up again and helped him regain his belief system.

He went on to add a glorious few final chapters to his playing career, where once he entertained thoughts of suicide.

Having gained so much from the GAA, he gives it back now as manager and coach. Not only did he bring Cross to the Ulster title last year, but managed Dundalk IT to the Trench Cup last month.

Ten years ago, this writer spoke to Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton of Cushendall. At the time, he was nurturing Antrim minors.

"Every time I lift a caman or step onto a field, it’s like I’m spreading culture. When I’m coaching eight year old kids, I’m passing on the culture that was given to me at the same age," he said.

Ten years on, four of those Antrim minors, including his son Shane, step out onto Croke Park to play in the All-Ireland club final for Ruairi Óg.

In a week after the Sharapova farce, sometimes it's good to see that sport can reward the good guys.

Belfast Telegraph

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