Belfast Telegraph

A wee man who stood tall and leaves a lasting legacy

Today at noon, men with accents from as far away as Cork, Galway, Waterford and Tipperary will file into St Michael's Church on the Andersonstown Road.

A few hundred yards up the road, the remains of Jim Nelson will be brought down from his home and his life will be celebrated.

Afterwards, some may make their way up to Shaw's Road to the St Paul's Social club. No doubt, they will linger in what is known as 'Nelson's Corner', an area dedicated to one of their most famous sons and his achievements.

As far as personalities in the world of Ulster hurling go, there are few as celebrated and recognised as Nelson's. He simply was Mr Ulster Hurling, but such a remark sounds trite for a man who hoisted northern hurling and camogie on his back and brought them with him.

Sambo McNaughton remembers the first time he met Nelson. He was wearing a fur coat and he was there to butter up Mary McNaughton, so he could ask if her 14-year-old son could play for the Antrim minors.

Several years later, Sambo was Nelson's captain for the under-21 side. The night before the Ulster final against Down, Sambo went to watch Cushendall play Loughgiel in the league. He wasn't carrying any of his gear but when the Cushendall manager spotted a few Loughgiel under-21 players togging out, he asked: "You going to stand for that?"

He togged out and played.

The next night, Nelson banned both sets of players from playing.

"I sat there, the captain," recalls Sambo in his autobiography, "and watched Down beat us by a point. I might not have said it at the time, but I respect Jim for that decision."

Several years later, Nelson kept Antrim in the top flight of hurling for several seasons. The day they won promotion was recalled years later by Ger Rogan. He said: "The last game was against Dublin. Whoever won gained promotion to Division One. It was a cold day, it was in Casement Park, and we won. But when we did, the crowd started singing 'The Green Glens of Antrim'. It was a most amazing experience."

They reached one All-Ireland final and should have got to another. Five men were made All-Stars under Nelson. In Antrim's history, they were the most competitive side ever.

After the Antrim hurling team was the Antrim camogie team, who he led to an All-Ireland intermediate title in the late '90s.

Keady camogs in south Armagh won nothing before he went there. By the time he left, they had played in an Ulster final. He spent a bit of time with O'Donovan Rossa camogs and reached an All-Ireland final.

In Loughgiel, they are under no illusion of his worth after he coached them to the 2012 All-Ireland title. "The best man-management skills I have ever seen," said manager PJ O'Mullan yesterday.

He was looking forward to this year. The players had cobbled together a home-made gym and were doing their preparations. He got a look long before he was needed.

Away from all that, he was a deeply principled man. Old fashioned in his dedication to courtesy and manners. Sambo has said: "Nelson taught you how to be a good person. If you couldn't be made into a hurler then you would be made into a good person anyway."

Behind it all lies the truism uttered by Maya Angelou: "At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel."

And Jim Nelson, the wee man from west Belfast, made everyone feel 10 feet tall.

Belfast Telegraph

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