ON Thursday, at 9.30pm on TG4 , the 21st series of ‘Laochra Gael’ returns to our screens with something shocking, surprising, infuriating and hugely affecting and emotional.
Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton is the first subject of their focus, and he takes the viewer through a life that, by his own admission, could have been a complete disaster if he hadn’t been saved by the sport of hurling, and his club Ruairí Óg, Cushendall.
The beauty of the Laochra Gael series lies in the skill of the producers who, as it has progressed and evolved, actively seek out more off-beat stories about the life behind the playing career.
If you only knew McNaughton from his playing days, then there is plenty to go on. He was one of Antrim’s few All-Stars, played in the All-Ireland final of 1989, was named on a ‘Team of the 1980s’, and won several club and Ulster Championships at club level before a lengthy and successful managerial career.
But before all that, he was a child who was left isolated in school; a stammer leaving him subject to bullying from teachers, resulting in a crippling lack of confidence.
“I hated every minute of school,” he says now, having just watched the documentary footage.
“I loved to going to the hurling field. From during the day, being at school, being an outsider and laughed at, to going to the hurling field which gave me a purpose.
“You didn’t have to communicate there. That was the beauty of the game for me. You could play about on your own.
“I am under no illusion. I needed Cushendall hurling club far more than they ever needed me. It saved me.
“To be honest, I don’t know where I might have ended up without Cushendall hurling club. I don’t know what my life would have been like and I am scared to think what it might have been.
“I believe that with every fibre of my body.
“I had no education. No confidence. No communication skills. Like, what was my future without hurling?
“It gave me a purpose and a belonging. It is wild important for kids to have a purpose. That’s what every GAA club in Ireland does without knowing it.
“To me, that’s the greatest strength of the GAA.”
One of the most poignant parts of the programme comes when his wife, Ursula, recalls her first encounter with the man she would marry. He didn’t ask her to dance on a night out. Instead, McNaughton’s niece asked her for him.
“I couldn’t speak to her,” he explains now.
“If somebody asked me the time, I used to walk on by them. I could have been on my own in the house and when the phone rang, I couldn’t answer it.
“See asking a girl out in public? That was like climbing Everest. It was never going to happen. It’s not a question of would I, or wouldn’t I?
“People don’t understand that whenever you have a stutter, some people shake their heads, others tap their foot. Some play with their hands in their pockets.
“You have to do that, all these thoughts are going through you, the emotion is building up and then…
“I would be in tears with the frustration of it.”
As to how his stammer affected other areas of his life, he makes a shocking admission.
“I remember my mother finding about £1.50 in my drawer. That was money back then. She thought I stole it.
“There was a hullabaloo at the time and I got slapped across the ear — where did I get the money from?
“That was people giving me money to go to the shop, and I couldn’t go to the shop. I couldn’t go. I couldn’t go get an ice cream. Money was absolutely no use to me.”
Being good at hurling granted him a confidence. He was lucky to come along at a time when Antrim built a good team under the guidance of the late Jim Nelson and, by the time they reached the All-Ireland final in 1989, he became a household figure.
But back then, that also posed a problem.
Being stopped on the way to training was a common occurrence.
Once those manning the checkpoints found hurling equipment in the boot of the car, they could sit there for hours.
Such hardships are spoken of with awe by contributors to the programme.
Dáithí Regan — father of Ulster Rugby’s Jack — who played on the Offaly team that Antrim beat in the ’89 semi-final speaks of it as something that simply could not be understood in other hurling strongholds.
As a young man, McNaughton was a window fitter, living in Belfast with Ursula and revealed that he was being set up to be murdered by the UDA, finding a bullet left for him with his name on it.
“It was a different world. It really, really was. Thank God it is gone,” he says.
“You couldn’t talk about it. You weren’t allowed to talk about it in case people felt ‘there is no smoke without fire.’ You would have been labelled.
“Now, we have come that far, you can talk about it.
“Like, my apprentice done time for shooting a Catholic taxi driver. He was the one that set me up and it was a crazy, crazy world we lived in back then.”
• SERIES 21 of Laochra Gael features Antrim hurler Terence McNaughton and is screened on TG4, Thursday, 9.30pm