Irish News GAA Ulster Allstars: a night to salute the brightest and best
AMONG a galaxy of Ulster’s brightest GAA stars, guest speaker, and Irish rugby international Tommy Bowe, shone brightest at a really memorable 25th annual Irish News Ulster GAA All Stars gala dinner in the Armagh City Hotel.
The Orchard County was bursting with life as Nature flings out her fruit before dying in ice, as the Irish News honoured our perennial legends of the Fall.
And there was a rich harvest in store for the award winners who wear the bright and invincible armour of youth.
Welcoming all, Irish News Editor Noel Doran recalled more modest beginnings in 1995 but we “are a little bit more ambitious now.”
Mr Doran said the reason the awards had grown was because there was a demand to recognise the foremost performers in gaelic football, hurling camogie and ladies football.
He added that the team of 1999 was also being recognised and welcomed Tommy Bowe, who is now a TV presenter and a fashion designer as well.
Elsewhere, Rory O’Connor of Rory’s Stories gave a robust performance as a somewhat manic GAA figure who accosted a number of the stars of the night to give them his earthy advice…. straight from the Plains of Meath, and it was not for the sensitive.
Tommy Bowe's chat with the skilful, probing MC Joanne Cantwell was the highlight of a truly star-spangled night where Donegal took eight All Stars and Peter Canavan showed why some refer to him as “God”, as he took the coveted Player of the Past 25 Years award.
Bowe has all the grace and gravitas of the old Gaels, a proud Monaghan man who loves the GAA as much as he does rugby the game he excelled in for his province and country.
But his first love was playing for his GAA club and his county.
It is a long way from Emyvale to a trip on a Lions tour to the Southern Hemisphere, but you would just know that the gracious grounded Tommy is the same wherever he goes.
His story about ending up on Hill 16 watching Ireland beat the “auld enemy” in that emotional encounter in Croke Park in 2007, when the hand of history swept his country to a great victory, was really moving.
Tommy did not make the final 23 and had to use his GAA contacts to get a ticket.
He got the inevitable “wtf” are you doing here but handled it with grace and gravitas.
“I remember when the English anthem was played it was so quiet that it was deafening and then Amhran na bhFiann….that was special.''
Tommy spoke eloquently and frankly about the dark days lurking behind the tinsel of triumph, but there was no cloying self-pity about getting 0-10 for a performance in a paper, an engaging honesty that is impossible to fake.
He did not make the World Cup squad either that year and admitted: “2007 was probably the lowest point of my career.”
Two years later he won a Grand Slam with Ireland and then went on a Lions tour.
But on a more positive note, he added: “I am proud to see people from Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal come to watch Ulster in action because it is not about religion, it is about bringing people together and that is what sport is.”
Of course, there were lighter moments too, when he was confronted with the sight of the burly Welsh second row, Alwyn Jones 6.6 and 19 stone lying in the bath with a “shower cap on singing his heart out and shaving his legs” a member of a “mad” Welsh side who like to have their legs tanned in their famous “look good, play good” mantra.
But this was a night of celebration in old Armagh, a night for old friends to remember and argue about who should be on the All Stars team and who should not.
A night of great positivity of what the very best of the GAA can be in Ulster.
A night when the Gaels of Ulster salute their brightest and best under a harvest moon and the fruits of the summer are savoured over the long winter nights.