Paul Devlin: County Down by birth - Kilcoo by the grace of God
Paul Devlin was been one of the mainstays of the Kilcoo team since 2009. Speaking to Brendan Crossan ahead of Sunday's All-Ireland final against Corofin, he traces his steps and expresses his pride of being born in the small Co Down village high up in the Mourne Mountains...
WELCOME to the People’s Republic of Kilcoo.
Where the moon lights the road that climbs and sweeps high into the Mourne Mountains until you feel the presence of Lough Island Reavy shimmering quietly beside you.
On this cool January night, the skies above are clear and black, an astronomer’s dream. And then there is the first defiant flutter of black and white on the grassy edges of the road.
Bunting hangs tightly from one street lamp to the other. You’re surrounded by signs of ‘Up The Magpies’, #UTM and ‘Kings of Ulster’.
This is the cradle of the revolution and where it is nurtured. When you have to wait 72 years to land your next county title, you make sure you build on it.
After capturing the 2009 senior county title, the people of Eoghan Rua certainly built on it. They became Kings of Down in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019.
Now, for the first time, they’re Kings of Ulster.
Next Sunday at Croke Park they will try and take one more giant, historic step by winning the All-Ireland crown by dancing with Galway’s finest and defending champions Corofin.
In the local shop in the village, the cluttered counter is filled with black and white flags, scarves and commemorative booklets, and you can purchase Terry Cowan’s CD, entitled: ‘Up The Magpies’ for a fiver.
On the front edge of the village are the grounds of Kilcoo GAC, the spiritual hub of the community, its raison d'être.
On the final climb to reach the clubrooms a gable wall is the last remnant of a small stone house that has ‘Fáilte’ inscribed on it.
It's Thursday tea-time, 10 days out from the All-Ireland final, the night when the great and the good of the GAA media world have been invited to the Co Down village to find out how a small parish of just over 1,000 people have managed to scale such dizzy heights.
Paul Devlin, one of the cerebral cogs in the Kilcoo team, greets you with a broad smile.
He's not meant to be asking the questions but he enquires anyway with giddy enthusiasm: "Do you think we'll beat Corofin?"
If you believe all what you read and hear about the Kilcoo footballers, they have no amiable face.
But Kilcoo’s easy-going number 11, the man with a left foot to die for, doesn’t live up to the prevailing stereotype.
As soon as Jim McCorry arrived for his second stint as Magpies manager in 2007, Paul Devlin would come to play an integral role in the club’s inexorable surge to the top.
“I had Paul from 2009 right through to 2015 and I had him when I was in with Down as well,” says McCorry.
“Paul is a very quietly spoken fella. He’s like a lot of those Kilcoo boys. People need to be very, very careful dealing with Kilcoo footballers because they’re the nicest people you could meet off the field, but once they pull that Kilcoo jersey on and cross that white line, they are different people.
“When Paul goes out onto the field, he’s a different person. Since those early days I think he’s brought a physicality to his game and has become one of the leaders of the team…
“The thing about him is he will waste nothing with the ball. He’s a sublime kick passer over any distance, and from a scoring point of view he misses very, very little. He is just lethal.”
Devlin always seemed to be in the up-and-coming bracket. Smiling. Ageless. Often brilliant.
But the years fly by and he’s now approaching his 30th birthday.
He’s pocketed eight county titles and one Ulster medal.
You immediately sense Kilcoo is a place apart. Where you never truly understand the people and what they stand for unless you’re one of them.
Sitting in the community centre that overlooks its two pitches, Devlin says: “In front of our house there’s the backdrop of the lough and there are mountains behind us.
“It’s a lovely place to live. It is quiet. It’s the kind of place if something happens everybody hears about it in a couple of hours.”
Among the million flags, the endless miles of bunting and countless black and white signs erected around the village, there is one that sticks out more than any other for Devlin which illustrates pride of place.
“You see all the signs coming up to big finals: ‘UTM’, Up the Magpies or ‘Come On Kilcoo’. But if you drive down Kilcoo during the day there’s a sign as if you’re going to Hilltown that says: ‘Born in County Down – Kilcoo by the grace of God.’”
From that, you ask what it means to come from Kilcoo.
“It means everything. This is where you grow up, this is where you’ll be remembered.
“The club itself and the people around it; you’ve so much time for them and they’ve so much time for you. To win things and to give them days out in different places and to celebrate, it unites us. It gives a lot of memories to the people of Kilcoo that will be with them forever.”
There is an unmistakable island mentality about the place – one that former managers Jim McCorry and Paul McIver would have been fools not to exploit to their advantage as the conveyor belt of county titles rolled in.
“People interpret us in different ways in terms of how we go about our business,” Devlin says.
“Sometimes you want to be different from everybody else. When you’re not winning things everybody seems to like you. I remember in ’09, everyone was behind us and really supportive, but since then… it’s hard to put your finger on it.
“Over the years we maybe got some bad press and people blew things out of proportion. But it seems it’s turning the corner a wee bit, people all over the country have a bit more respect and appreciate what we do.
“When you’re winning, people want to knock you off your perch. People hate you – hatred is probably too strong a word – but us boys, we thrive on that.
“We love to see a challenge coming because it’s obviously something you want to overcome. Playing against rival clubs who want to knock you off the top, you lift your game that wee bit more to keep them where they are and keep us at the top.
“But I try to avoid talking about football outside of football, if you know what I mean.”
Devlin’s early life started and ended with football. His father Sean played up until the early ‘Noughties’ when Kilcoo finally broke the glass ceiling of Division One.
In those days, Paul never missed a training session or game.
“Any time there was training on I was down getting the balls out for them or something,” he remembers.
“My father brought my other brothers [Sean and Marty] up to the club. He had us practising the basics of Gaelic football. When you look at it, the basic things are the most effective things in Gaelic football.
“He always had me out in the front garden or playing against the wall, down the field, making sure I was practising my left and right, not just one foot.
“When I was growing up Kilcoo were Division Two and Three but I looked up to all the players and believed that they were the best about. I knew everybody’s name, I knew what they were good at and what they weren’t good at by just watching them constantly. Now, a lot of their nephews, sons and cousins are in the squad.
“The first real big final I remember was when they got to the Intermediate final in 1998 and Liatroim beat them. But they got promoted that year into Division One.
“I admired players like Anthony Devlin. He was a real hard player. I got to play with Anthony for a couple of years. I remember Sean O’Hanlon’s brother – Brian – I played along with him.
“Gary McEvoy was another player I looked up to. He was a very, very sharp inside forward. I didn’t think I was going to get playing with him either, but I got more than a couple of years with Gary. I didn’t get playing with Jerome Johnston senior, but he was a good player back in his day. And Marty Johnston was a good player. You can see how [current players] Jerome and Ryan are similar to their father and their uncles.
“Football is just everything here. People don’t realise how much of a hub football is to the community. Every single person in Kilcoo is involved in some way or another.”
For all of Kilcoo’s warrior spirit, Devlin enjoyed the “exquisite pass” more than anything else. Anthony Devlin’s trademark passes with the outside of his left foot always stood out for him.
So, it was no surprise Devlin became entranced by some of the great playmakers of his childhood – Brian McGuigan, Declan O’Sullivan and Padraic Joyce.
Spoken like a true playmaker, Devlin says: “Scores, to me, are just the end product at the end of the day. I’d rather see the crowd applaud a great pass.”
Everything Devlin touches has artistic merit, none more so than his exceptional penalty that turned the tide in their memorable quarter-final replay win over Burren back in September.
He’s also learned a lot from Conor Laverty, his current team-mate, who coached him at U12 level.
“Conor has great on-field management. Even against Ballyboden in our All-Ireland semi-final, I said to Conor: ‘Get back there and draw a free or kill the game because we can’t get out.’
“He’s the only man on our team that could have done that. He knew where to be. He drew a free and used his experience."
Fifteen passes later, through the hands and feet, Ryan McEvoy accepted an off-load and fired over Ballyboden's bar to ensure Kilcoo’s place in next Sunday’s All-Ireland final.
For Devlin, the Ballyboden game was the most enjoyable of the whole lot this year.
“We just stepped up another level. I just really, really enjoyed the frantic pace, the hits, everything about it.”
But finally annexing Ulster was up there with any emotional high he’s experienced while wearing the black and white of Kilcoo.
To varying degrees, they’d fallen short on the provincial stage since winning their first county title in 72 years back in 2009.
The Loup, Crossmaglen Rangers, Ballinderry and Slaughtneil all proved too strong for them, but their lowest point wasn't any of those defeats.
It was losing the 2018 county final to arch rivals Burren, which ended Kilcoo's six-in-a-row run.
“It probably gave players that five or six months’ rest and to really think about how much we wanted it,” Devlin says.
“You don’t realise how much something means to you ‘til you lose it. So it really did hit us hard and we couldn’t wait to get back to another final.
“Since Mickey Moran has come in we’ve won more or less everything that’s been put in front of us.”
After turning over Glenties to win Ulster last month, Devlin wished that the birth certs hadn't denied the likes of Anthony Devlin, Dominic McEvoy and Gary McEvoy, all recently retired, the chance of savouring provincial success.
“I was thinking about boys that have retired over the last four years or so. They tried so hard to get one and they didn’t get one. Those boys really stick out in my head.”
Devlin was part of Down’s 2010 All-Ireland final squad. Still in his teens, he was really only along for the experience.
Five years later he played at Croke Park in Down’s Division Two final defeat to Roscommon.
He played some of his best football for Down that season and it was no coincidence his mentor Jim McCorry was in charge.
Over the past decade, Devlin has flitted on and off Down’s radar.
You sense that the county never quite got the best out of him.
“To be honest, I’ve always been the type of person that it’s all or nothing.
“If you’re not giving your all you may as well not be there. Last year I really enjoyed Paddy Tally’s first year. He’s a very, very good man-manager, he talks to you about the games.
“I didn’t think I was going to go back last year, to be honest, but I went for it and I really enjoyed it. And the training I have done has benefited me. I also had a great year under Jim McCorry with Down.
“But, it is what it is now. I always say to myself if I’m not making the county, people can judge me on my club form.
“At the end of the day, the only people I care about that have an opinion of me is the people of Kilcoo. If they’re saying: ‘You’re playing well for us’, then I’m happy enough with that.”
Paul Devlin was born in Co Down – Kilcoo by the grace of God.