The Sierra Maestra of Kilcoo alive again and ready for the games
As the clock ticks down to the return of Gaelic Games tomorrow, Brendan Crossan took a trip back to Kilcoo and met up with Paul Devlin to gauge what lockdown has been like in the Co Down parish...
THE Sierra Maestra of Kilcoo. Known as God’s Country to the villagers. My first and last visit to the sprawling parish that fits snugly into the side of the Mourne Mountains was on a cold, dark winter’s night at the beginning of the year.
It was Kilcoo’s All-Ireland Club press night, just a couple of weeks out from their joust with Connacht kingpins and serial winners Corofin at Croke Park.
An interview with Kilcoo playmaker Paul Devlin had been arranged.
Only for the moon rippling on its calm waters, you would never have known Lough Island Reavy was beside you along the road.
It was a time when we were blasé about everything – when football was the centre of our universe. Seven months on, everything has changed, and nothing changes in Kilcoo.
Under brooding skies and an ill wind, football remains the centre of their universe.
Winter’s nightfall back in January ensured you could appreciate nothing beyond the village lights.
A Tuesday afternoon in July should have been different.
The rolling hills surrounding the village should have been doused in resplendent sunshine. Instead, the majestic Mournes are buried under a thick mist.
As soon as you see the road sign welcoming you at the mouth of Kilcoo, it’s a sharp right turn along a narrow lane that sweeps up and down.
Just at the entrance gates of Eoghan Rua, you’ll see the famous white stones along the banks of the lough read: ‘NHS – GAA.’
Seven months on from the club’s All-Ireland press night, Paul Devlin has agreed to meet again.
The clubrooms have a height advantage over the two pitches that look impossibly green and beautiful.
The only sounds of the day are rain smacking off the gym’s corrugated roof and the solitary, rhythmic thump of Niall Morgan’s hammer.
Morgan is putting a bit of shape on the new pavilion – currently in its shell-like phase. He is also the club groundsman who seems to have manicured every single blade of grass of the two nearby pitches below him over the last four months.
He played full-back in the ’09 Kilcoo side - when the first seeds of the revolution were sown.
As the rain gathers momentum, Morgan nods in my direction.
Paul Devlin pulls up in his car.
Smiles and elbow bumps, but no handshakes. Part of the new ‘normal’.
With hand sanitiser at the ready and two socially distant chairs in the empty gym, the 30-year-old footballer tries to make sense of the last four months.
Just three days to go until the GAA’s historic and decidedly tentative return to action, Devlin can’t wait to make the short trip to Hilltown on Friday night to face arch rivals Clonduff in a league game.
The affable Kilcoo attacker smiles at the prospect.
Will the pandemic have softened this age-old rivalry?
“Definitely not,” Devlin fires back. “You probably couldn’t pick a bigger match.
“I’d say Clonduff will raise their game because we’re Ulster champions as well. Any team that’s playing Kilcoo, they’ll be playing the Ulster champions.
“So it is a matter of making sure we’re at our level because they’ll be trying to knock us out of our stride.”
In the early stages of lockdown back in March and with the club gates padlocked until further notice, the sense of “limbo” was the worst aspect of the pandemic for Devlin.
“To be honest, this place is the hub of the community.
“Every night you just seemed to be down here doing things. You missed the people around the community.
“Everything was closed. The gates were locked. You’d be walking across the lough and looking down. It was sad to see the pitches being locked for so long. You never really thought something like that would happen.”
As time edged forward, Devlin discovered a few new hobbies while being furloughed from his electrical engineering job.
He climbed Slieve Donard for the first time, borrowed a bicycle and discovered beaches he never knew existed. He kept himself in good physical condition with 5k and 10k runs through the forest.
Despite filling his days, the four months away from the club were the toughest. When the padlocks were cast off the gates, the villagers felt alive again.
“I remember I was down in the shop and a woman said to me: ‘We’re back, we’re back.’ She was just over the moon the gates were going to be open again and the kids were going to be back playing.”
With his earphones and a bag of balls, Devlin headed for the pitch.
Freedom had arrived.
“When I was kicking about last week on my own, the next thing there were people walking along the towpath of the pitch. And one of the kids was just delighted to be on the pitch to kick the balls back out to me as I was kicking them in. Things like that you take for granted, the simple things.”
While he laments that no spectators will be allowed to witness the historic return to the playing field tomorrow evening, Devlin has a clear sense of perspective.
Last Saturday, the club held an outdoor mass.
Devlin spoke to one elderly lady who told him it was the first time she’d left her house in three-and-a-half months.
Freedom comes in different guises. The Sierra Maestra of Kilcoo is alive again…