John McKillop - the most famous face of Ruairi Ogs

John McKillop ahead of Cushendall's county final against Ballycastle
Picture by Seamus Loughran  

IN THE fading light Paddy McGill rested his hurl across the back of his neck. The date was October 25, 2015. 

Ruairi Og, Cushendall had just won the UIster title, edging out Slaughtneil after extra-time. Paddy, standing at pitch-side, had played his part in a magnificent game of hurling. 

The Athletic Grounds field was colonised by every man, woman and child from Cushendall. As Paddy was trying to come to terms with an unforgettable encounter, John McKillop was at his side patting Cushendall’s number 10 on the back. 

John McKillop is the club’s number one fan. I happened to ask John his thoughts on what we’d just witnessed. But he was lost for words. 

So he passed me on to Paddy for a few post-match comments. John listened intently while still patting Paddy on the back a few more times. Every time I cover a Cushendall game, John McKillop’s there, in the thick of things.

“He’s part of the furniture, part of the Cushendall club,” says Neil McManus. 

“He’s been there long before I was ever there. Every championship-winning photograph of the team – from ’81, ’85, ’87, ’91, ’92, ’93, ’96, ’99, ’05, ’06, ’08, ’14 and ’15 - John’s in every one of them.”

I met Terence McNaughton last week for a cup of tea. I asked him: ‘Who is this guy John McKillop?’

Terence stopped munching on his ham and cheese toastie and sat his knife and fork down. “What do you say about John?” he mused.

“John’s just part of us. He really is part of our hurling team. Always was. He’s one of us. He’s part of Cushendall’s DNA.” 

Now, just to confuse people, there are three John McKillops associated with the Ruairi Ogs. There’s a John McKillop who manages the team. To make things a little easier around the place, they call him ‘Smokey’. There’s another John McKillop who is a selector. 

And then, of course, there’s John McKillop the main man, the club’s super fan, the most famous one of the three who knows more than the trees can tell of great Cushendall teams of the past. He’s the epitome of what the GAA is about. He’s weaved into the fabric of the north Antrim village.

Imagining John McKillop without hurling is as unthinkable as Cushendall without John McKillop. One can’t exist without the other. 

“John’s so popular,” McManus says.

“Not that he needs it, but everybody in the club would be looking out for him. He means so much to everybody. He has a real connection with the senior hurlers at the club. He’s just part of it. 

“He would know who sits where in the changing room and he’d nearly be pushing you off somebody else’s seat. He’d take the jerseys and hide them and he’d hide the hurls. He’s a chancer! 

“On match-day he’ll be in the changing room and he always puts one of the management bibs and he’ll take his place among the management on the sideline.”

The Cushendall hurlers will set off tomorrow morning for Navan to face Galway champions Sarsfield’s in the All-Ireland Club semi-final. For each player, it’s the biggest game of their lives. 

John hasn’t a designated seat on the team bus. But he’ll be within touching distance of the “Jaffa Cakes and bottles of Lucozade Sport”. Now, John mightn’t be firing points over the bar in Pairc Tailteann tomorrow afternoon or delivering inspiring words before the players take to the field, but he’s as crucial to Cushendall’s effort as anyone in the camp. 

A big part of McNaughton’s playing days involved John. “John always waited on me arriving at the car-park, he’d lift my gear and hang it up,” McNaughton recalls. 

“That was just the norm… I don’t ever mind a photograph of a Cushendall championship winning team without John in it. He’s first at training every single night. We’d put cones out and he’d lift them and put them somewhere else! 

“He’s so much part of us. He gets supporter of the year, every year. A big roar goes up, a standing ovation.”

John’s routine every Tuesday and Thursday is unchanging. He arrives at Ronan Kearney’s house at ten-to-six for training, which starts at 7pm. Ronan lives roughly 100 yards from the Cushendall pitch. Ronan and John are always first to arrive for training. 

Win, lose or draw, John is a fine mimic too and always lifts the mood. McManus adds: “At the end or our warm-down, he’ll come into the middle and he’ll imitate some of the boys trying to stretch and stuff. He generally picks on Shane McNaughton because he’s the most inflexible man on the planet. 

“You couldn’t imagine our club without John.”  

As part of a school project, the pupils of a primary school in Dublin were asked to come up with an image of happiness. The main photograph on this page of John McKillop was the one they chose. 

It was majestically captured by Irish News freelance photographer Seamus Loughran prior to last September’s county final between Cushendall and Ballycastle in Dunloy.

With the ever-changing pace of modern life we sometimes lose the run of ourselves and forget what the GAA is really about. It’s about people. It’s about place. It’s about bonds. A sense of belonging. Community spirit. Looking out for one another. It’s about building something. Building for the future. 

Not enough light is shone on all the different characters that make up a changing room. The GAA has never been about blanket defences and moral indignation. It’s never been about the GPA. It’s never been about paid officialdom. 

Or pay walls. Or Sky deals. Or the media. Or self-aggrandising officials grandstanding from podiums. Sometimes we’re looking in the wrong direction, for the GAA will always be about people like John McKillop. 

They are the Association’s richest resource. Wherever you find Cushendall and ash, you’ll find John. He’ll be on the fringes of the pitch. But always at the GAA’s heart. Its romantic heart…

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