Brendan Crossan: Hurling still a burning passion along the Ards Peninsula

The view of Stangford Lough from Portaferry

IT was Easter Sunday and the sun blazed a trail across the Ards Peninsula. On that beautiful afternoon I was utterly convinced there was no better place on God’s earth than Portaferry.

Lost somewhere in the ether of the early ‘Noughties’, the Down hurlers were playing Limerick in a National League game.

Any day you shared the same press box space with the late Matt Fitzpatrick was going to be a good day. Matt was a class man.

At pitch-side our two chairs sunk snugly into the turf.

In life, there is nothing better than feeling the grass under our feet and sun on our backs.

And if the day wasn’t perfect enough we were within touching distance of Gerard McGrattan caressing the sloithar over the bar from an impossible angle and distance.

McGrattan’s point really was a thing of beauty; flawless technique, audacious, pristinely preserved in the mind’s eye.

I’ve always felt a curious affinity with the Ards Peninsula.

The road snakes along the rough edges of Strangford Lough for an eternity – a stretch of water that separates two civilisations – hurling and Gaelic football.

As part of a series of features carried in the Irish News in 2009 to celebrate the GAA’s 125th anniversary, I sat with Marty Mallon, Noel Sands and Paud Braniff in the clubrooms of St Patrick’s GAC, Portaferry to shine a light on the peninsula’s passion for hurling.

On the subject of Gaelic football on the Ards, Mallon quipped: “It didn’t get across on the boat.”

In researching the piece, I read about a man called Ned Purcell, an agricultural worker from Tipperary, who found himself on the coastal village of Portaferry back in the early 1900s.

Old records suggest Purcell was instrumental in introducing the small ball game to the peninsula, organising teams and street leagues.

It’s no surprise Portaferry wear blue and yellow, the colours of Ned Purcell’s native Tipp.

Ferocious rivalry between the three peninsula clubs – Portaferry, Ballygalget and Ballycran – has in many ways sustained the game there.

The intermittent fire-bomb attacks on their facilities by loyalist paramilitiaries in the early 1990s merely compounded their sense of isolation.

Indeed, when Down were due to face Cork in the 1992 All-Ireland semi-finals there was a mysterious power cut on the peninsula.

Rumour had it that a gaggle of geese was to blame for the untimely power cut.

Others suspected loyalist paramilitary intervention.

The hurlers on the Ards have always been an island people. Self-sufficient and proud.

Last Sunday I travelled to Ballycran to cover the Allianz League Division 2B tie between Down and Roscommon.

It’s a mere 27 miles from Belfast but feels like 300.

I've been covering GAA matches for the best part of 18 years for The Irish News.

The longer you do this job, the more you appreciate what the GAA is about.

It's about a sense of place, a sense of belonging, feeling part of something bigger than oneself.

Contributing. Working towards something. It's about building. Always building.

Imagining the future. A brighter future.

It’s about helping and reaping kindness and comradeship. It's about identity and feeling the grass under your feet, clasping ash and the sweet sound of hitting stitched leather into the air.

It’s about winning. It’s about losing. It’s about emotion and what those tumultuous moments prompt in us that actually enrich our lives more than we recognise in present time.

Maybe it’s the recessionary times we live in, the hectic pace of modern life, or perhaps the disconnect the rural club landscape experiences as it watches the GAA’s commercial juggernaut bounding up some soulless super highway reaching and pursuing another kind of utopia - a utopia that makes more promises than it can ever keep.

Last Sunday afternoon, the Ballycran pitch - McKenna Park - was colonised by adults and children at half-time.

Hurls were swinging and sloithars whizzed through the air.

The scene was a gentle and apt reminder that the PlayStation generation hasn’t consumed us all just yet and no matter of the swirling winds and threatening thunder clouds the GAA remains the one unchanging constant in modern life.

Noel Sands, who starred for the Down hurlers during the 1990s, has just taken over the Portaferry seniors. He’s also taking his club’s U16 camogie team.

Noel’s wife, Anne, spends half her time at the club and is a keen promoter of any underage successes.

Marty Mallon took over the Down senior job this year - the first among equals beside Gary Savage, Paul Coulter and Jerome McCrickard on the sidelines.

Marty is also taking the Portaferry minors.

And if something needs done around the club, you go to Marty’s wife, Mary Joe.

After being announced as Down senior manager, Mallon said: “I don’t think there is any big ‘Wow’ factor about taking it on. The way I see it, you’re steeped in it.

“I don’t even see myself as the manager - it’s a management team.”

Gerard McGrattan, who won an Allstar in ’92, has held almost every administration post at the St Patrick’s club.

Look across to the Ballycran and Ballygalget clubs and the same graft and volunteer spirit is being mirrored there.

"Sure what else would you be doing with yourself," said Noel Sands earlier this week. "Watching EastEnders? I don't know what those people do with their time?"

The hurling people on the Ards Peninsula is what the GAA is about.

Their greatest resource is themselves and their passion for the game.

Nothing's changed on the far side of Strangford Lough.

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