Dunloy's county final triumph was the GAA at its romantic best

That winning feeling when Cuchullain's Dunloy win the Volunteer Cup for the first time since 2008 players in Ballycastle last Sunday Picture: Seamus Loughran

IN January 2004 I landed in the beautiful village of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

One sunny afternoon, along with five or six other back-packers, I decided to go whale watching.

We piled into a colourful looking raft and our fisherman friend set sail.

He knew the sea’s currents like the palm of his hand.

For the trip I purchased a cheap plastic Kodak camera to capture the whales in all their glory.

This was long before we had mobile phones with cameras built into them.

Utopian times.

After about 45 minutes at sea, the first whale appeared. It was exhilarating to watch it spitting water into the warm air like a fountain.

It was if the whales knew we'd parted with some hard-earned American dollars to see them. And they didn't disappoint us.

Some of the whales came perilously close to our raft but our fisherman friend was unperturbed.

So we took his lead.

Everyone on board had a camera and we all snapped vigorously in the hope of capturing the moment.

But after a few minutes I decided to put my cheap camera away.

Instead of trying to capture the moment, I wanted to live it.

I mean, how many times will you find yourself in the Pacific Ocean watching the most graceful sea mammals arch into the air?

Last Sunday, I was fumbling with the camera on my mobile phone.

I’d been swept onto the pitch in Ballycastle by the entire village of Dunloy.

The Cuchullain’s club had just beaten north Antrim neighbours Ruairi Og Cushendall to win their first senior county title in eight years.

Judging by the emotion of the day, it felt like 80 years to the people of Dunloy.

I decided to stop fumbling with my phone and put it away.

Sometimes it’s better to live these moments rather than being obsessed with trying to capture them.

In any case, I should know better to leave this art to brilliant photographers and equally brilliant men such as Seamus Loughran and Curly McIlwaine.

In the midst of this wonderful chaos I thought of Puerto Vallarta and the afternoon with the whales and living the moment.

I followed Gregory O’Kane, the Dunloy manager, as he was pulled, hauled and hugged in every direction trying to make his way towards some of his warrior players.

One image that left an indelible impression was when Gregory found his mother in the mayhem.

The pair embraced.

For those few moments, the world was perfect. They were encircled in a sea of calm.

Victory was finally Dunloy’s.

This triumph was shared equally among everyone that spilled onto the field in Ballycastle last Sunday.

That’s the thing about these kinds of days – everybody feels ownership.

Days like these are hard to beat.

My countless journeys to Croke Park this summer were good. Big games, big crowds.

But you reach the stage where you’ve had enough of being corralled into those colourless, dank, passion-killing press rooms under the Hogan and Cusack stands listening blithely to choreographed words while every exit door is manned by either a press officer or a steward.

Upon leaving these bleak rooms, I check my pulse. Just to be sure.

We leave and press number seven on the elevator and head back up to the press room completely and utterly insulated from the emotion of the day.

Even before the end of the inter-county season, you are well and truly AppleGreened out.

There are only so many Chopstix a man can eat on the road.

I reached the conclusion some time ago that the best time of year to cover Gaelic Games is between September and November.

Maybe it was the autumnal light in Ballycastle last Sunday afternoon or the scenic backdrop – but it was one of the most memorable days of 2017.

Days like last Sunday do small communities like Dunloy the power of good.

They lift the esteem of people.

For these are austere, insecure times we live in, when good jobs are hard to come by and rural communities become increasingly ravaged by emigration.

We worry what the kids are going to do.

We worry about the present and the future feels like rumbling thunder.

Modernity is a trespasser.

Amid all of this our faith sways nervously.

But the one constant in people’s lives is the GAA club.

These human co-operatives dotted around the 32 counties of Ireland have never been more important or influential.

The Cuchullain’s club minors, U21s and the camogs have also enjoyed memorable seasons.

Afterwards, Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels summed up the importance of planed ash and a bit of stitched leather to the place where he's from.

“This means everything to the club,” he said.

“Dunloy is a small village and the hurling field is right in the middle of it. Everything revolves around hurling.”

After winning the Volunteer Cup, Gregory O’Kane spoke of how his kids went to school last Friday morning with their faces painted green, eagerly anticipating Sunday’s county final with Cushendall.

And the place was packed out.

You feel the game better behind the wire.

You feel its toughness and what’s at stake.

At the end you have a deeper appreciation of the emotions of the victorious and the vanquished.

There were no elevators back to the seventh floor or corralling reporters to dank old press rooms for corporate backdrops.

No-one in Ballycastle had to check their pulse last Sunday as an entire village swept onto the field at the end.

This was the GAA at its romantic best.

It felt better than riding the waves of Mexico’s Pacific coast.

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