The Boot Room - Cushendun hurlers inspiring the next generation
ONCE Mark Scally got hold of the microphone he wasn’t giving it up easily. These moments were to be savoured after all, not hurried.
This was the Cushendun hurlers’ moment of glory.
After losing five previous finals (2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2016) the Robert Emmet’s club finally annexed the Junior Championship with a comprehensive win over Shane O’Neill’s Glenarm in Ballycastle last Sunday.
Towards the end of Scally’s record-breaking speech, Antrim officials were shaking their heads and pointing to their watches.
The way Scally looked at it, the hurlers of Dunloy and Loughgiel – scheduled to start their senior championship semi-final on the same pitch – could wait a bit longer.
“The amount of abuse I’ve had about my speech since last Sunday has been unbelievable,” laughed Scally, Cushendun’s captain.
“We’ve had to stand there five times and listen to other captains, so I just said I’m going to make mine five times longer! I was told the officials were shaking their heads and pointing to their watches and to get off the field. But we were going to make the most of it.”
The next day Mark posted a photograph on his Facebook page of the cup in his front yard overlooking the village, with the words: 'We have her. I'm pretty hungover so hopefully this gets a few likes.'
The club allegedly received the football cup and not the hurling cup but nobody cares in Cushendun right now.
In the aftermath of their 2016 junior final defeat to Lamh Dhearg, Scally was convinced Cushendun would never win the silverware they craved.
Consider the fact they were four points up on Lamh Dhearg entering stoppage-time before they conceded a goal from a Hail Mary of a ’65 and a couple of points to end up on the losing end again.
But after so many heartaches, Cushendun finally did it.
They got over the line last Sunday with a bit to spare.
Rory McQuillan, the ageless warrior of the north Antrim village, has been playing for the club’s seniors for 25 years. He’s lost six finals, the first of which dates back to 2000 when they lost a senior decider to Dunloy.
When they did actually get their hands on intermediate silverware in ‘07, McQuillan was suspended after being mistakenly identified for giving a match official a mouthful of abuse during a minor game.
Rory had to wait until he turned 42 to get a winner’s medal.
A plasterer by trade, the 12-hour shifts to and from the city had eroded him. Imagine trying to hurl after plastering walls all day.
There is a salt-of-the-earth modesty about Rory McQuillan.
During the year he thought of quitting - but the reason why he stuck at it was because he lost his dear friend and former Cushendun team-mate John McCaughan, aged 38, in June.
John’s passing hit the parish hard.
“You’ll struggle to find anyone who loves Cushendun hurling more than Rory McQuillan,” said Scally.
“He’s 42 years of age, he’s been playing senior hurling for 25 years. He actually broke down in tears after the game. He’s given that much service to the club. If there’s a man that lives for Cushendun hurling, it is Rory.”
Not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes they drag their 42-year-old frame off the bench and score 1-1 to help secure a junior championship.
Of course, the GAA is full of such heart-warming tales, especially at this time of year.
When the light begins to fade, that's when the Association is at its brightest.
There is something richer, more pure about the autumnal pursuit of glory.
In these weeks, tiny revolutionary flames are being lit all over the country.
It's the time when the smallest parish can rise up, just like Cushendun.
It is amazing how carved ash and stitched leather can raise the esteem of entire communities that have probably been ravaged by emigration and economic hardship.
Cushendun has roughly 600 people living in it.
The St Ciaran’s Primary School in the village once boasted over 100 children. Now it has tumbled to below 50.
The village no longer has its own parish priest. They share him with Cushendall.
You often find where the living is hard, you hold tighter to what is dear.
To sustain the club, Cushendun’s young hurlers have joined forces with nearby hurling clubs Armoy and Carey in another successful amalgamation project in the Glens.
Mark Scally’s younger brother Thomas plays for Cushendall minors but lines out for Cushendun seniors.
Both played wing-back in last Sunday’s final. Their father Gerard played and managed the team in the lean years.
Last Sunday he lived the dream through the eyes of his sons.
“The club is the hub and the foundation of everything that is good that goes on in the community,” said Mark.
“Everybody seems to have some affiliation to the club. You can see the happiness in the people when the club is going well. Without it, the village would struggle to function. It’s probably the most important thing we have.”
Whenever governments are assessing the needs of rural communities they should simply hand over what money there is to local GAA clubs.
For they know all about self-sufficiency and how to raise the spirit of a community.
“Hurling is our religion,” McQuillan said.
The warm after-glow of last weekend can still be felt around the village.
But even if Cushendun hadn’t won last Sunday the club would keep ploughing forward because that's all they know.
And when emigration bites - as will continue to do - those who stay can comfort themselves in the knowledge that they get to hurl on a field that can only be described as paradise on earth.
Lig an Airgid – The Field of the Rigs – sits on the lip of the ocean. It is one of the most picturesque settings in Ireland.
The masterful aerial image on this page, taken by photographer Kieran Laverty, captures Lig an Airgid in all its glory.
They might never win another championship but the Cushendun players will always get to hurl balls into the ocean.
Imagine what that must feel like.