Brendan Crossan: John 'Curly' McIlwaine is a cherished resource of Antrim and the GAA

Award-winning photographer John 'Curly' McIlwaine is an artist in our midst
Brendan Crossan - The Boot Room

THERE are some photographs that stop you in your tracks. I was scrolling through Facebook late on Monday night and came across another masterpiece belonging to the coveted lens of John ‘Curly’ McIlwaine.

Through a ruck of players, ‘Curly’ captured Cargin’s Tony Scullion commiserating with Creggan player Conor Small.

The Kickhams club hadn’t won a county title since 1954. They last reached a senior final in 1977 and lost to St John’s.

Last Sunday, the entire community of Creggan held its breath.

The game itself was instantly forgettable.

They lost by the narrowest of margins, 0-5 to 0-4. They probably should have gone on to win the game when they drew level at 0-4 to 0-4 after 44 minutes, but a host of wides cost them dearly.

Like the seasoned champion they are, Cargin edged in front again and held out to win their seventh title.

It was by sheer coincidence I interviewed Tony Scullion at pitch-side after the game.

“You have to credit Creggan,” Scullion said.

“They’ve been knocking on the door. I went to two or three of their players afterwards and told them that I knew exactly where they were at.

“But it’s hard to show emotion in front of players like that because they’re on a downer - and it’s sh*t when you see other players jumping and celebrating around you because I’ve been there. I know what that feels like.”

Tony Scullion has a few words of comfort for Creggan's Conor Small after last Sunday's county final Picture: John McIlwaine

I’ve been a sports journalist for 20 years. Over that time you come to appreciate the unrivalled brilliance of sports photography.

It is no exaggeration to say that people like Curly McIlwaine are artists of the purist kind. They should be protected species of the Association.

If the GAA can throw millions of euros at the GPA, there is no reason why they can't acknowledge artists in their midst that continue to sell and brand the Association.

To the untrained eye, photography looks easy. You point the camera and press a button. If only it was that simple.

What Curly has takes years of experience and a deep knowledge of hurling, football and camogie.

We’re blessed to have some brilliant photographic journalists in a testing era for the industry.

Seamus Loughran, Margaret McLaughlin, Mary K Burke, Ann McManus, Mal McCann and Hugh Russell, to name but a few, bring light and emotion to our day every time they unfold their camera equipment from the boot of their cars.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder - but nobody stops me more in my tracks than Curly’s pictures.

The image of Tony Scullion hunched over and showing empathy towards a vanquished opponent captured the emotion of the day in Ahoghill last Sunday afternoon.

Time and again Curly's images bring GAA games to life in a way that a journalist’s words can't.

I envy and admire Curly’s art.

The camera that is constantly lassoed around him is his easel and the green field in front of him, his canvas.

You mightn't see Curly at games around Antrim. He often disappears into the background, his thought-provoking images the only evidence that he was actually there.

When the Antrim Post newspaper closed its doors a couple of years ago, Curly and other journalists were on the look-out for work.

After much soul-searching, the Glenravel man created the website 'The Saffron Gael' which has every nook and cranny of GAA life in the county covered.

Creggan clubman and county hurler Conor McCann helped set up the website which has gone from strength to strength.

A small handful of people, quite literally, have gone to great lengths to make it a success - including Dunloy wordsmith Brendan McTaggart and Curly's grandson Dylan.

The popular social media platform survives on advertising and donations, but mostly donations.

In many respects, it's an altruistic venture within Antrim GAA.

The best thing about ‘The Saffron Gael’ is that it protects a rare craftsman who contributes so much to GAA life in Antrim.

To lose Curly McIlwaine to sports photography would be akin to throwing a jewel into the sea.

“I’ve learned so much from Curly over the last few years,” says McTaggart, who has shared many car journeys with him over the last two years.

“He has so much knowledge of the game, which has developed my own writing. He has such an eye for a picture. Amid the madness of a game, Curly will get an image that you never thought possible.

“But, more important than that, you won’t meet a nicer individual. He’s a gentleman. Nobody has a bad word to say about him.”

There’s an exhibition of a life-time’s work in Oriel Gallery, Clotworthy House, Antrim that runs until tomorrow.

If you get to wander around the gallery the images that surround you will stop you in your tracks.

So far, Curly has done a pretty good job of imparting his wisdom onto his grandson Dylan who captured Kilkenny fan Jennifer Malone consoling Waterford’s Pauric Mahoney on the Thurles field (pictured here) at the end of their All-Ireland semi-final replay in 2016.

Kilkenny fan Jennifer Malone consoles Waterford's Pauric Mahoney at the end of the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final replay Picture: Dylan McIlwaine

It was fitting that Jennifer and her mum attended the opening of Curly’s exhibition, entitled Sporting Times, last month.

When I look at Curly's work, the admiration and envy never leave you.

He is a genius masquerading as a mere mortal. Unassuming, humble, thoroughly decent and brilliant. He is a cherished resource of Antrim and the GAA.

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