Brendan Crossan: The sights and sounds of Corrigan Park stay with you

Corrigan Park, Belfast.
Corrigan Park, Belfast. Corrigan Park, Belfast.

IT’S a moment that never fails to make me laugh. It was May 9, 2021, Corrigan Park, a clear day, and the Antrim hurlers making a triumphant return to Division One against Clare.

A brand spanking new 550 all-seater stand and only a handful of people in it – a few masked up and socially distanced GAA reporters and a couple of stewards.

What they were actually stewarding was hard to know as this was lockdown. The miserable memory of it still makes us wince. A time when elite sport got a pass.

On another day Corrigan Park would have been jam-packed and the Antrim players smothered by well-wishers, young and old, at the final whistle for producing what was a magnificent display of skill and courage.

Down with the Banner!

Afterwards, Clare Allstar John Conlon took his medicine with grace following his side’s 1-21 to 0-22 NHL defeat, with the irrepressible Ciaran Clarke grabbing the only goal of the game.

“It’s like playing in Sixmilebridge, it’s a tight ground,” said Conlon.

“Antrim are a tough team, they have massive passion for the game and Darren Gleeson has done a great job by bringing them back up to Division One and playing in Liam MacCarthy.

“There were a lot of rucks and hits, it wasn’t like playing in Thurles or Cusack Park where you probably have that extra few metres to play with. Antrim used the elements a lot better than us.”

A few moments earlier, I overheard two Corrigan Park stewards who were minding the entrance to the pitch, chuckling to one another.

“Keep the game going down there, lads,” one said to the other.

It was a beauty of a line - the kind of quick Belfast wit that immediately endears you to a place.

I’ve grown to love Corrigan Park - not just because of some of the brilliant afternoons Darren Gleeson and the Antrim hurlers have created there over the past four years, but because of the wonderful intimacy of the ground itself and the people you meet.

On Sunday, the Antrim hurlers will return to Corrigan for their first home National League game of the new season.

Kilkenny's Martin Keoghan tries to evade Antrim's Niall McKenna (centre) during Saturday'ss NHL game at Corrigan Park Picture: Seamus Loughran
Kilkenny's Martin Keoghan tries to evade Antrim's Niall McKenna (centre) during Saturday'ss NHL game at Corrigan Park Picture: Seamus Loughran Kilkenny's Martin Keoghan tries to evade Antrim's Niall McKenna (centre) at Corrigan Park Picture: Seamus Loughran

It’s days like Sunday when you can feel the pulse of the Whiterock Road. Before entering the St John’s club, you already know the faces you’ll see.

You can bet Johnnies men Collie Donnelly and Gerry McCann will be hanging around the entrance to the changing rooms, surveying everyone who comes around the corner, and joking among themselves probably.

Inside the wire, ‘Curly’ McIlwaine and Seamus Loughran - wizards of our time - will be peering through their big lenses, sizing up distances, getting ready to capture magic.

And if you see Niall Murphy, he’ll be within arm’s reach of a thousand match programmes, protecting them as diligently as Ryan McGarry or Paddy Burke guarding the edge of the square.

As you make your way round to the main stand on Sunday, you’ll see Andy McCallin at the entrance - exuding a calm authority, just as he did in front of goal.

Terry Reilly will live every puck of the ball, for once Ciaran McCavana can relax and enjoy the game, as will the dozens of former players, coaches and mentors who will always be deeply invested in the game.

There is something precious about a green space in the middle of the city, surrounded by chimney pots and their plumes of smoke, and the awesome Black Mountain so close that you can almost touch it.

Described by John and Maria Gough in their wonderful 656-page ode to the ground, Corrigan Park has always been “an oasis in a concrete city”.

And when Corrigan Park finds its gravelly voice in the heat of battle, visiting Allstars have been known to buckle.

It’s the tightness of the place; it can close in on you, the distance between the wire and the white lines of the field can be counted in inches - and the sights, sounds and smell of an ancient rumble stay with you.

Of course, these are the early post-Neil McManus days. Antrim’s warrior leader for so long, God knows how many young kids with hurls he inspired over the years.

McManus always had a good clear eye on the objective.

“You grow up with your passions, generally,” the Cushendall native once said.

“Every one of the kids that come through the gates of Corrigan Park hopefully will leave wanting to be a player on the field at some point in the future – and that’s the thought we’re trying to leave them with.”

In 10 years’ time there are sure to be Antrim hurlers telling GAA reporters – if we haven’t all been purged from the landscape by then – that it was Neil McManus who one afternoon in Corrigan Park inspired them to play the game.

When you strip it all back there’s no greater reward than that.

Every good manager is always trying to sell a vision. People can get carried away with the absentees of the day, but the wheel keeps on turning.

“There are green shoots everywhere,” insisted Darren Gleeson earlier this week.

Part of his trade is painting pictures and persuading Antrim Gaels to bring the kids on Sunday.

“If you love Gaelic Games and you want to see passion on display, Corrigan Park is a fantastic place for it. The opportunities are there for the Gaels in Antrim this year to see top class inter-county hurling. You have Dublin coming on Sunday. Galway are coming and Tipperary are coming on St Patrick’s weekend.

“There’s a feast of hurling in front of people at Corrigan for the next three or four months. They can get a look at our younger players, get a look at our established players coming back in and they’ll give everything they have on the field. That’s what invigorates me.”

Corrigan Park creates a unique feeling among Gaels who go there. The visit of the Dublin hurlers on Sunday afternoon will be another slice of GAA life in the city.

We should savour the sights and sounds of the day and the people we meet.

Antrim's hurlers have face Division One opposition in Dublin and Waterford so far this season at Corrigan Park  Picture: Mal McCann 
Antrim's hurlers have face Division One opposition in Dublin and Waterford so far this season at Corrigan Park Picture: Mal McCann  The Antrim's hurlers at Corrigan Park Picture: Mal McCann