'ABC goes GAA' is a delightful production
"We never knew there was a county Antrim," laughs Kathleen Darragh, despite her being born and bred in Belfast's Andersonstown. She certainly does know that now, because of the GAA, but outside the city.
Marriage to Malachy took her to the Glens, but her latest book 'ABC goes GAA' is about much more than Antrim, Belfast, Cushendall.
Her career as a teacher contributed to this delightful offering for young children, with rhyming couplets on facing pages, beautifully illustrated by Grace Elliott from Ballycastle with images depicting all aspects of the Association.
Kathleen's family now are steeped in the GAA, but that wasn't always the case for her, as she recalls: "I'm from Andersonstown, only moved to Cushendall when I got married. You know what that's like - nearly 50 years here but still a 'blow-in'," she says.
"I went to school at St Malachy's at Sussex Place, behind the City Hall, then St Teresa's, then went to Rathmore. I saw Gearoid Adams as the Head of PE there now and thought 'Quare difference from when we were at Rathmore.' There were no Gaelic games, we played hockey."
As for her remark in this article's opening paragraph, the explanation is simple: her father was a Down man, a Toman from Loughinisland, so "Growing up we were a very county Down family.
"From our house in Corby Way, through a gap in the houses, you could see the Mourne Mountains. That was daddy's question: 'Can you see the Mournes today?' We never knew there was a county Antrim."
Still, the interest in the GAA was there: "We would have been in Casement watching the football, especially when Down were playing."
Her own playing career was limited: "The only thing we played was on the street. I often laugh - Clare people think they invented 'ground hurling' - we did, because if you didn't keep the ball on the ground you broke a window."
The GAA was all around, though: "The Boyles lived on our street." That family included her contemporary Liam Boyle, who went on to captain Antrim footballers to the All-Ireland U21 title in 1969. Current Antrim hurler Domhnall Nugent "would be a great-grandson of those Boyles.
"I did play camogie a couple of times in Falls Park because Mrs Boyle tortured us, but I wasn't then allowed to go and play camogie because the rules of hockey are that you aren't allowed to lift your stick above your shoulder, that's a foul. Camogie gave you that habit of lifting your stick. I was quite a good hockey player."
It was the GAA that led to her marriage, she recalls: "I watched my first hurling match in Cushendun. One Easter I was asked to do a weekend job at the Bay Hotel [in Cushendun]. I eventually met Malachy and that was me and Cushendall - not Cushendun, Cushendall!"
Work took her there to, in time, after starting out near home in west Belfast: "I'm long retired but I taught for 40 years. Started off in Holy Trinity Boys in Monagh Road, Belfast, taught there for four years, then went to Larne for six, and then I was in Cushendall [St Mary's PS] for 30. The last 27 years I was in primary one, so early years would be my educational background."
That explains the quality content of her latest book, having had '12 Days of Christmas' published in 2006 by Veritas. Surprisingly, although she wrote the text of 'ABC goes GAA' three years ago, no Irish publishers were interested, so she self-published, with the books produced by Inpact Printing in Ballycastle.
Having struggled to get an illustrator, the book was put on the long finger, but "the first lockdown spurred me on… I'm very keen on rhyme, it helps children to go from one page to another."
She'd also done some productions of her own for family: "I've three grandchildren, John Og [Darragh] and Niamh and Aoife [McIlroy]. I did an 'ABC Niamh' and an 'ABC Aoife' and for John Og I did 'ABC of Tractors'.
"I thought I'd like to do something for all three of them. That took me down this route. I thought, 'What connects the three of them?' John Og lives in Armoy, the girls live in Ballycastle, and we live in Cushendall. The connection is the GAA, isn't it?"
The images complement the words superbly: "When I started talking to Grace I said to her I needed wide representation of gender, race, and disability. I think that is the GAA now, isn't it? It's very inclusive."
Kathleen's favourite illustration in the book is for that tricky letter 'X', representing 'eXtra man'. It's not just any supporter, though, it's a painting of the Ruairi Ogs' number one fan and mascot 'Wee' John McKillop, based on a photo by Seamus Loughran.
There are numerous lovely touches of design and content throughout the book, including on that particular page: "Seamus Loughran gave me permission to use his photograph. I've put stars for people who have gone before us - and one star has a fada on it, and that's for Seamus Og, Seamus's son who passed away three years ago, so it would be special for him."
'ABC goes GAA' is dedicated to someone who will never be forgotten by the Darraghs, or the local community: "Our John, our eldest son, he died in 1991. He was playing hurling for Cushendall and he collapsed and died a couple of days later. He would have been 15 weeks three after. The North Antrim [Minor] Championship is called after him, the John Darragh Cup.
"We've a big mural in Cushendall and John's on that, as is Danny McNaughton, and the message is 'They went to hurl and didn't come home'. My book is in John's memory, but the motivation was for the grandchildren."
While special to Kathleen and her family circle, any young children with an interest in the GAA will love this book.
* To purchase, go to the 'ABC goes GAA' Facebook page and message the author; the long list of north Antrim shops where it's available is also listed there.