Hurling & Camogie

At 60, John McKillop still the main man and always part of Cushendall's DNA

The wonderful photograph of John McKillop taken by Seamus Loughran before the 2015 Antrim SHC final in Dunloy
The wonderful photograph of John McKillop taken by Seamus Loughran before the 2015 Antrim SHC final in Dunloy

“It was just one of those beautiful days. Even light. The two teams [Cushendall and Ballycastle] were turning and coming up the left-hand side of the pitch where I was. As soon as I saw it and he got level with me, my eye went into the lens of the camera, and I thought: ‘There’s the picture’.

“I knew straight away. I was elated, totally elated. There’s a thing in a photographer’s language called ‘chimping’ – you see a lot of it on TV when photographers take pictures, they immediately look into the back of their camera to see if they’ve got the shot.

“To be honest with you, I was afraid to look in case I’d missed the moment. But when I eventually looked at it, I blew it up and I saw John’s face, I was so happy.

“John had a big smile and was walking along in the middle of the players. His body language was saying to me that he was so proud to be there and to be part of that group.

“I love everything about the picture, John’s smile, the way it was framed because it captured all the people around him too. Behind John, Neil McManus’s body language says a whole lot too. He looks relaxed before the game, adjusting his helmet. I would rank it as one of the best photographs I’ve ever taken.” - Seamus Loughran, Irish News and freelance photographer reflecting on the 2015 Antrim Senior Hurling Championship pre-match parade

TERENCE McNaughton was under the firm impression he’d been invited to Edmund Rice College, just below St Enda’s Glengormley GAA club on the Hightown Road, to hand a few medals out at a presentation night.

Getting up onto the podium and addressing several hundred people, parents and schoolchildren among them, wasn’t part of the gig.

Once upon a time, the former Antrim hurler and celebrated GAA Allstar would have run a mile from the thought of speaking in public, but over the years he’s managed to overcome a speech impediment that virtually ruined his childhood.

Unprepared and staring down into an audience staring right back at him, McNaughton began speaking.

‘I thought I was coming up here to present a wean of medals and going home again!’

The audience laughed.

Initially, McNaughton’s speech meandered before he took the plunge and delved deep into the early years of his life, the challenges he faced not being able to communicate and how his friendship – the dearest kind of friendship - with John McKillop began.

Sitting on that school bus going to a place outside Larne, Terence McNaughton and John McKillop were like two frightened, defenceless rabbits not knowing their fate.

McNaughton remembers crying to his mother every morning, begging her not to send him to the ‘special’ school.

His speech impediment at the time was mistakenly viewed as some kind of learning difficulty.

The wailing would inevitably fade as he boarded the bus and took up his regular seat beside John.

Shaky mobile phone footage of McNaughton’s speech emerged from the night at Edmund Rice College. It was one of the most emotionally charged addresses you were ever likely, or have the privilege, to hear.

How two kids survived many uncertain days, grew up cheek-by-jowl in Cushendall, shared a passion for hurling and in later life flourished in the most uplifting, magnificent ways imaginable.

You could hear a pin drop in the Assembly Hall as McNaughton’s voice cracked and sometimes faded into an essential pause – a sacred space to allow the tears to flow.

As he stood at the podium, McNaughton apologised several times to the parents and schoolchildren in the hall – not that he had anything to apologise for - as he’d rarely gone into such detail about the love and affection he had for John and how John later idolised him every time he took to a hurling field.

McNaughton's story was about empathy, learning about resilience and showing that success in life comes in many different forms.

His speech that night was off-the-cuff and from the heart. It would have drawn a tear from a stone.


IT doesn’t matter which road you take to reach Cushendall, they’re all beautiful.

The first thing you see when you sweep down into the village on this sun-splashed Friday morning is the Ruairi Og club lotto sign on the right-hand side of the road. The jackpot sits at £4,800.

At the junction with the main street, the mural of John McKillop on the gable wall of McNaughton’s pub – The Lurig Inn – hits you right between the eyes.

The painting is an artist’s impression of Seamus Loughran’s wonderful photograph capturing John’s perpetual happiness as the proud Ruairi Og clubman walks in the pre-match parade at the 2015 Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final between Cushendall and Ballycastle.

It was a game that ended well for Cushendall. Ballycastle had forged ahead by nine points at the break and were in pole position to win their first Volunteer Cup in 29 years. But the Ruairi Ogs never know when they’re beaten.

Between the 40th and 48th minutes, the defending champions hit a staggering 2-8, with Donal McNaughton and Eoghan Campbell raising green flags to send the McQuillan’s reeling.

In the dying embers, Ballycastle knew it wasn’t going to be their day when Ciaran Clarke’s late effort was saved by Ruairi Og ’keeper Eoin Gillan, the ball spun into the air, Shane Jennings watched its flight, took a desperate swipe at it but the ball came back off the crossbar.

The width of a crossbar in Dunloy had ultimately denied Ballycastle as Cushendall celebrated their 13th county championship win.

In the delirium of the day, John McKillop shared the podium with joint captains Arron Graffin and Sean Delargy as Graffin shouted: ‘Big ears [the Volunteer Cup] is coming home!’

On this quiet Friday morning, McNaughton and a few workmen are busy rearranging the seats and tables in the patio area of his pub.

Inside the resplendent bar, a thousand framed photographs of past Ruairi Og glories have pride of place on the walls.

It’s hard to find a team photograph that John McKillop isn’t in. Just 18, he’s in the front row among the victorious ’81 team, the club’s history-makers, with Brendan 'Birt' McAuley’s arms wrapped around him.

He’s there four years later in ’85, the Ruairi Ogs’ next championship triumph. In 87, 91, 93, 96 right the way through, lightly sewn into the fabric of the hurling club and village.


HURLING is constantly in your eye-line in McNaughton’s pub. So, too, is Bruce Springsteen images at the rear end of the bar where dog-eared concert tickets are encased in the framed masterpieces.

A fanatic of the American rocker’s music since the heady days of Slane Castle in 1985, some of McNaughton’s favourite Springsteen lyrics are inscribed at the bottom of the portrait photographs.

You’ll also find Seamus Loughran’s timeless image of John on the wall. McNaughton christened the photograph: ‘The Main Man’.

He’s niggled about the slightly weather-beaten mural outside on the gable wall that needs “touched up” with a lick of paint.

A mug of coffee each and a roll-up for the bar owner, McNaughton reflects on the impromptu speech he gave up in Edmund Rice College five years ago.

“I was taken by surprise,” he says, “because I thought they wanted me to present a few medals or certificates at the school.

“I wasn’t sure what I was going to say. So, I just tried to talk about my life experience, tried to make it relevant to the kids in the room, that not everybody wins the race, not everybody gets the girl, you mightn’t get the job you want but you need to have a strong mindset.

“That you can still succeed if you fail your exams. I was probably directing it towards the kids in the room who don’t get on the team or weren't passing exams. The kid who was getting straight 'As and full of confidence wouldn’t listen to someone like me, but it might get through to the kid that thinks he’s a loser, and of course he's not.

“I talked about my relationship with John. When I talk about John, I do get emotional because they weren’t all great memories.

“I sat beside John on the bus and sat beside him in class. That’s how our friendship developed. There was nothing conscious about it. John was the only familiar face I knew.

“As a five or six-year-old, you gravitate towards comfort or familiarity and that’s the only familiarity and comfort I had.

“I probably felt comfortable with John because I didn’t have to communicate. We probably communicated by sitting and eating lunch together. John didn’t make me feel uncomfortable when other people did.

“It’s maybe as simple as that. Communication was uncomfortable for me, but I never felt challenged in John’s company. I was comfortable in his presence.

“It wasn’t a friendship where we went out and pucked about together or climbed trees. That wasn’t the kind of friendship we had. I don’t know how to explain it, it was having that familiar face in those horrible surroundings.”

With more than a touch of anarchic laughter, he adds: “If the boat was gonna sink - we’re going down together sort of thing!”

John celebrated his 60th birthday earlier this year. In recent months he's suffered poor health.

When the club opened their new strength and conditioning gym, they named it after the ‘main man’.

Up until recent weeks, Terence and John would play pool in the bar every Friday night.

“If anyone was on the pool table when we came in, they were soon put off it!”

Terence would have a pint, John a coke and maybe grab an ice-cream on the way home to his sister Maureen.

Christy McNaughton, Terence’s youngest son, posted a beautiful moment on Twitter just before last Christmas.

The jukebox is playing The Dead South’s banjo-plucking classic: ‘In hell I’ll be in good company’, and Terence and John are using their pool cues as air guitars.

If life is about moments...

When Terence made the breakthrough on the hurling field, John was his biggest fan. Every training session. Every game. John was there.

“He’d be going up and down the sideline with the managers, he was always funny at training, different wee incidents. He’d see a manager with a clipboard and shake his head, make gestures behind his back and the crowd would be laughing at this. You put the cones down for training and he'd move them, knowing he's annoying you...

“But there is nothing deep or meaningful about this. John was part of our club. I never stepped back and asked: Why is he there? He just is. Why am I there? That’s what we do.

“Why do I go for a pint with the yank? I don’t sit and analyse it. It’s just natural.”

Shane McNaughton paid a warm tribute to his father Terence and John McKillop
Shane McNaughton paid a warm tribute to his father Terence and John McKillop

Terence’s eldest son, Shane was one of the most inflexible people you could find.

Now an actor in New York, Shane laughs at the memory of John mimicking him at training one evening.

“We always gathered at the end of a training session doing stretches and John walked around laughing and joking and every time he got to me, he pretended to be trying to touch his toes – ‘aw, aw, aw…’

“It was those wee subtleties... John has had his favourites too: when my Da was on the scene, when I was on the scene, when Christy came on the scene – and this is where I think he’s smart, because he picked the good ones as well!”

Neil McManus says people outside the Cushendall club don't quite grasp what John McKillop means to them Picture: John McIlwaine
Neil McManus says people outside the Cushendall club don't quite grasp what John McKillop means to them Picture: John McIlwaine

John would land in Ronan Kearney’s house a good hour before training was due to start.

Neil McManus recalls: “Ronan lived literally 10 metres from the pitch. And John would say: ‘Let’s go, Ronan.’

“I’d arrive early hitting a few frees or whatever and John would already be there with Ronan.

“I know for a fact Ronan never saw that as a chore. He was delighted. Ronan was very, very good to John, but John reciprocates that. Whenever you take an interest in John, John takes an interest in you. He just has a charm and wit about him that couldn’t but endear you to him.”

McManus can’t remember which game or where it was, but Cushendall had just lost an important match. Crouched in the middle of the field trying to come to terms with the defeat, McManus remembers John consoling him.

“John obviously can’t talk fantastically well, but he can communicate. He communicates in other ways because there is no way that he could be as close to some of the senior hurlers and the community if he didn’t have that ability to communicate, whether it’s a smile or a wink or a nod.

“I can’t remember which game it was, but John has certain phrases that can be heard very clearly. One of them is: ‘That’s okay’. I was sitting on the ground on the pitch, and he was patting me on the head and saying: ‘That’s okay... That’s okay.’

“It doesn’t matter what you’ve lost, that puts a different spin on things.”

One of their last two encounters was John dropping a gift to Neil’s house for his new-born daughter and the other was a donation before Neil headed off on a GPA charity project to Kenya last year.

McManus and his Ruairi Og team-mates felt a genuine sadness John couldn’t attend last year’s county final against Dunloy at Corrigan Park.

Cushendall ran them close, but the Dunloy juggernaut rolled on.

Throughout his life, John McKillop has been wrapped in the most wonderful human embrace, the kind of which that has never let him go.

Minded so well by sisters Maureen and Amelia and brothers Dion, Seamus and Eamon, John is as generous to those around him.

It says everything about the people of Cushendall and indeed around the Glens that John McKillop is more popular than many of the club’s senior hurlers.

You ask Shane what the image on the pub’s gable wall conjures in him, he replies: “For me when I look at that picture, you’re playing for your club - and John is our club, our whole club.

“It’s a lovely image because we’re going to do it because John couldn’t. We were lucky that we could put on a helmet and hold a hurling stick and go on and do it.

“John is inspiring people in his own way. And that’s what I mean about making the best of the cards you’re dealt. Anyone who has been in contact with John has been better for it.

“Not a whole a lot of people in the world can say that. John is very special. In that picture, you know by John’s smile that he’s figured it out. We’re worried about a hurling game and who wins. John has already won just by being in that community and being part of that team.”

Shane adds: “I saw my Da and John walking round the hurling pitch one night and I thought this is f***ing beautiful. How they started off together, going on the same bus and how their lives have been.

“It’s not exactly the twilight years but it all comes back around. You see them coming back to each other. They made the best of what they were dealt – both of them. I’m very proud of my Da and very thankful that we have someone like John.”

The morning sloped into early afternoon. The Friday regulars file into the front part of the bar for a pint and to shoot the breeze. The mood is easy.

“We named the new gym after him,” McNaughton says, “and I think he’ll be remembered for always. Maybe someday somebody will ask: ‘Why is that called the John McKillop S&C gym?’ And somebody will explain why.

“People will talk about John McKillop. Neil will talk about him. Shane will talk about him and Christy. When Springsteen came out at the end of his show in Dublin last month and sang: ‘I’ll see you in my dreams.’

“I grew up with Springsteen. It started in Slane and he brought me on a journey. John is the same. So much of my highs and lows, John was there. You shared things with him. Wee silly things, him getting supporter of the year and always getting a standing ovation.

“I talked about my friendship with John at the school that night because of something that I felt was really bad, something really positive came out of it. John was something positive that came out of that whole time.”

Terence McNaughton was in his pub for this interview. Neil McManus was in Portugal nursing his nine-month-old daughter. Shane McNaughton was walking through Chinatown in New York.

Thoughts of John never far beneath the surface. Thoughts they carry ever so lightly as they go...

Seamus McNaughton and Aidan McNaughton celebrate the 2014 county championship with the inimitable John McKillop
Seamus McNaughton and Aidan McNaughton celebrate the 2014 county championship with the inimitable John McKillop