Hurling in the Glens

Declan Bogue finds that Antrim's love affair with the sport gives them 'a sense of place'

The ancient Irish sport of hurling is a tale of mystique in much of the northern six counties. For all the grandeur, bravery and skill in the game, the proponents and support network is limited to a handful of hard-core hurling regions – South Derry, the Ards peninsula in Down, Belfast with its myriad of clubs in the west of the city – but the most renowned and traditional stronghold is without question in the Glens of the North Antrim coast.

The earliest recorded mention of hurling dates to the battle fought at Moytura, near Cong (Mayo) in 1272 BC between the native Fir Bolg and the invading Tuatha Dé Danann, who demanded half the country for themselves. When the request was refused a battle was inevitable, and it was fought on the first day of the sixth week in summer. While the sides were preparing for the fray it was agreed to have a hurling contest between twenty-seven of the best players from each side.

Cushendun Team from 1994From then on hurling survived as a sport in itself, and for a time prospered the land over as landlords kept stables of hurlers to compete against fellow landlords teams – much in the same way as they turned their attentions to horse racing in later years. For the earliest reference to hurling in the North however, the pre-20th Century song Airde Cuan about the area of Cushendun, mentions hurling on the white strand of the beach on Sundays.

Although shrouded by fluctuating beliefs, the mountainous coastal region may take its love for the sport from altogether different origins – the Scottish sport of shinty. The proliferation of Scottish surnames in the Glens region (McAllister, McNeill, Campbell etc.), the tradition of reciprocated trade and custom, shared Gaelic language (the region was Gaelic-speaking until the 20th century) and geographical proximity with 12 miles of the Sea of Moyle separating the two lands, give rise to the common held belief that it was their Celtic cousins to the East as much as the south that ignited the love affair with field sports fought out with an ashplant in hand.

If there is one person in recent years who has come to unintentionally represent this remote corner of the world, it is the gregarious Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton. His talent for hurling catapulted him into heady territory from the age of sixteen.

Playing with his beloved Cushendall Ruari Ogs, they scaled the heights in his debut season, ‘I was lucky enough, my first year in senior hurling we won our first county title ever, but when I was growing up it was all we ever done, was practice and play.’

The triumph was duly noted as the young Sambo went straight into the Antrim county team. In 1989, this band of flair players rich in character overcame Offaly to reach the All-Ireland final against Tipperary, it was the first time since 1943 -a loss to Cork - the famous Saffron jerseys would be competing for the Liam McCarthy Cup. Sambo at this time was highly regarded as a veteran of the team, despite being merely 24!

On the day a heavy dose of stage fright gripped the Antrim team, losing heavily, but they showed it was no fluke two years later when they narrowly lost by two points to Kilkenny. Sambo gained an All-Star, the award scheme recognising the fifteen best players of the year.

Award ceremony for Young Hurlers, in BelfastThe democratic nature of the GAA at grassroots level is best understood in the example of this former All-Star spreading the gospel among the young of the parish. ‘Winning championships and everything, it plants seeds in young fellas, getting away on the bus to Casement Park and the whole town decorated in the club colours, it awakens a sense of place in them.

‘It’s how I express my Irishness – every time I lift a caman or step onto a field, it’s like I’m spreading culture. When I’m coaching eight year-old kids, I’m passing on the culture that was given to me at the same age. Hurling is the one thing that is unique to us, and if you’ll excuse the expression, it isn’t a bastardised version of any other sport.’

There are nine Glens in total, each with a hurling club, but only one of them boast a Gaelic football team. The apathy toward football, and the deep belief in hurling as the manly, superior craft can be summed up by an encounter in which this writer enquired off a hurling man from Ballycastle how football was coming along in the parish: ‘Ah, the football – sure we only let the women play it up there!’

‘Football is for failed hurlers’, concludes McNaughton, ‘My father came from Cavan, and he used to say that the only reason someone would play football is because they haven’t the balls or the skill to play hurling.’