Slaughtneil and Cushendall keep finding a way

Two titans of Ulster club hurling meet in Newry. This is Slaughtneil’s eighth appearance in the last 10 Ulster finals. They remain the only club from the county to have collected a senior Ulster hurling title.
Slaughtneil and Cushendall keep finding a way

FINDING A WAY: Slaughtneil and Cushendall keep finding a way. Pic:  ©INPHO/Lorcan Doherty

What a wonderful world. When Slaughtneil did the unfathomable and secured Gaelic football, hurling and camogie provincial titles in 2016, an RTÉ radio documentary crew descended to try and explain it.

Their first challenge was comprehending it. Padraig Kelly, a local construction foreman and footballer, was tasked with providing an explanation for their success.

Kelly was 38. He said he’d been coming to the club for 37 and a half years. “This here was an oul scrog of a place.” 

Hold up, what does scrog mean? “That there was nigh. Just overgrown with trees and wet you know.” 

Do you have children yourself? “Three young cuttys.” 

The Ulster-Scots struggles bubbled to the surface again. Eh, cutty? “Girls. It’s an oul slang word. They just started with the U6s.” So, back to this golden spell. “For a long time, it was the same faces. No real men coming through. There is a stronger mix now.” Where did they come from?

“They were born,” he said bluntly. It captured succinctly what built the empire. A special sort of uniqueness and character and a gifted group that brings together several generations.

Two titans of Ulster club hurling meet in Newry. This is Slaughtneil’s eighth appearance in the last 10 Ulster finals. They remain the only club from the county to have collected a senior Ulster hurling title. From a couple hundred of households, the south Derry side has built an empire. Somehow, in an era of rising urban powerhouses and city superclubs, it is one that endures. From their first Derry SHC title in 1965 to their 17th last September, completing a remarkable 11 in a row.

“We try to develop a strong culture within our youth to ensure that they know what our club is about; and that there is a place for them here when they reach adulthood,” says club secretary Seamus Mulholland.

“Hopefully that will be a playing role and we have a very high ratio of youth to adult player transfer. We field eight adult teams across three codes to cater for all levels.” 

In a small parish, every single gesture and player counts. Until this year Slaughtneil don’t charge for youth membership. That may have to change in the future as the club are planning an ambitious capital development to modernise facilities for a growing membership.

Plans include a new community health and well-being centre as well as a grass pitch and a covered 4G pitch. Three different options were provided to all adult members who get to opt for their preferred version. To make the most of what they have, the club is the centre of their universe.

They owe a debt to their founders, stresses Mulholland. In a small rural area, they had the foresight to establish what is now a flourishing club. It is up to the current administration to continue to break new ground. This crop are the keepers of the flame.

Cushendall face their own challenge. In the same year they clinched county silverware, nine children started primary school locally. They’ve amalgamated with Glenariff underage. They keep hearing this can’t last forever. They keep defying those limits. Since they first won an Antrim SHC title in 1981, the longest drought stood at five seasons. The last title before their recent triumph over Loughgiel was in 2018.

“This is it,” bellowed Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton to his team in the BBC Sporting Traditions programme 15 years ago. “You can’t guarantee how well you are going to hurl out there tonight. I have said that from the word go. The one thing you will guarantee tonight is that you will try. You will try for this team, for your team-mates, you will try. That is all we ask of you. Walk out that door and give 100%.” 

Their best continue to embody that. How else can you explain Neil McManus hitting 1-15 including a late injury-time goal to push Cushendall past Portaferry in the semi-final.

The acorn that sprouted in Slaughtneil was planted by Denis Cassidy. He returned from the 1963 decider with a hurl as a memento. His nephew Thomas drove the hurling and camogie club and campaigned tirelessly for the reintroduction of Irish to the area.

Derry All-Star Chrissy McKaigue was recently appointed as their first GPO, coaching in the local school while organising coach education for Slaughtneil coaches. Success undeniably helps. In Antrim, Glenann primary school is already decked out and hoping to welcome the Four Seasons Cup next week.

They can’t leave any stone unturned. The battle in Pairc Esler will demonstrate that. In that Being Slaughtneil RTÉ documentary, then-selector Joe McCloskey every tactic has to be deployed to sustain the club. Local schemes, outreach programmes and if it comes to it, old-fashioned emotional blackmail.

“We don’t lose people. We don’t let people walk away. We will go and get them; we will lift them and pull them out of their bed. We will do whatever it takes to get them up the pitch. You don’t want to be shamed either, have your children shamed and your children’s children shamed because you were the one who walked away.” 

Always finding a way.

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