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24 May 2022

THE MAN BEHIND THE WIRE: Down's unique hurling charm and spirit

The man behind the wire: Down's unique hurling charm

Ballycran GAA pitch

THE long trip to Ballycran for last Sunday's Joe McDonagh Cup senior hurling game between Offaly and Down was far from ideal for the visitors.

Ballycran is situated way out in the Ard Peninsula. It is in the archetypal “middle of nowhere” and there is no easy way of getting there. From Tullamore, it is a good three and a half hours whichever way you go. There are two options: you can go up to near Belfast and travel back down the peninsula or you can go across country from Newry and cross the Strangford Lough by ferry to Portaferry. The trip to near Belfast will put more miles on you but both journeys take approximately the same time.

It resulted in Offaly senior hurlers travelling up on Saturday and staying in Belfast. That was problematic for them. It had originally come out as Newry on the fixtures and Offaly were only informed in the past few weeks that it was in Ballycran. They had no problem with Down choosing their preferred venue for their home games but the late notice left them with a headache.

There is no problem doing Newry in a day trip – you simply go straight up the motorway after joining it near Kilbeggan and Offaly teams will very rarely seek an overnight stay in the Down capital. Ballycran represented a different story. You might have had the back broken on the journey as you sailed past Newry but you still had an hour and a half to go and it was only when you went off the motorway that the real difficult driving emerged.

There is something very archaic about secondary roads in northern Ireland. Once you cross the boundary, there is a noticeable decline in road quality when you have to go off the main thoroughfare. As you head into rural northern Ireland and away from the big population centres, the roads become poorer. They are designed for taking your time, admiring the scenery and not traversing from A to B as quickly as you can.

In the Ard peninsula you were best advised to take the speed limits with a dose of caution and go a few miles slower.

There was nowhere on the Ard Peninisula that could accommodate a team party of up to fifty people and Belfast was the only option for an overnight stay. The Belfast marathon was on Sunday and this meant that hotel rooms were at a premium on Saturday night. It left Offaly with a real headache once they knew the game was in Ballycran – some of the prices being quoted for Saturday night were ridiculous and it took a bit of searching before they got a satisfactory hotel out near the airport.

Even then, the Belfast marathon meant that they had to take a more circuitous route than normal to Ballycran but time was on their side on Sunday morning: that was not that big of a deal and they were at the venue in plenty of time to relax and get through their match day routine.

Newry would have been a much better and fairer venue for Offaly for this game. It would have cut out the cost of an overnight stay and the hardship of sitting on a bus for an extended period of time. Offaly had played in Newry when they last met in the championship, suffering a traumatic penalty shootout defeat in the Christy Ring Cup semi-final two years ago.They would have preferred the better pitch and bigger stadium that Newry provides but it was Down's call and apart from believing it was in Newry until quite recently, Offaly had no problem with that. They accepted it and got on with it.

It was also an experience to play in Ballycran and one that was to be savoured. Ballycran is at the heart of the Down hurling stronghold – it is where most of their players come from, where their main senior hurling clubs are and there is a unique, almost romantic feel to the place. Down didn't choose the venue to make life difficult for Offaly, even if their chances of victory would have been better in Ballycran than Newry. They picked it because it is where they want to play their hurling games and where there is most interest in the ancient game in the county – it was Offaly's fourth time to play a hurling game there, having also played in 1992, 2006 and 2009. Offaly GAA chairman Michael Duignan and the great team of that era played there in the 1990s and they harbour fond memories of that whole experience.

It is also nice to get into the heart of Northern Ireland, to get off the beaten track and get your own experience of the way things are now in a divided country. Thankfully the troubles are now over and hopefully those dark days will never return. Back in the 1992 when Michael Duignan et-al played there, bombs were still being planted, people shot because of the colours they wore and where they went to Mass. It was a frightening time and it was impossible to cross the border without getting a rush of fear, anxiety and heightened tension.

That is well and truly gone and long may it remain. Now you wouldn't know you have passed the border only for the change in road signage and the switch from kilometres to miles. There is no change in emotions or heightened senses – there are still areas that you take wise precautions in and don't stop but there is a sense of normality about the whole place now.

Northern Ireland is still a split country but the violence has been largely removed. In the Ard Peninsula, you didn't have to be an Einstein to figure out which “territory” you were in. On Saturday night, I stayed in Portaferry, just on the Ard side of the Strangford Lough and it was immediately clear I was in a mainly nationalist town. There SDLP and Sinn Fein election posters adorned the lamp posts and there were scarcely any unionist ones.

On Sunday morning, I took a spin a few miles along the coast up the road to Portavogie, a quaint and attractive fishing port small town with a population of over 2,000 people. There were no Sinn Fein posters here, only unionist ones, Union Jacks fluttered in the air and kerbs were painted red, white and blue. Well over 90% of the small town label themselves as Protestants and it is this way throughout northern Ireland – you can pass one town where they have the street names in Irish, the next with Union Jacks flying. Almost 90% of Portaferry's population are from a Catholic background. I would have stopped for a coffee in Portavogie if match time was not looming but these are not welcoming areas for visitors, especially GAA followers from the south.

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill had canvassed in Portaferry and other nationalist areas in the Ard Peninsula last week but Portavogie was not on her itinerary. Apart from the provocative element of a visit by her, there was simply no point, just as Portaferry would be way down DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson's list of priorities.

Portaferry is an example of the way life is changing for communities in Northern Ireland. You would be stretching things to suggest that unionist and nationalist communities are uniting. They are not but old barriers are coming down – people with vast differences are tolerating each other, treating each other with some respect and getting on. In Portaferry, I spoke to one person who was generous in her praise for the Portavogie unionists, describing them as very nice, decent people and suggesting that any untoward behaviour there is carried out by people who have moved in from other areas, such as Belfast.

Portaferry was the home to a beautiful, gothic Orange Hall, built in 1870. Since 2008, it has been renovated as the offices of Portaferry Credit Union. Numbers meant that an Orange Hall had limited use in Portaferry but it is doubtful if it would have been “decommissioned” in this way during the troubles.

The stunning Portico of Ards just off the square in Portaferry is now the home of a booming arts centre, used fully by all the community, nationalists and unionists, protestants an catholics. On Saturday night, it was sold out for a Queen tribute band where people from all parts of society danced together, if not side by side, at least in the one room. It has a very distinctive, visually appealing Roman type facade and is at the essence of life in Portaferry. It was built in 1841 as a Church for the Presbyterian community and it still hosts their services each Sunday morning – however, the building underwent a £ 1.6 million restoration in 2015, fitted out with modern facilities and equipment. As a result, it is is no longer owned by the Presbyterians and is instead controlled by the non demominational charity, Portico of Ards Limited where the entire community attends all sorts of events.

Inland Coastal and Marine Systems, Banagher worked on the building of the attractive marina in Portaferry years ago. St Rynagh's folk hero, Michael Conneely worked on that as well as at the harbour in Portavogie and many other locations in Northern Ireland: A brilliant midfielder on the great St Rynagh's side of the 1980s and 1990s, his distinctive locks and energetic all or nothing play won him admirers all over the county. An All-Ireland senior hurling medal winner with Offaly in 1994, he loved hitting frees out of the ground in the 1990s and he was in Ballycran on Sunday to watch his son Ben captain Offaly to victory.

Portaferry is home to the Portaferry Sailing Club, a nice, old building on the water front with a highly rated restaurant. Its very name conjures up images of unionist privilege, Gladstone type figures sipping gin and tonic, smoking cigars and dining out on lobster. It was nothing of the sort – on Saturday evening as a few locals enjoyed a quiet drink, the Down U-20 hurling team arrived there to celebrate their victory over Roscommon in the Richie McElligott Cup, the All-Ireland U-20 “B” Hurling Championship final in Cavan earlier that day. One excited female supporter could probably be heard roaring the far side of the Lough and it was very easy to envisage her breaking into a rousing chorus of Sean South from Garryowen.

The panel were settling in for what they hoped would be a “lock-in” and one member of the team spoke with great passion to me about hurling in Down and in the Ard Peninsula. Here hurling is king. Down may be a predominantly football county with a huge rich tradition but him and most of his team mates have interest only in hurling – even if their own All-Ireland final had not been on Saturday, Down's Ulster football defeat by Monaghan the same day would have been only of peripheral interest to them. A couple of the panel came from Newry or elsewhere but the vast majority came from clubs in the Ard Penisula and it was the same with the Joe McDonagh Cup game.

Ballycran is their hurling captital. They are the Down Senior Hurling Championship holders and have won the title 27 times in all. Kilclief are second in the list with 23 – they are just across the Stangford Lough from Portaferry but their last win came way back in 1956. Ballygalget and Portaferry are third in the role of honour with 21 titles – both are in the Ard Penisula. In all, just seven clubs have won the Down senior hurling title and only Ballycran, Ballygalget and Portaferry have triumphed since 1956.

Quite simply, the Ard Penisula is where Down hurling happens, Ballycran is its epi-centre and this is why Offaly went there on Sunday and why the venue was the correct one.

Ballycran were also very gracious hosts. It was heart warming to see locals gravitate to Offaly hurling folk heroes, Jim Troy and Aidan Fogarty once they became aware of their presence there – they were genuinely happy to see All-Ireland medal winners in their midst and they made all visitors feel very much at hope. Welcomes like this cannot be false and the small band of Offaly supporters were made feel very at home.

The Ballycran GAA pitch is also an example of what can be achieved. A quintessential rural GAA ground with its own unique charm – a nice pitch with a training area, satisfactory dressing rooms, small stand, impressive club house and a group of volunteers, female and male, whose pride in their club and area is positively infectious. It couldn't host a really big game but it was ideal for Sunday's fixture.

It was an experience and it gave Offaly people an appreciation for Down hurling – how small it is, how they have survived while swimming against the tide and the spirit they have. It is a spirit replicated in hurling pockets in other counties – north Kerry comes to mind instantly – and football areas in hurling strongholds. It is the type of spirit that takes decades to nourish and manifest and it is all part of the charm of the GAA – a charm that the GAA should do everything it can to help survive and flourish.

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