12 February 2006

Gaelic Games: On the edge of history

Sunday Times

February 12, 2006

For Ballygalget, today’s club semi-final is just another chapter in a long tale of thriving on the most meagre resources
Leo Boylan’s house is set back from the eastern shoreline of the Ards Peninsula, high up on ground that slopes down to the Irish Sea. From here, on a clear summer’s day, you can see the Isle of Man to the right and “the rough end of Scotland” away to the left. In the evenings the Dublin to Liverpool ferry swans by and when a Canadian oil company speculated on the contents of the ocean bed in Boylan’s neighbourhood the exploration rig floated in full view, illuminating the night-time horizon “like a 15-storey hotel”.

In hurling’s pocket atlas, this is land’s end.

Between Boylan’s home and the water below is a ruin where Ballygalget hurling club held its first meeting, 67 years ago. Leo’s father-in-law, Willie Johnson, was an innocent witness to the gathering, a boy of eight among the club’s founding fathers. It is recorded in the minutes that Patrick Mason, the newly elected vice-chairman, was mandated by the meeting to “order goalposts, 10 hurling sticks and a hurling ball”.

Those denied a hurley from the club’s stock fashioned their sticks from waste timber or the roots of a furze bush. That was the beginning. Their little world is not a secret anymore. Fourteen years ago Sean McGuinness led Down to their first Ulster title since 1941 and the Ards Peninsula became a new and alternative destination for hurling tourists, like an unspoiled Pacific island; more Trailfinders than Budget Travel. As a county team and a hurling community they were a miracle of self-sufficiency and self-generating morale. Keeping on wasn’t a conscious thought. They hurled, whether anybody noticed or not.

Though the headlines of the story are familiar now the detail has never lost its power. Until you’ve been here you can’t fully appreciate the sense of separation. From Newry there are two roads to Strangford, narrow arteries clogged with the cholesterol of twists and bends. From Strangford the ferry brings you to the southern tip of the Ards Peninsula; just one ferry, over and back, at its own pace, the antithesis of rush hour. For them, every trip is a journey.

Willie Johnston remembers Ballygalget reaching their first junior county final in 1942. The match was played in Newcastle, which meant cycling to Portaferry, catching a bus to Newtownards and completing the journey by train. The three Ards clubs play in the Antrim senior league, which involves 180-mile round trips to north Antrim. A weekend down south for a challenge match? There’s little change from £1,000.

But you would be foolish and vain to think that their survival depended on contact with the greater hurling world. Hurling existed for nearly 60 years in Portaferry without the companionship of another club on the Ards Peninsula. As Willie remembers it, the hurling clubs in Ballycran and Ballygalget were conceived from a row between Portaferry and the county board. Portaferry cut itself off and decided to start an Ards league instead. They divided their club into three teams and donated half a dozen players to each of the fledging sides. By the time the row was resolved the Ards had a robust hurling identity and an independent state of mind.

As a people, they have a history of getting by and making do. For nearly 40 years Ballygalget led a nomadic existence around the parish, moving their goalposts to the land of the next benevolent farmer. At an AGM in the mid-1960s they decided to put down roots. At the same meeting Willie was elected treasurer and he inherited accounts showing a balance of £100. How the hell could they buy a field? One Catholic landowner rejected their approach, so they tried a Protestant, Tom O’Donnell. As Liam Dorrian remembers it, the field was worth £1500, but to turn his head they offered O’Donnell in excess of £2,000. Selling ground to the local GAA club was a big deal for a Protestant landowner in the late 1960s, but O’Donnell did it. He was immediately expelled from the Orange Order, who according to Dorrian tried to block the sale.

Clearly, the club didn’t have two grand but Joe Dynes, a builder and a Ballygalget man to his bone, wrote a cheque and the club paid him back over time. The only condition that O’Donnell imposed was that the tricolour wouldn’t be flown at the field while he was alive. When he died clubmen carried his remains on part of their final journey. According to Dorrian, there were as many Catholics at the funeral as Protestants.

In general, the Troubles didn’t intrude on the daily lives of people on the Ards Peninsula and relations were good between the two communities. Dorrian can remember a couple of Protestant lads from Portavogie playing football for the club. But they were forced to quit after Loyalists threatened them with violence and, occasionally, terror and devastation brushed against all of them.

The first of the clubhouse burnings took place in the early 1970s and over the years the arsonists kept returning. The proximity of the clubs to the loyalist town of Newtownards made them vulnerable and the attacks were in the dead of night, when the clubs were deserted and the chances of detection remote. Ballygalget didn’t suffer as much as the others but their turn came in 1991.

Because the paramilitaries took responsibility the club was entitled to state funding to rebuild the clubhouse and because there was so much voluntary labour from club members they were able to build a clubhouse twice the size of the one razed to the ground. It was a statement of defiance.

They’re a tight crowd — different, they would say, to their neighbours. Portaferry is a town club, Ballycran is a parish with a town at its centre; Ballygalget is distinctively rural. They don’t have a pub, a police station, an Orange Hall or a soccer team. Watson’s shop is the commercial hub of the community, a multiplex of petrol station, supermarket, hardware store and builder’s providers, with parking in the forecourt and the Watson family home overlooking the whole enterprise.

Work is scarce enough in the locality, but emigration has never been an issue. Nearly half of the panel work in the building trade and they commute to sites in Belfast or further afield. The pull of home brings them back. The club couldn’t sustain any population drain. The parish numbers about 700 people, which amounts to a third of Ballycran’s population and a fifth of Portaferry’s. Seamus Bailie remembers in the 1970s when they couldn’t field minor teams but such resource shortages have been rare.

On the field they have punched above their weight, once they got their act together. There came a time in the 1950s when they had to leave Gaelic football to one side. “When I say we played football, I use the term loosely,” says Paddy Branniff Sr. “We were losing too many players, too many were getting the line. If they were playing now they’d be interned for the things they did.”

Football was parked in 1958 but around that time Paddy and seven or eight of his mates dabbled in soccer and were suspended for a year. “When you were young you didn’t give a damn. We all crawled back after our suspension was up.” With everyone back on board Ballygalget won their first senior championship in 1959.

Sixteen years later, when they won their first Ulster title, Paddy was still playing along with a handful of others from the breakthrough team. The 1975 team was old at the time and had been relegated to Division Two of the Antrim League. Selectors were hard to find, an excellent Ballycran team were the reigning Ulster champions and hope was scarce. No matter, they won the Ulster title anyway. Paddy Sr won his last county championship in 1983 when his son, Paddy Jr, was the team’s teenage captain. He was 42. “I’d have played on only the selectors wouldn’t let me. You’ll be sitting by the fire long enough.”

The juniors accommodated him until he was nearly 50 and then he called it quits.

Paddy has a grandson coming up the ranks. So does Seamus Bailie. Willie Johnston’s has already made it: Gareth “Magic” Johnson will lead the attack against Newtownshandrum this afternoon. The team sheet is full of names that echo down the generations: Coulter, Clarke, Dynes, Watson, Johnson: Ballygalget names.

Seamus McGrattan, Ulster hurling officer for nearly 40 years, was in the club field one night last summer looking after a juvenile team. After a while he took stock of all the activity around him. His head-count finished at 90, “from boys of eight to men of 35”. He couldn’t think of a Ballygalget hurler who was absent from the field.

That’s the measure of them. Whatever happens in Portlaoise today, that will still be the measure of them.

AIB All-Ireland club hurling semi-final, Newtownshandrum (Cork) v Ballygalget (Down), Portlaoise, today, throw-in 2.30pm, TG4 4.10pm

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