Sport, Style Of Play | |

“ I would say that rural resiliency is a big reason why Cushendall are so successful.” – Neil McManus

Shane Stapleton sits down with Antrim’s own Neil McManus….

As the first responder delivered three jolts of electric current into Hugh McManus’ chest, his son Neil assumed that everything would be alright.

The elder statesman of the family had been through the wars over his six-decades – growing up in north Belfast during the Troubles, being displaced and having to move to the Glens of Antrim before investing himself into Cushendall.

Neil explains that his father was the stereotypical stoic Irishman who did his day’s work and made little fuss about it. So, when a terrifying obstacle came four years ago, his son felt that the old man would simply pull through. After all, overcoming challenges was all part of life.

“I’m an ambassador from RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution), the lifeboat guys,” says Neil. “The reason behind that is that in 2015 something happened the day before we played the county semi-final against Loughgiel Shamrocks.

“It was a wet day and I was doing my normal thing, a bit of foam rolling and stretching and yoga, and my father left to go play golf, and I told him he wouldn’t last long in that (horrible) weather. He was back within an hour and I started laughing, saying he couldn’t stick it for very long.

“But he was very grey, his skin colour, and he is the sort of man who never missed a day’s work in his life, and I never saw him sick — he’s just very old school and gets on with it. He went into the sitting room in our house, which no one ever goes into it, and he lay down on the sofa and I remember thinking it was deadly strange.

“I just went in next door and rang an ambulance and said, ‘I think my father is having a heart attack’. Unknown to me, my dad is part of the local committee called Cushendall Community Resiliency. Because we’re an hour from a hospital and things aren’t handy to us, my father was part of a committee set up to make Cushendall more self-reliant.

“There’s a 4×4 drivers’ group to help people because there are occurrences of heavy snowfall and flooding in our area. They deliver messages and shopping to people’s houses up lanes and to people who are snowed in. One of the other things that they developed was a first-responder scheme; when somebody reports something like a heart attack in our rural area they are contacted, and they will take a defibrillator to the location. I didn’t even know my dad was involved.

“So, the ambulance service sent a text to the first-responders to come out but there was no number on our door. This guy called Joe Burns arrived at the door just to ask where number 12 was. I answered the door and he could tell something was up by my face, and he said, ‘is everything alright Neil?’ I said ‘no’ and he rushed in through the door past me and had my dad’s shirt open and got the defibrillator going.

“Lucky he was there to revive him because it took another 45 minutes for the ambulance to arrive. That’s the type of community we have in Cushendall, and I would say that rural resiliency is a big reason why Cushendall are so successful.

“We have so many obstacles and we know we’re doing it by ourselves, and the culture and the history we have — thanks to legends such as Danny and James McNaughton, Sambo McNaughton and many more — people who were making the area well-known long before our generation. We’d be conscious that we want to preserve that.”

To anyone who has ever made the trip to the Glens of Antrim or been exposed to this neck of the woods, there’s little doubting that this is a hurling heartland. Playing for the club, winning county titles and making it to a club All-Ireland in 2016, it’s what youngsters dream of growing up. Not only that, but this place is a bastion of Irish music, dance, storytelling, and drama. One need only look to the people most dear to McManus to get a taste of it. His brother John, with whom he has won county titles, is the lead singer in a band called Runabay, his friend Shane McNaughton is an actor, and participating in the arts seems like second nature here.

“That small Glens of Antrim area has a strong tradition of story-telling and Irish music and dance,” McManus explains. “We’re right beside Lurig Mountain and the local drama group is called Lurig Drama Group, and they run a play in the golf club maybe once a month. It’s a well-established rural venue for drama, and that would be part of the cut and thrust of life of the Glens of Antrim — a little bit of drama!

“Ciaran Hinds (the actor), who you would have heard of, his mother lived by the pitch in Cushendall for a long time, God rest her, and he would have been around Cushendall. Liam Neeson is from Ballymena and I’ve met him a few times. There are links to drama society about the place.

“I suppose it was 2016 when the club organised a night of drama called ‘Cushendall Remembers’ where we all had different parts in a play about what Cushendall would have been like 100 years ago — we got dressed up in the old way, with old bikes and hurls, and that kind of stuff. There’d be a lot of that in the Glens now. The GAA team is part of everything but the Lurig Drama Society drove most of that.”

“That Celtic life and stuff would be a big part of it,” he adds. “The Glens of Antrim was one of the last entirely Gaelic-speaking regions of Ireland — north, south, east or west — because we’re hemmed in from mountains behind us and the sea in front of us, and it’s hard to travel in and out and that’s why the language survived for so long. The construction of the Coast Road in the mid-1900’s changed that and made the area more accessible.

“It’s probably only in the ‘80s or ‘90s that a couple of women in Glenariff died, very old women who didn’t even speak English. That’s a neighbouring parish of ours, and it’s that type of area. Because it was so hard to get out of the Glens, all the trade was done with Scotland. At its closest point, there is only 12 miles to Scotland from Torr Head near Ballycastle — so all the trade was done by boat. You think of the surnames McAliister, McKillop, McLoughlin, all of those names are prevalent on the west side of Scotland. Transport was easiest in that direction.”

Speaking of moving from one place to the other, McManus and his running buddy Shane McNaughton got up to plenty of hijinks over the years. Men who once shared free-taking duties for the senior team and broke down laughing after both had fired wildly off-target during a game, the future Antrim stars had one particularly amusing day of fun.

“We bought a car from a local man for £50,” McManus says with a chuckle. “We were driving it about the village learning how drive — I’d say we were 14 or 15 — and a club member spotted the suspicious activity of the car, so he approached it and we sped off.

“About a mile up the road the car died, and we had to come clean about who was inside the beaten-up Ford Escort. That man was our primary seven teacher and he rang our fathers. Sambo found the keys in (his son) Shane’s trousers and gave the car to a local scrap man — we ended up blaming loads of people for stealing it! Only a few years ago, Sambo told us down at the Lurig Bar in front of half the village that he took it away.”

If Cushendall was to have a #StylefPlay, it seems togetherness, family, and Gaelic traditions are central to it. Sometimes those factors get mixed up together, as they did in 1981 when Cushendall were chasing their maiden county title.

“My mother (Dorothy) and father married the day before Cushendall were looking to win their first ever Antrim championship,” says McManus. “In those days, the bride and groom left for the honeymoon on the evening of their wedding.

“But they stayed on to watch the match on the Sunday, which ended in a draw, and then went direct to Dublin airport after the match — eating the wedding cake in the airport! They returned in time to see the victorious replay a few weeks later.”


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