By John McIlwaine
Neil McManus was out working in the garden of his new home in Cushendall when a voice from behind says “ Hi boy you better take it easy, you have a big match coming up next weekend”. Neil turned to find behind him none other than Hollywood superstar Liam Neeson, who had been spending a couple of days in the seaside village. Big Liam went on to chat about the game of hurling and told the Antrim star that he had hurled a bit himself in this time at St Patrick’s College in Ballymena in the1960s where he won the North Antrim Vocational Schools title in 1966.
“I was totally dumbstruck to be honest” was Neil’s reaction, “I couldn’t believe just how down to earth the man was. I was buzzing about meeting such a big star so I went in the house and got one of my Antrim jerseys and presented it to him”
The news of Liam playing for St Patrick’s is something I was well aware of as I was a member of that very team in 1966. To be honest I wasn’t very good and in truth I don’t really remember whether Liam was either as the stars of that team were the boys from the hurling clubs like PJ O’Mullan, the late Barry Mullholland and Denis Burns from Loughgiel and Kieran Dempsey from Cushendall. The team was made up of players from areas which at that time had no hurling at all like Ballymena, Glenravel and Ahoghill, but some of the players from there like Ahoghill’s Raymond Quinn and Ballymena’s Tony McAvoy (better known for his boxing prowess) and ‘tough as teak’ Pat Jordan were natural athletes and took to the game like ducks to water. We played our home games on the newly laid All Weather pitch at St Patrick’s, which I might add was nothing like the lush grass-like 4G surfaces of today. This one was as hard as the road with a sprinkling of quarry dust on top to cushion the blow and if you went down on it your bore the scars for weeks afterwards. Our team manger Dominic O’Loan, who that season guided Glenravel to their one and only Senior Football Championship title, knew that once we got used to the surface it would be a big advantage to us, and so it proved. We beat Our Lady of Lourdes, Ballymoney in the final, for which we had home advantage for some strange reason, and while they had a lot of players from the hurling strongholds of Loughgiel and Dunloy in their ranks, they could not adapt to playing on our pitch, having played all their hurling on grass. Dominic had us working on ground hurling and on a surface like that the ball flew along. I can’t remember the actual score of the game but I’m almost sure we score more goals than points in that final.
When Liam was granted the Freedom of the Borough of Ballymena back in November 2012 I was there photographing the event for the Ballymena Times. During a quiet moment when Liam was in the Parlour with Mayor of Ballymena Ald PJ McAvoy (older brother of the aforementioned Tony McAvoy) I got the chance to present him with a copy of the team photo from that final, and got him to sign a couple of others as well. There are a good few players in the photograph whose names I still struggle to remember, but I was amazed when the big man rattled them all off.
The Hollywood legend is a regular visitor to this part of the world and comes back to see family and friends when his busy schedule allows. He loves his native Ballymena, the Glens of Antrim and his county, so who knows he may well pop up in Croker on Saturday to cheer on the men in Saffron.
You know something…he might even be wearing McManus’s jersey!