By John McIlwaine
When I was down in the Lurig Inn last Sunday night capturing the celebrations after Cushendall’s county final win, I was introduced to John DeNovi who had travelled from Tampa Florida to cheer on the Ruairi Ogs. I had seen a couple of interviews with John on the Antrim Facebook page but didn’t really take it in too well, but when I met him I found him an engaging character and was anxious to find out more. John is the president of DSM Sports Marketing and of Drum Corp International and has been following hurling since he stumbled on it by chance three years ago. He told me he was travelling back to Dublin the following afternoon so I arranged to meet him at Clothworthy Arts Centre in Antrim where my exhibition of hurling photos was still on view. After about half an hour in the Oriel Gallery we retired to the café at Clotworthy and chatted for about an hour about how he became interested in hurling in general – and in Cushendall in particular. I knew it had a connection with the Artane Boys Band in Dublin but couldn’t quite get my head around it all. An hour or so later the picture became a little bit clearer, and John’s new found love of hurling shone through it all.
Saffron Gael – John, what were your qualifications for teaching the Artane Band?
John DeNovi – My background would be in American College and High School marching bands going back to my days as a young kid. It is something I have been interested in my entire life. I am involved now with them in the world of sponsorship and I would help the Artane Band secure sponsorship for new equipment. They currently play Pearl drums, that’s a brand of drums, so we linked up the Artane with the Pearl Drum Company and we explained to Pearl the value of having the Artane play their make of drum in front of 82,000 on big match days in Croke Park. So in that it lead me to connections with the Belfast Tatoo, so I paired up the Artane Band and the Belfast Tatoo and we brought them north to perform at their big music festival in the first week in September.
SG – Could I just jump in there John? How did you first get connected with the Belfast Tatoo?
JDN – Well they actually reached out to me. I would be well known in the marching band scene in the States and they knew they wanted to get a top named marching band from America. You always want a big headlining group for a show like that. They had a few European bands but they were looking for something potentially from America. As it turned out they couldn’t really afford to bring and American group over so what we did was we took the Artane Band and we taught them how to be an American style band. The first show that the Artane Band did at the Belfast Tatoo was a little out of their comfort zone. We ask them to do things that they had never done before. It was almost like if they were hurlers and we ask them all to play Gaelic football, it is kind of the same, but different. There is different skill sets, there is different approach to it and that summer of 2015 they really adapted and they worked really hard, and did a fantastic job when they went to Belfast. In that whole summer of preparation (the school is just north of Dublin in the Coolock – Artane area) I went to a few Gaelic football matches with them, and got to experience Croke Park, but I had not yet seen a hurling match.
The day after the Belfast Tatoo in 2015 we went down to the All Ireland Hurling Final, it was Galway versus Kilkenny and I got to go on the pitch with the band when they did the Presidential welcome and I got to stand on the pitch. Brian Cody was standing right next to me. At that point I didn’t really know who Brian Cody was but someone explained to me that he was kind of royalty. However I was watching the warm-ups in close proximity and seeing the skill that these hurlers were displaying. They were pucking the ball over the bar from 70, 80 yards and how agile they were and I was fascinated. So the next day I went to Elverey’s and bought a hurley to take back home with me. To be honest I thought it was just going to be a souvenir on my office wall but when I got home I started to look up hurling drills on You Tube. I founds some old DJ Carey videos with the roll lift, the jab lift, and hitting the ball on the ground so I went out into the garden and found I really enjoyed it. I started to look further into it on the internet and I found out there was a hurling club near me at home. (Now near me in America means about an hour away). There was this club in Tampa Florida that was about an hour away so I went there and I thoroughly enjoyed the first training session so we have just gone from there.
John and Emmet Martin of Martin Hurls presents the Man of the Match Award to Neil McManus after his team’s win over Loughgiel in Sunday’s final
SG – Did you have any background in sport when you were growing up John?
Yes I played baseball and hockey which are stick and ball games so I had a feel for that. I played tennis so the motion of pucking a ball is a little like tennis and in tennis my left side was stronger and in baseball it was right side so I adapted to being able to strike the ball from both sides. Catching a ball was something I did all my life with a glove on my hand but catching a hurling ball without a glove wasn’t that much more difficult. For me and my advanced age, I was 47 when I picked it up, physicality was a challenge and I probably went at it a little too aggressively in the beginning and I hurt my knee the second time out and it’s just starting to heal now, some two to three years later, so I feel I have missed a good part of in my learning. In that time I found myself in goal so I started to watch goalkeeping videos, I’ve gone to Dublin and had a goalkeeper give me some personal training and I tried to consume all the information I could be the best goalkeeper I can be. If I can’t contribute in the outfield I try to be the best goalkeeper I can. I played goalie in soccer so I had an idea about stopping shots but when you have guys bearing down on you with hurls in their hand it is a different matter.
SG – That is a background on how you got into hurling John, but how did you get the connection with Cushendall?
JDN – Well as you can tell I became fanatical about hurling so I started to subscribe to as many Facebook pages and Twitter feeds connected with hurling as I could. I followed the celebrities like Buff Egan, Rory’s Stories and the Two Johnnies. I couldn’t learn enough, so my wife and I decided to come over to Ireland for St Patrick’s Day and I knew that the All Ireland Club final was on. I really didn’t know who Na Pairsaig was or Cushendall at that point, but following different feeds I started to see Cushendall a lot and they had this campaign going about pucking a ball around the world and one of the guys doing it was Liam Neeson so I said, Wow, Liam Neeson is a fan of this club.
My wife and I went up north a week prior to the final and we found ourselves in Cushendall and we drove past the pitch and I saw the club crest and said ‘Oh my God that is the crest I have been seeing in all the Facebook posts’ so we called into the ground and there was a father and son out pucking a ball around and I ask him if there was anywhere local I could but any club jerseys or scarves? He told me I had to go to TeamKit in Ballymena and Niall Kearney would take good care of him and so next day we went there and to be fair Niall took great care of us. He got us set up with hats and scarves and flags and we showed up to the All Ireland final and rooted on Cushendall, and even though we didn’t know a players’ name, or any history of the club we decided we were going to cheer on Cushendall. Look it could easily have been the other way round, we could have gone to Limerick and we could have ended up cheering on Na Pairsaig, but we just happened to be in Cushendall that day and that led me to be a fan of Cushendall, and all things Cushendall. And then of course Antrim and everything connected to the county. At that time Sean Kelly the Antrim PRO started to communicate with me and support our club back home. He started to share some of our tweets and as a result we became quite well known up the north and the moral support we got was very encouraging to us. Niall at TeamKit had been very supportive and donated a few hurleys to some of the younger players coming into the squad. We started to become friendly with some of the players in the Antrim squad, the likes of Chrissy O’Connell who was in goals for Antrim them, I was a big fan of his, and still am to this day. And that’s the story, I have no Irish roots, I think I identify as Irish if that makes sense. My background is Italian, Norwegian and Czech, but I love Irish culture. I think there is nothing else like it where you can meet up with a group of people and have something in common and all root for something together. That’s what I saw last night (in the Lurig Inn) and yesterday in Ballycastle. I have been to the last four All Ireland finals and I’ve been to a Leinster final and a number of Allianz Hurling League matches but the most special feeling I got was being at the club yesterday and standing on the hill with the same club colours on as the rest of the parish. They didn’t see me as an outsider, they welcomed me in. They didn’t look at me as a poser, or someone who was trying to steal their glory and they welcomed me as one of their own. A lot of people I meet ask me ‘Why are you so into hurling and why are you supporting a team up here in Antrim’ I tell them well I friends there, I feel I have skin in the game there. When every ball was pucked yesterday I felt it mattered to me. When I got to the All Ireland finals I go as a neutral, I enjoy the skill, I enjoy the atmosphere of an All Ireland final, but there is nothing like standing there last night and watching the players come down the street at the homecoming and going into the Lurig and spending all night with everyone sharing stories. If I didn’t know someone when I walked in the door last night I certainly did when I walked out.
John DeNovi with Nial Kearney of TeamKit
SG – And did you come over specifically for the game this week.
JDN – Yes I travel quite extensively with my job, so I have built up a lot of frequent flier miles. Really it’s just a short journey. I fly from Tampa to Florida and it is only a seven hour flight to Dublin. It’s quick. For me it’s quick, I fly to Indonesia and its 20 hours so a seven hour flight is no big deal. I always like to find a nice B&B, I like to stay locally. I found a very nice family in Cushendun this time, where I stayed. The car rentals are relatively inexpensive, I like to drive around a lot and I find somewhere new every time I come.
SG – So you have been following the Antrim championship this season, you knew how things were progressing.
JDN – Oh yes. I had actually been to a match in August. I went to the Cushendall v Dunloy match in the round robin when Cushendall lost by a point. That one was the week of the All Ireland and I was over for it but I was booked into a hotel in Tullamore Co. Offaly but when I discovered that the Cushendall v Dunloy game was on I drove all the way up for the match and then all the way back down. I didn’t regret it all. It was great being there. I had actually seen Cushendall play in a lot of other places but I had never actually see them play on their own home pitch so it was great to be there that night, even though they lost out by a point in the game.
By this time in the interview were beginning to get strange looks from the staff in the café at the Antrim Castle Gardens so we decided to wrap things up. John had to get back to Dublin for his flight back home the next day so he wrapped it up by saying
Look I guess it is something of an oddity that someone like me comes all this way to watch hurling. I wish it wasn’t that way. I wish it was common that people would come from far and near to watch the greatest game in the world, and someday I hope that is the case.
When I ask him if he would be back for the Ulster final he told me reluctantly that that was not possible because of his work commitments but if they made it through in that game and won their semi-final he would be back in Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day to cheer on the Ruairi Og.
Left – John is interviewed in Croke Park about his connection with the Artane Band back in 2015. Right. John with Buff Egan in the Lurig Inn on Sunday night after the Antrim final