James McLean RIP
By John Curly McIlwaine
James McLean will be laid to rest in his native Dunloy after Requim Mass tomorrow (Wednesday), just a few hundred yards from where he grew-up in McClelland Park, down the Station Road. He passed away on Monday morning in his home in Bellaghy Park, a few hundred yards out the Bellaghy Road.
During his 67 years on this earth he made the journey up the Bridge Road many thousands of times, be it on his way to school at St Briget’s PS, worship at St Briget’s Church or to hurl at his beloved Pearse Park. So much of his life circled around that area of the village and helped shape him into the man he was.
Tomorrow he will make that journey for the final time.
James McLean was born in Dunloy in 1953 and grew up playing hurling and football for the club. Hurling was of course his first love and he was a member of the Cuchullains team who beat Rossa in the final of the Minor Hurling Championship in Loughgiel in 1971. Five years later he played on the Dunloy team who qualified for Antrim Senior final, where they were well beaten by a very good Rossa team in Casement Park.
A highly skilful hurler he played for Antrim and Ulster through to the early 1980s and for the club up until the mid-eighties, just missing out on the club’s great breakthrough in 1990.
After hanging up the hurl he got involved in refereeing, something he again put his heart and soul into, and rose through the ranks to inter-county level, the pinnacle of his county career coming in 1999 when he was the man in the middle for the Galway v Kilkenny All Ireland Minor Hurling semi-final in Croke Park. Of course he continued on at club level for many years after that and took charge of the 2005 Antrim Senior Hurling final between Cushendall and Loughgiel in Casement Park. He would have done many more had his home club not been so dominant in that era.
He was involved in his club committee at different times but in 2009 he took over as North Antrim Board chairman and served on the board in other positions for over a decade. He was also a county committe member as was Ulster delegate for a couple of years. Two years ago he was elected club chairman, something he was very proud of, and he had the honour of seeing the club collect the last two senior hurling titles.
When Dunloy beat Cushendall in the Antrim Senior Hurling Final back on September 13th they became the first club to win the new Fr Fitzpatrick Cup. After the initial bout of celebrations had died down and photos had been taken with the new silverware James McLean went to the boot of his car to retrieve the old Volunteer Cup, which Dunloy had won the previous year. He took it out onto the pitch to hand it back to county secretary Frankie Quinn who was taking it back to the county offices for safe storage. However when the fans and players saw the old trophy they all wanted their photos taken with the ‘Big Ears’ one last time, and so the cycle of celebration photos started all over again. James finally regained possession of the historic silverware and handed it safely back to Frankie. Little did we think it would be one of the last official duties he would carry out for the club.
A few short weeks later the grave news filtered through about his terminal condition and we knew there would be no more great days in the sun for a man who gave so much for club and county. His lovely wife Bernie and their children helped nurse him through that final journey as we waited knowing there would only be one outcome.
Those of us who knew James will mourn his passing, but it pales into insignificance in comparison to what Bernie and the family are feeling. To her, their sons Dario, Brian and Alan plus daughters Orlagh and Alisha, to his brothers Tom and Cyril plus sister Katleen Anne and the wider McLean family we offer our sincere condolences.
With the current Covid restrictions we won’t get the chance to give him the send-off he deserves, but we will be with his family in spirit on that final journey.