Gilly McIlhatton RIP

Former county official Eamon McMahon pays tribute to his old friend and colleague

With his passing earlier this week, the GAA in Belfast, Antrim and beyond has lost one of its great characters. A man of a generation and type who were fundamental in the development of our Association. Known universally, simply as Gilly, to the thousands of people with whom he came in contact as a player, mentor, team manager and administrator. Roles that unbelievably extended across eight decades. That took Gilly throughout Antrim, Ulster and far beyond to many Counties in Ireland and indeed London.

Gilly was a dedicated John Mitchels man. He served his club as a player for many years. If the team was short it was not unknown for Gilly still to lineout, at an age when most would have been drawing their pension. He looked after teams from underage level up and it was normal to see his car overflowing with young lads going to a game. Health and Safety concerns and car capacities were matters overlooked.

As a player, mentor and administrator Gilly made a unique and longstanding contribution to the GAA. He was never afraid of putting in the hard work and never baulked at a challenge, no matter how impossible it may have seemed. His club and County were the beneficiaries of his efforts.

Gilly was never afraid to express his opinions- on and off the field. He was ever prepared to grant referees the benefit of his interpretation of the playing rules. And this would not be done in a quiet, shy or retiring manner. It would be direct and very audible.

Gilly (left) and Eamon McMahon side by side with an Antrim minor team in Croke Park in the 1980s

And similarly, in the council chambers, be it at Divisional Board or at County Level. Chairmen and Secretaries were fair game. Other delegates would not get things their way. Gilly could hold his own in any debate. His timing could be brilliant. It would appear an issue was done and dusted and the end of the meeting was beckoning. Then Gilly would get to his feet. And away we would go again. Gilly could introduce humour into his comments and could poke fun at himself. Above all his opinions were steeped in his dedication to his club and the Association.

Gilly was a hurling man above all. He was passionate about the game and brought generations of young people to participate in and enjoy our ancient game. As an U16 player with Gael Uladh I remember Gilly on the sideline looking after teams. I would later play against him and referee games in which he played. Both could be interesting. He was a tricky hurler to line and would let you know your mistakes, in his opinion, when you were the referee.

Later during my time as Secretary of the Antrim Hurling Board, I served alongside Gilly for many years. Initially this was in his role in County underage management. Here he worked at times with among others two greats of Antrim hurling in Kevin Donnelly of McQuillans Ballycastle and the late Seanie Burns of St. Johns Belfast. He later progressed to take charge of the County U21 team. In these roles there emerged players who went on to grace Antrim teams in the 80s and 90s and on our All-Ireland squad in 1989. And not only did he seek out players for the County. Gilly enlisted the help of a man who was to succeed him both as a Hurling Board Chairman and more importantly as Senior Team Manager. And as they say the rest is history, for the arrival on the scene of Jim Nelson pay dividends for Antrim Hurling.

Gilly then took over the role of County Senior Hurling Manager and went on become Chairman of the County Hurling Board. Joining Gilly in managing the Senior team was another legend of Antrim Hurling, the late great Neilly Patterson of Loughguille Shamrocks. Here we had another man steeped in the game of hurling. Together Gilly and Neilly made a great partnership. I travelled the length and breadth of Ireland with these men, together with Con Grego of O’Donovan Rossa who was the then Hurling Board Treasurer. At a time when County hurling did not have the profile it deserved and which thankfully it now rightfully enjoys. The All-Ireland ‘B’ Hurling title was won and progress was being made.

Gilly presents the Intermediate Hurling Championship cup to St Paul’s captain Paul McStravick back in the 80s

As I have said above Gilly was a GAA character. And as such there are a legion of stories about him. I am sure that over these next days many will be recounted. From the County perspective, there are a number which come to mind. Travelling throughout the Country could be adventurous. My colleagues were not known to hang about when driving and we need not have the road systems of today. The Circuit of Ireland rally was often repeated going to Cork, Limerick and Kerry during winter months.

And it was in Kerry that one Sunday morning we lost Neilly and Gilly. They had decided to go and see where Roger Casement had landed on Banna Strand and failed to return. There was concern in the fact that Neilly’s car had a lot of the players’ hurleys in the boot. It transpired that they drove onto Banna Strand and got bogged down in wet sand. A farmer with a tractor had to drag them out.

On another occasion, Gilly was driving the minibus and got lost in a fog. A signpost was found, Gilly climbed up the post and with the light from a cigarette lighter belonging to John Crossey to find the right road.

And here in Antrim Gilly could cause panic with his driving. Going to training one night, he pulled out of a line of traffic to go up the hard shoulder. Unfortunately, it was a British Army checkpoint and there was a machine gun emplacement on the hard shoulder. Players told me later that they were terrified and that the soldier didn’t look too happy either. Gilly talked his way out of it somehow.

And on the pitch Gilly could get into trouble when playing. He was sent off in a game and the referee reported him for breaking a hurley over an opponent. His reply to the disciplinary meeting typical Gilly, “ For God’s, they are not making hurleys the way they used to” It didn’t prevent a suspension.

As well as using his voice on the pitch or at meetings, Gilly was prepared to use his vocal talents in other ways. One afternoon the tape with the National Anthem broke down. There was no need for the bit of panic that arose. The microphone was handed to Gilly and he duly obliged by singing our National Anthem.

Gilly presents the Feile na nGael trophy to a Rossa captain some time in the 1980s

Travelling throughout Ireland, Gilly and I had meals in many different places. He did like his food. And it is ironic that the last of the countless occasions upon which we met, took place when he was eating. I met Gilly in an ice-cream parlour next door to Casement Park where, over the years we had spent many hours together. In front oh him, Gilly had a cup of tea and a plate with a large slice of apple cake topped with ice cream. There we discussed hurling, the County and recalled the years gone by. We laughed and I went home.

There is only one way that I can sum up Gilly McIlhatton. He was a GAA man to the core. We did not always agree but that did not intrude on a friendship that lasted over fifty years. The argument could be fierce but that would be no obstacle to you going to his home or he to yours. Gilly was fine human being who lived a long and active life. It is poignant that he left us on the day of his 92nd birthday. May Gilly now know everlasting peace with his wife, Eileen and may God grant him eternal rest.

Ar dheis Dé do raibh a anam.

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