The story of the Saffron Gael

The Saffron Gael website is a labour of love for John ‘Curly’ McIlwaine and his team. Here is the inside story…

By Michael Corcoran

AS the world we live in continuously adapts to the ever changing landscapes we find ourselves faced with, in recent times, some small local printed newspapers found change to be an insurmountable challenge.

As their revenues from print continued to fall along with advertising, some had to rationalise operations whilst others faced the inevitable step of closing. Regrettably, closure impacts staff and as a full-time photographer with the Ballymena Times, John ‘Curly’ McIlwaine was faced with such a situation.

John has been a photographer for over 45 years and his passion for capturing images has revolved predominantly around GAA activities, hurling, camogie, awards and player weddings. ‘Curly’ as he is affectionately known by, has a long and full pedigree covering his favourite sport, hurling. At one time, John was the go-to photographer for the Kilkenny squad, covering major games in all the large venues, including Croke Park and many Kilkenny player’s weddings. Not ready to hang up his Canon cameras, John resurrected an old idea he was ruminating over, namely operating a website for all things GAA in his home county of Antrim.

The idea of a website had great appeal to John as he spoke to Gaelic Life recently, “I had the idea of a website for a good few years to be honest. I had made enquiries about doing a print version of a GAA paper a good few years ago too, but it was out of my price league to be honest. Also, at that time I was working full time for the Ballymena Times as a photographer and it would not have been practical. The good thing about a website is that there is no limit to what we can publish.”

As other printed papers closed, John was soon joined by other willing contributors. First up was brother Paddy, fresh from the Ballymena Chronicle who helped John establish the Saffron Gael site, including the workflows (getting photos and match reports to the backroom team and subsequent publication) and picked up the football workload.

It wasn’t long before Brendan McTaggart joined the Saffron Gael team and once the ball got truly rolling, lads who were into photography got in touch offering their services and they soon built up a team of volunteers.

“It’s a non-profit organisation and we survive on donations from the clubs, advertising and sponsorship from different companies who are mostly into the GAA. The boys get a few pounds to cover their travelling and that is basically it. My original intention was just to do it in north and south-west Antrim as the Andersonstown News was covering the games in Belfast but as soon as we started, all the Belfast clubs were keen to get reports and pics onto the Saffron Gael and it grew from there.”

John pauses for a moment to reflect on the depth of volunteers on the Saffron Gael’s books, then adds: “Geordie McGuckin reported on football, Dylan McIlwaine was only 16 when the SG started and keen to take photos, he came onboard. Bert Trowlen was a big photo buff and GAA follower, so he was soon on board too.

“ Elaine Kelly started doing LGFA and has been a tremendous help as has Sean Paul Mc Killop – ex-county hurler – who does a tremendous amount of work in both hurling and camogie. Kevin Herron, whose late father was a former South Antrim chairman, does a world of stuff in Belfast as do Joe Carberry, JJ Lawell and Sean Toal.

“Cathal McOscar from across the border in Derry has been a great help with the photos. Then there’s Mickey Morgan from Cushendun, Paul McIlwaine from Larne, Pete Hyndman from Carnlough, Damien McKee from Portglenone, Niall Kelly and Aodh O’Loan from Glenravel. Brian McKee, who took over as chairman of Ardoyne Kickhams during the season does a mountain of stuff for us, photos and reports. Also, a lot of great people within their own clubs work tirelessly. There must be others I have forgotten to mention, so apologies for that.”

John recognises that planning is the key to a smooth operation: “For the weekend games we try and work out what suits best and who goes where. Some clubs have very good PROs, which is a great help but there are also a good few you never get anything from. Paddy, Brendan and I would go to games and do the reports, stats and photos, which is very time consuming.

“On top of that Paddy and I will then do reports from audio notes from the likes of Dylan, Bert, Elaine and Sean Paul, sent in along with their photos. There are a lot of very late Sunday nights.

“About a month ago I got up at 5.30am on a Sunday morning to catch up with reports and pics from the previous day before going to cover three different matches. I worked right through to 3.15am on the Monday morning trying to catch up. Never again….it nearly killed me!”

With the benefit from the team’s meticulous planning and coverage, John is happy to share that the site has grown more popular in recent years.

“We are going just over seven years now I believe, and it is still building gradually each year. The first few years we had just over the million hits mark, but we topped the two million hits in the last two years and are on course to go well over that this year.

“Of course, hits do not mean we have that many visitors. The visitors, people logging onto the site, generally works out about a third of the number of hits.”

By anyone’s standard, it’s still a remarkable achievement.

According to John, they have no ambitions to expand the site as their current workload is sufficient to keep everyone busy.

“It’s a labour of love“largely helped by everyone’s enthusiasm and love for the games. It helps too that we all have connections with clubs and that is probably what keeps it all going.

“Dylan and I are Con Magee’s, Glenravel, Paddy is All Saints, Ballymena and a former chairman of the club. Bert lives in Crumlin but is a former Glenavy goalkeeper. Sean Paul, a retired county player, lives in Cushendall where his son and daughters play now, but he is still a Shamrock at heart.

“Brendan now lives in Lavey but is a dyed in the wool Dunloy man, Kevin Herron is Lamh Dhearg, JJ Lawell and Sean Toal are St Enda’s, Damien McKee lives in Portglenone but is Cargin at heart. Elaine Kelly is Moneyglass and Antrim LGFA to the core.”

That’s quite a resourceful mix and everyone has their own approach to ‘snapping’ their images. Despite a range of cameras such as Nikons and Canons with their respective lenses covering prime and telephoto variants, most action photographers would agree that the lens is king and pretty much where someone starting out should focus first then work back towards the body, keeping an eye on the budget.

John offers: “Keep practising and learn from your mistakes. We all make lots of mistakes and take bad photos, but nobody else must see them. Delete the rubbish and keep the good stuff. If you’re going to submit a match report to us, it will help if you note the scorer’s names and times. That paints a picture of the game.

“One final tip, Sean Paul uses an App on the Google platform called GAA Scores Stats Plus, which is great, especially if you are using it to record scores. It will record wides and lots more but that makes it too slow to collate the information afterwards.”

John recounts a conversation he had with a Ballymena raconteur in his podcast with Jerome Quinn, that “he (John) was recording history”. We hope that the Saffron Gael, under John’s stewardship, continues to record our GAA history, at least in the Saffron County, for many years to come.

Podcast link – Type into Google ‘John Curly McIlwaine Podcast’

Saffron Gael link –

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