Dunloy, Ballymena

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What's in a Name?

Pic: John McIlwaine

In Ballycastle this weekend, Loughgiel Shamrocks and Ruairí Óg Cushendall will contest the final of the Bath Shack Antrim SHC. There will be various narratives spun over the coming days as the column inches burst at the seams with previews and analysis, but one of the more quirky aspects of this game will be Mark 'Duck' McFadden of Loughgiel going up against Donal 'Natty' McNaughton of Ruairí Óg.

Nicknames are obviously not unique to the Antrim SHC Final, nor are they specifically an aspect of the GAA, but they certainly add to the colour of the occasion.

For years the airwaves have crackled with GAA coverage and some of those nicknames have become synonymous with special moments in the game. The mere mention of 'The Rock' projects the roving Diarmuid O'Sullivan scattering Limerick forwards to the four winds before launching over an iconic point.

An utterance of the word 'Sparrow' immediately brings to mind a distinctive white Mycro helmet on the head of Ger O'Loughlin, and of course the Gooch needs neither explanation or identification.

When you delve a little deeper, the club game is a rich pasture of GAA nicknames, with some outstanding stories to accompany them. My own club's extensive range of nicknames varies from the subtle- Feet, who had some difficulty steering the ball between the uprights - to the biblical - Barrabas and Pio.

Others are simply agricultural, Bullhead and Farmer spring to mind, while some require little explanation - Ratboy, Sniper and The Bear a Holy Trinity of nicknames from an U14 team I had the pleasure of coaching back in the day.

When viewed in the heat of battle from the sideline, these nicknames throw up some exceptional moments. In last year's Antrim SFC Final between Lámh Dhearg and St John's, we all of a sudden had Bacon grappling with Nugget for a loose ball, while in Limavady Wolfhounds' recent county final, there was a self-fulfilling moment as Oran 'Fluffy' Hartin fluffed a catch and give away a penalty.

Some nicknames of course are geographically contained. You'll be hard-pressed to find a 'Smickers' or a 'Mackers' in the hills of south Derry for example. Similarly, numbers of people nicknamed 'Bullhead' or 'Farmer' are at an all-time low in Turf Lodge.

In more rural areas in particular, the nickname is sometimes mandatory for the purposes of identification. The large amount of Mullans in Glenullin, for example, necessitate an extra name to be included so people can understand which particular Mullan clan you're referring to/slabbering about. So keen was a good friend of mine on his family name that he got it printed onto the back of his Celtic jersey in his youth.

Half the fun of nicknames is finding out the story behind them, fictional or otherwise. Sometimes it's even better with a great deal of embellishment. A favourite of mine is Major, who for a brief time in the mid-90s had the misfortune of wearing a very similar pair of glasses to Tory Prime Minister John Major, glasses that spawned a nickname that stayed with the man for many a year.

Some can become more unwelcome as time goes on. I played for years with a man nicknamed 'Drugsy'. The name was, if a little uncomfortable, slightly more acceptable as a teenager or going through his 20s. As a father though, he found it unhelpful while out and about with his children to be greeted with the opening line "Alright Drugsy". It made for some tricky conversations.

Whatever the reason for a nickname, there is no doubt that they add to the drama and narrative of any GAA occasion. They contribute to the folklore of local GAA and add to the camaraderie that is so crucial to the success of many teams in the history of the game.

I'm sure I'm not alone in looking forward to seeing Duck, Natty, Winker and the rest dazzle us in Ballycastle this weekend.

If you rate your knowledge of famous GAA nicknames as encyclopedic, have a go at this quiz from Sporcle, created by JoeDOTie on GAA nicknames.