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Better to live one day as a lion than lifetime as a lamb

I soon discovered that the Cork boys worked to a different tempo: I confidently reached out for the first such ball that came my way, and found my knuckles nearly taken off by the blade of my marker's hurley; they played to different rules as well, it seemed, and this was fair game

Ciarán Carson (former Antrim minor) from his 1996 book 'Last Night's Fun'

FRAHER FIELD, Dungarvan, 1997. Two 14-year-olds going neck and neck entering the final penalty discipline, nothing between them, a world apart in every other way. Up steps Chris Coulter, hurley in hand, representing Armagh. He belts the first sweetly past the goalkeeper, then the second.

Now it is his rival's turn. Cork's Kieran Murphy scores from the first, but botches the lift on the second and before long GAA president Joe McDonagh has the honour of feting Armagh's only national Féile na nGael hurling skills winner - dressed not in black and amber, red, or blue and gold, but bright orange.

This is where Van Morrison jumps in and sings how it would be great if it was like this all the time. But of course he doesn't - and it's not. Like others from impoverished hurling counties who reach similar peaks, the future brings a harsh dose of reality.

Back home in Milford on the outskirts of Armagh City, Coulter, now aged 20, knows the sensation will never be re-lived. He's still hurling and made a few appearances for the county senior team in last year's league. One of those was against Sligo in Markievicz Park, the other in Keady against Leitrim. That's the extent of the glamour.

At Jordanstown College, where he's studying construction engineering, he had a sobering reality check against Waterford IT in the Fitzgibbon Cup. Played in Dublin, the match turned into a slaughter. He hurled at full-forward on Tipperary's Paul Curran.

Their preparation was hapless, a few last-minute sessions with Dinny Cahill, and they paid the grisly price. There's enough black irony in him to handle it, but the experience wasn't pleasant. Hurling is still his game. "It's degrading. You're coming off thinking where do you go next?"

The Féile skills offers players like Coulter a brief taste of the limelight before catapulting them back to obscurity. Five years after outdoing a future Cork senior hurler, he saw the Fitzgibbon Cup reinforce the natural order. "It was like an U16 team playing against U12s, totally outperformed."

Winning the Féile skills didn't come as a huge surprise, despite his background; he'd shown some form. The previous year in Waterford a fourth-placed finish suggested there was nothing to fear from competitors from Cork or Kilkenny or Tipperary. Or anywhere. Coulter himself felt calm, but his father was a nervous wreck.

"Ah high emotion, very proud, all the hard work that went in down on the pitch was rewarded," says Paul Coulter more than six years on. He had coached Chris religiously from the age of four. They went to Munster finals between Cork and Tipp. To Leinster finals. To tournaments in Waterford and Clare.

In the family home in Milford the walls are decorated with hurling photographs, trapping cherished moments on the way up, one of them showing Chris and his younger brother Declan beside DJ Carey moments after the 1992 Leinster final. Declan took part in the Féile skills in 1998 and only took up football three years ago, but he's now on the Armagh minor football panel. It's hard to resist.

"Everyone wants to be a footballer," says Chris. "You ask any of them who do you want to be? It's Ronan Clarke or Oisín McConville."

THE Féile skills competition has been running since 1975, but of all the winners since then, only a small minority made it to the top: Shane Ahearne, Fergus Flynn, Mark Kerins. Most of the rest failed to show up on the senior inter-county radar, let alone make a mark.

Since 1997, when Chris Coulter won, the Peadar Ahearne Memorial Shield has been presented in memory of the Ferrybank man who died in 1995 after a lifetime coaching youngsters at his club. The sprinkle of winners from unfashionable counties is noteworthy: among them are three from Carlow, one from Kerry.

The first to break the standard stranglehold of the traditional powers was Carlow's John Agar in 1981 when the competition was held in Castlegar. He retired from hurling three years ago after failing to win a Carlow senior championship and a couple of league appearances with the county team.

A serious back injury in 1986 hampered his prospects of playing at a higher level for longer, but the greatest grief lay in not winning a county title. When Carlow Town came through in 1988 he was out of action with broken leg.

"I was just mad into the hurling," he says now. "I did not think much of it (the Féile) until I went out on the field and I saw all these shapers with new hurleys. I had an old one that was made for me. Pat O'Brien went down as my mentor in the Fiat 127 - he even bought me dinner."

He won in a play-off, decided by 45m frees, beating off Dublin's Rory Boland and Offaly's Michael Hogan. He remembers Ger Cunningham being in goal for the penalties. "Peter Quinn made the presentation - a real hurling man, wha?"

When he came home Maire Kelly ("a real driving force behind the club") and her late husband Christy were there to meet him. A "big do" dutifully followed at the local school. "They made us feel appreciated," he states.

"My mother is from Kilkenny, from the parish of Mooncoin and she has a great grá for it (hurling). I didn't play any football then. To be honest I thought it was only pulling and dragging, I was no good at it anyway. I saw more in the hurling, saw more honesty in it.

"My Dad is actually a 'left-footer'; he did not go to matches much although he supported me. I always put the club first and it was a big disappointment that others did not train as hard as I did, to be honest. I was probably a little bit fanatical for the club. That's my main regret: that I did not win a senior championship."

In 1987 Niall English, who also hurled for Carlow town, emulated Agar's feat at the Féile finals. Hurling was unquestionably in his blood; his uncle Jim starred for Wexford in the 1950s. His younger brother Karl came third in the skills finals in 1998 and recently represented Ireland in the Shinty internationals at U21 level.

Now 31, Niall English has stopped hurling to concentrate his energies exclusively on football with O'Hanrahan's who he captained to a Leinster title in 2000. "Niall was brilliant at U14 and I'd say he probably got too much of it - I think he was playing senior club at 16," says his father John, who was in Dungarvan when Chris Coulter won.

"I remember the same chap had a woeful smack of the ball. It was nerve-wracking watching him. I remember shouting for the Armagh chap just because he was the underdog, but there was no question, he was the best player."

Carlow's third winner was Brendan Lawlor, in 1995. He hurls for the Naomh Bríd club, home of Johnny Nevin, but a combination of injuries and exam commitments have limited his appearances for the Carlow senior county team. Last year he wasn't part of the panel.

PEOPLE say Paul Coulter's dedication to coaching his sons the skills of the game are directly linked to the heartbreak of having to retire in his early 20s due to rheumatoid arthritis. His youngest son Barry, who's eight, is already regarded as a bright prospect. The aim is to have him compete in a Féile skills final too.

He's frustrated at what he sees as a lack of support from the top towards promoting hurling in Armagh. There was a time when the county ran second in Ulster to Antrim; now they've slipped well down the pecking order.

His eldest son is resigned to the prevailing realities. "I would like to have seen how I would have done had I got more coaching. You see fellas you competed with, you always wonder: could I have done as good as that? I've sort of accepted it."

The Armagh hurling chairman, Jimmy Carlisle, is pessimistic or pragmatic, depending on your viewpoint. "You will get the individual with as much skill as anyone in the south, but you'll just not get 15," he says. "No, I don't think it will ever change. What you need is the football clubs to start up junior hurling teams."

In the powerful football belt of south Armagh there's little chance of that. John Crossey spent some years trying to develop the game in football heartlands through primary school coaching and development squads, but met a brick wall.

A former Antrim hurler, now Down manager, and childhood neighbour of Ciarán Carson, mentioned above, he isn't wholly without hope. "They (Armagh) were pretty set in their ways. A lot of people would have been anti-hurling so you have to change a whole mindset and it's very difficult to do.

"Football counties see it as a threat to their football, which is just rubbish. The two should be able to co-exist fairly easily. Say if Crossmaglen took up hurling, they would be good at it because they are good at anything they do from Irish dancing to Gaelic football and everything in between.

"Probably the biggest achievement last year was (Tyrone's) Carrickmore winning the Ulster minor club championship. I think it was bigger than Tyrone winning the All-Ireland, it was incredible a Tyrone team could go through to win that."

It won't have changed dramatically by the time Chris Coulter retires. Can it ever change meaningfully? "With a lot of hard work," says his father. "They'd need to put in top coaches and start at the schools. I think you have to go outside; getting fellas from within the county just won't work."

At various times Denis Walsh, Ollie Baker, Noel Sheehy, Anthony Daly and DJ Carey have visited their club, Cuchullains, but the calls are sporadic and inconsistent. Paul Coulter feels Croke Park need to be more proactive: "They're going to have to do it. Because we can't stay in this doldrum like we're in now all the time."

THE only Kerry winner of the skills competition was Ballyduff's Michael Murphy. Now in his mid-20s, he finished ahead of the rest in 1991 in Limerick. He hasn't hurled in recent years, citing "faded" interest, and his last involvement was in 2000 while working in Kilmaley in Clare, playing with their junior team.

"I did not really put the effort in that was needed," he explains. "Hurling was everything to me at the time. I was going up there (to Féile) as a Kerryman, really to make up the numbers; I never thought I would win anything, but I suppose it just worked out on the day. I don't think they were expecting a Kerryman to win it anyway.

"Kerry hurling has come a long way now; they're looking after young fellas. I think they'll cause a surprise in the next few years."

Mention of these cases brings a predictable reaction from Liam Griffin. "Our biggest problem is the football clubs, football looks at them with a jaundiced eye. They control the game." He talks of launching pilot schemes, placing preconditions on grant aid and trying to convince counties that there are tangible gains to be made if they take a leap of faith.

When the Coulters were in Dungarvan for the 1997 Féile they stayed in the home of former Waterford hurler Kieran Delahunty. They were back there last September, the night before the All-Ireland football final. They've kept the ties.

Delahunty missed the skills final due to work, but remembers the reaction afterwards. "It was very unusual, like anytime somebody from Armagh wins a hurling competition, but Chris was unbelievably talented. We would go up for a few pucks to the field and he could do anything with a hurley and ball. Hurling would be his first love, but what can you do?"

COULTER played in Croke Park before the 1994 and '95 All-Ireland hurling finals in INTO exhibition matches. In the second year Tommy Walsh and Rory Jacob were on the same team. Whatever dreams existed are well frittered away by now. "It's a shame, but I have to be realistic. There's nothing I can do about it."

Still, there's the memory of being at the top, the thrill of winning, the permanence of what he achieved. "Och it was great," he recalls. "It sort of opened my eyes that somebody from here could do it, and if I could why couldn't anyone else from here?

"At this stage it's more for the enjoyment, I think I've come to terms with it."

No more dreams? "At that age (14) you would have. I was DJ, then Clare came along and it was Jamesie O'Connor and Sparrow O'Loughlin. Even up to now you would have. But you sit back and say you're not going to reach that level."

I stopped hurling many years ago, but dream recurrently of hurling to this day

Ciarán Carson, born 1948