Long before the ethos of the GAA club became a marketing stick to gently beat us over the head with, one man from a small parish in West Mayo had a vision of how he could best combine his passion for a sport he loved and improve the lives of those in his local community.
The first step was to find a place to practice. With none available, he did what few others would, and built a training pitch in the field beside his house. A field of dreams.
That was 1986. 32 years, six club All-Irelands, 16 Connacht titles and 20 county championships later, Carnacon justifiably sits alongside Corofin and Crossmaglen as the most recognisable name in GAA club folklore, a beacon of unparalleled excellence. Not bad for a parish whose only previous claim to fame was the pub, The Squealing Pig.
The man who built that field of dreams had a considerable hand in every single one of those successes. He was Jimmy Corbett. He died suddenly last week at the age of 74.
In the three decades that followed the formation of the club, Corbett and his fellow founding member Beatrice Casey have positively impacted the lives of hundreds of girls from this rural townland and its surrounds.
Remarkably, at the time of his untimely passing, he was still the manager of the senior team. One of the beneficiaries of Corbett’s mentorship is Maria Staunton, who won seven county and provincial championships with Carnacon as well as their first Club All-Ireland in 2002. She remembers Corbett as the man you just did not want to let down.
“For me growing up it was always a battle between football and basketball. I remember Jimmy and Beatrice coming to my door and asking me to play a county semi-final. It wasn’t pressure...they just made you feel appreciated. For me, I didn’t look back after that. It was Carnacon all the way”.
Staunton was a member of the first Mayo team to win an All-Ireland in 1999 and went on to captain the county to a league and All-Ireland double in 2000 at the age of 20.
“Jimmy always encouraged you, whether it was club or county. When you were in with Mayo, he never put pressure on you for the club. There were just a few of us on from Carnacon on that first Mayo team — me, Cora (Staunton), Niamh Lally and Claire Egan — Jimmy was so proud of us”.
The success of the county inspired Carnacon, but as the years passed that situation flipped. Mayo won a remarkable four titles in five years and have recently returned to the top-table after a decade of mixed fortunes, but the level of consistency achieved by Carnnacon since its own breakthrough All-Ireland in 2002 has been nothing short of phenomenal. Corbett’s fingerprints are all over that excellence, but Staunton insists that winning-at-all-costs was never what motivated him.
“For Jimmy, it was just his love for the game. He didn’t care whether it was men’s football or ladies’ football. He was never critical of individual performances. Beatrice and himself prepared us so well, he trusted and enabled his players. When I finished with Mayo in 2001, he asked me to train the club team, even though I was still playing!
It allowed the two of them concentrate on managing us. But as a young player and person, that level of faith in you was inspiring.
For all the success Carnacon continues to enjoy, like every rural parish it has not been without its tragedy.
Aisling McGing was 18 when she was tragically killed in a car accident five miles from her home, in July 2003, months after she had won an All-Ireland as part of a Mayo team, along with her sisters Sharon and Michelle.
The fatal accident happened en route to watch her sisters play a Connacht championship match against Galway. McGing was a hugely talented footballer and another protégé of Corbett’s who had made her debut for Carnacon at 13, in a county final against Hollymount. Staunton remembers a player with huge potential, and a big character.
“We all loved her mischievous, bubbly personality. No one more so than Jimmy.
“Along with Beatrice, they set up the Aisling McGing Memorial Cup that is played for every year in the parish. The LGFA now honour her through the U21 championship. Her family are huge supporters of the club. Her loss left a big hole. She will never be forgotten”.
In the darkest of times, community gets many people through. In Carnacon’s case, it was a community Corbett was the architect of.
When considered in the grander context of women in Irish sport (Federation of Irish Sports 20x20 initiative a welcome focal point), Corbett’s contribution to ladies’ football, at a time long before the agenda became the cause célèbre it is now, was both brave and groundbreaking.
Mayo has forever been a football-mad place, but rather than become just another cog in the very impressive men’s wheel, he chose another path. A harder, but ultimately more rewarding road that benefited dozens and dozens of young women, both on and off the field.
“It was never about him,” says Staunton. “He never wanted the limelight. That was for the team. I will especially remember his humility. He was such a family man too. One of our best days as a club was winning the 2013 All-Ireland with his daughters Marie and Michelle involved. Marie was captain. I had never seen him as proud.”
Jimmy Corbett was laid to rest last week, with thousands of mourners descending on the small Mayo village that every GAA person has heard of, to celebrate him with his family and friends.
Legacy may not have been something he was chasing, but it is something he has undoubtedly left. In a time when everything requires a hashtag or a label, the term ‘True Gael’ can get tossed around a little loosely.
In the case of Jimmy Corbett, it barely does him justice.