'The spirit is there always. Always': A tiny West Cork club’s battle for silverware - and survival

Last weekend St James’ collected the Carbery junior football championship title, edging out Ballinascarthy in a closely-fought final at Timoleague.

'The spirit is there always. Always': A tiny West Cork club’s battle for silverware - and survival

Last weekend St James’ collected the Carbery junior football championship title, edging out Ballinascarthy in a closely-fought final at Timoleague.

That bald assertion hides a fair backstory.

For one thing it was their first junior title, a significant milestone in the history of any club.

For another, it validates the work done by generations in keeping St James’ going. Like small clubs all over Ireland, and particularly in western areas, playing numbers are a constant challenge for chairman Niall O’Sullivan and his clubmates.

“We’re a small outfit,” he says. “We’re caught between two senior teams, Clonakilty on one side, Ross (Carbery Rangers) on the other.

“In terms of numbers it’s easy to see that where we’re under pressure. We don’t have an U21 team, for instance, and the main reason we had an U16 hurling team this year was that a lot of lads from Rosscarbery wanted to help out, so the numbers worked out.

“But in football terms we didn’t have the numbers to field at U21, minor, U16 — our next strong team coming through would be around U14, U12, we’re fairly okay there, but in general terms things are barren.”

The challenge is obvious when you make the climb up to Ardfield.

As O’Sullivan says, it’s a beautiful corner of a beautiful part of the country, but it’s remote.

The Atlantic coast is a few fields away from the pitch and Cork city is 40 miles away. Filling jerseys is a challenge. It always has been.

“It’s tough for us for all sorts of reasons,” says O’Sullivan.

“Work is scarce, unfortunately, so people have to go to the city to work.

“In our area it’s also difficult for people to get planning permission — I know couples with young kids who want to build in the parish, and whose kids would play with the club, but they’re looking now at having to go outside the parish to live.

“There’s a knock-on there immediately, because that affects the numbers in our schools, that affects the community as a whole, that affects the GAA club and all the other sports organisations in the community.

“The school is a good indicator of how the population is in area, and the numbers there are usually pretty low - we’re trying to hold onto the teachers in the schools, which is disappointing.”

These challenges will be familiar to clubs up and down the western seaboard — and in other parts of the country — but O’Sullivan is keen to accentuate the positives: “We should be thriving because we’re in a great location, we’re in a beautiful part of west Cork, the facilities are terrific. We’ve spent €1.3 million on the pitch and facilities, and the lads who are involved come and help the kids, they get involved all the way down to U6, so it’s a shame to see us struggling for numbers.”

Asked if the struggle ever becomes dispiriting, O’Sullivan articulates the outlook of a thousand beleaguered clubs all over Ireland.

“The spirit is there always. Always. No matter what happens in St James’ GAA club, that spirit will never be beaten. We will always find a way to get the teams out, to get the youngsters out to play for us.

“That part isn’t hard, in fairness. The kids want to play, they want to join in and have fun with us. We have a nice bond between the underage kids and the adults, it’s great that they all know each other.

“How many sporting organisations could say that their U6s, their U8s, would know the adults playing for the club? Not many clubs could state that, but it’s what the GAA does. It connects all those people.”

All those people rowed in behind St James’ last weekend, no matter what their sporting affiliations. O’Sullivan pays tribute to the other organisations in the area as well for their support: “In fairness, the other sports clubs in the parish were among the first people who were on to us when we won.

“The minute the match was over they were texting us with congratulations and a lot of them were at the final itself, I saw them in the crowd and at the celebrations. We try to support them as well because at the end of the day we’re all pulling from the same resource, we all need to help each other out. There has to be co-operation between the groups when it comes to teams because the numbers are so small.”

That co-operation isn’t just a matter of timetables and scheduling either: O’Sullivan points out that demographics have made gender parity non-negotiable.

“We have girls playing, and we rely on them - we need them to make up the teams. It’s great because they push on the lads and the lads push them in turn. The bond between them because of playing together up to U10, U12 is great, it’s completely natural because they’re just so used to playing sports with each other. Allowances aren’t made, mind you - a girl will get a belt of a shoulder or a flake across the legs if the sliotar is by her feet as quick as a boy.”

It’s been a remarkable week for the club all round. Alongside the junior triumph, their U14s won the hurling and football championships, which was another historic achievement for the green and gold, while their U12s won a B hurling shield. The tide is rising for St James’, and O’Sullivan is keen to stress that it’s no accident.

“It’s been great, but that’s all down to the trainers. It’s down to the people who are willing to come out in all weathers to teach them the skills, to go and get kids back involved if it looks like they’re dropping out . . . it doesn’t just happen. It’s work that has to be done.

“In a couple of weeks’ time they’ll be planning out next year, having a look at the numbers and working out the training sessions.

“Fair dues to the GAA, too it has recognised the particular problems clubs like ours have.

“Most of our teams are 13 a side, because we just wouldn’t have the numbers for 15-a-side.

At U14 we have 16 players, so if two or three of them are gone away for any reason we’d be in trouble.

“Rebel Og said recently that they’d look at catering for nine-a-side as well for clubs which are struggling. That’s fantastic, because it keeps people in the sport and gives them the opportunity to play the games.”

Talking of games, that junior final last Sunday? “Stop,” laughs O’Sullivan. “It was fantastic. We had people back from America, from Britain, all over Ireland - all of them together. Just a great day, and a great week since.”

St James’ only had two points to spare at the final whistle, but the chairman always had belief in his clubmates.

“They’re an unbelievable bunch and they were playing as a unit, they’d instil confidence in you.

“The backs in particular played as a unit, they were phenomenal and gave away very few frees. It was an amazing achievement.”

On the return from Timoleague with the junior trophy club members were careful to include everyone in the celebration.

“Afterwards we came back to the clubhouse, because that’s where St James’ GAA club is. We brought all the kids with their cups up there and welcomed them in with the juniors - we didn’t single out any team, because every cup we win is as important as the other.

“In the pictures, even, we made sure the junior lads were in the background and the U10s, U12s, U14s were in the front. They’re our future.

“In a place like ours the GAA club is the centre of the community and if we lost it something very important would be lost.

“The entire parish would dwindle, to be honest.”

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