The GAA is much more than what happens in Croke Park ...

There’s the big show in Dublin tomorrow, but you know all about that. Michael Moynihan caught just one of the thousands of other games on this weekend to give another snapshot of the GAA...

They say it was Voltaire who first came up with the line, ‘God is on the side of the big battalions.’

In GAA terms the crowds and pageantry, the buzz and focus, zeroed in on Croke Park over the weekend, with some of the biggest battalions in Gaelic football on hand.

The thing about the GAA, though, is that there’s always something off-Broadway to catch your eye. The good people of Inchigeelagh might not appreciate the term off-Broadway, but their GAA field hosted a game last evening, in the soft light and birdsong, which illustrated as much about Gaelic games as Jim Gavin or Eamon Fitzmaurice ever could.

The Bere Island-St John’s football game in Cork’s junior C championship fell victim to the weather a couple of weeks ago. The postponement disappointed them, but adversity is something both clubs are familiar with.

When the game eventually took place last night in Inchigeelagh, they’d each come a long way to fulfil the fixture, and not just in terms of mileage. For instance, the club on Bere Island may be one of the GAA’s more remote outposts but it has always made its presence felt in Cork.

Club officer Brendan Murphy points to players the island put in red jerseys like ‘Small’ Donal O’Sullivan and Weeshie Murphy, father of Dr Con Murphy; they competed in the Cork senior football championship in the forties.

“Lately we’re playing junior, of course. And we’re struggling for numbers at the moment. The panel we pick from is probably no more than 19 or 20 all told, but our feeling is that if we could keep it going for a few years we’d be all right, because we have the numbers coming through, young fellas.”

Like many a rural club, Bere Island depend on players putting up the miles every weekend to keep the flag flying. “A lot of them are living off the island. We only have six or seven of them here, there are eight or nine living in Cork City, and there are another three or four on the mainland but closer to us — in Castletownbere and so on.”

The age profile? Murphy and a couple of other contemporaries helped out there. “We did, we helped when we retired, that brought it down a few years with a stroke. But it’s still pretty high. A lot of the lads who are living in Cork are married with kids, they’re in their mid-thirties, so it’s tough on them trying to get down.

“Gary Moriarty is one and he comes all the way down from Causeway in Kerry, he’s very good to come that far. We have a couple of players in their forties — Gary Hillard is on the mainland and he’s 43, but he’s keeping going.

“Our youngsters play away with Castletownbere, so at least they have the underage outlet to keep the interest going.”

Circumstances can intrude, though. A couple of absentees last night meant Murphy had to change job specifications from administrator to substitute, but he was happy to do so: “Look, that’s what we do.”

Their opponents have a different backstory. Bere Island can look back over a century, but St John’s have only been in existence for six years.

“We’re from the Aubane-Kilcorney area, halfway between Millstreet and Dromtarriffe,” says Shane Kelleher from the north Cork club.

“Between the ’60s and ’80s, Aubane and Kilcorney were clubs themselves before fading out of existence.

“Seven or eight years ago there was some interest in re-forming a team, so we got together. The name comes from a local well — it helps that it’s a neutral name — at the foot of Mushera Mountain that would be a historical landmark.”

Through 2009 and the start of 2010, the interested parties had regular meetings to see if there was enough interest in the area for a team. There was.

“We had a sense that a lot of lads in their twenties who’d fallen away from Millstreet and Dromtarriffe were playing a bit of soccer but were interested in playing Gaelic football,” says Kelleher.

“We felt there was enough manpower on the playing and administrative side to get it up and running, so we went ahead.”

A farmer gave them the use of a field and they trained there for the first month or so before getting to use Millstreet Community School’s pitches. Still, for the first five years or so, St John’s played all their games away from home.

“In the last year we’ve developed a field on the Station Rd in Millstreet,” says Kelleher. “We’ve had matches there, so it’s going well, it’s a good step forward.”

Small clubs, big ambitions. Bere Island also upgraded their facilities recently. “We did a big job on the field six or seven years ago,” says Murphy. “We have dressing-rooms and so on.

“One big issue for us is finance. For us, between public liability and registration, the cost comes in at just under €3,000. That’s a lot for a club which, naturally enough, has a small catchment area. We’re a healthy club, though. We nearly have the loan paid off on the field, for instance.”

They might pick up a lesson from St John’s on the finance front. Take their field development. “We raised the money for that by holding the All-Ireland Sheep-Shearing competition,” says Kelleher, “A big festival down in the Green Glens in Millstreet. A massive undertaking, really. It realised about €30,000 for us, which was great.

“Since then we’ve gotten a name for innovative fundraising. We have an adventure race every year as well — cycling, kayaking, and running. It’s called the Monster Mac and it’s held in the Millstreet Country Park and Mushera Mountain area, and it’s growing year on year as well.”

The lessons don’t all go one one way. The islanders could probably offer a return message when it comes to persistence: Keeping on keeping on.

“It faded away here for a couple of years and a few of us fell in with Glengarriff to play, but we felt we had to come back,” says Murphy.

“It’s easy to leave it go but it’s nearly impossible to get it back. Our attitude is that the GAA was good to us in social terms and so on and we’d like to give that back.

“A lot of our players nowadays, their fathers would have come from Bere Island. They’d have grown up themselves in Cork, say, but they decided to play for us, and they’re delighted now with that decision. They come down for the weekend with their families, they know everybody.

“The island tournament is also a great lifeline for us. We host it in two years’ time and it’s great for the islands — when it started off we had about 17 travelling to it, but we had over 100 going to the Aran Islands a couple of years ago.”

Last night St John’s, who held a major advantage in terms of age profile, won the contest convincingly, 4-10 to 0-02. They got goals — at any level of Gaelic football green flags are the currency of victory.

It was important to the men from north Cork to win, and Bere Island couldn’t hide their disappointment, but there’s also a bigger picture. The clubs might have very different histories and be separated by over 100km, but there are still similarities.

“We have the one team,” says Shane Kelleher. “We’re not trying to poach players from other clubs, we’re just trying to give an outlet to lads who’ve fallen away from the GAA — those are the lads we’re trying to pick up.”

There’s an echo of that in Brendan Murphy’s summary: “It was passed down to us and we were lucky in the ’80s; we had a good batch of players and we were strong. We want to make sure more people enjoy as well.

“Winning isn’t the motivation. Giving the experience to another generation is.”

Does it matter that the Voltaire quote we opened with is inaccurate? Fans of the Enlightenment among you will recall that what Voltaire actually said was that God is on the side of those who shoot best.

St John’s and Bere Island’s aim is true.


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