Islands savour place in the sun

Achill junior manager Paul McNamara with his son Seán. Picture: Michael McLaughlin

Few teams have endured more challenges than the sides contesting tomorrow’s Connacht Club JFC final <

There are the challenges every GAA team faces: morale. Free-taking.

Will the corner-forward stay off the beer Saturday night? Then there are real obstacles.

Achill of Mayo and Aran Islands of Galway contest the Connacht junior football final tomorrow. Getting to the stadium in Tuam shouldn’t be a problem. Given the mileage some of the players have put down, it’s a handy spin.

The Mayo side have just two panellists resident in the parish, with the rest scattered around the country and beyond. In the time it takes some of the Aran lads to travel to a game they’d drive from Cork to Dublin. Twice.

That’s for a home game.

Michael D McNamara, Achill GAA secretary, says his club have seen bright lights before, but tomorrow is special.

“We’ve had good days, we won six junior county titles, all of which were great, but we’ve never won an intermediate or senior county title.

“We’ve been to intermediate finals, the last in 1992, and on winning the junior county final in 2007 we made it to the Connacht final. But in terms of occasion and achievement, this is definitely up there with the great days we’ve had as a club.”

That they’re in a final is an achievement in itself. As McNamara says, they’re rural and remote, neither of which help a club stay afloat.

“Those factors lead to emigration being a massive issue for us, and it always has been, down through the years. In 2007, 2008, for instance, we had a really solid team and we felt we were building for the future. We felt we could give intermediate a good shot if we kept the group of lads together, that we could progress, but 2009 decimated us.”

The downturn cut Achill off at the knees and stripped the club of talent. They had to retrench and consolidate and put hopes of progress on hold.

“Every week it seemed as though there was someone else leaving, the recession was a huge driver in that and it made things very hard.

“We got demoted back to junior as guys left in their droves and we found it hard to put a competitive team on the field on a weekly basis.

“It’s something we deal with, that we’ve always dealt with, but what we rely on is the dedication of the guys who are still in Ireland, who are willing to put in a massive commitment and travel to Achill.”

That commitment helped to turn the cycle, and now they’re winning again they accommodate those travelling with the training schedule.

Achill train on a Friday evening because midweek training just wouldn’t work for them.

“We only have two panel members on Achill,” says McNamara, “And they’re both in school. Everyone else is away and makes the effort to be here, so on Friday night between 8 and 8.15 there are cars pulling in from Dublin, Sligo, Galway, wherever guys are – one guy is flying in from England every week.

“That’s the commitment from lads, to sacrifice what they have on Friday evenings, drinks after work and so on, to make it back here.”

They’re coming back and doing their bit for the community, but to make that work everyone must be on the same wavelength.

“It’s the difference between having eight or a dozen guys for training and having 15 or 20: that makes all the difference, you can have a good training session, a mixed match and that, with those numbers.”

McNamara isn’t kidding about everyone making a contribution: he plays midfield when he’s not acting as secretary. That kind of multi-tasking means they recognise kindred spirits 100km due south.

“Aran would have the same issues, if not more so,” says McNamara. “We’re connected to the mainland by a bridge, at least, while they’re completely cut off, well out at sea.”

Máirtin Costello agrees, but the Aran GAA clubman says they’re enjoying the glare of publicity: “Well, we had two photographers at a league match here last weekend, that wouldn’t be the norm, certainly.

“We’re not used to it, but it’s nice. We’re not going to put in a media ban, put it that way – given how hard the lads work to get to training we’re delighted that that’s being recognised.”

The last home game they played is a good illustration of that. The players from Inis Mór are relying on the boat from Doolin, and with the changed service during the winter they had to leave at 8am last Saturday morning in order to make the half ten ferry from Ros a’ Mhil to Inis Oírr, where the games are played. On the way home they had to make the ferry at half four back to Ros a’ Mhíl, so it would have been 7pm by the time they got back home.

“That’s about an 11 hour round trip,” says Costello. “In order to play a home game.”

Though they’re more cut off than Achill, a strong tourism industry keeps players handy for the club.

“This time of year we’d have half and half, half at home and half away — we have a lad in Waterford, lads in Limerick, Dublin, and a good few are in college as well, but we have lads working on the island as well.

“There’s plenty of work here during the summer, particularly when it’s like last summer, there’s plenty tourists here, so that helps.”

It means they’re able to compete. The romance of the two island clubs blurs the picture a little: there’s a provincial title at stake tomorrow after all, and romance is no replacement for competitiveness.

“We’ve been there or thereabouts for the last few years,” says Costello. “Clonbur won the All-Ireland two years ago and we were the only team that brought them to a replay, and we should have beaten them the first day. The same happened when Ballinasloe won the All-Ireland, we gave them a right game of it.”

Availability doesn’t overcome geography. Last Wednesday night the Aran lads availed of the Galway County Board grounds at Lough George to have a training session under lights.

“Obviously they had to stay overnight, they wouldn’t be able to come back the same evening,” says Costello.

“But then that builds the spirit, too.”

Spirit? You’d travel a long way to find better.


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