Breaking down the language barriers to nurture rugby flame
CLUB FOCUS: An Ghaeltacht Rugbaí
In the heart of the South Connemara Gaeltacht, An Ghaeltacht Rugbaí is winding up for its 10th mini rugby season tomorrow with its annual Corn Chonamara.
Visiting teams from all over Ireland come to compete and stay with the local Bean an Tí.
U-10s, U-11s and U-12s, as well as a couple of U-14 teams, will lock horns and celebrate the oval shaped ball.
To say that rugby is not an indigenous sport in this area would be an understatement. The club began as a simple idea: one or two parents wanted their children to play rugby in their own community, in their own language.
The local primary school principal gave the go ahead for them to use the little field behind Scoil Mhic Dara in An Cheathrú Rua. A note went home in the bags from a few local schools.
The rugby-mad parents wandered down on the first Saturday with a rugby ball, their children grinning behind their oversized gumshields. A crowd of other children, chewing their gumshields, were waiting. It has been that way ever since.
A mini rugby club, the boys and girls of An Ghaeltacht come from the villages and communities that include An Cheathrú Rua, Leitir Móir, Leitir Mealláin, Tir an Fhia, Tuairín, Ros a Mhíl, Rosmuc, as far north west as Carna and as far east as An Spidéal/ na Forbacha. Young members even come in on the ferry from Inis Móir.
Such places are proud strongholds of Gaelic football, currach rowing, Galway Hooker racing and now. . . rugby. The same philosophy applies: strength, determination, survival against the odds.
An Ghaeltacht considers itself more of a hub than a club. It has embraced the art of the bulk-text whenever anything is needed. Sandwiches on blitz days. Face painters. Somebody with a digger.
A couple of dads to line the pitch. A couple of bags of sand to spread, all done. There is no clubhouse, no pitch per se. Training each Saturday takes place on the little field behind the scoil. The blitzes are held on the Páirc Phobail.
The tea and sandwiches are back down in the local school. They hold their home blitzes during September, October and November. The public pitch then closes and they attend away blitzes from December.
The Corn Chonamara is held in April when the public pitch is open again.
Every season, a few more parents train up as coaches, every season everyone just gets on with it. When their children grow older, more smiling children come and more parents who want to help show up.
Financially, An Ghaeltacht survives on subs and fundraisers. Grants and sponsorship are vital. Last year the club were delighted to have won Club of the Year with the Ulster Bank Rugby Force Initiative and this has enabled them to purchase rugby posts for the local secondary school, where a lot of the children end up.
Scoil Chuimsieach Chiaráin won the Connacht Development Junior Cup two years ago and got to the final last year and semi-finals of the Senior Cup this year.
For a school that only started rugby five years ago as a direct result of the club game in the area, this is a great achievement.
When the children of An Ghaeltacht outgrow mini-rugby but still wish to pursue club rugby, they then have to travel to Corinthians RFC in Galway city.
Corinthians have been very encouraging and have taken on An Ghaeltacht as a feeder club for their youth section. It has been mutually beneficial to all. They realised that the players they would get would be well trained and committed.
Nobody travels an hour and a quarter each way unless they want something badly. Corinthians provide a bus that starts in An Cheathrú Rua and collects the Gaeltacht players who live along the coast road into Galway.
This has been a highly progressive move on Corinthians' part as they see how it can do nothing but improve and expand their club going forward.
The ongoing success of An Ghaeltacht Rugbaí must also be attributed to the philosophy of Connacht Rugby.
Their 'grass roots to green shirts' ethos has ensured that small outlying groups with limited facilities like An Ghaeltacht can actively pursue the dream of their children moving up the ranks of the IRFU player structure in a fair and inclusive manner.
Connacht Rugby embraces the idea that anyone who has talent and passion for the game have the right to play and go all the way. You do not have to have a history of the sport within your DNA or attend a certain type of school to earn the right to train in their Academy.
At least eight An Ghaeltacht players now attend the Connacht Academy at different age grades. Some will fall away, some will continue to play rugby at college and club level, some might go all the way. Connacht Rugby sees the importance of engaging all the provinces' clubs be they big or small, in the pursuit of rugby excellence.
They actively engage with them through their Community and Development officers. This helps the small clubs like An Ghaeltacht feel part of a bigger picture and not an isolated group.
So after tomorrow, when the visiting teams attending the Corn Chonamara and go home muddied and weary, sunburnt and wind burnt, they will recount memories of their trip to West Galway. They will recall that the local team were shouting at one another in Irish on the pitch! In Irish!
That the sky was huge and the rambling stone walls were endless. They might not be back again until they are gangly teenagers attending 'the Gaeltacht'.
They might or might not bring back an oval shaped ball. But if they do come back,they are guaranteed a good game with the local lads. Local lads who might go on to play on the national team alongside them. . . an Irish national team that might be shouting Irish at one another on the pitch. . . How mad would that be Ted?