Wednesday 26 June 2019

Glove island: Lavelle is proving 'just being from here won't hold you back'

Galway goalkeeper Ruairí Lavelle in relaxed mood at home on Inishbofin’s pitch
Galway goalkeeper Ruairí Lavelle in relaxed mood at home on Inishbofin’s pitch
Barry Lennon

Barry Lennon

The stories of western Galway's sporting scene draw wry smiles on the Friday-evening ferry to Inishbofin. As the boat leaves Cleggan's sun-kissed pier on its way towards the island, the tales begin to flow like the Atlantic tides beneath.

There's the one about the Renvyle stalwart, known as Fear an Háta, who received a full kit for his 65th birthday as he was still playing football for the mainland club.

Lavelle celebrating last year’s All Islands tournament win with Inishbofin team-mates
Lavelle celebrating last year’s All Islands tournament win with Inishbofin team-mates

Or the 'Bofin man who eventually got his letter inviting him to inter-county trials a week after they took place.

Or playing matches on the island's old rabbit-hole ridden pitch.

Or the improvised sliotar made of a ball of thread covered in a sock.

However, Galway goalkeeper Ruairí Lavelle is aboard the ferry home a week after claiming his first Connacht senior football medal.

He and Michael Day have pushed the boat out since they made their debut last year - becoming the first 'Bofin men to play senior football for the county.

Ferry man John Adams, who captained Inishbofin's team to the All-Islands title last year, captures the scale of their achievement.

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"Every young fella now wants to be Ruairí or Michael. They want to follow in their footsteps. They now know 'just coming from an island is not going to hold me back'," Adams says.

Down the road

"They look at Ruairí. He comes from down the road. They know him and they see what he's able to do.

"There's only 13 kids in the school so they don't do much football. When kids go out (to secondary school on the mainland) they only start playing the rules. The others there are years ahead of them.

"It's more credit to him what he has achieved."

Football often had to take a back seat for the 175 people living on Inishbofin, who have to repair their own boats, fix their cars, build their own houses and farm the fields.

This was the case on 'Bofin, which was only electrified in 1982, when Lavelle's uncles, Mairtín and Francis, were in their pomp.

When Ruairí moved to his aunt's house in Galway city to start secondary school at St Mary's College, teachers used to reminisce about the impressive footballing ability of his uncles.

"When I was there they always said that Francis and Mairtín were very good footballers. They probably could've played for Galway if they got the chance," he recalls.

"But back then it was you go to school, you board in St Mary's and you're back home to help out on the farm or around the house at weekends. It was a different time."

Lavelle picked up where they left off, but football wasn't easy growing up on an island 10km from the mainland with just two winter ferry crossings a day.

He joined his father's club Renvyle at underage level while still living on Inishbofin as they understood the "ordeal" of getting to matches and training.

"It was like planning a holiday. You have to organise getting the boat and somebody to pick you up on the other side.

"Depending on the time of the match, you might have to stay out overnight with one of your buddies," Lavelle recalls.

"It was demanding enough. Not on me, now. I'm sure it was demanding on my mother and she'll definitely tell you that as well."

To add to mum Mary's logistical challenge, Lavelle also took up soccer with Mervue United 90km away in Galway city.

Seán Óg de Paor's hunt for a St Mary's senior goalkeeper was to become a net gain for Lavelle, who never played between the sticks until he met him.

The former wing-forward still doesn't know why the two-time All-Ireland winner chose him for the No 1 job.

"I was maybe 15 or 16 and one day the senior team was stuck for a goalie. I was delighted to get a few classes off secondary school. I said, 'yeah absolutely, throw me down there'.

"Obviously I played well enough and I was with that team for the rest of the year," Lavelle says.

Under De Paor's watchful eye he progressed, leading Lavelle to Galway minor trials and a journey to become senior 'keeper.

However, success would come slowly.

Galway were knocked out by Roscommon in round one in his minor championship year and they failed to retain their All-Ireland crown during his first U-21 season.

A hand injury put paid to the first year of senior but manager Kevin Walsh remained interested.

When the islander steadied the ship the boss handed Lavelle and Day, who has since opted to further his studies, their senior debut in last year's Connacht FBD League.

For the occasion, dad Henry Kenny raised a posse, which has since become a regular fixture at Galway games, and travelled from the island.

"You felt fairly proud to be wearing a Galway jersey. You'd think you'd be nervous and stuff but it didn't really faze me," Lavelle recalls.

Since then he helped Galway to a provincial crown, as well as recording more clean sheets (six from seven games) than Stephen Cluxton (four from six) in the league.

He now faces a tough test against Kerry's sharpshooting forward line in the 'Super 8s' but has shaped his life around the senior set-up to meet new demands.

Recently the switch was made from Renvyle to Salthill-Knocknacarra in Galway city where Lavelle works in Ulster Bank.

"It's heavy going and trying to get out to Renvyle for Saturday and Sunday for a match. I just kind of thought it'd be easier if I moved into town," he says.

All- islands

The 23-year-old tasted victory on Inishbofin when triumphing in last year's All-Islands football tournament.

"That's one of my favourite weekends of the year. You never get to play for where you're actually from.

"You're always playing for across the way over there," Lavelle says pointing back to the mainland.

"You don't really have that same sense of pride.

"You're playing with lads you went to school with, your friends, your cousins and your uncles.

"You're just mad to go and represent where you're from because it's the only time. It mightn't be the best football in the world but it's good craic. There's no doubt about that."

Lavelle scored three points in the one-point final win over Whiddy Island to claim last year's crown playing at wing-forward, while ferry man Adams played was the goalkeeper.

The former Ballyboden St Enda's clubman Adams, having made the Galway island his home, helped organise last year's tournament which saw nine teams descend on the island.

He's now doing his bit to build on Lavelle's success, with plans for a clubhouse in the pipeline - even though Inishbofin has no affiliated club.

Promoting the game is helped by their star man's presence at this year's All Islands competition in Bere Island.

The Dubliner jokes that with the All-Ireland football final the week before this year's tournament, there are no excuses for Lavelle.

Adams laughs: "No matter what, they should be free, they should be fine but we'll just take a provincial medal at the moment.

"Don't get too far ahead of yourself. Make no mistake, I'm still a Dub at the end of the day."

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