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'People get cars to training, we just get the boat, it is the same'

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Achill GAA club officials Paul McNamara, Manager, Hughie Mcginty, Treasurer and Marty Gallagher, Chairman on the pitch at Achill Sound, Achill Island, Co. Mayo

Achill GAA club officials Paul McNamara, Manager, Hughie Mcginty, Treasurer and Marty Gallagher, Chairman on the pitch at Achill Sound, Achill Island, Co. Mayo

GAA pitch on Aran Islands

GAA pitch on Aran Islands

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Achill GAA club officials Paul McNamara, Manager, Hughie Mcginty, Treasurer and Marty Gallagher, Chairman on the pitch at Achill Sound, Achill Island, Co. Mayo

Each Friday night since February 7, the footballers of Achill have gathered at Davitt Park to train, most of them after completing lengthy expeditions. Their reward is a Connacht junior final place today against Oileáin árainn. Their sacrifice would put most clubs to shame. Only two of the squad are based on Achill. The majority arrive from all over Ireland while one player, Denis 'Taxi' McNamara, flies in from London.

Two make the journey from Dublin to Achill, which could take up to four and a half hours, but players have been making the trip without complaint since the first session got underway under guest trainer John Maughan over nine months ago. If they didn't do it, there would be no football in Achill - it's that simple. The club secretary, Michael D McNamara, is still togging and drives from Galway each Friday to train at 8.30. There are times he might wonder why he does it. But he knows the answer.

"It is a trip that brings out many emotions, especially on wet winter nights when you hit Castlebar and you have another hour to go, and you do question your sanity and you ask why am I doing this, but funny enough, as you get closer to Achill and you pull in and see the lights on on the pitch and guys coming out of cars and a pep in their step, it really comes home why. It would put the hair up on the back of your neck, and any sanity questions go out the window."

He'll round the bend at Niall Connors' house in Tonragee and the lights at Davitt Park, located near the bridge to the mainland, will welcome him and all the others arriving from disparate parts of the country. The club can't afford to pay any of them mileage.

"It's really more than football for us, it really is a pride of place issue," says McNamara, who is now 33 and first played for the adult team at 15. "It really is what local community and community life is all about. I guess the GAA for us is our enabler to come together and do something positive within the community. We have grown up together and played football together since we were ten years old. And that bond remains and is still there and is fairly unique. And that is why when things go well it is something special. Only the players know the sacrifice that has been put in and what that means.

"I guess as young kids we would have looked up to the footballers of the main team and always aspired to be in the position they were in, to play for Achill, to wear the green jersey and represent the club and community as long as we can and as best we can."

They have surpassed expectations. He revisits his car journey back to Galway last year after being relegated from the intermediate championship where they had played since 2008. They lost all five championship games they played, the final one, against Kiltane, sending them down. "Driving back to Galway that day I honestly did feel we were at a serious crossroads and we were really going to struggle to even put a team out on the field over the next few years. But the manager did a great job in rejuvenating everybody and put a package together that players bought into."

The manager is Paul McNamara, his brother, and for one game last year against Ballycastle he had to play full-forward when they had only 14 players. He won a county junior title with Achill in 1991 and played county minor and under 21. Had he left after last year, nobody could have accused him of deserting the ship. But they couldn't afford to lose anyone. He knew Maughan and the former Mayo manager agreed to come in to train the team every three weeks. The players vowed to make an honest go of it. Lads heading towards their mid-20s realised it was their time to lead.

"My biggest worry driving back to Galway," says Michael D McNamara, "was that I was thinking what guys are going to pack it in, what ones might not play again in terms of the younger guys. I think the team and everyone involved has done immense work. The thousands of miles driven and to be competing on Sunday in a Connacht final is immense for the club."

He says the only extravagance the Achill players enjoyed was some playing gear, each receiving two training tops and a T-shirt.

After winning the junior title in 2007, they narrowly lost the Connacht final to Gort, then two years later the recession really kicked in and they began to lose players to emigration. "Emigration has impacted on us and always has and always will," says the club secretary. "But we have been very deliberate in our message to players. We focus on the resources we have available to us and don't linger too much on what is gone.

"To be honest, we hate to see the hard-luck stories about Achill and how we are destroyed by emigration, we feel if we, collectively, put in enough hard work we can be competitive, ok it'll maybe be at junior level. I am playing with this team since 1996 and this has been the best-supported year we've had. It has given the community a boost. But that is all down to the players being committed and not dwelling on what might have been."

Today's opponents, Oileáin árainn, have overcome even more challenging obstacles to reach their first Connacht final. Aside from a run of bad fortune in finals, losing eight out of 11 since 2002, they are working within the limitations of a reduced ferry service outside the summer months. Four of their eight games in Division 3 of the Galway league are staged at home, two on Inis Oírr and two on Inis Mór. The most recent of those, against Micheál Breathnach eight days ago, was held on Inis Oírr but the players based on Inis Mór had to catch an early boat to the mainland, then another back to the islands to make the game. There are no inter-island ferry services operating at this time of year. They got back to Inis Mór around 8pm, a 12-hour excursion for a home tie.

Thirty years ago, tying in with the GAA's centenary year, Breandán ó hEithir produced Over the Bar which recounted his relationship with the GAA growing up on Inis Mór. The GAA did not have a presence on the island during his childhood. Inis Mór, the largest of the islands, formed a club, St Enda's, in 1976. By 1993, they could no longer field a team in Galway junior competition due to changing work practices that saw many of their players out fishing on Sundays. In the intervening years tourism has reduced the emphasis on fishing as a source of income. More boys are now attending college and finding work elsewhere. In the past, college tended to attract girls, the lads staying at home to fish. Out of necessity, Inis Mór joined forces with Inis Oírr and Inis Meáin to form Oileáin árainn GAA club in 1995.

Arthur Flaherty, a native of Inis Mór, played for St Enda's and a short time for the Aran Islands when the new club was formed. "I was crazy, I am still crazy about football, I am jealous of them now," says Flaherty, who spends his time training the younger players. In 2003, they began entering juvenile teams into competition and the fruits of a structured development plan at underage are now visible. They will play intermediate championship football for the first time in 2015 and it holds no fears as they already compete with intermediate and senior sides in Division 3 of the league.

Uniting the three islands took time, he explains. "Every island thought they should have their own quota of players but gradually we got that out of the system and gelled them; you got on the team on merit. We cut all that rubbish out. Inis Oírr got their own pitch in 1995. We got ours in 2002. We rotate our home games."

As with Achill, the club secretary is also playing. Pádraig Hernon lives in Galway where he is a teacher, a job which allows him spend much of the summer back in his native Inis Mór. He plays down the travel demands placed upon him and the others scattered around the country who have been commuting to Galway to train once a week since September. For two months over the summer they trained collectively twice a week on the islands.

"I have been playing for the club for 14 years, it's nothing new to us, people are amazed at it, but it is what we do. I am amazed at people being amazed if you know what I mean," says Hernon. "People get cars to training, we just get the boat, it is the same and that is how we see it." All three islands are represented and Hernon says that up to a dozen of the panel are based on Aran and come in for the weekly session in Claregalway where the county board county training facilities are based. Players travel in by ferry from the islands, drive to the training centre and then stay around Galway with friends or relatives before returning the next morning.

In 2002, the club went up to junior A and this year's county championship win sees them enjoying their highest profile rating since being founded. They now have two adult teams. Like Achill, emigration is something they must live with. "We are familiar with that," says Hernon. "And at the moment, our full-back from last year is in Australia. But then one of our players came back from Australia and one came back from Canada."

They have players in Cork, Limerick, Sligo and Waterford but they all want to play for their home club. Hernon started playing for the adult team in 1999. "I have made friendships with players from the other islands where outside of the football we just wouldn't cross paths. We know we can also go to the other islands and not have to worry about a place to stay. That for me starting off was a huge thing, getting to know lads on the other two islands. Without football, you wouldn't have that."

He says the travelling involved brings them closer. "You are spending three or four hours a day travelling with your club mates. We use everything we can, it does create a good spirit. Otherwise you wouldn't do it. We use it to our advantage to be honest with you."

As for the all-island aspect to today's final in Tuam, he isn't hugely exercised. "To be honest, it really doesn't affect us. They (opponents) could be from Timbuktu. We realise it is interesting and a unique final. It is a Connacht final, one we want to win. God knows we have lost enough finals in our history."

Arthur Flaherty is asked what Breandán ó hEithir might make of today's team and set-up. "He'd have been very proud," he states. The future though is uncertain, with lowering juvenile numbers, and more people settling on the mainland for good. Achill faces similar issues down the line. "The big challenge is yet to come, the country is more urbanised, people are travelling less and less to their home places," accepts Michael D McNamara. "Numbers are dwindling at underage level. Which is having an effect on the teams for years to come."

Those trials are for another day. For now, they've never had it as good.


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