An Ghaeltacht Rugbaí: 'Language is at the heart of everything'
Connemara club reaping rewards of 12 years of hard work as love of the game escalates out west, writes Declan Rooney
Thirty years ago An Chearhtú Rua was a hive of activity as the professional footballers of FC Groiningen and Galway United played a UEFA Cup game on the public pitch in the town.
At the time Terryland Park was deemed unsuitable to host the game by the European football's governing body, and no suitable venue could be found in the city, so taking the Dutch pros out to the depths of Connemara added to their arduous journey.
Nowadays, the biggest event to grace the 'Páirc Phobail' is the annual Chorn Chonamara, a rugby blitz organised by An Ghaeltacht Rugbaí.
And 12 years on from its birth, the club and its locality is on the verge of producing its own professional players - for the rugby field.
Thanks for that must go in part to Cian de Buitléar, who came up with the idea of forming the club when his son Colm faced the prospect of growing up without playing organised rugby.
It was a throwaway comment from his wife, Bairbre, that propelled him into action, and with the help of local man Micheál Ó Domhnaill, the rugby club was formed.
Posters went up in the local school and an apprehensive Cian and Micheál hoped for 12 or 13 attendees on the first day of training, only to be inundated with 40 youngsters from all over the southern half of Connemara.
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Having been there from the start, Cian - son of film-maker and wildlife expert Éamon - is delighted to see some of that fledgling class furthering themselves in the game, and with Colm now part of the Connacht sub-academy, the path from An Gaeltacht Rugbaí U-8s to the pro game is almost complete.
Colm has been joined by a handful of former team-mates in the Connacht underage set up in recent years, and seeing their love of the game grow over the years is a real joy for everyone involved in the club.
"I played rugby myself up to schoolboy level with Leinster, back in the early '80s. Then I went to work with my father and I was away from home quite a lot so I couldn't partake in training due," says Cian.
"When my eldest son was seven or eight he was playing with the rugby ball out the back and my wife said: 'Isn't it a pity he'll never get to play rugby'.
"That registered in my mind and after I met Micheál in the village we decided to put up a poster to see if there was any interest.
"Slowly but surely the club has grown, and now we have teams from U-8 up to U-12 and about 90 children turn up every Saturday morning for training.
"We insist on the Irish language being used in training and it is something that we use to our advantage too with plenty of calls. The language is at the heart of everything."
While there was immediate interest from younger age groups, there was also the realisation that carrying an adult team was never going to be a runner.
The numbers interested in playing the game fall off in the teenage years, so to accommodate those that wanted to continue playing, an arrangement was reached with city club Corinthians.
"Corinthians pay for a bus for us to send players in to them after they finish with the U-12s here," says De Buitléar.
"By the time it arrives in Galway it's full with about 50 children from Connemara. It benefits Corinthians youth academy, but it also keeps the game alive here in Connemara too.
"When that first team got older, we introduced the game into the secondary school, Scoil Chuimsitheach Chiaráin, and they have since gone on to win the Junior Development Cup in 2013 and the Senior Development Cup last season.
"We have kids coming from a 200 square mile area. That's a huge area, but there isn't the population here to play 15-a-side rugby.
"I remember going to Ballina with 13 kids and they put out 13 against us, but they had another 13 on the bench. By half-time you are playing a different team but they still put 50 points on you.
"That's not great for kids to be hammered like that. They were going to give up the game if that continued. That's why the Corinthians experience works well for us."
As well as remaining at the heart of An Ghaeltacht Rugbaí, Cian also coaches the rugby teams in Scoil Chuimsitheach Chiaráin and there was a great buzz in the school recently when Pat Lam brought his Connacht side in to meet the pupils.
At a recent book launch in Galway, another Connemara legend Seán Bán Breathnach spoke off his delight at seeing so many Connacht shirts on kids in the village and of the growth of rugby in the area.
De Buitléar says the students - and the mini rugby players given passes for the day - loved meeting their heroes. Another locality touched by Lam's community ethos.
"It was an incredible experience," he says. "Pat is a very charismatic speaker. There were 300 kids in a hall and only a small percentage of them play rugby, but he was able to captivate the whole 300 there.
"The whole team was there and they signed plenty of autographs, and then had a training session with the kids. Some of last year's Senior Cup-winning team are still in the school, so the chance for them to put their cup alongside the Pro12 cup was a real thrill.
"Our mini players performed their Irish Haka in front of the team. Bundee Aki videoed it and it was all over twitter the next day, so it was a great experience."
So An Ghaeltacht Rugbaí has almost completed its first full circle. Colm de Buitléar is a first year in college and now plays his club rugby with NUI Galway.
Plenty of his team-mates have also continued playing the game: Harry Ó Donghaile and Maitias Ó Gríofa are part of the Connacht talent identification programme, while Micheál Ó Tuaithail, Seosamh Mac Donnacha and Cian Ó Cuinn have represented Connacht at various underage grades.
One full circle has taken 12 years, but who knows how many players of all levels will grace an Páirc Pobail in the decades to come.