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A GAA version of the 1980s hit movie 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' is being enacted as the Aran Island's football team prepare for the biggest game in their history.

The team has to tread water even when they play their home matches, so it's appropriate that the newly-crowned Connacht junior football champions will cross the Irish Sea on their way to Birmingham next Saturday to face the Liverpool-based John Mitchels in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Since the third level colleges reopened at the end of September, 12 players - including two secondary school students - catch the regular five o'clock ferry from Inis Mór to Rossaveal every Wednesday.

When they disembark they undertake the 90-minute drive to the Galway GAA training centre in Lough George near Claregalway.

Here they are joined by the rest of the squad who are based on the mainland during the winter months. Team manager Ciaran Foley puts them through their paces; afterwards the 'island' based players head to the homes of team-mates or friends around Galway city where they stay overnight.

Early on Thursday morning they either head to Rossaveal to catch the ferry home or fly back from Connemara Airport - there are separate scheduled flights to the three islands, Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr.

During the winter months the ferry service between the three islands is dramatically curtailed, which creates unique difficulties for the team.

Four of their eight games in Division 3 of the Galway league are staged at home, two on Inis Mór and two on Inis Oírr, the smallest of the three islands.

For their most recent match against Micheál Breathnach's which took place on Inis Oírr, the players based on Inis Mór had to catch an early boat to the mainland, they then took another ferry to Inis Oírr for the game. They weren't home until 8pm that night - effectively, they endured a 12-hour trip to play a home game.

All these sacrifices paid off last Sunday when they were crowned Connacht junior champions for the first time, after an eight-point win over another 'island' side Achill in Tuam.

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"At the start of the season we did set our sights on the county title," according to club secretary and squad member Pádraig Hernon, who works as a teacher in Galway.

"But winning the Connacht title was a huge bonus. Getting to play in Croke Park in an All-Ireland final would be a dream come true. Right now we're only focussed on the quarter-final in Birmingham," said Hernon whose brothers, Stiofan and Aongus - who has just returned after reconstructive surgery on his knee - are first-team players.

Practical

The present club has been in existence for just 18 years. In 1976 a new club, St Enda's, was formed in Inis Mór but by 1993 they were no longer able to field a team. There were practical reasons why football has struggled to get a foothold on the islands down through the decades, according to Hernon.

"Most of the islanders were employed in the fishing industry and weren't able to play football on a Sunday."

For a period there were GAA teams on all three islands and they would play each other and participate in the Comartas Peile na nGaeilge tournament but, since the foundation of Oileáin Arann in 1996, they have made steady progress.

They had no luck in finals, however - losing eight in 11 seasons until their breakthrough win over Milltown this season.

Inevitably they have more travelling expenses than the majority of clubs, but most of the bill is footed by the players. "All the lads who are working dig in their own pockets," said Hernon.

During the summer months the majority of the squad's players return to the island and they meet once a week in Inis Mór for collective training - provided the ferry coming from the other islands is not over flowing with tourists!

John Millington Synge's famous play Riders to the Sea brought the culture of the Aran Islands to the attention of a wider audience early in the 20th century.

Perhaps it is time to write a new play about the exploits of their football team and call it Footballers to the Sea!


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