The sun gods were dancing for islanders from Donegal to Cork as hundreds of them converged on the Clew Bay outpost of Clare Island, Co Mayo, for the 25th year of the All-Islands Football Competition.
While the Sawdoctors’ anthem, The Green and Red of Mayo, may be the song sometimes played in our national stadium, it was their Will You Meet Me on Clare Island that blared out from Bere Island Radio at the weekend.
The visiting Cork islanders, who established their radio station during the pandemic, provided online coverage for the round-robin competition from the pitchside for islanders listening in from across the globe.
Ultimately, it was the host island’s day as its men’s team beat last year’s winners, Bere Island, and the ladies beat the Co Galway island team from Inismór.
For men’s player of the tournament, Olof Gill, there was nothing challenging about working in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan last week and getting home to the island for the annual sporting and social shindig.
“I happened to be on a mission to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in my work for the European Commission but this is very typical of the efforts islanders make to get home to play and participate. My team-mate, Pearce O’Malley, came home from Canada and needs to return straight away,” says Gill.
He observes that the measure of emotion and commitment to the competition was clear as he saw “some islanders collapse to their knees crying with joy as final whistles blew”.
On another note, Gill is very positive about how the “knowledge economy” has significantly transformed life and opportunities on the islands.
Clare Island ladies captain, Tracie O’Leary, says “the sense of identity as an islander through being involved in this competition is key to its uniqueness”.
“I never would have known people from Árainn Mhór or Whiddy [Co Cork] except for this annual gathering. It is worth much more than football for our communities. We have so much in common with other islanders, socially and culturally,” Tracie says.
She emphasises how the improvement in Government-subsidised ferry services has been invaluable for facilitating commuting to and from the mainland for training.
“I feel so proud to win the tournament here today on home turf with all our families watching us. Our player of the tournament is Kayla Moran (17) who was playing today alongside her mammy, Lisa,” she adds.
The founder of the competition, Kerry man Donal O’Shea, was the development manager on Clare Island for 17 years.
“The main populations of the islands never got together despite the fact that they had so much in common. So I rang each island and we managed to get four teams together the first year. By the second year we had developed the women’s all-islands,” O’Shea says.
“I think it is fantastic for the culture of the islands and for islanders to get a chance to gather, play football competitively but also get together and discuss island problems, it gives them a much bigger voice when they need to lobby their county councils or Government for better facilities,” he adds.
Inis Meáin (Co Galway) secondary schoolteacher, Geraldine McElroy Faherty, says she feels “a great sense of pride in their ladies team” as they had struggled for numbers over the years.
“An initiative last year attracted three new families to the island which helped to turn our schools around. These families have brought new energy and skills to the island,” she said.
Retired lecturer Dave Madden travelled from Edinburgh to Clare Island as part of his research for a study at the University of Highlands and Islands examining how “playing sport is an important way for islanders to reinforce their identity”.
“An island team is the perfect example of the GAA parish,” Madden said.
For next year’s hosts, Árainn Mhór, the battle began as they set sail from Clare Island on Sunday. “We are all geared up to win it next year,” said Chris Early. “Our home advantage will be key.”