Kicks Off The Coast


ISLANDS FOOTBALL:The All-Islands football tournament pits islands from Arranmore, Co Donegal, to Bere Island, Co Cork, against each other - it mightn't be All-Ireland standard, but the passion is just as strong.

ON AN ISLAND off the western seaboard, a football match is being played. A wind that could slice bacon whips in off the Atlantic. A Government Minister, clad in flapping white linesman's coat and carrying matching white flag (flapping harder still), tramps the muddy sideline.

To the watching crowd, the sight is unexceptional. The Minister and stand-in linesman is Éamon Ó Cuív. The crowd are all islanders. Ó Cuív knows his constituency. The crowd know the shirtsleeve-rolling necessities of island life.

In this case, a linesman was needed and the Minister was available. Though doubtless not without political cuteness, Ó Cuív did what was necessary. On islands, the DIY ethic pervades, simply because it must.

It was this spirit that led Donal O'Shea, Clare Island development officer, to found the All-Islands Football Tournament (Féile Peil na nOileán) in 1998, without assistance from the GAA. The event has run annually since - once featuring a member of cabinet moonlighting as a match official - and takes place next Friday to Sunday on this year's host island, Inishmore.

The féile draws hundreds of islanders each year, from Arranmore, flanking Donegal, to the outposts beading the Mayo and Galway coastlines, right down to Bere Island, huddled in west Cork's shadow.

Though sport-based, the event has a social purpose, as O'Shea explains.

"We all meet on the first night for a buffet. Then people would have a few drinks; there's music and craic for the night. Islanders wouldn't have been gathered together like this before the tournament began in 1998. All the problems and opportunities and things they have in common would be discussed.

"People from different islands have got to know each other over the years, and become lifelong friends."

This cordiality - lest the reader mistake fellowship for half-heartedness - does not extend to the field of play. On the pitch, the island brethren are as one only in their mutual desire to defeat the other. Matches are played in an atmosphere of flint and sparks.

"Oh, there is fierce rivalry," says Máirtín Ó hIarnain, an Inishmore native and member of the tournament's organising committee. "It'd be worse than county rivalry. In terms of the three Aran Islands, you obviously don't want to lose to your neighbour. Then there's the Galway-Mayo rivalry between the islands from those counties. It's a friendly rivalry, but it can get intense enough at times."

Behind it all - the huff and puff, the cheers and jeers, each point kicked and every pint sunk - the féile is about identity.

"There is a very strong identity," says O'Shea. "If you ask anyone working on the mainland what their address is, they'll give it as the island. Their home is the island. That's where they play their football. There's a very strong, passionate commitment in the competition, which would surpass the spirit you'd get in normal football on the mainland."

Being at a watery remove from the rest of the nation can hone one's sense of place, Ó hIarnain explains.

"When you're on an island, the level of outside influence is very small. Even on the mainland, in a small parish, you could have people filtering through. But when you're divided by water, it's unique, and it gives you a great sense of loyalty to the place."

Many of those who will don their island's colours live on the mainland, returning as regularly as the vagaries of geography, weather and circumstance will allow.

Now 39, Ó hIarnain has lived away from Inishmore for 21 years. He and his family enjoy the myriad facilities and distractions of Galway city. Still, he finds a sparseness behind the city trappings, like the bare branches of a Christmas tree stripped of its tinsel and lights.

"There's a great sense of parish on Inishmore, of community spirit. I'm involved with a club in Galway city - my son plays there - and I'd still treasure the club in Aran. The sense of community there is fantastic. If there's some occasion, or if someone needs something, like if there's a fund-raiser, the whole community gets together, all chipping in. Definitely, there's no comparison in terms of the loyalty you'd have for the club on the island."

Danny O'Toole, of Inishturk, resident in Westport, Co Mayo, where he plays football and rugby, echoes Ó hIarnain's view on the pull of one's native island versus an adoptive mainland home. His Inishturk team won the men's competition for the first time last year. What did it mean to him? "It's difficult to put into words what it meant to us. We'd been knocking on the door of that competition for 11 years. 2008 was the culmination of a lot of years of preparation.

"We've a population of around 70 people, and to produce a team from that is tough enough at the best of times. It was good in that sense that we're competing against much bigger islands. It means an awful lot to us; everyone on the island appreciates it so much, because obviously everyone knows each other and they know we've been trying hard for a long, long time.

"You have some connection with everybody on the island, and I'd be related to quite a few of them, too."

What did winning last year's competition mean to Inishturk, population 72? It meant a lot. It meant family. It meant friends. It meant a man in his 40s pulling on a jersey, because if he didn't there was no one else. It meant tears. It meant more bear hugs than a bear at a hugging convention. It meant bonfires by the harbour, each a golden blaze of joy, welcoming the team's boat home. It meant a night of celebration. Then it meant a week of celebration.

This is at least some of why the island teams and their supporters make the journey across the water and over the land and across the water again to take part.

The tournament is sandwiched between the All-Ireland hurling and football finals each year, on the second weekend of September. The All- Islands happens at the mud-caked, waterlogged periphery of Gaelic football.

The All-Irelands are starlit. The All-Islands isn't even floodlit. Teams must often race the gathering dark to complete the programme of matches.

No one would claim the standard of play comes close to that seen in Croke Park. And no one who is involved would concede that it means any less.

Catch the action

The 12th annual All-Islands Football Tournament takes place next Friday to Sunday on Inishmore. Teams from eight islands – Arranmore, Inishturk, Inishbofin, Clare Island, Inishmore, Inisheer, Inishmaan and Bere Island – will compete in men’s and women’s competitions.

Hundreds of islanders are expected to travel to the tournament and, as such, accommodation on Inishmore is extremely limited. Bearing this in mind, visitors are welcome. Aran Island Ferries sails from Rossaveal, 37km west of Galway city, to Inishmore at 10.30am, 1.30pm and 6.30pm each day during September. A boat departs the island for Rossaveal at 8.15am, noon and 5pm. An adult return ticket costs €25, children travel for €13, while the fare for students and pensioners is €20.

The tournament consists of a round-robin series of matches, commencing at 9am on Saturday and continuing till Saturday evening, with the women’s and men’s finals played at 11am and noon on Sunday, respectively.