Which is the best sports club in Ireland?

We’re on the hunt for Ireland’s best sports club, and we want you to help by nominating yours. The winner of the competition – and a €5,000 prize – will be named in June. Here, our journalists write about their own favourite clubs

 

Click here to nominate your sports club

‘It’s not the winning that counts but the taking part” is possibly the greatest lie in sport, up there with the oxymoronic “friendly match”. But here’s a competition where it just might be true. The Irish Times is organising a competition to find the best sports club in Ireland.

It’s a genuine celebration of participation rather than of sporting prowess, an effort to recognise the great local organisations around Ireland, the community initiatives, minority-interest groups, tight teams, bands of driven individuals, volunteers, fans, drivers, sporting geniuses, substitutes, supporters, sandwich makers, goal scorers, committee members, servers, savers, receivers, fundraisers, visionaries, treasurers, chairpersons, coaches, kit launderers, parents and local heroes.

And we want the help of our readers in discovering them. We invite you to make a short pitch for a sports club you know or love, by going to irishtimes.com/ bestsportsclub and telling us in no more than 500 words why your club deserves to win.

Win what? The National Dairy Council, sponsor of the competition, has put up a prize of €5,000 for the winner to invest in their club. And it has put €1,000 into the prize fund for another deserving entrant.

The competition will cover all counties of Ireland, north and south. Clubs can be large or small, urban or rural, offer team or individual sports, or several games. A club can be nominated more than once.

This is the fifth such competition run by The Irish Times. In 2012 we named Westport, Co Mayo, as the Best Place to Live in Ireland; in 2013 Loop Head, Co Clare, won the title of Best Place to Holiday in Ireland; and in 2014, with an emphasis on outdoor activity, we chose Erris, Co Mayo, as the Best Place to Go Wild in Ireland. Last year Killarney National Park, in Co Kerry, was named the Best Day Out in Ireland.

In all these contests the information that you have supplied has been central. So get nominating.

Over the coming months our researchers and judges will travel the country to assess clubs you tell us about. And along the way we’ll keep you informed about where the nominations are coming from, which sports seem to have the best team spirit and, towards the end, which ones are in the running for the final accolade and prize.

The winner will be announced in June. You can find full terms and conditions at irishtimes.com/bestsports club.

To set you thinking, some Irish Times writers explain here why their love their clubs.

‘More than just 18 holes of a golf course’

Rossmore Golf Club, Co Monaghan
By Malachy Clerkin
My dad had this thing he’d say after finishing a good meal. His highest praise for anything was to pretend to be grudging of it. Whether at home or out on the town he’d lean back in his chair, go to work with a toothpick and pronounce, contentedly, “Well, I suppose it would have been a lot to do without.”

He died last November. Only 62. Cancer. I don’t know when we’ll ever be the better of it.

The stream of people that came through the house in the days after he died were from every strand of his life: work, politics, community, sport, all around. And it was nice to talk to people. Nice to listen to them. But every once in a while, someone – usually a man of a certain age – would sidle up, shake hands, check over both shoulders to make sure sensitive ears weren’t within range and launch into a yarn. The best stories all came from his golf buddies.

Rossmore Golf Club, which is 100 years old this year, sits a few kilometres outside Monaghan town, on the Cootehill road. It’s hilly country up there, and if you ever get out for a round your calves will tell you all about it the next day. It’s not remotely sniffy or up itself. It’s a decent track with some smashing holes and a fine menu sitting in the clubhouse when you’re done.

When I was a kid I used to spend every day out there during the summer, often from 7.30am until nightfall. But even though it was my second home it wasn’t until years later, long after I’d moved away and pretty much stopped playing, that I understood that Rossmore was more than just 18 holes of a golf course.

I was too young to get what a club is. At that age you only really think about the sport you’re playing. To me Rossmore meant dew-doused fairways first thing in the morning, a locker room that might have the odd spare glove lying around looking for a home, a basket of chips for £1 at lunchtime and the same again for tea.

You get older, you see the world around you. Rossmore was my dad’s sanctuary. Away from work, away from hassle, away from us. Playing the golf was only a part of it. He loved getting stuck in, being on committees, organising.

They built three new holes about a decade ago; civilisations have risen and fallen on less sweat than it took to buy the land, cut the trees, move the earth, sod the soil, bed it in. He loved it every step of the way. Loved giving out about it too.

That’s what I never could have understood when I was a kid. That it was a community unto itself. That a club, any club, regardless of the sport, survives on the goodwill and the drive and the camaraderie and, yes, the rows and the bitching and the talking behind backs. That it needs people to care about it and work at it and tend to it.

I thought it was a place where I played golf and ate chips.

It’s far more than that. For years Dad went out to Rossmore on a Thursday night and pulled up a stool. Sometimes there might only be three or four of them; other nights there could be a dozen or more. But regardless of who turned up they drank a few pints and heaped the shite talk high.

His funeral was on a Wednesday. Even though our hearts were broken there was only one place Mam and the rest of us were going the following night.

Dad wasn’t a golfer all his life. It was only around the time of the funeral that I found out Mam got him golf clubs for his 37th birthday, so I guess he got the best part of 25 years out of the place. Rossmorewas about golf for him, but it was about belonging too, being part of something.

It would have been a lot to do without.

‘It’s less like a sports club, more like a family’

Bushido Martial Arts Academy, Clondalkin, Dublin
By Ciara O’Brien
Whenever the conversation turns to hobbies the reaction to mine is always the same. “Really?” Doubtful expression. “You don’t look like a kick-boxer.” Pause. “Can you kick me in the head?”

The answer to that last one is probably not. I’m five foot nothing and I know my limits.

The first time I fought I got kicked in the head, repeatedly, by someone who was almost a foot taller than me, while my coach stood behind me and gave me helpful suggestions that descended into imploring me to move or just do something to get out of the way.

It wasn’t a great start. But he encouraged me to stick at it, and several years later I can count getting my black belt as one of the high points – albeit a tough experience.

When I started out in kick-boxing I didn’t expect it to become as big a part of my life as it did. If I’m honest, I decided to give it a go so I’d get a bit more flexible, and maybe a bit fitter. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its kick-boxing hero, was on TV a lot.

But Bushido Martial Arts Academy, in Clondalkin, is less like a sports club and more like a family. Everyone pitches in and helps at competitions and tournaments, helping run things, coaching junior students and generally being the loud voices you need to hear when you’re two points off winning your first fight and you have 10 seconds to avoid a few punches.

A lot of that comes from the top. Its instructor Ilija Salerno is not only on the coaching panel for junior and senior national teams but is also a former Wako and Wako Pro kick-boxing champion, and a nine-time Irish national champion. So he knows what he’s talking about. He has also turned out a few champions of his own, at both junior and senior level, but he treats all his students are treated the same.

Yes, I got fitter, and more flexible. But it’s more than just that. It’s about making good friends and having a bit of fun, and knowing when to take things seriously. There have been weddings and funerals, and the next generation of BMA babies are already getting ready to join.

The entire BMA group – the Clondalkin academy is part of a network of clubs under a chief instructor, Roy Baker – is like an extended family. Except you don’t have to buy each other Christmas presents, and at some point they’re going to try to land a punch or two, but it’s all good natured, and everyone ends up friends at the end of the night.

Actually, that sounds a lot like a family, doesn’t it?

‘A noncompetitive ethos of fun, skills and cakes’

Skerries Rugby Football Club, Co Dublin
By Shane Hegarty
I’m not going to claim that my club is uniquely special. Or that my connection to it is particularly special. I’m not going to lay claim to any superiority of support here. Of course Skerries RFC is special. Special to me. Special to the many others involved in it now, or before, or in the future. But each sports club is special to us in our own way. Skerries RFC just happens to be my club.

It’s the club I was brought down to when only a few days old, and where, 42 years later, I’ll spend a good chunk of this weekend – and who knows how many future weekends? It’s what dictates my mood on a match-day afternoon; fills much of my spare time from September to April. My son was born at close on 2.30pm on a Saturday. That’s kick-off time. You’d better believe I noted that straight away.

I toddled along its sidelines during matches in the 1970s. I pretended to be Ollie Campbell on an empty pitch in the 1980s, while the grown-ups did the boisterous postmatch analysis in the clubhouse. I played there throughout my childhood and into my early 20s, cruelly robbed of a rugby career only by a crippling lack of ability.

Along with a group of other dads, some of us having played together once upon a time, I’m now involved in coaching, already five years along the road with my son’s mini-rugby team. We’ve got 40 players in our under-11s, and at this age grade their parents and coaches focus on a noncompetitive ethos of fun, skills and making sure we’ve always got nice cakes for visiting teams.

Most of the kids play GAA together on Saturdays, rugby on Sundays. They’re in school together the rest of the week. They have no idea how much this will all mean to them in years to come. We do, and we know that’s what will matter ultimately.

They’re schooled in the club’s philosophy of running rugby, passing, offloading, looking for space. We all know the supposed state of modern rugby: big men running into bigger men; suffocating defences; collision, collision, collision.

It’s not like that where Skerries RFC compete, in the third tier of the All-Ireland League. Even if by January the overused pitches have been flayed to within an inch of the bedrock, the games are often fast and full of breaks, and can be crazy in the ebb and flow of their scores.

Our players, many of whom have been playing with the club since they were six, put in a huge amount of effort and work, session after session, through a dark and wet winter, for the reward of playing for their friends and their club. Whenever the chance arises they do their best to make it look fun – and the ranks of supporters huddling in the stinging sea breeze are always grateful for it.

At Skerries, at least, those match-day crowds are strong, and there’s a dedicated travelling support. That hasn’t wavered, in either the good years or the tough ones of its 90-year history. Today we play an important relegation play-off at home against Greystones.

Whatever the result the supporters will be there again next season, first game, short sleeves on, warmed by optimism. And we’ll still be there when it’s time for jackets and hats and sheltering under the trees at the far side of the pitch. Saturday after Saturday. Season after season.

The grass might be torn up, but the club’s roots reach deeper with every year.

‘Many GAA clubs boast top-class facilities. This is not one of them’

Loughmore-Castleiney CLG, Co Tipperary
By Damian Cullen
How much a sports club means to you can be measured physically, in inches, yards and miles. (The GAA can also be calibrated using the metric system.)

On the field of play it’s the honour of being entrusted with carrying a local, century-old battle to the most bitter of enemies: a neighbouring club.

On the sideline, watching your team’s chances ebb and flow – or, unfortunately, rise and go – it’s the time-honoured knowledge that, no matter what happens, the team wouldn’t be where it is without the wisdom of the hurler on the ditch.

And, from another time zone, it’s the life and soul of the call home, when conversations are timed to coincide with family members being able to divulge the latest information on the club’s on-pitch displays.

But between clubs? How can be a sporting organisation be graded, and what criteria can be use: size, facilities, trophies?

Many GAA clubs now boast top-class facilities: all-weather pitches, hurling walls, handball alleys, seated and covered stands, and large clubhouses – often complete with bar.

Loughmore-Castleiney CLG is not one of them.

In a small rural parish between Templemore and Thurles, it has one full-size pitch and one for kids. Last St Stephen’s Day the club held a Gaelic football tournament to defray the medical costs of a local family. Naturally, it rained relentlessly from the moment the tournament began until half an hour after it ended.

But most of the tiny parish attended, and the games featured the best talent the club had to offer (three of the starting forwards on the Tipperary team in a recent Allianz League game are club members) and the worst (personally speaking).

Everyone toiled in the muck, happily, and the spectators choose between standing under the elements (the closest thing to a stand are some trees near one side of the pitch) or staying in the dressingroom, and away from the holes in the roof.

This is the story of a club that has consistently punched above its weight on the pitch and has regularly endured hits off the pitch.

And yet it survives and thrives by tapping into a remarkable community spirit.

Suffering the loss of members is not unique, although perhaps one small Tipperary GAA club has suffered a little more than most.

Most recently, Eddie Connolly, who had played senior hurling and football for Tipperary, lost his battle with brain cancer, last September, a few weeks before his 30th birthday. It was the second loss of a senior club player in just a few years.

Eddie fell ill almost exactly two years earlier, on September 29th, 2013, the day, from centre back, he guided Loughmore-Castleiney past Borrisoleigh in the county senior hurling quarter-final.

In such a haze, sports teams usually react in one of two ways, immediately falling apart, as sporting endeavour appears pointless, or finding that the greatest expression of grief, for both club and community, can come on the sporting field.

A few days after the diagnosis the club played Arravale Rovers in the county senior football quarter-final, an emotionally drained team edging the game after extra-time. Without any conversation between the players, the direction for the squad was decided.

Over the next few weeks, with Eddie watching from the sidelines whenever he was able, the small club claimed the senior hurling and football championship titles, the first senior double in the history of Tipperary GAA. They reached the finals of both the following season, claiming the football crown again.

If success could be measured in trophies the club would be in the mix. But it can’t. The secret isn’t in the soil, either, or the water. It’s in the people. From the ones who are willing to stand in the middle of a field while a dozen eight-year-olds run in all directions, trying to balance a sliotar on a 24in hurley, to the ones who wash jerseys, shout support, stand in the middle of the field and call home from Australia on match day. No physical measurement possible.

When you’re talking about life in Loughmore-Castleiney you’re talking hurling or football.

‘A pushy parent in reverse’

Dundrum South Dublin Athletic Club
By Ian O’Riordan
Just because your dad ran in the Olympics and some of his best friends did too doesn’t mean there’s any pressure to get involved in athletics. At least that’s what my dad always told me, acting like the pushy parent in reverse, although possibly with similar intentions.

So when I outgrew my BMX bike and stopped picking on my younger brother and decided I wanted to get involved in athletics he was still careful not to push too hard. He’d always run with Donore Harriers, and there must have been some pressure for me to also join that club; instead he gently insisted I stay local and join Dundrum South Dublin – or DSD, as it’s now better known.

That’s almost 30 years ago already, yet nothing about those early days is forgotten: meeting by the old oak tree inside the gates of Marlay Park; running the five- or 10-mile loop or occasionally running up the mountains, past Tibradden and into Cruagh Wood; heading off in the back of Eddie McDonagh’s navy Volkswagen van to cross-country races in places we’d never heard off, like Ballyhaise, Tinriland, Pikes Bridge.

We knew Eddie as the tirelessly enthusiastic force behind DSD. He founded the club with his equally enthusiastic wife, Liz, in the 1970s, originally as Dundrum Family Recreation Centre Athletic Club; then it became Dundrum Athletic Club, and later it merged with South Dublin Athletic Club.

We may have lacked the great old traditions of Donore, Clonliffe or Raheny, but we were quickly building our own, a group of vibrant young runners making our own tracks in the sport.

Not that DSD pushed us too hard. Eddie was fanatical about running but not obsessive, and there is a difference. Young athletes must develop at their own pace, and everything about DSD accommodated that, and it still does, only now at all levels of the sport. That it doesn’t yet have an official clubhouse in some ways adds to its sense of place, because it has such a broad base of members, from Dundrum to Rathgar and from Donnybrook to Ballinteer. They come from all over because that’s what DSD represents.

The club’s first senior success, winning the men’s national cross country in 1990, was a turning point, in that DSD has never looked back since then, and it’s now a club not just of national champions but of European ones, too, David Gillick among those to put DSD on the international stage, when he won two European indoor 400m titles.

But if there’s one story that perfectly captures DSD’s ability to transform the lives of its members then Peter Mathews provides it. He had little interest in athletics when he was working in the busy bakery of the old Superquinn supermarket in Ballinteer; then he was moved to a checkout shift. Suddenly bursting with excess energy, Peter would run the few miles to his house every night, not realising he was running past Eddie’s house.

With his natural eye for talent, Eddie soon asked him to join DSD – and just four years later had coached him to the Irish senior cross-country title. For DSD, which now has a broad-ranging membership of almost 1,000, it doesn’t matter what level of interest its athletes have, as long as they act like that pushy parent in reverse.

‘People cheered as I cleared the last jump’

Greenvalley Riding Club, Co Wicklow
By Leonie Corcoran
A highlight of my summers when I was a child was pony camp. For my sister, Lisa, and I it was the stuff of horsey-book dreams. (If you never read the Saddle Club series . . . well, you missed out.) A whole week when we had our own ponies. A pony each. A week of grooming him; riding him for hours; hanging out with other people and their trusty (or often not-so-trusty) steeds; of lunches in a mess tent; of water fights and of arriving home and being so tired that it was a struggle to eat dinner and fall into bed.

It was my first foray into the world of sports clubs. I’m from Wicklow, so (sorry all) GAA wasn’t our strong point.

We wouldn’t have been a stalwart family at the pony club: we fundraised a bit, turned up, loved the fun, said thank you all around, packed up and went home. We weren’t the organisers, but that didn’t matter: I remember always feeling welcome and having fun. When I’ve ridden at Dublin Horse Show over the past few years it has been old members and their parents who patted me on the back afterwards, happy to see me there. You don’t forget that feeling.

I joined my first riding club about 10 years ago, when I grew out of ponies. (Okay, at 5ft 2in I never grew out of ponies: I just brought the pony into the riding-club scene.) Since then I have been a member of different clubs and, mostly, a member of none, depending on where I was living, what work I was doing and if I had a horse.

A few years ago I joined Greenvalley Riding Club, in Co Wicklow. A great friend, Jenny, insisted I join to “have some fun, get some jumping in, to enjoy it”. When, finally, I turned up to the club’s winter showjumping league in November (after 10 months of membership during which I attended one summer show), I was greeted with smiles and friendliness. Other riders complimented either the horse or my riding.

For years I have showjumped outside the riding-club scene, where the vibe, though friendly, is much more competitive. I had forgotten this club-life vibe. These were people who cheered as I cleared the last jump, who cheered if there was a near spill after a turn taken at speed. People who would lend a hand if, at the end of the day, my horse decided the horsebox was not, in fact, the logical way to get home but a terrifying tardis in which he would not travel.

The following January I rejoined the club with great enthusiasm. But my work or lack of time around my work meant I wasn’t free a lot of weekends, and I let my involvement lapse again. This year I have just sent in my membership. In keeping with my past form I still haven’t made an event. But work has changed, so I have weekends back, and I have a new steed.

Talking in the office about our favourite clubs has made me realise that they are built on the people who are part of them. The people who get involved. The people who organise, cheer and help load someone else’s horse.

It’s time to get back in the saddle (club).

‘There is a place for everyone on the bowling green’

Blackrock Bowling & Tennis Club, Co Dublin
By John O’Sullivan
Summers days, morning to nightfall, let loose on the then grass courts, diving and tumbling before a teenage Boris Becker made it fashionable at Wimbledon, energy sustained by red lemonade and whatever treats a few pence would buy from Mannings shop, on the corner of Sydney Terrace and Avoca Place.

The arguments transcended mere dodgy line calls, instead disputing who would be Jimmy Connors, Björn Borg, John McEnroe or the exotic-looking Vitas Gerulaitis. Fortunately no one wanted to be Gene Mayer, once ranked world number four. We shared a double-handed forehand and backhand; the comparison ends there.

The grass courts were cut and marked by hand, the kinks in the lines betraying the odd lapse in concentration. The bounce was variable, requiring good reflexes for those who preferred not to serve and volley.

The transition from grass to hard and the current Omni-Pro courts facilitated year-round access to the sport and saw the membership swell to current levels of about 300 senior members and a burgeoning junior section without losing the small-club intimacy: four courts nestled behind the red-brick houses of Green Road.

Blackrock Bowling & Tennis Club is a vibrant place that has managed to accumulate tennis-league pennants without losing the social fabric that is at its core. There has been individual success, too, and not always in the two sports over the door, so to speak.

Julie O’Beirne is a former national tennis underage champion. Peter Farrell, scorer of one of the goals in a 2-0 over England at Goodison Park in 1949, played on the men’s first tennis team at Blackrock.

On the other side of the pavilion sits the bowling green, reconstructed after 109 years, in 2015, to United States Golf Association specification, an oasis of tranquillity, interrupted primarily by the gentle collision of lignum vitae and the sighs of the less accurate.

Lawn bowls has traditionally suffered an image problem, dismissed from afar as sport’s anteroom to the graveyard. Like many perceptions it is founded on ignorance. It is a sport for all ages, and that has always been reflected in the composition of teams at Green Road.

Blackrock Bowling & Lawn Tennis Club, as it was called when it was founded, in 1906, has benefited from cross-pollination between tennis and bowls. Many men and women have represented the club with distinction in both disciplines, and none more so than Phillis Nolan.

A three-time world pairs champion, she won five British Isles championships and more than 20 Irish titles, and that’s just scratching the surface in what she has achieved in the sport of lawn bowls. She was a mainstay of the Blackrock ladies first team, which won the division-one title 26 years in a row, from 1983 to 2008, and 34 in all.

Since the mid-1980s 17 men and women have become senior Ireland internationals – Chrissie O’Gorman has 100 caps – and a handful more represented their country at underage level. But, just as with the tennis, there is a place for everyone on the bowling green, irrespective of ability. All bowls requires is an open mind.

A club is about not bricks and mortar but its members. The social side to life at Blackrock Bowling & Tennis club, with the bar serving as a hub, is arguably more storied, but the libel laws preclude elaboration. That sense of community prevails above all else – and the good news is that BBTC is open for membership.

 

‘Emigration shall never be an excuse for failure’

Achill Rovers Football, Drama & Athletic Club, Co Mayo
By Emmet Malone
When I travel to Mayo these days with my family I often gaze across Clew Bay towards Achill Island and wonder about the football club there. Like life itself, soccer can thrive, it seems, in the wildest of places.

Soccer on Achill has an enthralling past. The game was brought there in the 1890s from Scotland by seasonal migrant workers, after which various villages contested an island league until the 1950s, when the economic climate worsened and the departures became more permanent. Through most of that time Gaelic football had scarcely any presence in the area, because the young men were away working when the games were played.

The sport’s fortunes ebbed and flowed with those of the island during the years that followed, but soccer is thriving there now thanks to the revitalisation of the local club, Achill Rovers, a name that first appeared among the exiled locals who formed teams with friends from back home, then played in Sunday leagues in the English midlands and northeast during the 1950s and 1960s.

The name has been adopted by a club formed from a 1980s merger between Achill United and Achill Eagles; Achill Rovers has adopted the references in the latter’s full name to athletics and drama, which were run in part to keep the football club on the road.

A renewed wave of departures had left the clubs struggling for numbers; joining forces seemed the only way to secure the future of soccer on the island. It brought some success: Mayo premier-league titles in 1998 and 2002.

More recently, according to Sean Molloy, long-time Rovers administrator, the club found itself in the doldrums again, and its members had to decide whether to “simply plough on or really make a go of it”. They chose the latter.

They did everything they could to get the most out of limited resources, financial and human. Rovers, with 300 members from a population of 2,000, most of them over 65, rewrote its constitution, “which is now geared to running a club rather than just a team”, and its duty to the local community was enshrined at the heart of it.

It includes the line that emigration shall never be used as an excuse for failure, alongside a general determination that the committee will ensure the club is there to serve those who stay on the island as well as still being around for those who may someday return.

There are challenges. The average round journey to games is 160km. Few junior members’ parents have well-paid jobs, and some senior-team members are based as far away as Dublin, with many more in Sligo and Galway. The club’s one pitch, at Fr O’Brien Park in the Valley, is in a special area of conservation, meaning there is no scope for expansion and all but the most basic of maintenance work requires permission from the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

But, Molloy says, it is the challenges, or the overcoming of them, that has made the club what it is today, with a dozen teams, including two – perhaps three, if the numbers stack up over the coming weeks – for girls. The senior side includes the former Cameroon international Joseph Ndo, who liked the setup so much after visiting to coach the kids that he decided to play for Rovers, given that his competitive career with Sligo was over.

The senior team won promotion back to division two of the Mayo league last year, and there were various successes at underage levels as well as, most remarkably an FAI Club of the Year award. And five girls made Mayo teams. “That meant as much to us as the lads winning the league,” says Molloy with obvious, and justifiable, pride.

The Best Sports Club in Ireland is sponsored by the National Dairy Council

Click here to nominate your sports club

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