Exciting times for Gaelic Football in Westport
By Cian O’Connell
Gaelic Football really matters in Westport. Rice College’s appearance in a first ever Connacht A Final against St Attracta’s, Tubbercurry is the latest interesting chapter in a budding story.
In 2008 Kevin Keane and Lee Keegan were part of a gifted crop alongside Burrishoole’s Jason Doherty, but the current team has reached the decider in impressive fashion.
It is a reward for Martin Connolly and Shane Conway’s unstinting and diligent service to the Rice College cause. The beautiful town has been renowned for accomplished soccer and rugby outfits, but recently Gaelic Football has truly captured the imagination.
Westport GAA club is one of the most progressive out west with an All Ireland Intermediate title in 2017 bringing hope and joy. James Horan has been appointed manager for the upcoming Mayo Championship following a glory-laden spell in the underage ranks, including a County Under 21 title spearheaded by Pat Holmes.
On the Post Primary stage Rice College’s development is also worthy of the utmost respect and praise.
“If you look at all of Westport's achievements over the last number of years at underage level, they have been winning titles every year at different age groups,” Conway, joint manager of Breaffy seniors and also a teacher in Rice College, explains.
“Westport's stock has gone up massively. In Mayo they are being talked about as an up and coming power so it is a good story. If you put in the effort you may reap the rewards.They have put in a massive effort at underage and all their efforts are coming to fruition.
“They are bringing their underage success into the adult grade now and the appointment of James Horan is a brilliant appointment for the club. There is no better man for organising the talent available to him.”
That graft has been reflected with Rice College’s teams gaining in strength during the past decade. Unfortunately, Martin Connolly, such a distinguished coaching figure at every level of the game in Mayo, took ill following their fine semi-final triumph over St Jarlath’s, Tuam.
“Martin is the reason Rice College play Gaelic Football in the school,” Conway says. “He is a super coach and manager. He was really enjoying this year, he has trained every team whether they weren't capable of winning or whether they were the best team we ever had, he would have done the same without help in the harshest weather.
“He has kept Rice College on the map in terms of football and is the reason why there is a culture of footballing success in the school. He is on the mend now and just wants to get back as soon as he can. It was a shock to everyone, but he is a tough bit of stuff.”
Conway and Connolly continue to manufacture solid Rice College teams. “Martin and I have a great relationship on the football field,” Conway adds.
“You can just get each other and we both agree with how football should be played in our eyes anyway. We've had some years where you might have had to convert a rugby player or a soccer player into a Gaelic player, but in the last few years good teams have come through the school.
“We've had good raw material and the clubs around area, Westport particularly, but also Kilmeena and Burrishoole have brought through some fine fellas and we've ended up with some strong teams which have been able to compete at A level in the last five years.”
Since Doherty, Keegan, and Keane emerged how have Rice fared considering the attractions of other sports in the area? “We haven't always played A in the last decade, we started off in B with that team,” Conway answers.
“Westport did play in a senior county final in the early 90s, but it generally has a big soccer and a big rugby following. You have a lot of different activities in Westport which might at different times take precedence. The soccer team won the FAI Junior Cup, Westport Bulls then are a feeder for the Connacht Academy and other Galway rugby teams.
“We were competitive at B and we would have won a few B titles and then since that group left with Jason Doherty and Lee Keegan, we had other guys Lewis Cawley, Dean Gavin, we had some great players on that team with the three county lads. After that we didn't have the same raw material some years. The year after that again we could have won a B title, but then for a few years we would have struggled a little bit even though we would have made sure that they were competitive.”
In 2013, though, a splendid collection of First Years entered the Rice College building. There was no shortage of ability according to Conway.
“The group of lads who did their Leaving Cert last year, when they came in they just changed everything,” Conway states.
“They started winning all before and after them, but with that it can have its own problems too because they were good at everything.
“They played in an All Ireland Schools Soccer Final - an exceptionally talented bunch of lads. Last year's senior team it probably was hard to get them together between everything, the club success at all different age groups.
“They could have played on any team they would have liked around Westport and they set the benchmark really. For the last five or six years we have been competitive at A, but it is only in the last two years that we have started off in Senior A proper. Any time we played in the A Championship before it was because we got to the semi-final of the B.”
Football has occupied a central role in Conway's life after moving from London to attend the fabled Jarlath’s nursery and he vividly remembers one of their most accomplished Hogan Cup victories in 1994. “I left London when I was 12, I was sent to St Jarlath's in Tuam,” Conway recalls.
“My year was the '94 year, Padraic Joyce, Michael Donnellan, all of those. We had an exceptional bunch of players, we had two teams of fellas that time. We had a B team that lost a Connacht Final the same year as the A team won the All Ireland.
“I wouldn't say that I was a good footballer. I did play, I would have been on the Juvenile and Junior panels. To get on a Jarlath's Senior A winning team then you had to be pretty exceptional. On that team you would have John Haran, who went on to play midfield for Donegal, he was a sub.
“It was such a hard panel to get into it. Back then Jarlath's would have had the bare 24 so it was a pretty competitive environment to learn your football.”
Valuable lessons were learned about spirit and sport, but especially football, which was top of the agenda always.
“That is the biggest thing,” Conway replies admiringly. “After you go to Jarlath's you think that everywhere has that same hunger and passion and want to be involved in Gaelic Football. It isn't the case.
“Jarlath's is a special place, football is its identity. We were brought into the TV room to practice songs, we would have vastly outnumbered any support we would have come up against. It was a great school. When I was there they would have A, B, C, and D teams, but schools just don't do that anymore, it would be impossible to have four teams in each age group.”
It is why Conway is always intent on maximising the resources at his disposal. Investing in the juvenile, underage, and school ranks is critical according to Conway.
“For future success as a club or county, you cannot neglect the underage teams,” Conway says. “Coaching involves improving their skills and creating a sense of belonging and ownership. It involves educating them with regard to making positive life choices and affirming their efforts.
“Finally coaching should help to develop a culture whereby young people want to become good and proactive adults and hopefully stay involved in some capacity - on or off the field - with their club or county.”
Conway relishes coaching challenges in Mayo and enjoys operating alongside former Sligo and Galway manager Peter Ford with Breaffy.
“Peter Ford and I are still over Breaffy, this is our third year with Breaffy. I find it hard not to be involved in club football, I only had one year out, I enjoy it,” Conway says.
“I've been the manager of Westport with Martin Connolly when we won an Intermediate title, I trained Castlebar Mitchels when we got to the All Ireland Club Final, it is just really enjoyable. Breaffy themselves are an exceptional club, they have some really great players and they are on a mission too.”
Rice College have embarked on a similar adventure and now face St Attracta’s in next Saturday’s Connacht Colleges decider. The landscape has altered dramatically with Sligo schools Summerhill College and Attracta’s emerging as serious contenders in the competition.
“Jarlath's have won 48 of the 90 titles, Mayo schools in total have only won 16,” Conway remarks. “Colman's and Gerald's recently, and Nathy's back in 1968 - it is a hard thing to win.
“St Attracta's have put in massive work in the past number of years. The Sligo colleges have really announced themselves and they have maxed out in terms of effort, they are doing everything they can.
“You can see that when you play Summerhill or St Attracta's the calibre of people involved, they are all well trained and highly motivated. This is Attracta's fourth final in five years. So they are doing lots of things right, they are the team to beat, but our lads will be up for the challenge.”
Nobody disputes that assertion because the hard work continues under Connolly and Conway, who have kept Rice College relevant.