Gaelic Football is thriving in west Galway
By Cian O’Connell
The landscape has altered dramatically in Galway. Last Sunday Kevin Walsh’s emerging team maintained their unbeaten Allianz Football League Division One record following a gripping draw with Dublin at Pearse Stadium.
That Galway are relevant again is delighting football enthusiasts on the banks of the Corrib, but it also a reflection of the sheer hard graft being undertaken preparing juvenile footballers. A striking fact from the Galway 26 man panel for the Dublin encounter was that 15 hailed from the city or West Board clubs.
While a healthy Corofin contingent had been busy 24 hours previously delivering a footballing display of class and character a lot has changed in Galway. The reality is that Corofin's rich and enduring investment in youth is accurately reflected on the playing pitches of Galway, Connacht, and Ireland.
The tradition and heritage of Corofin, Killererin, Milltown, Cortoon Shamrocks, and Dunmore MacHales, amongst others, will continue to count and be appreciated, but respect has been earned by those on the ground in the city and west too.
I've been involved in Galway city football for about 50 years and in recent times, as I brought to the attention of the Chairman Pat Kearney and the CEO John Hynes, Gaelic Games has never been as strong in Galway city as they are now.
Tom Nally, barber, referee, and St Michael’s Chairman has devoted a lifetime service to Gaelic Football and is adamant that these are unprecedented days. “I've been involved in Galway city football for about 50 years and in recent times, as I brought to the attention of the Chairman Pat Kearney and the CEO John Hynes, Gaelic Games has never been as strong in Galway city as they are now,” Nally proudly states.
St Michael’s have contributed to the Galway football story and with Eamonn Brannigan delivering at the highest level, Nally feels that substantial progress has been made. “The game has never been as strong as it is now,” is Nally’s verdict.
“The All Irelands Galway won (1998 and 2001) were a great help, but in our own case it was the regeneration of the club, new people came into the area and they wanted their families involved in Gaelic Games. That has made all the difference. Absolutely, young lads have somebody to look up to.”
Salthill-Knocknacarra, St James’, and St Michael’s have all sampled underage glory during the past couple of decades with capable inter-county players manufactured in the town. “It hasn't been an overnight thing with the development of football in Galway city, but it has happened and it is due to the hard work of the members of every club to get their club as high as they possibly can and to get as many on the county team as they can,” Nally says.
Anthony Finnerty featured for Mayo in All Ireland Finals in 1989 and 1996, but has been centrally involved in several Salthill-Knocknacarra underage triumphs recently.
Back in 1996 Finnerty won a Galway SFC title with An Cheathrú Rua and is in charge of the Salthill-Knocknacarra seniors alongside the equally respected Maurice Sheridan, who guided NUIG to the Electric Ireland Sigerson Cup Final.
Finnerty is ideally placed to assess the changes in Galway football. “I think both Moycullen and Barna have been very consistent with regards to what they are doing at underage level,” Finnerty admits.
“They may not have had the success we had, but that is down to the numbers situation. You can see that work is going on in Killannin and Oughterard, who have now gone up to play in A.
“Clubs like that are battling away. Maybe it can come back to demographics or maybe not, I'm not so sure. If you look at the clubs in the west they are fielding at a more competitive level across the board than an awful lot of the north Galway clubs.
I can see why things have shifted towards the west because when you look at it the west clubs seem to have moved on. It is possibly down to numbers and work with the coaching structures and the people that are involved. They aren't struggling as much as some of the clubs in the north.
“I don't know whether it is just down to demographics with some of the clubs in the north board struggling for numbers.
“Clubs that are traditionally very strong are being forced to amalgamate at underage level, Milltown, Dunmore, Cortoon, Killererin all of those are struggling an awful lot more than the west board clubs for instance.
“To be honest I can see why things have shifted towards the west because when you look at it the west clubs seem to have moved on. It is possibly down to numbers and work with the coaching structures and the people that are involved. They aren't struggling as much as some of the clubs in the north.”
It is a point echoed by Gay Mitchell, a distinguished figure in the game in the west, who continues to serve as a member of the Galway Under 20 backroom team.
Mitchell, who grew up in Dunmore, played for the Tribesmen in the 1973 and 1974 All Ireland Finals and now resides in the city.
“We were all living around that area, the tradition was great at the time,” Mitchell recalls about his own playing days when Galway were feared throughout the land.
“We had five or six on the three in a row team, that is the way it was around Dunmore at that time. The two Donnellans, the two Keenans, Seamus Leyden, Bosco (McDermott); that was our club.
“We were born into it, I don't know how the decline came about. In Dunmore we were very strong in the 1960s, but we only won one Championship in 1973 and didn't win another one until 1983. It was strange, we had good teams.
“There is a lot of good people trying to keep it going at underage level, but we lost a lot of them in their teenage years. It is hard to put a finger on why there is a decline, but guys just seem to be drifting away year in, year out.
“There would be a fair bit of emigration, a lot of lads move away and the population in Dunmore isn't that big. It is the same in the whole area, the numbers have declined in Milltown and other places, with the Galway Under 20 team this year very few lads come in for trials.
“Most of the people living in north Galway now, a lot of them work in Galway city. By the time you get home in the evening it is hard to take a team.
They have a huge passion for it, they are wonderful supporters too. Where else would you hear a group of lads speaking the Irish language at a match? They are all Galway supporters.
Mitchell’s son, John, was involved training An Spidéal Under 14s and Under 16s a few years ago and the passion that burns for Gaelic Football in Connemara is something which has always caught his attention.
“I helped John out and they have great affection in Connemara for sport,” Mitchell remarks. “Three lads came in from the Aran Islands came in to play with Spiddal.
“They have a huge passion for it, they are wonderful supporters too. Where else would you hear a group of lads speaking the Irish language at a match? They are all Galway supporters. Jack Cosgrove was the only one in my day that was playing, Padraic Conroy played a bit, they were always huge supporters.”
In the intervening years several flared to prominence; An Cheathrú Rua’s Sean Og de Paor and Sean O’Domhnaill lived 100 yards apart on a famous stretch on Bothar An Chillin. They brought joy and All Ireland medals to Connemara.
Only a few miles away Mícheal Breathnach and Carna-Caiseal enjoyed admirable bursts of prominence, while Leitir Mor have unearthed a player of tremendous promise in Sean Andy O’Ceallaigh.
Last year Ciaran O’Fatharta, a selector with the Galway Under 21s beaten by Dublin in the All Ireland Final, spoke eloquently about those involved with Gerry Fahy’s outfit.
“Sean Andy (O'Ceallaigh) from Leitir Mór; Peter Cooke, Dessie Conneely, and Sean Kelly from Moycullen, you had Ruairi Greene from Killanin; Eric Lee from Oughterard, Ronan O'Beoláin, the goalkeeper from Mícheal Breathnach; Liam Kelly, Padraic O'Curraoin, and Antaine O'Laoi from An Spideal; and the two Aran Island lads as well Padraig O'Domhnaill and Colm O'Braonain.
“Connemara clubs have been decimated with emigration which killed an awful lot of the good work which was being done at underage because when some lads move into their late teens they tended to move off to the States or London so emigration has caused an awful lot of problems.
“It still is, but at the same time the clubs have done lots of work, they are doing their best to keep things going. The talent is there, it keeps on coming.”
RTE Raidio na Gaeltachta broadcaster O'Fatharta is aware of how much the game has evolved. “Leitir Mór, An Cheathrú Rua, and Mícheal Breathnach, then the likes of Barna and An Spideal have all done well at underage level in the past couple of years. Carna-Caiseal and Na Piarsaigh are doing great work, but they wouldn't have the same numbers as other clubs.
“An Cheathrú Rua, Mícheál Breathnach, and Leitir Mór have put in huge work, An Spideal have a very good underage structure. People on the ground are doing brilliant work with men and women, girls and boys.”
Maroon and white jerseys are also being worn with greater frequency. In the city Finnerty keeps a close eye on the Post Primary scene with St Joseph’s ‘The Bish’ claiming a Connacht Colleges A Junior title under the stewardship of St Michael’s Alan Glynn and Keith O’Reilly.
It was another clear sign of how Gaelic Football has developed according to Finnerty. “With players mainly from St Michael's in the town along with a few Moycullen and Barna lads they won the Junior A and were in very hard luck in the Senior B.
“Bish are at a serious disadvantage in that they only have the five years so they will always struggle at senior level physically because they will be a year younger in most instances. They have been strong all along in Juvenile and Junior.”
Nobody in Galway would dispute the importance of the past when the bulk of Galway’s greats hailed from the established forces in the north of the county. That led the way, setting standards which those elsewhere aspired to reaching.
The journey continues, but Kevin Walsh is finding a way and the requisite blend to ensure Galway remain relevant.