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Visiting the Clare Island Cul Camp


FOLLOWING THEIR DREAMS Children who attended the recent Mayo GAA Cúl Camp on Clare Island are pictured with coaches Sarah O’Malley, Padraig Walsh and Billy McNicholas (Mayo GAA Games Manager), as well as the National Football League trophy. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

The recent Mayo GAA Cúl Camp off the west Mayo coast was a great success

Ger Flanagan

THE clouds were dark, the heavens threatened to open and the sea was swirling when The Mayo News boarded a ferry at Roonagh Pier en route to the Mayo GAA Cúl Camp at Clare Island recently.
As the ferry departed the docks, the fear of a washout – or potentially getting stranded seemed very real, but thankfully we pierced through the dark clouds during the 20 minute trip, arriving onto Clare Island surrounded by blue skies and a bright sun.
The place was bustling with life – natives and tourists – and after a five minute walk through the tiny village, we caught sight of two goalposts on the horizon and a white ball appearing over the ditch, accompanied by the sound of kids shouting and a whistle blowing.
We passed a small shop, with a stubborn and weathered collie dog lying in the doorway, forcing three tourists to step over it to get in.  
Carved between the mountains is the Clare Island GAA pitch; inside, 33 children – comprised mainly of Islanders or the children of ex pats – make up this year’s Cúl Camp and they hadn’t a care in the world.
Former Louisburgh footballer Padraic Walsh, one of the Mayo GAA coaches, is the man with the whistle, and he knows how important a camp like this is to island life.
“It’s very unique,” he told The Mayo News. “You’re offshore and it’s a pleasure to be here because they’ve very good kids and they really enjoy it.
“The big thing is, these kids don’t play enough games because they’re [Islanders] not in Cumann na mBunscol. So when I come here, no matter what kind of games I try and play with them, all they want to do is play football.
“You could throw the ball in at 10[am] and they’ll still be playing at 3[pm].”
Just like on the mainland, the GAA is an integral part of the way of life on Clare Island and it was something Mayo GAA were keen to build on when they first introduced the camps here.
“We ran the first one here on Clare Island 11 years ago,” Mayo Games Manager Billy McNicholas explained. “It’s great to see it here on the Island, the people love it and the kids love it.
“The camp links everything in, because they are a huge part of Mayo GAA and it’s immersed in the community and that’s what it’s all about.”
The island way of life means that children born here attend national school on Clare Island, but when they graduate to secondary school they must sail across Clew Bay every day to nearby Louisburgh, where they play their club football.
It’s one of the many challenges that make them a unique type of people.
But the tranquility of the surrounds is incredibly peaceful, and when you take a short walk through the community centre you catch a glimpse of what makes the place tick.
“In the centre you’ll see all the old pictures of the Clare Island teams that have played over the years,” Walsh said. “They’re big into football here and have been associated with Louisburgh since I was born.
“In the ‘60s they were very strong and half the team was made up of Islanders. But that had its difficulties as well. On bad days, as happened in a West Mayo final once, they couldn’t make it off the island.
“And I saw it when I was involved with Louisburgh, lads having to leave training at a certain time to catch the last ferry onto the island, or sometimes they’d miss it and have to call someone to come out and pick them up.”
Like everything on the island things won’t function without a big communal effort, and the Cúl Camp is no different. Walsh has been coaching in the schools during the early summer months for the last five years; local shopkeeper Padraig O’Malley handles the organising of the camp, and then the parents are committed to sending their kids each year.
They’ve even come from as far as the Netherlands just to keep in touch with a life they once had.
“You would hope it will continue,” admitted Padraig Walsh. “This is probably unique in Ireland and the people are very welcoming.
“We have a few kids from the mainland, mostly the Island, and then further afield, but they’ve all island connections and they always will. That’s what makes it so unique.”


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