The Early Years

Gaelic football was played in west Connemara back in the 1800s, but there were no clubs as we know them today. At that time it was town-land or road versus the next town-land or road. A ‘challenge’ was issued to another region, sometimes in the press of the day and it was usually responded to. Many stories remain of such events, for example, the men from Goulane responding to the Clifden Town ‘challenge’ by going into Curvohill and hammering the ‘townies’ (or as at that time referred to by the country lads as the ‘corner-boys’) after a hard day’s work on the farm or bog. Similar stories exist about the men from Inishbofin rowing into Cleggan to face the locals. It also must be remembered that Cleggan football team produced Feichin Mulkerrins, the only man in Ireland that kicked a point and a goal with the one kick of the ball. Several ‘challenges’ were answered in Roundstone as well when Cashel, Recess and Carna (by currach) came to Gurteen to ‘challenge’ the Scottish descendants.

Local folklore is rich in stories of matches and incidents associated with football and famous characters. There are many stories in Ballyconneely to this day of famous victories against Clifden, for example, when Dunloughan defeated Clifden. Another story recounts the famous day that Big Peter was called from the side-line to give ‘reinforcements’ to an almost lost cause. He removed his trousers, rolled up his long drawers, put on the hobnail boots and entered the ‘battle’ arena. He was doing okay for a while until he drew on the ball and missed – burying his foot in an ant-hill and being carried off covered in ants and to be forever more known as ‘seangán’ (Gaelic word for ‘ant’). Sometimes those battles were ‘fought’ on neutral ground, for example, when the men from Letterfrack faced their arch ‘enemies’, the men from Tully on the neutral ground of Clifden. And the woman from Clifden who was on the side-line for every match shouting, ‘Feed my Johnnie with the ball and he will score’! A refereeing decision that will never be forgotten was the decision of the referee at a match in Clifden when he awarded two points to Clifden instead of the two goals scored – as the goalposts on the day were for rugby – based on his assertion that if the cross-bars were the correct height they would in effect be points. It is also interesting to note that the referee was a member of the opposing team.

There was usually only one football available on match days and there are examples of matches being prolonged because of delays retrieving a football. One celebrated example is a match in Renvyle when Renvyle were playing Clifden in the Mongan Cup. Clifden had a weak team on the day and were trying to get the match abandoned so the Clifden team frequently kicked the ball into the sea – but Paddy Fitzpatrick swam in each time and retrieved the only football available! The match was eventually completed after almost two hours. There are also examples of the referee giving a free and blowing the final whistle before the ball went over the cross-bar (but that was the rule of the day as no allowances were made for time lost). However, there was also some tragedy, for example, when a man by the name of Deshill was drowned while retrieving a football from Aughris Lake and more recently in the 1970s when, Patrick Stuffle, Patrick O’Toole and Michael Wallace were drowned when returning home late at night by currach to the islands off Kingstown after watching All-Ireland Final of 1974 in Clifden.

The G.A.A. rules were merely guidelines at that time and decisions were taken for the common good. At county level ‘guests’ were regularly accepted for big games and there are statistical records of teams being punished if the guests were discovered. The Galway minor team won the Connacht title in 1951 but were subsequently dumped out by the G.A.A. Connacht Council because of the numerous ‘guests’ on the team, and its well known that the same result would have prevailed if there was an objection about other Galway teams, some of whom went on to win All-Ireland titles in later years. So with the ‘guest’ culture prevalent at county level it was only natural that it was practised at club level as well. There are several stories of ‘guests’ in west Connemara, and on one such occasion in a county final when the guest lined out at centre forward, he was surprised to find he was being marked by the centre back of his own home club, a club from a different county and province. It was also known to happen that when the guests failed to turn up, the local players who were going to be dropped from the team, would refuse to play and a makeshift team would then be put in place. There is an example of such an event in a West semi-final in the 1960s. There are also qualitative records of a match being played in Clifden and some of the opposing supporters shouting ‘Come on Donegal!’ as several of the home team were imported for the event. An example of ‘exportation’ is Frank King (Claddaghduff) who had in his possession a Mayo county senior runners-up championship medal that he won with a Mayo club. So it’s important to be aware when checking the archives that the team sheet on the newspaper, may not be the actual team that played. It is also of interest that Connemara teams playing in junior finals often wondered where the good teams from the east of the county came from, as in most instances they were ‘true blue’ hurling clubs. One of the most famous instances of ‘guesting’ was, when the great Galway star Tom O’ Sullivan (Oughterard) played with Aughrim and when discovered, he suspended himself. Who was the man with the cap? Clubs all over Galway were wondering for years. The man with the cap (when he was playing for the Clifden based club) despite what others thought, was really a Clifden man by the name of M. J. Conroy. He was famous in another county for his exploits on the field but every time he played west of the Shannon for the ‘Shamrocks’/Naomh Feichín club he always wore a cap. He scored 2-0 when Naomh Feichín won their first county championship in 1950. It was not unusual at that time to find prominent Dublin and Cork accents on minor teams from Gaeltacht areas during the summer months due to students from those counties attending Irish summer colleges and lining out with local teams.

A prominent G.A.A. official within the county in the 1970s once said, when challenged about the status of his own club team, ‘an illegal team is a team that has been proven illegal – based and proven on an objection within the time limit allowed’ and a well known north Galway official in 1973 when talking with pride in abundance after his club had won the treble, finished by saying, ‘…and do you know, we hadn’t even one player registered’. It may well be that all were entitled to be registered but the penalty is quite clear if not registered – loss of the game.

‘Guest’ = a person who plays but does not comply with the registration requirements.