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Dublin: 12 °C Sunday 18 August, 2019
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Juggling Gaelic football and rugby in the heart of the Connemara Gaeltacht in Galway

The An Cheathrú Rua school are in All-Ireland semi-final action this weekend.

The An Cheathrú Rua school are in All-Ireland semi-final action this weekend.
The An Cheathrú Rua school are in All-Ireland semi-final action this weekend.
Image: Damian Lawlor

THESE ARE HEADY for Scoil Chuimsitheach Chiaráin, An Cheathrú Rua, as they prepare for a rare All-Ireland semi-final appearance this weekend.

Situated in the very heartland of the Gaeltacht area in Connemara, SCC is home to just under 300 students and, following years of sustained development, they recently saw their senior football team earn a hard-fought win in the Connacht ‘D’ football title – just the second senior provincial crown in the school’s history.

This time around they beat Dunmore – just a year after a heart-breaking loss to St Cuan’s Castleblakeney in last year’s Connacht final.

But SCC is thriving on many fronts at the moment. The co-educational Deis school in Connemara has recently seen its third-level participation rate increase from 60% in 2012, to 97% in 2018 – a huge increase.

The fact that they are a native speaking school makes them somewhat unique in sporting circles, though their manager Cormac Ó Comhrai maintains that their tight bond is surely shared by rural schools all over the country.

“The language is a factor,” he says. “It is a lovely thing and it probably does make us stand out but most small rural-based schools in Ireland would feel they are a tightly-knit unit.

“For instance, we play Ballybay from Monaghan in the Masita GAA Rice Cup semi-final on Saturday and they will have a bond as tight as any.”

That Scoil Chuimsitheach Chiaráin have earned their way out of the Connacht Championship after a hectic series of eight games is testament to the hard work from all involved with the school – and some outstanding coaching work being undertaken by the two local clubs that feed the school – Cheathrú Rua and Leitir Mor.

“Local parents have been great in helping out with sports in the school as well,” adds Ó Comhrai. “And we’ve always received huge support from a coaching scheme to promote the GAA in schools called ‘Scéim Oiliúna Peile na Gaeltachta’.”

The hard work is steadily paying off as SCC prepares for a tough last four battle with the Ulster champions.

But it’s been a delicate balancing act for Ó Comhrai and his colleagues to get their team to this level.

Many of their side play rugby for the school, or are part of the An Ghaeltacht Rugbaí club. Over a decade on from the arrival of rugby into the Gaeltacht the locality is fast on the verge of producing its own professional rugby players.

Not long after the sport was introduced to Scoil Chuimsitheach Chiaráin, the school rugby side went onto win the 2013 Junior Development Cup and, more recently, the Senior Development Cup.

“Traditionally, this wouldn’t be a rugby heartland,” Ó Comhrai adds, “but it’s doing very well in the past few years, and the key thing is that we have youngsters out in the open, getting fresh air and playing sport.

“We would have a crossover between the school rugby and football teams but the main thing we look – and hope – for is that the lads just stay fit. I think we look at the positives and there is a definite gain to be made in the crossover. Maybe lads get more ball handling skills, more physical experience and more game time too.

“That’s the way we look on it anyway. As long as they are playing sport that’s the most important thing.”

SCC are up against it this weekend against Ballybay but after a hard-fought two-point win over Dunmore Community School in the Connacht final they are ready to fight hard to gain a place in the Masita Post Primary Rice Cup final.

A batch of their squad has experience of Galway development and minor squads, but they have proven to be a fine team unit this season.

“I would say over the eight games we have played the thing that we are most impressed with is how the lads have taken it upon themselves to show serious leadership when it has been required,” Ó Comhrai says.

“That has been so pleasing and we will need those attributes because we are up against a Ballybay team that is a side packed with quality players. I would say Monaghan, more than any other county, have maximised their football development in recent years. We saw one of the great Kerry minor teams last year and yet Monaghan had their chances to beat them in the final.

“The Ballybay lads come from a fine system and it will be a huge challenge. But I do feel a lot of pressure is off our shoulders after winning the Connacht title.”

That success was only SCC’s second provincial crown at that level but they now set up against a Ballybay side fresh from an easy Danske Bank O’Doherty Cup final win over St Aidan’s Cootehill. Aaron Mulligan, recently voted young achiever of 2018 by the Ulster GAA Writers, is certainly living up to his billing and was a constant thorn in Cootehill’s side, finishing with a total of 2-7 in that final.

He had huge support in teammate and fellow attacker Darragh Dempsey, and between them the twin strikers had accumulated 1-6 of Ballybay’s half-time
total of 1-8.

“They are a fine side, we know that, but every team that comes out of Ulster is,” the SCC manager says.

“But that’s the glory of it, challenging ourselves and believing in ourselves.”

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About the author:

Damian Lawlor

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