Sunday, February 20, 2022

John Cuffe worries for the future of Iorras Aontaithe – or Erris United as they are perhaps better known – after the news recently that they don’t have enough players to register a team with the Mayo League this season.

Trawling cyberspace last week, I came across an online Western People story telling of the demise of a noted Mayo soccer team. I was shocked to see it was in reference to my own neck of the woods, Iorras Aontaithe. Or Erris United. Falling numbers for the senior team was the reason given although the article stated that the underage set-ups would hold the status quo. It seemed like only yesterday when Michael S Togher was managing their ‘B’ team to success.

The Iorras Aontaithe team who lost 2-1 to Westport United in last October’s Tuohy Cup final in Solar 21 Park. Is this the last adult team that ever represented the club or will the Erris outfit rise from the ashes at some point in the future? Picture: Michael Donnelly

“Seemed like yesterday” tends to morph into weeks, years and then decades and finally history. Belfast Celtic folded from Belfast sectarianism in 1949. I once played on Glenmalure Park’s green swathe before Shamrock Rovers’ Milltown was turned into a housing estate. Did not think it would happen but it did. I recall Cork Hibernians attracting 20,000 plus gates against Waterford in the early 1970s. Their rivals, Cork Celtic, with the magical Bobby Tambling who five years earlier was part of the extended England 1966 World Cup squad and centre-forward on Chelsea’s 1967 FA Cup final team. Tambling’s 164 league goals for Chelsea stood until Frank Lampard eclipsed them mid-noughties Premiership. Could you imagine Frank finishing his days out in Turners Cross?
Cork Hibernians’ Flower Lodge had the finest playing surface on these islands. During the great freeze of 1963 in England, teams came over to play on it because their own pitches were frozen over, Manchester United being one of them. Today Hibs and Celtic are long gone, two teams that at one time won league and cup titles and had the fag end of legends like George Best, Rodney Marsh, Uwe Seeler, West German 1966 captain, and Geoff Hurst line out for them, not counting GAA stars like Jimmy Barry Murphy and Dinny Allen in their ranks. Drumcondra, the first League of Ireland team to install floodlights in the 1950s, they often had gates of 20,000 plus too, once for a Leinster Cup final against Rovers on St Stephen’s Day 1956. Like the great scribe Con Houlihan, who used to stand on the banks of the Tolka to watch them, now all consigned to the memory bank.
Ballina was once the centre of the basketball world on the island. An evocative piece by Western People sports editor Anthony Hennigan, “Stop the clock: Remembering Ballina’s part in basketball’s greatest controversy” reminds us of the early 1990s when Ballina swept all ahead of them on the court. Later on, feeling the injustices being dealt upon them, Ballina’s greatest days ever were already behind them. Their journey, though parallel to the River Moy, swept the entire country behind them. Their jousts with the big boys of Dublin, Kerry, Cork and Belfast made us all basketball experts.We had the magical Deora Marsh giving us the necessary street cred and the McHales and McStays shooting for the stars, heady times. Alas, no more. Well, not at that level. Once gone and all of that.
So what for Iorras? Hard to know. Now that I come ‘back home’ more often, I see first-hand the scarcity of youth that remain. The old days of working in Dublin and heading home to tog out on the weekend was disrupted by Covid first and a very costly economy second.
Iorras Aonthaithe dip in the same pool for players as the GAA and given Belmullet’s recent runs of success, young men being young men will be attracted to those bright lights. Not all will agree with me but born in Blacksod and growing up amid teeming exporting of our youth, it’s my belief that the Peninsula and possibly greater Erris is actually soccer territory. I know it was the only game we played in the village until I left at 18. The pull of the game that most youth were exposed abroad to and the game brought home by the youth and not so youthful, has deeper roots than one imagines in the barony. It may not wither at Iorras yet.
Leafing through a book on Iorras Aontaithe’s 25-year anniversary 1984-2009 (an excellent collection by the way), one of the things that leapt out was the soft flow of lads from one sport to the other and back, no rancour or recrimination. Stephen Carolan, Henry Gaughan, Shane Nallen, Chris Barrett amongst others would be equally well-known on the GAA pitch, yet part of me sees them as soccer players first and foremost. Iorras are not only a soccer club, they, without the pulling power and soft political power of the GAA, built a fantastic set-up, a first-class pitch, offered excellent coaching for the youth and nurtured players that graduated on to Ipswich Town, Galway and Sligo Rovers with the likes of Ronan Murray and young Gary Boylan.
They set their roots in their community by the all-encompassing title of the club. They made it an Erris brand, not a local village or town. Kilmore FC, their local rivals, also have an all-inclusive parish name, not town or village-specific. Erris United paid homage to the native tongue still spoken in parts of Erris by calling the team by its Irish title, Iorras Aonthaithe. A small thing but a deep sense of local awareness.
So, it is a sad moment to see that gap in Mayo soccer. God knows parts of Erris is already cut off by poor infrastructure, be that in terms of the road they call the R312 from Castlebar to the Erris gateways at Corrick, the tumbling sea wall at Bundulla and the bare scratching of third world broadband in the area. Erris needs its people to move within the county, the county needs Erris people to drive the latent tourism industries within the barony, be it language or scenery that’s special. Losing an outlet for the young people like the soccer club is the prime indication that the lifeblood of youth is being staunched. It’s not flowing.
In 2004 Erris United’s U18s won the All-Ireland title of that age group, the FAI Youths Cup. Mayo teams tend to get altitude sickness on All-Ireland final days but not those hardy bucks. They whipped Dublin’s semi-final representatives Pearse Rangers 6-0 and then Letterkenny Rovers in the final. Soccer is big in Dublin and Donegal, taking out their U18 representatives was some feat. In their anniversary book, Iorras Aonthaithe have a picture of five sets of brothers with the cup sitting in front of them, Erris names like Barrett, Noone, Nallen, Gaughan and O’Donnell. Historical barony names, some driven by the Ulster plantations to Erris, others from Norman times, all melded together in Erris.

Brothers Chris and Pat Barrett celebrate Erris United’s victory in the final of the FAI Youths Cup in 2004.

There is an iconic photo and quote in the book about that U18 final. Captain Pat Barrett has his hands around his brother Chris’ head, both in embrace. The quote is from Seamus Heaney:
I remember your head, bent towards my head
Your breath in mine…
We were never closer the wholes rest of our lives.
It would be a pity to lose those memories and emotions, silver and achievements. Hopefully Iorras Aonthaithe are on the pause button, not delete.

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