It’s not often that you get the opportunity of visiting a football pitch that is situated on a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean. This opportunity came to me when I visited the island of Inishturk, which takes almost an hour to travel the 9 mile boat trip from Roonagh Pier, near Louisburgh in County Mayo.
Inishturk is a rugged island measuring 5km x 2.5km (3 miles x 1.5 miles) with a population of seventy people. Most of the residents live around the main harbour. Electricity was only introduced there in 1983.
The Inishturk ferry travels the 9 mile journey to Roonagh pier to collect its passengers as it passes by Clare Island
I was met at the pier at Inishturk by Eamon Heanue who, among other things, maintains the one and only football pitch on the island. It was 7:30 in the evening. He couldn’t meet me any earlier as he had brought anglers out on a fishing trip earlier that day. Eamon is also a sheep farmer. Being an islander one has to have many trades to earn a living.
Eamon drove me up the hilly roadway to the pitch and when we arrived I was amazed at the sight of it. It was like an oasis in the desert, nestled among the craggy hills. This pitch is one of the most westerly sportspitches in Europe exposed to the wild Atlantic. It is situated on the island’s flattest terrain, which is regularly maintained by Eamon and he has been doing this since 2010.
On top of the world. Groundsman Eamon Heanue with the southern view of Inishturk GAA pitch behind him
What is unusual about the pitch is that it is surrounded by hills with outcrop of rock, forming a natural amphitheatre that, if it wanted to, could easily accommodate over 10,000 spectators. However, transporting that number of people across the ocean and providing refreshments would provide a logistical headache.
So how did the idea of building a pitch come about? “When we were growing up on the island as children many of us would come up here and kick a ball and have friendly football matches but the ground was too uneven to hold formal games here”, said Eamon. Indeed football has been played on the site for generations in one form or another. It was only as recently as 1996 that the club was formed as there was a strong and vibrant generation of players at that time in both women’s and men’s teams so it was an easy decision to form a club and provide some organised football and other activities.
A view of the pitch looking North. The rock surrounding it forms a natural amphitheatre
Over the years, the pitch has been developed bit by bit. The local community employment schemes have been involved with the pitch development since the early 1990s and has been vital in getting the field to where it is today. This work is facilitated through the local community council on the island. Major redevelopment of the field took place from 1993-95. This involved new main drainage and levelling of the surface.
In 2008 the local community got together to raise funds for more development of the pitch. They got a lot of funding from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, but much of the work, particularly on the dressing rooms, was done through local voluntary labour.
This work involved levelling the ground, and, to conform to GAA pitch size requirements, some rock had to be removed from one of the corners to accommodate a full size pitch. A herringbone drainage system was installed. This took two years to complete. The community rural social scheme also provided funds to maintain the pitch, of which Eamon is in charge.
Eamon uses a ride-on rotary mower to mow the grass. “In the beginning I put fertiliser on the pitch but found that the extra nitrogen encouraged moss. I have since stopped doing this. Every second cut I now remove the clippings, the other times the grass is left on the ground, which helps feed the grass”, said Eamon.
There are limitations when it comes to maintaining an island pitch such as Inishturk. For example carrying out regular sand topdressing is unrealistic (and expensive) as it would be difficult to transport such large quantities of sand from the mainland. Despite these limitations Eamon is doing a great job in keeping the pitch in good condition.
In 2013 the building of dressing rooms began and was completed and officially opened the following year. This was a great addition to have, as it meant that visiting teams could now be looked after, as the new building contained two dressing rooms, with showering facilities in each.
The dressing rooms, which were officially opened in 2014
As time moved on and with a population of only seventy, it was difficult to continue with a team from the island. While watching the island games at other venues the club decided to invite players from nearby Clare Island and Inishbofin to get together as a team and take part in the Galway League. Even though Inishturk is off County Mayo, the postal address of the island is in Galway. This worked for a while but travelling to Galway was a long journey so it wasn’t long before they changed to taking part in the West Mayo Junior ‘B’ Championship and Division 5 of the Mayo League under the name Na h-Oileáin (meaning The Islands).
Inishturk GAA club is not a registered club but is affiliated with Mayo GAA county board. It takes part in the All Island Gaelic Football Championship each year. This involves teams competing from ten islands around Ireland. The club hosted the tournament in 2012 and 2015. On both occasions the visiting teams were looked after by the locals, who provided them with accommodation. Army tents were brought in to cater for the overflow of competitors.
Due to the economic situation in Ireland most of the players no longer reside on the island and the GAA grounds are not used as much as they would like. No matches have been played on the pitch since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Eugene O’Toole is the Club Secretary. He is a former player with the club and he knows a lot about the club’s history. Eugene now works and lives on the mainland. “It’s a pitch that appears out of nowhere as you’re coming up the road. You would never think approaching the area that there was a pitch actually there. It is there, and we’re proud of it”, he said. Even though Eugene lives and works on the mainland, he still comes to the island on most weekends as his parents still live there. He is very involved with the running of the pitch. He often reflects on the wonderful times he had as a player “We actually won our only All-Islands tournament in 2008 without a field to train on! We trained on the beach. What Great memories we have of that”, said Eugene.
The main road to the pitch shrouded by Celtic mist. You can just about see the dressing rooms in the distance
In March 2020, before Leo Varadker made his famous lockdown announcement in Washington, the residents of Inishturk took the decision that they would isolate on the island and only travel to the mainland on exceptional circumstances. When restrictions eased during the summer of 2020 the island was slowly reopened for visitors but they were not allowed stay overnight. These decisions proved to work as the island remained Covid free during the sixteen month period of the pandemic. “This was great for us as the whole island was treated as one bubble, which meant that we could visit one another, especially our parents, without the fear of giving each other the virus”, said Eamon. However, the downside of this was that any islanders who worked and lived on the mainland couldn’t visit their relatives for several months.
With so little football being played, the local community came up with the idea of alternative uses for the pitch. Taking advantage of the island’s clear night skies with no light pollution, one such idea is renting the pitch out for glamping. Special glamping tents were bought and these have become very popular. This is a great way to camp out at night and watch the stars.
Glamping tents erected on the pitch. Photo courtesy Eugene O’Toole
There is huge potential for the pitch to be hired to other clubs and used as a centre to host football or hurling camps. A training programme for a weekend or even a full week would not be hard to work out. Not only could the pitch be used to train on but the surrounding hills would make for ideal running treks for teams to train. Being a small island, the sea is never too far away to cool down or have some swimming exercises as well. The isolation of the place would make it an ideal location for team bonding. With the dressing rooms and shower facilities available, what’s not attractive about that?
I feel privileged to have visited Inishturk GAA pitch and to have met Eamon Heanue and having the phone chats with Eugene O’Toole. I would say it is probably the nicest pitch I have written about. I hope football will continue to be played there for generations to come and that the pitch will continue to improve and mature over time.