It has been described as a peculiar cross between an All-Ireland final and Woodstock, where native Irish speakers from the country’s Gaeltacht areas can enjoy an eclectic mix of fine football, talent contests, traditional music and raucous revelry.
This year marks the 50th year of Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta, a four-day Gaelic football tournament held every June Bank Holiday weekend.
Gaeltacht teams from Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Kerry, Cork, Waterford and Meath compete for the prestigious Corn an Aire, and in recent years Irish-speaking teams from urban centres, such as Na Gaeil Óga from Dublin and Laochra Loch Lao from Belfast, have also taken part.
As well as the senior tournament, junior teams and women's teams also do battle in parallel competitions.
Over the years some of Ireland’s best known footballers have played in the tournament.
The Comórtas annals tell of teak-tough defending from the likes of Kerry’s Páidí Ó Sé and Cork’s Anthony Lynch; the power and passion of Galway’s Seán Óg de Paor and Donegal’s Anthony Molloy; the majestic fielding of Mayo’s Willie Joe Padden and Kerry’s Darragh Ó Sé; the dazzling wizardry of Donegal’s McHugh brothers, Martin and James; the sharp shooting of Kerry’s Declan O’Sullivan and Meath’s Graham Geraghty, to name but a few.
This year the tournament is being hosted by our own club in West Kerry, An Ghaeltacht. Preparations have been under way for well over a year with the development of a second pitch to cater for the 24 matches to be played over the course of the weekend.
The club’s playing field, Gallaros, rests majestically on the edge of Smerwick Bay at the western tip of the Dingle Peninsula, facing the elegant hills of An Triúr Deirféar (the Three Sisters) to the west and protected to the east by the sacred mountain of Cnoc Bréanainn (Mt Brandon). This is the land of football and folklore, music and mayhem.
Over the past few weeks the club has been a hive of activity, with a huge volunteer effort under way to ensure everything is in place to cater for the crowds. The pitches have been carefully manicured, pathways and parking areas tarmacked, and a huge marquee has been erected for music and porter (yesterday the club took delivery of 160 barrels).
An energetic committee has been working around the clock, organising entertainment, preparing traffic management plans and providing all the facilities and services required to cater for anything up to 5,000 spectators.
Accommodation has been sourced for 29 teams and their management, the equivalent of 2,250 bed nights, not an easy task given the demand for accommodation in one of the country’s busiest tourist destinations on a bank holiday weekend.
The games will be broadcast live on both TG4 and RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta.
While Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta is now regarded as one of the country’s premier sports gatherings, the competition had humble origins. On 4 January 1969, 18 young men sat in to a banger of a bus in West Kerry.
They were about to travel the length of the country, 320 miles, to Gaoth Dobhair in Donegal to play a friendly game against another Gaeltacht club. Due to treacherous conditions, with ice on the roads and heavy snowfall, the epic journey took over 16 hours to complete.
The following day a match was played on three inches of snow in Gaoth Dobhair. Despite the weather, the weekend proved a tremendous success socially, forging a friendship between two Gaeltacht communities.
Over the course of a few post-match drinks the concept of an inter-Gaeltacht tournament was conceived. The very first Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta was held in Gaoth Dobhair the following August.
The Comórtas has provided its loyal following with many epic battles down through the years, with inter-county rivalries adding an extra bit of spice to proceedings.
People still talk of the bruising encounters between Corca Dhuibhne (Kerry), Baile Bhuirne (Cork) and Gaoth Dobhair (Donegal) in the 70s.
The 1980s saw the rise of Béal an Mhuirthead (Mayo) and Cill Charthaigh (Donegal). Certain matches stand out. In 1996 in Baile Bhuirne spectators were treated to a scoring shoot-out between Kerry’s Dara Ó Cinnéide and Cork’s John O’Driscoll; 1982 saw a great Baile Bhuirne team complete a historic four-in-a-row.
In 2001 in Dromaid a massive cloud of midges enveloped the venue in the south Kerry mountains, forcing supporters to light little fires on the sidelines in an effort to stave them off and ensuring players kept running to avoid being eaten alive.
The 1975 tournament in Gaoth Dobhair is remembered for an unruly pitch invasion by cars resulting in the home team being controversially stripped of their title following an appeal.
Tongues were wagging again in 2005 when Anthony Lynch and Mícheál Ó Cróinín defied a directive from Cork management and decided to play with their club in the Comórtas Peile, eventually securing the title for Baile Bhuirne.
Indeed, conflict between inter-county management and Gaeltacht players has been a recurring theme at the Comórtas. County managers fear the Comórtas as players can potentially play up to three tough matches in as many days, risking injury at a time when inter-county championship season is heating up.
The regular banning of county players is a source of tremendous disappointment and annoyance for many at the Comórtas, depriving the competition of some its most gifted players.
Some managers have eventually bowed to pressure and released county players if their clubs reach the final of the Comórtas. A common feature and a source of great excitement has been the last-minute arrival of star players by helicopter at the remote Gaeltacht venues.
Despite the challenges, Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta has flourished since its inception and has also managed to evolve with the times. The tournament has been the catalyst for dramatic improvements in playing fields and associated facilities in isolated Gaeltacht areas, each host club wanting to improve on the standards set by the previous year’s hosts.
It has also helped mould and bond participating teams by generating and preparing them for upcoming county championships.
But above all the Comórtas speaks to the soul of Gaeltacht communities. It has forged lasting friendships between communities, where both young and old, from opposite ends of the country, have the opportunity to renew acquaintances and celebrate a common linguistic heritage through a passion for football.
The atmosphere experienced at a Comórtas is unique. It’s colourful and vibrant. It’s passionate and primal. It’s where the hum of spoken Irish mingles with the thud of the leather and the roar of the crowd on the playing fields outside.
The Comórtas Peile resonates with something deep within us.