It’s only a faint recollection but I remember my first Community Games. I was about five or six and my parents brought me down to Corran Park in Ballymote one Spring Sunday where I was instructed to run like the clappers upon hearing a gun. Out of a field of eight others, some of whom were manifestly better prepared and more motivated than I was, I came fourth or fifth, which pretty much set the tone for where I would come in most things throughout my life. Not destined for glory but neither would I haplessly bring up the rear. The die was cast, I would develop into a Sunderland or an Aston Villa of the competitions of life. An also-ran, as they call them. Because I also ran.
Like most things you encounter when you’re a child, you assume the Community Games has been around since the beginning of time and being blooded in its local competition every May is as integral a part of your development as spending a night on a mountainside was for Spartan babies. Like many other Irish children, I tried my hand in multiple events, first the individual track and field sports, at parish level (it all begins with the parish), later even more haplessly with ‘art’ (doomed to failure there — there was a young heavy metaller in town who was actually able to draw who had the local and county titles locked down every year), and finally the team sports, where I finally tasted success at county level and, were it not for the organisation’s absurd rules, might have gone on to greater things).
The competition though, dating only from 1968, started to keep youngsters off the streets in Dublin — something that seems a bit odd to me as I think of it as a quintessentially culchie event — meaning it wasn’t of so old a vintage by the time I was thrust into competition some time after the Moscow Olympics. It seemed like everyone in Ireland took part (or so it looked from our parish, where nobody was absent when it kicked off in May every year). The games’ structure was more or less based on the GAA’s with parishes holding their own ‘games’ in spring, with the winners progressing to the county finals a month later. That in turn would produce the All-Ireland finalists, who would compete over two weekends just as the school year was starting in late August and early September in the Mosney holiday camp in Meath (still colloquially known as ‘Butlin’s’ in my childhood). Ireland’s geometrically perfect number of counties — 32 — was easily whittled down to a final eight in a series of heats and semi-finals. The team games would be held throughout the spring with the county finals decided in June and in July the provincial finals would take place. The four winners of those would face off in Mosney later in the summer.
Like their grown-up prototype, the Olympics, the Community Games were best known for the track and field events and dozens of Ireland’s finest athletes from Frank O’Mara to John Treacy and Sonia O’Sullivan cut their teeth there. But there were odd appendages too, such as the ‘choir’; our local parish’s representatives were a crack outfit at that, with my sister and her frightfully well-marshalled schoolmates regularly cleaning up at Mosney with orchestrated accapello worthy of Brian Wilson. There was the aforementioned ‘art’, which is more Olympian than you think — in the early days of the Olympics it was a regular event and Jack B. Yeats won a silver medal at the Paris games in 1924 for ‘The Liffey Swim’ no less. Draughts was another competition our parish conquered the rest of the country at on a few occasions. ‘Model making’, on the other hand, for some reason not considered ‘art’, was something nobody did where I grew up, though presumably someone did it somewhere, like those people that did Dutch for the Leaving Cert. According to Wikipedia there are several other non-athletic events, none of which I can remember being there when I was young, the variety show, ‘project’, comedy sketch/drama and the quiz (I’d have remembered that one all right), the intriguingly named ‘culture corner’ and disco dancing (though, given the ubiquity of disco-dancing events throughout the country when I was a child, I’m surprised it was never there to begin with).
The medals got progressively better the further you got. The local ones were the usual cheap-looking plated monstrance-shaped sunbursts with a sticker in the centre bearing the Community Games logo, a circle with the four provincial crests enclosed in smaller ones. The county medals were a bit bulkier still and the national medals — at least in the late 1980s, when I got to see them on a regular basis — were relatively impressive slabs of plated medal. My sister and brother both brought them home but my only ones came in soccer and hurling (it was quite difficult to win a soccer medal in Sligo, less so a hurling one, given there were only four teams in the county and probably only two of them could hit the sliotar). The Games’ arcane rules prevented us from winning a possible national title one year; players were not allowed compete beyond county level in more than one team game. Having won the soccer, Gaelic and hurling titles with effectively the same players — despite the age groups being under-12, under-13 and under-14 respectively — it was decided to send only one forward to provincial level. A coin was tossed and the Gaelic team won, depriving of glory the soccer team, which probably had a better chance of winning. The following year, faced with a similar scenario but fewer player overlap, the players were instead divided among the various sides and all competed at provincial level, and lost, with depleted panels.
There’s surprisingly little Community Games-related stuff on YouTube and the XBox filching of the name has made searching for it all the more difficult. Here is Kilcormac boys’ volleyball team from Offaly, victorious in 1985. One of the YouTube comments says they didn’t get to stay in Mosney, travelling up and down on the same day. Doesn’t sound very sporting to me.
I only visited Mosney for the national finals once or twice. If you weren’t taking part it wasn’t really all that fun and even in the 1980s, the sheen of glamour on the ageing holiday camp had been well and truly dulled. For those competing, it must have been a laugh though — staying in the chalets with your teammates, in a mini-Olympic village, with often a fair stab at the shenanigans that take place in the real village. For the past few years the games have taken place in Athlone instead, as Mosney is now home to asylum applicants — a reminder that the word ‘camp’ can be as readily connotative of misery as it can be of leisure.
The authoritative work on the Community Games is, of course, Aidan Walsh’s single ‘Community Games’, from 1987 or thereabouts, in which the self-styled Master of the Universe meditates on the games, refraining ‘what will I do at the Community Games?’ and pointing out, quite rightly, that draughts was a ‘child’s game’. I got to know Aidan a bit years later when he was a familiar face around Temple Bar. He would always give you the thumbs up and exhort you to not work too hard. It was a bit at odds with the Community Games’ Victorian-style motto, ‘Mens Sana in Corpore Sano’ but, then again, they used to always tell us as kids it was the taking part that counts…
(by Oliver Farry)