The story of Connemara Isles Golf Club is without a doubt unique and another chapter has been added to the novel after they climbed their golfing Everest, winning their maiden All-Ireland title in Sunday’s Men’s All-Ireland Four-Ball in Athlone Golf Club, just 48 hours after heartbreak in the Fred Perry decider.
This distractingly beautiful Island course, located in the heart of the Connemara Gaeltacht, is joined to the mainland by a causeway at Bealadangan. Designed by Tom Craddock and Pat Ruddy in 1995, it is a unique 9-hole course without any bunkers and some stunning views off the West Coast of Ireland.
Connemara Isles boasts the only thatched cottage clubhouse in Ireland which was built in 1851 and is the birthplace of club founder and builder Sean O’Loinsigh who is famous for building a golf course on a bog.
A native of South Connemara, O’Loinsigh was one of just two golfers on the Connemara Isles 30 years ago and while the club now has just 60 competitive players and 120 members, the 78-year-old always believed this day would come no matter how unlikely it seemed for a remote nine-hole club that he built from scratch.
“I was looking forward to the day that I could say, unlike Mayo, we would definitely win an All-Ireland!” he laughed.
“It’s a fantastic achievement especially considering 30 years ago within 30 miles of here there were only two of us playing golf in South Connemara. There were people living in Galway and Dublin playing golf but in terms of residents here, only two of us.
“I started off in college playing pitch and putt next door to the digs, I could climb over the wall. That was in the early 60s.
“We were runners up on Friday in the Fred Perry we were beaten on the 18th hole. Some of our lads never passed Galway before.
“It’s some achievement considering we only have 60 players who play in competitions regularly, we have about 120 members entirely so that’s all we have. You have to bear in mind that 25 years ago there were only two golfers here.
“We have some overseas friends and country members. Our membership only costs one euro a day and I’ll have to change my outlook on that because that’s for the locals. Green fees for 20 euro a day won’t get the Americans turning up. They think it’s a pitch and putt course.
“Yesterday I had to stay around and keep the lads happy. I was getting texts on Whatsapp and telling the boys in the bar here on Sunday. We would have a few locals in it; would be their regular haunt for a few pints.
“We had a great night last night and we’re suffering, the heads are a bit sore today!”
Connemara Isles has no official clubhouse but it also has a glowing reputation for being a serious test of golf. Despite having no on course hazards such as bunkers, the elements provide a stern defence of the course with accuracy and patience paramount.
Something which O’Loinsigh feels was the key for the team over the weekend.
“That’s the reason the boys do well,” he said. “You have to hit it straight otherwise the Atlantic Ocean and the bogs will take the ball. Neither the ocean nor the bog will give you back your ball. It’s alright if you go into a bunker, you can hit it again.
“We designed a bunker on the first hole and I explained to the boys that the water table is bog and the lads said it would be OK. Winter came then and there was a foot of water in it. People if they were short of the green, into the bunker and couldn’t find their ball. We closed the bunker in the next year.
“You just have to hit the ball straight and that’s the real strength of our players when they get onto a parkland course with wide fairways, bunkers are the least of their worries. You can’t really drive the ball long here, you don’t risk the tight lines and the big drives.
“It’s some achievement to be runners-up in the Fred Perry the other day and now to win yesterday, for such a small course in an area where 30 years ago there were two of us and 25 years ago just ten. We find it hard to break the 100 membership so it’s fantastic for us,” added O’Loinsigh who was back to work in the bar after the night’s celebrations.
Success might not end here with silverware on the agenda, in Mayo of all places next weekend!
“We are going down to Mulranny next Saturday in the Jack O’Sullivan with a 4-1 lead so maybe that will be another little trophy for us,” he smiled.
The story of how Connemara Isles Golf Club came to fruition is a story of determination, perseverance and a little bit of stubbornness to say no to those who were doubtful. ‘You can’t build a course from a bog,’ they said. Well how about that.
Sean and his brother inherited 70 acres of land in 1990, where they were expected to rear Connemara ponies and sheep for a small profit and tiresome work. He didn’t fancy that.
Described as a likeable rogue full of light-hearted devilment, O’Loinsigh against all the expert advice and the odds decided he would set up a nine-hole golf course. And who better to call for such an outrageous idea than legendary golf course designer Pat Ruddy.
“When I started this, I said OK, golf was never played in this part of the county so I had to do something different to attract a different type of tourist into the place. We are in the back arse of nowhere and only linked up with bridges 100 years ago,” he says.
“You have to have fun out here because when Pat Ruddy came down here on day one, I rang him on a Sunday when he was building the European Club at the time I asked if he could come down and just have a look,” explained O’Loingsigh.
“It was the craziest idea anyone came up with in 1990 so I rang him and asked if he could come down and inspect my crazy idea next month and he said he would be down tomorrow morning, and he was.
“I went down to the local bank and out of my own funds, I took out ten grand. I didn’t even know what he was about to charge! Pat wanted some good clay and he was delighted.
“Himself and Tom Craddock were something else. Craddock was a fantastic golfer himself. That’s where it started anyway the plan.”
O’Loinsigh passed up a career doing Law in Dublin for a Masters in Rural Development in Galway. No planning permission was required back in 1990 for a golf course and despite being told countless times you cannot build a golf course on a bog, he did.
“I could do anything I wanted! I got a horticulturalist down to see would the course grow grass and I was laughed out of it. ‘No way you can build a golf course here it’s all cut away bog, small fields full of stone walls and stones jutting out of the land. No way, forget it there’s no grass it’s all heather and rushes.’
“After three hours they came again and took some samples and said ‘no, not suitable’.
“I said the best thing I can do is ask how were we able to grow grass, corn, rye, barley and potatoes and everything. There must be some nutrients in the ground. I asked the local farmers and they said of course plenty of seaweed and so on there. The soil is rich and we are doing nothing but cutting grass for 25 years.
“It was a crazy idea from day one but it’s all been brought to fruition now.”
O’Loingsigh is an activist for the Irish language in Gaeltacht areas often vehemently frustrated by the dismissal of island areas and their potential.
Determined to keep his community alive without sacrificing its language and culture, he has ideas to enhance Gaeilge in the Isles again by means of a golfing Gaeltacht with plans set to be confirmed in December when he attends an award ceremony for the club in Carton House where they are among the prizes for best nine-hole club.
“It’s all through Irish. If you come here, it’s Irish. We are the strongest Irish speaking area in the whole country. The beauty about it is that we are setting up with a few golf clubs in Dublin including the Hermitage a unique Irish college where kids will learn golf and everything about the landscape.
“Forget the singing and the dancing, they will learn about the landscape, how to play golf and the parents and grandparents are organising to come down so they will know what their kids are learning when they come down for a period of time.
“It’s important to people. Even for the kids around here. Parents are saying they are bringing their kids around where they used not be allowed to walk. The parents can bring their kids walking around the course, 70 acres and unique landscape. During the pandemic it was a great release for everyone and now they want their kids to learn how to play golf.
“To tie it in with the Irish language is important so it will be something different. What we are trying to ensure that the parents will be subsidised as well because they will spread the word far more.
“Golf being a foreign game so to speak, if we can bring it into the ordinary Joe soap’s life, golf can become the same as hurling or football,” explained O’Loingish who is certainly one of golf’s great characters.
Connemara Isles Golf Club is a unique club with a unique story that put the community at the heart of everything and after punching above their weight last weekend.
“We’re one big family in Connemara Isles,” said Nollaig O’Tighearnaigh who holed the winning putt on Sunday. A victory to be enjoyed by the entire community.