Scotland GAA recognises Fr Eamonn Sweeney’s 50 years of service
By Damian Dolan
A “robust” full back in his day, straight out of the Paddy Prendergast mould, and a “tremendous storyteller” is how Scotland GAA chairperson Peter Mossey describes Fr Eammon Sweeney.
Good enough to play Minor and Under 21 for his native Mayo, before landing in Scotland in 1969, he spread the GAA with passion and enthusiasm.
Born in 1945 in Ballycroy, his interest in GAA was stirred when attending St Peter’s seminary in Wexford in the 1960s.
He arrived in Scotland as a young curate at St Bridget’s Baillieston in the east end of Glasgow. “Softly spoken”, the Mayo accent has never forsaken him.
Last month, he was recognised for his 50 years of service to the GAA in Scotland at the county’s Convention.
“Arguably without the actions of Fr Sweeney in the 1970s and 1980s there would be far less chance of a GAA existing in Scotland today,” says Joe Bradley, who has been involved in Scotland GAA since 1984.
“He was fundamental to starting clubs, playing himself, serving the County as an officer and keeping Pearse Park as an ongoing place to meet and play.
📣SCOTLAND COUNTY BOARD AGM📣
Chairperson Peter Mossey presented Fr Eamon Sweeney with a Lifetime Committment Award and Grace McBride with Irish Culture Champion….
— Scotland GAA (@ScotlandGAA) February 3, 2019
“His biggest role was to provide the enthusiasm, effort and skills required to rejuvenate a moribund body in the early 1980s.”
That enthusiasm, coupled with this knowledge and organisational skills, was fundamental to the GAA’s survival and development in Scotland.
Over the past five decades he helped promote Gaelic games in Scotland, long before the formation of the county board as we know it, and duly played a significant role in the board’s revival in the mid-1980s.
He also started two clubs – one of which went on to win a senior title, with Fr Sweeney playing full back.
But for Mossey, who made the Lifetime Commitment Award presentation to Fr Sweeney at Convention, it was his commitment to introducing the game to second and third generation Irish that was his “major contribution” to the GAA in Scotland.
“He went out of his way to go to parishes and say ‘if you’ve two hands and two feet, you can play Gaelic football’,” said Mossey.
“He was able to train from scratch soccer [players] and other athletes and make them into a good Gaelic footballers, and they won a championship in 1987.”
That team was Beltane Shamrocks, which was based around Fr Sweeney’s then parish of St Aidan’s in Wishaw. He was the only Irish born player on it.
He’d earlier set up Clann na Gael in Hamilton and won the inaugural Scotland championship with them in 1985.
His work within the GAA would have a profound impact on Mossey, who came to Scotland in 1978 as an 18-year-old.
From Tyrone, he’d made it into the county Minor panel, but never into the actual team. Arriving in Scotland, he was keen to continue playing Gaelic football.
“When I left Tyrone and came over to Scotland my big disappointment was I couldn’t play Gaelic football,” he said.
He started up his own team at Dundee University, but with the GAA in Scotland unstructured, they had no one to play against.
He later played for Sands MacSwineys for a year, before setting up the Dálriada club, which combines Aberdeen and Dundee, in 1990. A decision inspired by Fr Sweeney’s “initiative” in revising the GAA in Scotland in 1984.
Prior to that, it had been ad hoc. Gaelic footballers would frequent the Irish clubs in the city on a Friday or Saturday, and from there arrange impromptu games.
Teams would even be invited over from Ulster to play, while in the 1950s a team from Glasgow was involved in the Ulster junior championship. But there was little structure or connection for second and third generation Irish.
“That gave them one or two games a year, just to keep the Gaelic spirit alive,” said Mossey.
“They had no facilities; all they had was the spirit to play and get together and the Gaelic GAA camaraderie when he was first getting involved in the GAA in Scotland.”
One of Fr Sweeney’s early parishes in Glasgow was St Colmcilles – just a few miles from Pearse Park, the former ‘home’ of the GAA in Scotland.
In the 1970s, he would organise ‘fun days’ at the ground, at the centre of which was always GAA activities.
In 1984, as part of GAA’s Centenary celebrations, he was invited to take a team from Glasgow back to Mayo for a tournament. But when none of the team turned up, he had to enlist players in Mayo to represent Glasgow.
When he returned, he set about reviving the Scotland County Board. Clubs started popping up, taking his lead.
Fr Sweeney would play a key role in helping the board establish itself, serving as chairperson and secretary in its crucial formative years. A steady hand on the tiller.
— Dunedin Connollys (@DunedinCGFC) November 18, 2018
Bradley added: “He was the centre of the activity that led to himself starting football club Clan na Gael at his parish in Hamilton, for Eamonn Cullen (Donegal) to start St Patricks in Dumbarton, Seamus Sweeney (Donegal) starting Mulroy Gaels in Glasgow and several others, including Mick Moran, Pat O’Callaghan and I giving life to Pearse Harps in Glasgow in 1985.
“Since 1985 Scotland has seen a league and championship being played in Gaelic Football every year. He was a true Gael at a time when there were very few around, in and around Glasgow.
“Although none of those clubs now exist, without them, their managers and players, it is unlikely that the foundations could have been laid for future and current activities in Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Coatbridge, where Scotland’s GAA clubs now exist.”
Fr Sweeney moved to St Michael’s in Moodiesburn, before settling St Patrick’s Coatbridge where he’s now been for more than 20 years.
While taking a step back from being at the forefront of the GAA in Scotland over the past two decades, he remains a constant source of advice and guidance, and last month offered up his Coatbridge facilities for Scotland’s Convention.
Comhghairdeás to our Ladies, who won the Intermediate Ladies Cup at the 30th Comórtas Peile Paidí Ó Sé today – first Connollys silverware of 2019! #20×20 #lgfa #SeriousSupport pic.twitter.com/H8dPG9qYqw
— Dunedin Connollys (@DunedinCGFC) February 16, 2019
But not just a source of guidance to the GAA – other Irish organisations in Glasgow such as Comhaltas and the numerous Irish dance schools have benefited from his help over the years.
The GAA in Scotland has come a long way since Fr Sweeney first arrived – the exciting new hub at Clydebank, the rise of Dunedin Connolly’s on the All-Britain stage in men’s and ladies, the growing strength of its county team and hopes for the return of GAA to Pearse Park.
Connolly’s themselves were started following a chance conversation between its founder, Belfast native Anthony Haughey, and Fr Sweeney at an Irish dancing show on Leith Walk in 1988.
Fr Sweeney is delighted to see it all, says Mossey. And so he should be; he can rightly look back with pride on the fruits of his labour.