The Irish World’s Damian Dolan, Fiona O’Brien and Lucia Butler were in Greenford for the All Britain Competition
It used to be missionaries, nuns, and Christian Brothers who spread Irishness around the world.
These days it’s the parents of GAA-playing schoolgirls and schoolboys spreading Gaelic Games’ message of inclusiveness far and wide as seen at last week-end’s All Britain Competition.
More than 2,000 children from all backgrounds, clubs and schools across the UK lined out at Tir Chonaill Park in West London for the sixth annual ABC – a four-day celebration of Gaelic Football, Camogie and Hurling.
The GAA says it wants to ensure “everybody has the opportunity to be welcomed to take part in our games and culture, to participate fully, to grow and develop and to be inspired to keep a lifelong engagement with our Association.”
Gaelic Games – often nicknamed ‘Gah’ for GAA – is now a global game and Britain is at the forefront of introducing it to new players. London, Warwickshire and New York are all Irish counties for GAA purposes.
Last month in Ireland at the John West Féile na nÓg boys’ football tournament 12 overseas teams travelled to take part in the boys competition.
UK teams walked away with three all-Ireland titles while New York was crowned the best Under-14 team in the world when they took home the top-tier Division 1 title.
By 2014 there were 2,518 affiliated clubs world-wide. Gaelic games are played in schools and clubs in America, across Europe, the Middle East, Australasia, Canada and Asia.
At last year’s World Games in Dublin, 27 native teams from around the world joined 29 teams from Ireland for four days of competition.
Fun was undoubtedly the watchword over the four days in Greenford, but there was also the underlying goal of inclusiveness – one of the six core values in the GAA’s Strategic Vision and Action Plan – which it believes is central to safeguarding the future of the GAA in Britain.
Ireland’s two most coveted sports prizes, Gaelic football’s Sam Maguire Cup and hurling’s Liam MacCarthy Cup, are named after Irishmen who lived and worked here in Britain.
MacCarthy was born here. Last weekend’s ABC tournament, which began in 2012, has grown year on year, so much so that last year it expanded from three to four days.
This year there were plenty of Saldanhas, Munzirs, Penieros and Mugwanyas playing Gaelic Games alongside names like Gallagher, Rourke, Morrissey, Marr, O’Brien, O’Dowd and many others.
On the first day some 320 children from 29 primary schools – a third more than last year started the tournament which was eventually won by St Joseph’s Primary School in Swansea. Team captain, Cameron Llewellyn, only started playing Gaelic football in Year 3.
All Britain Chairman Michael Kingston: said: “It’s quite clear from a lot of the teams that there is significant involvement in the tournament by children who have no connection to Ireland.
“The host club, Tir Chonaill Gaels, have a significant amount of non-Irish players and that’s symptomatic of how things have developed.
“That will multiply as we move forward, and maybe in the coming years, if they stay involved, the amount of non-Irish players in senior teams in London will increase significantly.
“There’s a wonderful group of Community Development Administrators working across Britain who are enthusiastic and work very hard and the real evidence of that was a school from Swansea winning the Primary Schools competition.
“Hopefully those youngsters, who’ve only just starting playing the sport, will now play with clubs.”
St Colmcille’s girls’ team from Hertfordshire was started by a dad from Donegal so that his daughter (Niamh Gallagher) could carry on playing Gaelic football, because she was no longer able to play with the boys having reached under-14 level.
“My Dad gathered my friends from school, my football, rugby and netball teams, and we trained for six months and went into the all Britain last year at under-14,” said Niamh.
Niamh’s dad, Neil Gallagher, said: “We have a squad of 25 players but only three have Irish connections – the others have zero Irish connections.
“They come in purely for the love of the game – it’s such a compelling game. It’s so intense and passionate and the parents have just gone ‘wow’.”
At his school Gaelic Football has gone from strength-to-strength, fielding the South London side that won the Feile Division 2 Cup at St. Tiernach’s Park in Clones. It was a remarkable achievement for a London side.
They followed that up last weekend with ABC success when they won the Secondary School Cup competition. All but one of its players comes from a predominantly African background.
Michael Maher, joint manager of St Paul’s Academy, said: “That’s the future of Gaelic Games in the UK….it has to be open to everyone and inclusive for everyone.
“The schools programme in place across the UK aims to do that. The area of London in which we teach the majority of our children come from an African background….they love playing Gaelic football; they thrive on the sport.”
At Paul’s, GAA is taught from primary school through to when the children leave at the end of secondary school.
“It doesn’t matter how little they knew about the sport at the start, if they work hard and badly want to achieve something, like winning an All Ireland at the Feile or an All Britain, then they will do it,” said Maher.
“Their spirit, desire and work-rate is second to none, and they do work very hard. It doesn’t come overnight.
“They’re training hard on Friday nights when there are a lot of other distractions, but our young men are in training and they’re in training on Tuesday afternoon and if we don’t have a game on a Saturday then we’re in training at the weekend as well.
“Gaelic Games has to be open to everyone and the more schools it’s in the better.”
Maher is himself a UK-born Irishman, or London Irish, and played for Round Towers. He believes that the numbers of UK-born Irish children playing the game has declined. Something he experienced first-hand first when growing up.
“At that time Round Towers was very much reliant on second generation Irish children, but year by year it dropped away until the underage section at the club nearly collapsed because there was no schools programme feeding new children into the club,” he said.
“We don’t have to rely on that at Paul’s and that’s why the project is so exciting, because year after year we teach in up to 20 different primary schools a week. Obviously the aim is to teach them all different sports, but in the summer it’s Gaelic football.
“We’re bringing the sport to hundreds of kids and when they get to secondary school age the aim is that they start playing competitively at under 12 and 13 for Dulwich Harps and St Paul’s Academy, and it’s great to see them playing it.
“When I was growing up there was a boom 20-30 years, a lot of second generation Irish, but in the early 2000s it was dying off. It is picking up again now and that’s down to more children being exposed to the sport through the schools programme.
“Where we’re teaching in south east London I could count on one hand, in the last three years, the number of children who’ve played for us who have any Irish in their family.
“We’ve had kids win All Irelands with us from Pakistani, Saudi Arabian, Nigerian and Ghanaian backgrounds. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, and that the beauty of the programme we have at St Paul’s Academy.”
And, of course, there’s still plenty of children born to recently arrived Irish as well as long-established families here with at least one Irish parent as well. The more the merrier.
The dream, of course, is that one day a team from here will bring the Sam Maguire and/or the Liam MacCarthy Cup(s) ‘home’ to the land of their namessakes.