The Mayo All Ireland winner who’s enjoying getting back to his London roots
By Damian Dolan
Liam Irwin is used to expectation. A two-time All Ireland winner with Mayo, at U21 and Minor, the forward announced himself for London by scoring a point with his very first touch for the Exiles.
It almost went unnoticed amidst the disappointment of London’s defeat to Waterford. But the way Irwin cut side, bouncing off one Waterford challenger, before firing over instinctively on the run, will no doubt have struck a chord with Mayo and Breaffy GAA fans alike.
Up and running in London colours, Irwin can’t resist a sneaky look beyond Sligo in the Connacht Championship on May 6, and a possible semi-final showdown with his native Mayo. No further incentive needed.
It should come as no surprise he’s taken little time to settle into London life after transferring to North London Shamrocks less than two months ago.
Born in Greenford, West London, Irwin has family living in Ruislip, Hounslow and Greenford. His parents lived in London for 20 years before moving back to Mayo when he was a year and a half old.
“It was always in my mind to move here at some stage,” Irwin told the Irish World. “I’d always thought about going to London because of my family over here…..I can relate to it.
“I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly. It’s flown by and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”
Irwin’s 2-2 in the 2016 All Ireland U21 final helped Mayo to lift the Clarke Cup for the first time in ten years, but he certainly doesn’t seem like a man carrying the weight of being an All Ireland winner.
“I don’t get worked up over pressure – you thrive off it. I wouldn’t look at articles. It’s nice for the family to look at back in Mayo, but I wouldn’t feel any added pressure,” he added.
“I’m just another one of the lads, and there are guys there who are definitely showing me up in training. I have to work harder.
“Obviously Mayo are at the top end, but there are quality players here. I’ve learnt a lot in the last few weeks.”
Having made the breakthrough into the Mayo senior panel during last year’s National League, his omission from Stephen Rochford’s championship panel raised an eyebrow or two.
“I was disappointed, but the standard is seriously high. Especially for guys trying to break through,” he said.
— the Irish World (@theirishworld) March 25, 2018
“Maybe I just wasn’t ready for it. I thought I might have been ready for it this Christmas, but I didn’t get the call. Life goes on.
“I’m happy to still be playing inter-county level albeit not for Mayo. I’m playing football at the highest level I can and I’m happy enough with that.”
Irwin watched as his Mayo teammates went on to lose to Dublin by a point, and having exited the Mayo club championship with Breaffy at the quarter-final stage, thoughts began to turn to London.
“I was hoping like every other lad around Mayo that I might get a shout in November or December. It didn’t come and you have to be man enough to deal with that. I felt my chances of playing for Mayo in 2018 were gone,” said Irwin.
He added: “It wasn’t a decision I had to make. It was February and I hadn’t got a call. It wasn’t me that made the decision.
“I definitely wouldn’t rule out playing for Mayo again someday, but if the guys went on and won [the All Ireland] it I’d be delighted for them.”
Not surprisingly Irwin wasn’t short of courters when news he was considering a move to London reached these shores. It was North London Shamrocks who won the race, beating off competition from the likes of Tir Chonaill Gaels, with Irwin citing the influence of manager Paddy Madigan.
“He’s ambitious and they’re a club on the way up. It was a tight one between North London Shamrocks and Tir Chonaill Gaels (Irwin’s cousin is friends with TCG’s Liam Gavaghan), but Paddy Madigan has backed up everything he said since I came over and I’d class him as a good friend now,” said Irwin.
“I’m happy with the decision I made.”
Intermediate champions in 2014, Shamrocks reached the senior championship semi-finals in 2016 and last year’s Division 1 final, but are still looking for that first trophy at senior level. For Irwin, that was part of the appeal.
His hometown club Breaffy are still searching for their first senior Mayo title – Irwin helped them reach the final in 2015 and 2013 and the semi-finals in 2016 – and Irwin could clearly relate to Shamrocks’ quest to reach the top echelons in London.
“It’s nice to have the tradition and be classed as the best or the most prestigious team, which Tir Chonaill Gaels are, but then it would be lovely to be part of a team that wins its first county title,” he said.
“That might not happen this year with London, but it would be really big.”
Captained by Mayo senior star Aidan O’Shea, Breaffy won Mayo’s Division 1A league in October and are gearing up for another crack at the Mayo senior title this year. Being part of that was a pull on Irwin, but job opportunities in London, and the lifestyle, won over in the end.
“I really thought hard about whether I should go. With Breaffy, there’s a chance of pushing for a county final this year,” said Irwin, who spent the first three weeks upon arriving in London living with Madigan and his wife, and their three children, while he got accommodation arranged.
The additions of Peter Withrow, a member of Donegal’s 2012 All Ireland winning panel, as well as former Sligo senior players Eoin Flanagan and Gareth Ryan are evidence of a concerted push by the Shamrocks this year to make the breakthrough.
“TCG, Kiernans and Fulham would be the teams to beat, because they’ve been there and done it, but we’ll give it a good shot. The new lads have all blended in well, and that’s important,” said Irwin.
“I’ve met the Donegal and Sligo lads and they are really good guys, and they seem like they’re ready to put their heads down and work hard towards the goal for the year.
Playing inter-county with London was something Irwin admits was in his mind from the moment he committed to coming over.
Fellow Mayoman and London selector Chris Byrne was at the Scrubs to see Irwin qualify to play for the county when he togged out for Shamrocks against Kingdom Kerry Gaels in a preliminary senior football championship fixture.
“He came up to me afterwards and said ‘we’re looking to get you in Tuesday if you’re interested’. I jumped at the opportunity,” said Irwin.
“It’s a great bunch of lads and they’ve put some work in this year, so it felt a bit awkward going in, but I’m here to try and earn my place. If I don’t, I’ll be pushing the guys on who are ahead of me.
“The prize is playing against Galway or Mayo. That’s the big thing. I don’t know how I’d feel about that. I’ll just have to take it when it comes, if it does come. And hopefully it does.”