The Connacht championship adventure that the London men’s Gaelic football team went on in 2013 was about more than sporting achievement.
After defeating Sligo in the semi-final, quite against the odds, London set up their very first provincial final at that level; a historical moment, yes, but also a symbolic one with
the London jersey becoming culturally significant over one campaign.
“The jersey really came to the fore,” remembers Dr. Frances Harkin, a social scientist based in the UK. “Ever since then, it seems like there’s a lot more pride in the London-Irish identity than in previous years, which is interesting.”
Dr. Harkin, who was born to Irish parents in Ireland but raised in London, has for years researched the role of sport in connecting the Irish diaspora in the UK.
“I grew up knowing the challenges and benefits of being part of the Irish community and what platforms and cultural signifiers such as the GAA offer,” she says.
According to GAA figures, there are 82 clubs in operation in the UK, from Edinburgh to Newcastle to the Isle of Man. And the mix of Irish people involved in the GAA traverses generations and personal circumstances.
You have those who emigrated to Britain around the 1960s, many of whom are quite elderly now; the waves of emigrants who arrived during the 1980s; the post-financial crisis emigrants just after 2008; as well as the people today, still in their thousands, crossing the Irish sea in search of work or in pursuit of a change of scenery.
Joining these Irish-born immigrants are second and third-generation Irish, people whose parents or grandparents made the journey but still, consciously or subconsciously, identify strongly with the Irish side of their family history. Bind these people together — in social circles, at sporting events — and you have a vast range of experiences and ideas of what it means to be Irish abroad.
Irish identity, it becomes clear, defies lazy catch-all generalisations. The Irish community’s relationship with the GAA, too, remains in flux.
“The GAA means different things to different people — that’s important to consider. For those Irish emigrants who played gaelic football, camogie or hurling before they came over, it’s a way to continue that sense of routine and way of life.”
There are many misconceptions about Gaelic games in the UK from people Ireland, Dr. Harkin says. Understandably so, many in Ireland conceive of the GAA abroad as being an outlet for recent immigrants.
“The GAA has value and importance for second and third generation Irish, and even non-Irish people in some instances. It has a role for the wider community,” Dr. Harkin explains.
In previous decades, preceding the emergence of the internet and social media, the pull of the GAA was materialist: clubs and county boards, as they do less regularly today, offered players accommodation and employment opportunities. A room to live from, a bar job in the local Irish pub — all to help ease fellow countrymen and countrywomen in their transition.
For research she carried out for her PhD in Queen’s University Belfast, Dr. Harlin spoke to scores of current and ex-players, trying to understand what exactly it is about the GAA that makes it such a profound cultural signifier for Irish immigrants.
Many recounted, fondly, their days turning up for training session at a club and immediately, with minimal effort, having 20 friends they can closely relate with. “You then have this group of people to link into after moving to London or other parts of Britain.”
From the perspective of second and third generation Irish, Dr. Harkin found, the GAA is a way for people to connect with their parent’s culture, their Irish heritage and their family’s home county.
The county jersey itself allows you to express your familial history. People she spoke to said they learnt more about Irish history and culture from talking to both new Irish immigrants and well-settled older people. “You just don’t get that in the [British] educational system, or even broader society in the UK, which makes sense but makes [Irish culture and history] inaccessible,” she notes.
Astonishingly, there exist newspaper reports that catalogue hurling being played in London in the 1750s. As Irish historians Eoin Kinsella and John Bergin have pointed out, games were reported at cricket grounds and continued into the 19th century, long before the GAA as we know it today had even formalised.
What is it, though, about the GAA that makes it so alluring to emigrants and descendants of Irish people? Is it because sport fosters community? As Dr. Harkin tells it, it’s a matter of visibility; the GAA has a physical presence that is unrivalled by, say, traditional music, literature or the Irish language.
“I’m thinking about the jersey: you can immediately spot someone — or get a sense of their Irishness — if you see someone with a Mayo jersey,” Dr. Harkin says. “Or if you see people in pubs watching the championship, talking about the games.”
Even people who explicitly reject asserting their Irishness abroad can relate. Most emigrants, even if their knowledge of the sport is flimsy, can strike up a conversation about county teams or inter-county rivalries.
As many Irish people in the UK can testify to, feeling a heightened sense of national pride often accompanies leaving home. You become more aware of your Irish identity, and its many component parts, once you set ship. For Dr. Harkin, the construct of Irish identity holds within it many smaller, more local strands: parish roots, county ties, and even provincial allegiances.
Dr. Harkin likens the pull of the GAA with the compulsion of many emigrants in using cultural reference points online: Tayto crisps, the Late Late Show, Irish slang, native biscuit brands.
“These are not necessarily things people would think about before they immigrated because it’s part of normal life — things that are not part of British life — to help express their Irishness and I think the GAA has leaned into that,” Dr. Harkin says.
“It’s a connection to back home, a connection to family, a connection to your parish and county.”
Even to this day, GAA is being played in schools across London and in parts of the rest of the UK. Large numbers of Irish students enroll every year at an education course at St. Mary’s University in Twickenham — considered one of the best such courses in the country. Thousands of others have emigrated due to poor working conditions, meaning there is a huge population of Irish teachers in Britain.
St. Paul’s Academy in Dulwich, in particular, boasts a formidable GAA profile. In recent years, the students tend largely to be of African-Carribean or eastern European descent, but the fervour of the sport lives on through Irish teachers.
The team has players who have played in Feile and other tournaments, successfully, over the past decade. “It’s not just the Irish people who really enjoy the games over here,” Dr. Harkin says, noting how popular millenial musician Tinie Tempah played GAA while there.
Keen to record the achievements and unheralded graft by women in the sport, specifically within the UK, Dr. Harkin intends to carry out more research into the early days of the GAA. Not only in London, but all areas of the UK, rural and urban, where the GAA has reared its head.
The women’s game, Dr. Harkin explains, didn’t really develop in the UK until the 1970s, stuttering into the 1990s. Historically, female sports have been sidelined, be that in Ireland or any other country. Media profiles are meek and funding is imbalanced.
This is especially true with the GAA, and since the female games are growing in Britain, Dr. Harkin feels it’s important recognition is given to women who played the games and worked behind the scenes, ensuring that local institutions never unravelled.
Keeping the GAA going and the structures in place is on the “shoulders of second or third generation Irish”, Dr. Harkin believes. Although the GAA has been in London for over a century, fortunes of clubs have flourished and collapsed, owing to players going home and teams evaporating overnight.
“I think there’s enough passion amongst Irish people in Britain to keep things going and keep people involved,” she argues.
Clubs, for the most part, have no facilities so they borrow patches of land; supporters and players alike travel for hours across train lines to practice or play a game in their spare time. It’s passion, that intangible thing, and thankless volunteering that keeps things ticking over.
“There is a level of effort required to engage with Gaelic games here and keep things going,” Dr. Harkin adds. “That isn’t very apparent to people in Ireland or those who aren’t involved.”
The GAA here provides a welcoming, physical space to be Irish. Engaging with symbols such as the Irish tricolour waving at grounds or county jerseys – instantly recognisable emblems of Irishness – is not mandatory by any stretch of the imagination. But it means a lot to tens of thousands of people, across the width and breadth of this island, who now call the UK their home.