By Hugh Maguire
As part of its increasing coverage of the West Midlands the Irish World recently ran a profile of Sean McDermott’s GAA Club in Birmingham and how it reflects the changing landscape of the GAA locally, and how McDermott’s owed much of its success to this shift.
Here in the second city – and the wider West Midlands – the Irish community is ever changing. There has even been a significant shift away from Irish immigrants coming to the area.
The effect of this has meant that the success and survival of GAA clubs, and other vehicles through which Irish traditions, past times and cultures are preserved, are in the hands of predominantly second and third generation Irishmen and women.
There are countless examples of this throughout the second city. A prime example of the changing, Irish demographic in this region of Britain can be found in the leafy suburb of Kings Heath and Bishop Challoner Catholic College.
The college is located directly between the high street and the local golf club and only a short journey from the heavily Irish suburb of Hall Green, known to the locals as County Hall Green.
The school has become synonymous with Gaelic football and Gaelic culture over the past few decades and is now regarded by many as a key player in the survival of Irish traditions and past times in the West Midlands.
This is largely due to the teaching staff and the school’s emphasis on the positive benefits of active participation in sport and exercise.
Whether in basketball, netball, soccer, rugby or cricket, Challoner has enjoyed historic and modern day success.
Notably, though, the school’s most significant sporting achievement during the past two decades is its promotion of and commitment to increasing active participation in Gaelic games.
One of those committed teaching staff who contributed to this in recent years is the school’s principal Kevin McEvoy, who succeeded Maire Symons OBE.
Kevin, originally from Laois, started at the school as a maths teacher and quickly rose through the ranks. During his long tenure as Challoner’s vice principal, he was popular among pupils and staff alike.
As an O’Moore County man, Kevin was also, obviously, a keen supporter of Gaelic football having served as Warwickshire Under-14s manager, Sean McDermott’s Under-14 and 16s manager, and Bishop Challoner GAA manager and fan.
The former McDermotts player, a championship winner, has given more than 25 years of his life to West Midlands GAA.
Like Pat Winston at St. Paul’s in South London, Kevin correctly identified the positive impact that active participation in the GAA and physical exertion could have on the children; giving them purpose and a chance to become involved in the wider community.
Two other notable figures on Warwickshire’s and Bishop Challoner’s GAA scene are Eddie O’Connor and Ger Noone, Irish-born PE teachers at Challoner’s.
Eddie O’Connor, from Wicklow, joined Challoner as a fresh-faced, Newman University graduate and with Kevin McEvoy, started to shape the school’s involvement in teaching, facilitating and preserving Gaelic games.
Eddie was an enthusiastic and formidable GAA athlete, winning hurling and football medals for his county and enjoyed successful seasons with John Mitchels in Birmingham.
He was heavily involved with the Warwickshire GAA scene as a coach and mentor; establishing the first Bishop Challoner GAA squad in 2000 and managed several underage county sides and organised tours away for the different Bishop Challoner GAA to Canada, Australia, California and Ireland.
Ger Noone comes from Kildare and took a less conventional route into teaching and the school.
Ger first came to Birmingham in 2005 to attend Newman University and earn his Sports Studies degree. He immediately became involved with John Mitchels and coached in primary schools for Warwickshire GAA.
He became the Community Development Administrator for Warwickshire, worked with clubs to develop their underage structures and with primary and secondary schools in the West Midlands to ‘feed new players through from schools to clubs in their local area’.
As he puts it: “I learned my trade as a development officer and then transferred my skills to teaching.”
He joined the Bishop Challoner teaching staff at the turn of the decade and today manages Bishop Challoner GAA teams at Key Stages 3-5, from 11-18 year olds and regularly holds friendlies against local schools.
He says ‘longevity is key’ for the preservation of Gaelic games in Warwickshire and later this year he will take some Key Stage 4 teams to compete in the ABC schools competition in London.
“The boys absolutely love it and they are already preparing for the competition,” he says.
He points out that all trainee teachers who participate in the school’s direct PE programme are all ‘upskilled in Gaelic football’.
He says that means they can go to other schools throughout the region and ‘spread the word’, which is of ‘paramount importance’ in keeping ‘Irish traditions going in the UK’.
And that means teaching them to people who have little, or no, Irish ethnicity. Messrs McEvoy, O’Connor and Noone all came from Ireland to Britain and quickly immersed themselves in the local GAA scene and promoted it at underage level in local schools.
The best GAA clubs in this country, and in Ireland, often have the feel of being an extended family. So too does Bishop Challoner Catholic College. Generations of the same families attend the school year after year, and there is a rare rapport between teachers and pupils.
It is hard to imagine another school with so many former pupils working, or completing their teacher training, at it. James Murphy, who is now 29, was part of the very first Bishop Challoner Gaelic football team and is now the sports centre manager there.
He says, following the lead from principal Kevin McEvoy, that everyone is made to feel that they ‘belong to the school in ways beyond their profession’.
Ger Noone echoes this when he says that ‘Bishop Challoner itself is a very welcoming place and it is like a home from home for me. They have very strong links with the Irish community in Birmingham and this made me fit right in’.
Bishop Challoner clearly welcomes Irish teachers and with them Gaelic games for second generation and third generation Irish and pupils with absolutely no other connection to Ireland at all.
The school plays a pivotal role in ensuring that clubs like Sean McDermotts, John Mitchels and St. Brendan’s all have sustainable underage structures based on homegrown, UKborn talent.
If you would like to know more about Bishop Challoner please visit www.bishopchalloner.org.uk