By Damian Dolan
The city of York may not be one immediately associated with Irish emigration, but a quiet uprising is taking place across its playing fields and universities.
In one of England’s finest and most beautiful historic cities, more synonymous with the Romans, Vikings and Saxons, the Irish diaspora has been stirred and a potential sleeping giant awakened.
The formation of the York Irish Association three years ago, far from being the extent of ambition, has proven to be just the tip. A GAA club, York Éireannach, followed in 2017.
The men’s team made their competitive bow last year, while 2018 will see the Ladies team take part in the newly formed Yorkshire Ladies County Board. These are exciting times for the Irish in York, and the GAA is at the epicentre.
“The ladies and men’s teams have created much more of an Irish community in York. We have a lot of students and it gives them the feeling of being a lot closer to home,” said Alana Gallagher, a student at York St John’s University where the club trains and plays its home matches.
“York wouldn’t be one of the places you’d think of first as a hub of Irish people. When you first come over, you think you’re the first Irish person to come here.”
As well as being on the York Éireannach committee (made up of representatives of the men’s and ladies teams), Gallagher is vice secretary of the new Yorkshire Ladies County Board – the sixth ladies county in Britain.
They’ll be joined in Yorkshire by St Christopher’s Leeds, Tír na nÓg in Newcastle and newly formed St Vincent’s of Sheffield. Tír na nÓg had been playing in Scotland and St Christopher’s in Lancashire.
“It’s a really big development for the ladies club and a brilliant one for northern development,” said Gallagher, who comes from Donegal.
“It’s a step into the unknown because it’s never been done before, but I think it’s going to be great. It gives a lot more potential for ladies football in Yorkshire, to have an official league and championship.
“The prospect of competitive games has created excitement, and it’s made us a lot more serious. There’s a lot more intensity in training this year and we’ve more girls turning up. There’s a lot to look forward to.”
While the York Éireannach men’s team dived straight into competitive action last year, the ladies team opted for a more conservative approach, playing a few friendlies as it found its feet.
“I remember attending the club’s first training session and there was two or three girls. The more girls we got we began to think ‘we could have a team’,” said Gallagher.
“Our main focus last year was on recruitment. We had a lot of girls who hadn’t played before, so we were teaching them the skills and getting our feet off the ground.”
Kudos to the club’s men’s team then for going first, but as Gallagher is keen to point out it was the ladies team which recorded the club’s first-ever victory, at its own highly successful Sevens tournament in August.
For Gallagher it was a ‘substantial’ moment. What also comes across loud and clear, is that York Éireannach is ‘one’ club, a point illustrated by its men’s and ladies teams training together. It’s one of its unique, and most appealing, features, along with its social emphasis.
“It’s a really socialable club, and you don’t really define it as a ladies and a men’s team, only when it comes to matches. That’s the best thing about our club,” said Gallagher.
“Mixed training is really helping to develop the ladies team. It’s making the girls a lot stronger. And if there’s a drop in numbers on the men’s team for training, you have the girls to make up the numbers. And vice versa.
“As well as being serious, it’s a bit of Craic at the same time, because the ladies and men’s teams get on so well. And I think that makes it a much more welcoming club.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Brendan Tannam, chair of the York Irish Association and vice chair of York Éireannach.
The Gaelic club was the brainchild of its current secretary, Darren Burke, and with the assistance of Alan Joyce (chair) and Tannam, came together in late 2016. The links between the association and the Gaelic club are inevitably strong.
“It’s great to see how far the club has come in a short space of time. The numbers are growing; we’ve got new comers, people who played before in Ireland, but want to take it up again now they’ve moved to England, and people who’ve never played before. It’s a good mix,” said Tannam, comes from Dublin.
“It’s also brought in a lot of new people, such as students, who hadn’t heard of the York Irish Association before. It’s definitely helped to grow the numbers.”
Tannam launched the York Irish Association in 2014 with his wife, Kate, as a way of ‘celebrating Irish culture’.
“Most cities in Britain have an Irish club, or an association, so when we heard there wasn’t one is York we thought ‘why isn’t there one?’,” he said.
“York does have Irish history. There was a huge influx of Irish people to the city 150 years ago and many of their descendants are still in the city. There were areas of York, in particular, where the Irish settled, like Walmgate and Foss Islands.”
The men’s team cut their teeth in the Yorkshire league and championship last year. They didn’t win a game, but that wasn’t the team’s primary goal. This year, their keen to build on that experience.
“Last year was really just about establishing ourselves as a club. The target this year is to win a senior men’s game, and just be more competitive,” added Tannam.
“We’ve got good numbers at training and it’s looking like we’ll have more options for this season, which is great.”
To find out more email yorkgaa@ gmail.com