Sunday 18 February 2018

Billy Keane: Time to make special case for London and give them a chance to play at Croke Park

Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Mike Gallagher, whose poetry book 'Stick on Stone' is an emigrant's masterpiece, tells of how all the birthdays in the school on Achill Island fell around the same time.

So much so, the teacher held two big parties every year. One was nine months after the August builder's holidays in England and the other was nine months after Christmas. The dads had to go to England to find work and the window for procreation was only open for a few weeks every year.

They're leaving again now. There are probably as many Mayo and Achill people in London as there are back home. So it is that Mayo play London in the Connacht Senior football final.

Five hundred young lads transferred to London GAA clubs in the first few months of the year alone. Yet the London GAA championship had to play off a couple of rounds in January and February, in the most appalling weather. The law known as the 'Seanie Johnston rule' meant a player seeking an inter-county transfer had to play a round of county championship in the new county before he could switch. But London is different. Their players emigrated because they couldn't get work. The GAA in London helps with jobs and there's an immediate entry into a ready-made community, where the common thread of hurling and football stitched the fabric of an emigrant's comfort blanket.

These players were furious. And rightly so. They issued a statement.

"We've been told... five weeks before the championship that over a dozen of our team-mates, including our captain, aren't allowed to play – it's disgraceful and we dare say the men mentioned above would be ashamed the GAA has fallen to such depths."

The men mentioned above were Sam Maguire and Liam MacCarthy. No special case was made for London. But they got on with it. To compound the injustice, the GAA banned London from travelling to Ireland to play challenge games. There was no team in Britain capable of giving London a meaningful test. Again the rule wasn't specifically drawn up to get at London. But yet again no special case was made for our emigrants by the GAA.

It would be unfair to state the GAA has ignored London. Grants have been given and development and coaching officers appointed. Pitch development grants are as good as back home but Ruislip needs redevelopment.

London have been forced to travel over for most of their games at huge cost, although Aer Lingus regional have given free flights to the players. The Connacht Council will also give a generous grant, but the GAA must bring big games to London. Bewley's Hotels and the Moran family have also given massive backing to London.

In 1947 the All-Ireland final was played in New York. Surely, it would not be beyond the bounds of human endeavour to see to it that a big GAA game is played in London.

I was in a pub in North London with the Heaphy brothers on the night of the Munster-Harlequins game. Our favourite London Irish band, The BibleCode Sundays, were thumping out a mix of rock, trad and folk. The shared sense of Irishness was the glue that had the young gang giddy.

Many of the young crowd back home will not leave the house until midnight after consuming 10 cans of gut rot lager. Their music would shatter your sternum. It's time to stop whinging about loud music or I'll turn into the woman who used to confiscate our ball when we were kids because we made too much noise.

Tom Roche is one of a family of 22 and he has been involved in London GAA for most of his life. There was always a bed and dinner for a young lad coming over and Tom put many a GAA player on his feet.

Roche managed London in 1990 and 1991. London were banned from competing in the All-Ireland because of foot and mouth in 1990. But the players could travel over as individuals. Can you figure that one out? No special case for London. Again and before.

Tom was just back home from work. It's 8.0 in the morning. He's a Fahrenheit man. "It'll be 90 in London today," he said. "We work by night to avoid the heat."

Foolishly, without thinking, I told him I was sunning myself on Ballybunion beach the night before until eight. The sigh told the story of longing for home.

Tom spoke of the togetherness in London GAA. Of shared hopes and fears for their team.

London were 15 points up in Hyde Park and only won by a point. There's no way they can compete with Mayo on an equal footing. The work is hard over the water. Work, travel, train, sleep and so on. And on.

Tom trained London manager Paul Coggins back in the early nineties. "Paul is as good as any manager in Ireland or England. He makes every man feel 10 feet tall and wanted."

Coggins has his work cut out for him. The bookies give London a six- goal start in the handicap. We think it will be closer. "These London Irish will shed every last drop, but this is a very good Mayo team and they're playing at home in Castlebar. No special case for London, yet again. Roche is wide awake now, but he's dreaming.

"Wouldn't it be lovely if we could play the next round in Croke Park, even if we are beaten. Surely this can be done for the Irish in London and for these young lads who have brought glory and honour to two countries."

It's time for a special case to be made for London. Now is the time to open our hearts and Croke Park to our own.

Irish Independent

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