Rebuilding bears fruit for Exiles with a cause
London's GAA community is used to battling against the odds as it fights to keep Gaelic games alive in the city, writes Damian Lawlor
TONY O'Halloran left Miltown-Malbay in 1980for a new life in London at a time when the country was leaking young people and jobs in equal measure. The cycle of boom and bust means that, 33 years on, the planes are landing more young Irish on the tarmac there every day.
"It's sad," he says. "Ireland is small and we feel the pinch even more. While it's great to see all these young lads coming to London GAA, it's sad that they have to leave home in the first place. Our job is just to help them settle."
O'Halloran emigrated along with six sisters, but he stands alone in London now, the others long since gone home.
"It's been like one eternal summer," he reflects on his time there. "My six sisters became homesick pretty quickly and went back, but I didn't allow myself to miss home. I threw myself into the GAA over here."
O'Halloran went to the UK at a time when Anglo-Irish relations were, at best, brittle, but he remained focused on building a future for himself. It wasn't easy at the start. He worked in construction at a time when Irishmen were subjected to all sorts of verbal abuse and intimidation, both on building sites and in the streets.
"I was aware of the problems. I was always wary when I was out socialising, but I never experienced anything directly myself. That has to be said. I married an English girl and her family took to me straight away. It was quite difficult when I moved over, but it had been a lot worse in the 1970s. To keep things simple, I mostly hung around with Irish people, but none of that is an issue for the lads who come over now.
"The only great difference is that the Irish guys are more qualified than anyone. They come over stacked with engineering and quantity surveying qualifications. That wasn't the case years ago."
In the last four years, our latest 'Generation Emigration' includes an exodus of about 300,000, with London a preferred destination for many. Yet for six or seven years, there was hardly any outgoing traffic at all. While the economy here soared, London GAA, down on both money and players, was left to fight for its life.
"The Celtic Tiger drained us of players," O'Halloran says. "Money was plentiful back home and no-one was coming here. So we went back to the beginning and totally reinvented our underage system."
Their goal was simple: to keep their existing clubs alive, promote the GAA among English-born, second-generation Irish youngsters and maybe establish some new clubs. Four were gradually founded and the county board began targeting London-born players from catholic primary schools. O'Halloran helped spearhead that drive to pick London GAA off its knees.
Along the way, one of their flagship clubs, Tír Chonaill Gaels, fielded a London-born team in the junior football championship. Meanwhile, the board sent a minor team full of natives to the USA for an international competition. They represented the city for six years.
"They did great, but it proved quite hard for those players to break into London senior teams," O'Halloran adds. "That's changing, though. Phil Butler has broken through now. Phil never really played on London minor teams, and only came into the senior football set-up two years ago, but he trained like a demon every night, never moaned if he was in and out of match-day panels and was picked to play against Leitrim first time out. He played at corner-back and played exceptionally well. That showed us London GAA will survive.
"We would never draw the curtain anyway. Whenever we reach a low point we just think about that annual fixture at the end of May when a Connacht team comes over to play us in the championship. That's our red-letter day."
Today completely usurps that annual fixture. Here they are in a Connacht final, enjoying the fruits of a decent underage programme and a steady influx of new young players.
Progress has been tangible in both codes; their hurlers landed the Nicky Rackard Cup in 2011 and won the Christy Ring Cup last year. In 2009, they beat the Waterford footballers in the league, then ran Mayo to extra-time in the 2011 championship before beating Fermanagh in the qualifiers.
There is also continuity – they don't have to plough all their resources into preparing, training and developing a new arrival only to see him book a flight home a few weeks later. These days, their biggest job is keeping tabs on all the promising players who arrive in the city.
"We can now look four or five years down the line and know the same lads will be still there," O'Halloran shrugs. "For too long it was roll on, roll off. Like, we found 12 new players before playing Mayo two years ago and most of those guys are still around. It makes a big difference. We're competing in every game we play now."
But challenges persist. Merging the small army of second-generation Irish now playing Gaelic football in primary and secondary schools into the club system is problematic. Mark Gottsche, London's games promotion officer, has told the board how crucial it is to retain this talent and feed the clubs.
"There's an almighty drop-off rate," O'Halloran notes. "Sometimes, we're used as a babysitting service, but it's up to our clubs to buy into that and get those kids on their books because there is a huge gap between Londoners playing Gaelic at school and those who follow through."
That's another obstacle to maintaining the standard set this year.
O'Halloran is chairman of London's Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) and oversees between 500 and 600 fixtures per season. It sounds like heavy match congestion, but yet minors and under 21s might get only one or two games per year.
"At minor level there are only four or five clubs, while at under 21 level we only have four clubs, so there are only two semi-finals. These are all the obstacles to our development in the future."
Finances are often a headache. They have skated on thin ice at various stages in their existence. Their two trips to Ireland alone this year cost in the region of €25,000.
It didn't help that they had to travel back to Ireland to replay Leitrim, rather than having the rematch at Ruislip. That's just one of a number of gripes they could have with the GAA this season (not being allowed home to play challenge matches before the championship, and dealing with new player eligibility rules are other issues).
"We had no problem with it," O'Halloran insists. "We get the first round of the Connacht championship every year at Ruislip and the rest is what it is. We're guests of the Connacht Council each season and we don't mind as long as we are part of it – that's the key. To know that we are with all the counties back home."
Logistically, it is as hard as ever for some of the players to make training and matches. After they beat Leitrim, one-third of the team flew back to Luton Airport for work the next morning. Most of them were school teachers. Their employers neither cared nor understood what they were doing on home ground. Still, they don't complain. That's always been the way – right back to when O'Halloran emigrated back in 1981.
"We used to play in New Elton then and it would take two hours to travel there on a Sunday morning and take three hours in the afternoon. These days, most of our
matches are at Ruislip or Greenford and a lot of the current London team live miles away and do not get back home from training until 11 at night. They use the rail system to make training and many of them are back in work for 6 o'clock the next morning."
But today's final makes it all worthwhile. And it's not just O'Halloran who will bask in enormous satisfaction. Fellow diehards like Tommy Harrell, John Lacey, Dermot O'Brien and Pat Griffin have steered the ship through the years. Their life president, Bill Treacy, is 89 and won't make it home today but he'll be the proudest man in the UK watching the game from his home.
They all agree the replayed win over Leitrim was their finest day to date. "It has to be," O'Halloran smiles, the emotion tingling in his voice. "Sligo and Leitrim were not world-beaters and we knew we would never get a better opportunity to make a final. The first half of the replay with Leitrim was the best 35 minutes I have ever seen a London team play. I had to pinch myself. I had tears in my eyes when the final whistle blew. We all had.
"We know we have a mountain to climb today; I'd put Mayo in the top three teams in Ireland but we won't let people down. This is only part of our journey."