The growth of English-born GAA players and raising the sport’s profile in London

THE LANDSCAPE OF London GAA has transformed remarkably over the years.

London-born GAA journalist Conor Martin has witnessed the growth of the sport in the English captial.

Source: Harry Murphy via Conor Martin

Similar to New York, the team has been largely reliant on Irish emigrants who relocated to the English capital in search of work and a new way of life.

But over the last decade, there has been a notable growth in London-born players rising through the ranks to close the gap on the exiles. The underage scene is changing too, as players of different nationalities continue to gravitate to Gaelic Games.

This Sunday, Ciaran Deely’s charges will take on Galway in the quarter-final of the Connacht SFC with a panel that contains 13 players who were born in London.

Conor Martin, a Londoner with Irish roots, points to the success of underage teams in the renowned Féile competition for prompting this evolution.

He also references Michael Maher — a coach on the London backroom team — whose contribution to GAA in the city was the subject of a programme on Irish television.

The Galway footballers are taking on London this afternoon.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“He did a programme for RTÉ a few years ago and it followed his team,” Martin explains to The42 before going on to discuss the ethnic diversity in London’s underage scene.

They have lads from Asian backgrounds and African and they went on to win Féile, and they’ve pushed on. They have lads playing at U12, U13, U14 and minor.

“London GAA has changed in the last five years and London-born players have been coming through from Féile teams.”

The coverage of GAA in London has undergone changes too. And Martin, who is a member of the St Clarets club in West London, is at the coalface of that transition. 

Martin’s Irish connections and affection for the GAA comes from his father’s side of the family. They originally came from Glasnevin in Dublin before uprooting and heading over to London.

He was inspired by his father’s stories of Dublin and Kerry’s classic All-Ireland final tussles in the 70′s, and possessed “more Ireland jerseys than England ones” when he was growing up with his brother Cian. 

His mother is London born and bred, and Martin is equally proud of the Irish and English strands that form his identity.

He doesn’t feel exclusively bound to either nationality and has often been targeted with “Plastic Paddy” comments by those who don’t understand his mutual love for both countries. 

Despite those hostile remarks, Martin never lost his love for GAA.

London manager Ciaran Deely patrolling the line in 2017.

Source: Gerry McManus/INPHO

And when he was tasked with creating a website that focused on a niche sport while studying sports journalism, his mind immediately turned to the sport of his father.

He subsequently used his unique knowledge of London GAA to break into sports journalism both at home and in Ireland.

I started freelancing for papers here like the Irish World and the Irish Post. Since then it’s got bigger and bigger. I’ve done stuff for RTE and Sky [Sports], just covering games here.

“There’s a few lads who were on my course at Uni and they’ve got Irish backgrounds. There’s such a love for the sport here, it’s hard to describe.”

As well as pitching pieces to the major publications, Martin is also committed to developing an online presence for London GAA.

He’s utilising the usual platforms like Snapchat and Instagram to maximum effect, and gives people an insight into the lives of the players through short videos.

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We’ve kept you waiting all night for part 2 of Cockneys Corner with @Kill_Butler6 so here it is 👀 enjoy #LondainAbú💚⚪️ #WeAreLondon pic.twitter.com/hH4nLImkeY

— Official London GAA (@LondainGAA) May 4, 2019

He also works closely with the team’s PRO Fiona O’Brien, who Martin greatly appreciates.

“We’ve come a long way,” he says proudly.

I think social media has helped as well through Instagram stories, Snapchat and we’ve got over 1,500 followers [on Instagram], which isn’t bad.

“Fiona works incredibly hard, not just with the football side of things, but with our hurling team too.

“Her work on matchdays is excellent, as well as dealing with our sponsors The Irish World and Clayton Hotels.”

Ireland has “always been a second home” to Martin and his family. He was in Croke Park for Dublin’s last two All-Ireland final victories, and was on press duty when London contested the 2018 Christy Ring final.

He knows about the standard of facilities that are available to GAA teams in Ireland, but the London clubs don’t have access to the same kind of resources. 

Ruislip is more than just a pitch for London GAA folk.

Source: Gerry McManus/INPHO

“It’s literally nothing like what you have in Ireland, it’s very basic,” says Martin. “Apart from Tír Chonaill Gaels, they’ve got their own clubhouse and they’ve got a few pitches.

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Most GAA clubs share with rugby clubs and the GAA pitches would be rugby pitches with nets [on the goals]. And then sometimes there’s not even dressing rooms.

“Sometimes it is a bit of a struggle. And a lot of the lads commute as well because London is so big.”

But those with a love for GAA in London aren’t deterred by those drawbacks. As Martin proudly states, “the love of the game” continues to draw people back in.

The famous McGovern Park in Ruislip is more than just a GAA ground for them. It’s a focal point of social acitivity where people of Irish and other ethnicity groups come together to enjoy each other’s company, and engage with the Irish sports.

Lads will come down and go to matches with their friends that they’ve grown up with and make a day of it,” Martin explains.

“When it’s packed, it’s always a great day out.”

Taking on Galway this Sunday poses a familiar challenge for the London footballers. Predictions for a home win will be hard to come by as Deely’s side prepares to welcome the reigning Connacht champions [throw-in, 3pm].

London gave Mayo a scare in 2011.

Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

They have enjoyed some big days in the provincial competition over the past few years, including a Connacht final appearance in 2013 and a narrow extra-time defeat to Mayo two years earlier.

“We’re under no illusions what’s in front of us but it’ll be good experience for the younger lads,” says Martin about the prospect of facing Galway, “especially the London-born lads to be playing at a high standard.

“Galway are going through a good patch at the minute and hopefully we can give a good account of ourselves.”

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