There has been much debate recently as to the relevance of Irish cultural activities outside the island of Ireland, and whether involvement in such activities inhibits Irish emigrants from interacting with their host society. As part of my PhD research at Queen’s University, Belfast I am considering the role of sport in the Irish Diaspora. I’m particularly interested in the different roles of the GAA in London, and the ways in which it engages with London’s Irish community, other emigrant populations and wider society.
The GAA holds a prominent position within Irish society as a sporting, cultural and social institution. Therefore it is unsurprising that GAA structures exist in locations as far apart as London, New York, Belgium, Dubai and Sydney. Whilst many Irish people make a conscious effort to avoid anything remotely associated with Irish culture in a bid to embrace and become immersed in their host society, the growth and development of the GAA abroad demonstrates how Irish culture remains part of the Irish emigrant experience.
Every year during the month of February, the British University GAA Championships (BUGAA) attracts Men’s and Ladies university Gaelic football teams from across Britain, with a record sixty-three competing in 2012 including representation from France and the US in the form of Rennes and New York. Many of these teams comprise of a combination of Irish and British born students, with many second and third generation Irish involved as well as those who have no familial or historical connection to Ireland whatsoever. This indicates that the GAA in Britain is more than just an Irish sport for Irish emigrants, but encompasses members of the Irish Diaspora and wider British society. For example, GAA clubs in London attract Irish emigrants, second and third generation Irish as well as people who are not Irish.
In 2011 there were approximately 40 clubs established across London, with thirty-six Men’s Gaelic football teams, eleven hurling teams, eleven Ladies Gaelic football teams and six Camogie teams. Many of these clubs have been established for several decades and are situated in and around locations which are strongly associated with Irish emigration in North and North West London. Clubs such as Tir Chonaill Gaels, Fr. Murphy’s and Tara have a strong second and third generation Irish representation with many players referring the involvement of their parents in a club as their main reason for joining and playing for a particular club. Developing and maintaining Irish culture abroad enables both Irish emigrants and second and third generation Irish to retain a connection with ‘home’ and celebrate a sense of Irish identity.
I suggest that the GAA can be of benefit in terms of interacting with other Irish people, other emigrants in London and local Londoners who have no connection whatsoever with Ireland. Established clubs which have strong links with local communities and schools, attract non Irish players. This is the case with Dulwich Harps which attracts many London born underage players of African/Afro-Caribbean descent who play Gaelic games to a high standard at St Paul’s Academy in South London. It will be interesting to see if many of these young people continue to play after they finish school and underage level, and whether senior club teams become more diverse as a result.
The Ladies GAA scene in London attracts a diverse range of players from different backgrounds including Irish emigrants, other emigrants in London and London born women both second and third generation and those who have no Irish connection whatsoever. The London Ladies Gaelic football team, which won the All Ireland Junior Championship in 2008 comprised of Irish born, second generation Irish, Australians emigrants and English girls from London.
The London GAA is continually changing in response to the changing times and the shifting dynamics of Irish emigration. New clubs to the London GAA scene include Fulham Irish in 2006, Eire Og early in 2011 and there are current proposals to establish South O’Hanlon’s in 2012, all of which emerged in locations that have seen an increase in Irish emigrants within the local population. Many Fulham Irish Gaelic footballers and hurlers work in the city and live in and around the Clapham area which has become synonymous with the young Irish emigrants currently arriving and living in London. The club has become increasingly successful in recent years, with in excess of seventy players turning up for some Men’s Gaelic football training sessions. The level of commitment required in London is considered to be far greater than at home, as there is often a lengthy commute to training or matches to negotiate as well as the distraction of other attractions available in London. For many, the GAA provides a familiar structure which enables people to negotiate their new environment whilst retaining a connection with home and offsetting feelings of isolation.
Indeed there are some who do not require the established network of the Irish emigrant community or the GAA to find employment, accommodation and friends, preferring to immerse themselves entirely in their new environment. It has been suggested by several London based GAA players I have spoken to, that involvement at home is a general prerequisite for wanting to become involved in the GAA abroad. Those who had no more than passing interest in the GAA in Ireland are unlikely to seek out a club in London, New York, Amsterdam or Singapore. Whilst they don’t actively engage with the GAA scene or the Irish community, many will show interest in the fortunes of their county in the All Ireland Championships. The GAA is always a talking point for Irish people and those of Irish descent, everyone has an opinion on the style, players, management and the relevance of it with regards to Irish identity and the Irish Diaspora. The changing dynamics of the Irish emigrant population in London has influenced the role of the GAA, and the expectations held by individual emigrants. The GAA and Gaelic games continue be a repository of Irish culture and identity for many Irish emigrants whilst also attracting members, players and support from those outside the Irish community.
To participate in my PhD research on the GAA in London an online survey can be found at: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/8GSNQHY