Hazelwood in Sunbury, just west of London, is the headquarters of London Irish. The professional squad, currently topping the Greene King IPA Championship, train here. The amateur sides train and play their home games here. The mini and youth rugby set up is one of the most impressive in England, and ladies and girls teams are also up and running.
In short, this is a true rugby bastion. A bastion of Irishness too, but also proud to reflect the cosmopolitan setting London provides with players coming from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. So how does it end up as home to a GAA club?
Enter the Kerryman. Liam Kearney is one of many Irish ex-pats with children playing for London Irish every week. He is one of the organisers behind the club’s mini rugby festival, now entering its 36th year with clubs rolling up from seven different nations last time round.
Liam’s first love, though, was Gaelic football. He and a few other like-minded souls – Kilkenny man Kieran Walsh, Mary Fyfe from Athlone, Paul Charles, a Dubliner, and Padraig Connolly of Mayo – formed a committee and decided to see whether you could grow a GAA club on rugby soil.
It turns out that you can. Having got off the ground at the beginning of the summer, Liam believes that Gael Londaín is already the second largest GAA club in the English capital. In its first season, 180 children played every week, with a number of teams in all age groups from Under-6 to Under-14.
The latter won their league at the first time of asking. The second season is underway with an opening fixture for the under 16s against St Claret’s from Hayes – a west London derby.
But what exactly was the catalyst for this new development in the links between the two sports?
“The real inspiration,” Liam explains, “came from how to retain and harness the 400 children we have playing rugby each week at London Irish once the season finishes in April. The rugby season ends with our mini festival which is always a great, memorable occasion. It almost whets the thirst for more and more.
The GAA season starts in March or April so there was a natural roll on. We had the raw materials in the number of kids and the owners of London Irish Mick Crossan and Phil Cusack were very supportive in allowing us to use the state-of- the-art facilities at Hazelwood.
“Mick Crossan also has strong links with Tir Chonaill Gaels, a rival GAA club, so the interest was there at all levels. “Most importantly, we had huge support from London GAA. Their community manager Lloyd Colfer was a great help and gave us enormous encouragement.”
Liam believes that core GAA skills would “ultimately help the kids develop better rugby skills and certainly keep them fit and interested for the summer. So there was great buy-in from the parents. coaches and kids.”
He is adept at reeling off current and past Irish rugby internationals who played Gaelic football when they were younger. He quotes All Black great Zinzan Brooke: “If I was Irish, I’d play Gaelic.”
But there is more to this than skills and fitness. “We also want to develop the social side. We have great memories of GAA being such a huge part of the fabric of parish social life in rural Ireland. We hope to develop our club along the lines of the rugby club, which is very slickly run, with a Féile during the season which will hopefully attract a large number of touring teams from Ireland. At some point we will introduce hurling.”
Liam spent his youth playing Gaelic Football at St Brendan’s College in Killarney, the school that nurtured Mick O’Dwyer, Páidí O Sé and the Spillane brothers. His sons, Fionn and Oisin, play Gaelic and rugby, with Oisíin part of the Elite Silver Academy at London Irish. Liam’s nephew – another Liam Kearney – has won All-Ireland medals at minor and junior levels. His passion for Gaelic football runs deep.
Little wonder then that the game is taking root in its surprising new surroundings.