Growing up in the 80s, London didn’t always feel like a place where Irish people successfully settled. Many of RTE’s reports from Britain’s capital were filmed outside Scotland Yard or the Old Bailey and Christy Moore’s song Missing You left me feeling cold about London, even after I arrived in 2008.
First impressions last. I said I’d stay for three months.
It’s funny the things that thaw you out and win you over, and I would never have thought the GAA in London would help change my perception of the city. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kildare football… but London football and hurling? I never envisaged a day when an Exile’s victory would bring similar feelings of joy, to those of say a victory over Meath or Dublin.
But that was how it was in June 2011, when the footballers of London won their first match in the championship for 34 years. I felt joy in Ruislip that day, joy and validation for all those who have worked to maintain and develop Gaelic games in the capital.
I felt a small sense of ownership too. On frequent trips to Ruislip for the Irish Post I’d hear stories about the GAA unlike any I’d ever heard at home. Sure how could it be any other way?
The story of the games in Britain was always going to be enriched by the backdrop of a major world centre and the conflicting politics of both countries. I wanted to hear more and write more. I tried to capture some of it in my book A Very Different County; this success story progressed by great people but underscored by annual defeat at county level.
I hope I did it some justice, because it bothered me that these results hid the bigger story of the GAA in Britain; that they somehow detracted from the efforts of all those dedicated to a game played behind the wire in exile.
It would be unfair to start name-checking people in this column, there are too many and the history is too long and proud.
But let’s not forget London are a long time on the record, winning an All-Ireland hurling title in 1901; and there are also the contributions of British born Sam Maguire and Liam McCarthy, whose names adorn both Cups and the little matter of the county’s most celebrated board official – Michael Collins.
The best thing about all this history is the legacy. On those early trips to Ruislip, I marvelled at the functionality of the GAA abroad, how it existed as an antidote to the isolation Moore sang about, how the networking abilities of its members effortlessly directed players towards jobs and accommodation.
How nearly 30 clubs wove a parochial network across greater London in the name of sport and social inclusion. We never heard much about any of that in Ireland, only the annual defeats until that win last June sparked a bit of interest in Ireland and a feeling of satisfaction over here. Ditto Nicky Rackard and Christy Ring Cups.
Now the threat of a £3 million lawsuit casts a dark cloud. An Irish-backed firm abroad, taking an action against trustees within the GAA responsible for London, is never a good story.
Worse that it comes down to a land dispute – development rights to the former county grounds in New Eltham – worse again that it feels wholly unnecessary not to mention avoidable.
The GAA in Britain doesn’t need this, and for GAA, read all those pioneers and custodians of the games who have given up lots of time – and some have given their lives to it.
Now the matter is in the hands of GAA headquarters back in Dublin. They are responsible for managing this lawsuit which will throw some kind of shape on London’s future.
The least you’d expect is that they will act with integrity in respect of all the above.