London’s home of Gaelic games gets a new look ahead of the championship

Ruislip has been given a new 1,900-seat stand and is now known as McGovern Park

The finishing touches are applied to the newly renamed and renovated McGovern Park in Ruislip, London. Photograph: Gerry McManus/Inpho

On Thursday lunchtime in London’s outer borough and Pat Griffin was still putting the finishing touches to the match programme. Griffin traded Kerry for London 65 years ago but his time in the metropolis has not remotely diluted the accent, still inflected with the best of Fitzgerald stadium.

Elsewhere, Mark Gottsche, London’s full-time secretary treasurer and a senior player in its championship side, raced through a series of vital tasks. Sunday will be a big, big day for the exiles: Ruislip, the ramshackle home of London GAA, has been transformed into McGovern Park with a 1,900-seat stand central to its five million development.

For the past 12 months, the London team has essentially been a travelling road show, scrambling for training venues and playing all of its division four games on the road. Now they are home.

“It looks radically different,” Gottsche says with a note of pride. “You come in the gate and you see that stand and it’s very shiny and new and yeah, it looks great. The club house and car park are the same but it looks like a top county ground. We had two smallish dressing rooms before. Now you would probably put two teams into one. I do think the players will respond to the facilities. We were here on Sunday last just for a walk around and to see the facilities and people were looking forward to it.”


Miracle of perseverance

Like New York, the survival of London GAA is a miracle of perseverance. But for the desire and need of many unremarked servants, it would have simply died out. There is a stubborn streak running through the Exiles ability to field county teams through thick and thin. Pat Griffin was coach to the London team which won a famous junior All-Ireland title against Cork in 1986. Then, the geographical and social composition of the Irish experience in London had changed little since the post-war years. The Irish had their enclaves and the GAA revolved around those. But the past two decades have seen an extraordinarily swift erasure of those bastions of Irishness.

“When I came here you had distinct Irish communities right across outer London or what is called Greater London. They have disappeared,” Griffin explains. “You had anything up to 12 big Irish dance halls and church halls with céilí music and they have gone. There actually isn’t really a big venue now where Irish can meet in big numbers so the social scene has changed in that regard. It has been dramatic. As for cafes, you would walk the length of most high streets in London now without finding a traditional English-type cafe. What have come in are smaller public houses. The big pubs have vanished. You would get the odd one like Waxy O’Connors in the city but there aren’t too many.”

Griffin explains this without wistfulness. It’s just progress. He says that while Irish workers are still plentiful on London’s seemingly endless frenzy of building sites, the hierarchy has changed. Eastern Europeans are providing most of the manual labour on which Irish migrants were reliant in the post-war years. “Now the Irish tend to be site managers or engineers or machine operators, working at the higher end of the operations.”

The effect of this generational shift poses different challenges for the custodians of the London game. In the 1980s, players sometimes struggled to make midweek trainings but then Friday evening came and life slowed down and they turned up in numbers for club assignments because they only travelled home to Ireland for seasonal holidays. The trend is different now: a lightning fast and hectic working week leads into a weekend of spiralling choices and breaks.

“The latest generation will turn up for training during the week and may be missing when it comes to games,” notes Griffin.

“The young Irish that come in here now are very well-educated. They get good jobs. When they want to go home they get cheap flights. So we are worried in general about commitment. On the other hand, we have a growing number of young players born here who are really committed to the games. But we don’t have as many volunteers as we did in the past and that is a worry.”

Almighty scare

Mark Gottsche has been playing with London since 2011, a member of the team that gave James Horan’s Mayo team an almighty scare, taking the visitors to extra-time. Now, only Gottsche and Dave McCreevy remain. McCreevy missed this year’s league and broke his hand after returning to training so won’t feature against Leitrim. Of the London side which made an historic appearance in the Connacht final in 2013, five players will be on Sunday’s programme. Dealing with that heavy rotation has been a key challenge for successive managers. Each autumn, a head count is done to see who has left. New faces appear. Former Tyrone star Owen Mulligan is the most high-profile of this year’s generation. The Cookstown man is 35 years old now and London manager Ciaran Deely has been vague about the likelihood of his playing. But if Sunday’s game is close, it isn’t hard to imagine the energy that would be created by one of the game’s freer spirits taking the field with 10 minutes remaining.

The emotion and symbolism of London’s appearance in the 2013 Connacht final is easily recalled. But because London have essentially fielded three different championship teams since, it feels longer than four summers ago.

“I don’t feel as if we talk about it too much,” says Gottsche.

“That was four years ago and the squad has changed so much. Most of the guys weren’t even in London then. It was a great year and great memories to have but that was then and this is now.”

London won just a single league game this year. Significantly, it came against Carlow, whose win over Wexford last weekend was the first minor shockwave of the championship. Fourth division, the habitual living-quarters for London teams, exist in a different realm to the leading contenders. And yet Carlow will play Dublin this summer.

Role of home

And Gottsche has seen the Mayo team he played against five years ago contest three All-Irelands. To most of us, London GAA begins and ends with the annual appearance of the city team in the All-Ireland championship and a half-cocked ear for a possible upset in Ruislip. But the team is just the front-of-house of the real task of keeping the games and culture going in one of the world’s great cities where time and real estate are priceless commodities. So having McGovern Park as a home matters.

“People in the locality notice more,” says Gottsche.

“If you go into a shop wearing a London strip, they might ask about it and they know of the venue. So it is more visible and I think that is stoking interest.”

But the ground will be just that without people. Twenty-one teams showed up for a U-12 hurling and football blitz a few weeks ago.

“Those numbers will grow once rugby and football stops,” says Gottsche.

Four London-born players are tipped to start tomorrow’s match and the Irish games are making further inroads in schools. In the beginning, the establishment of a GAA voice and soul in London helped to instil an element of familiarity into what was a deeply strange and unfamiliar life-switch for generations of Irish people.

It could be argued that the ease and affordability of transport between the islands and the ready availability of Gaelic games on television means that the need for a distinct representation of Irishness doesn’t matter as much to the contemporary Irish in London.

But that would be missing the point. London GAA has had a heartbeat for over a century. The new-look Ruislip is a statement of intent for the future. The stand will be full and, hopefully, loud. The United Kingdom is in a state of uncertainty and London’s GAA officials are in the dark as to how Brexit may affect its rhythm.

“We would be worried at this point in time but obviously it depends on the agreement between London and Dublin and they are working on it,” says Griffin.

“There were agreements all through. I can remember when I first came here you would have a marking place with chalk when you got off the boat and they would check everything. I am sure they will come up with some kind of agreement but right now we don’t know about the end result.”

That has always been the case. So Pat Griffin busies himself with the match programmes because it needs to be done. Like many others, he has been pitching in for decades. The names on the London team sheet change annually. But the game stays the same.