Prince Edward Island Celts are on the march
By John Harrington
The rapid growth of Gaelic Games on Canada’s Prince Edward Island in the last two years has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Established in January 2016, the Prince Edward Island Celts GAA club have quickly proven that a love of Gaelic Games can be a contagious one.
With the help of financial backing from the GAA’s Global Games Development Fund, they’ve worked hard to persuade 18 schools on the island with an average of 400 pupils each to include Gaelic Football on their sports syllabus.
Right from the start, the children of the island have embraced the sport. Over the course of two weeks last summer over 2,200 kids part in coaching clinics and those numbers will only continue to grow.
The PEI Celts success-story started with two men, Shane O’Neill and Peter Connaughton, who in late 2015 first conceived the idea of setting up a GAA club on the island of 145,000.
“In September 2015, we had a chat with Ronan Corbett who was then the chairperson of the Eastern Division (of Canada GAA) and we proceeded with setting up a GAA club on PEI,” says O'Neill, who is now Chairperson of PEI Celts.
“We basically started off by just hounding Canadians. I knew a few of the lads myself, Peter knew a few, and we just started up organising training sessions and demonstrations right off the get go and all of a sudden all of the lads are coming out of the woodwork.
“We couldn't believe it, to tell you the truth, how it grew so quickly. When we started this up in November we thought it would be a pipe-dream to get a team going.
“But then the men's team actually played in the East Canadian Championship that year, which was incredible. Absolutely incredible to get a team together that quickly.”
The instant impact they made as a senior club was certainly impressive, but more remarkable again has been the ambition they’ve shown to immediately set about developing a youth programme.
“I guess our whole purpose of setting up the club was, although we wanted to concentrate on a senior programme, it was really with the youth where we were seeing the potential,” says O’Neill.
“What we were finding with the youth was everything had become rigid in relation to all of the sports the kids were playing.
“It was coached to the gills, almost. I'm not saying the fun wasn't there, it was, but it was very structured and everything was very much competition based.
“The second issue that we saw with sports in PEI was the cost of playing them. You're looking at hockey where for the registration alone it's 500 dollars a year. That's not buying any gear or putting any gas in the car.
“Looking at that and seeing, okay, there's a major drop-off, why is that, and it obviously have to do with cost. It's because you're getting the divide between kids moving up in rank and kids not getting the opportunity to do so.
“So, we felt there had to be something out there, so why not do Gaelic Football?
“That was our big philosophy when forming the club - giving kids the opportunity to play the sport and get them involved in the Irish culture and all the rest of it.
“Peter (Connaughton) is a teacher in Montague High School and with the guidance he got from his Dad in Ottawa and looking at what the Ottawa Gaels did with their progarmme, we basically copied that template.
“The one thing about PEI is that we have a smaller population than Ottawa does. We only have 150,000 people and we're only the size of Clare.
“So, ultimately word spread very, very quickly. We've got three PE teachers on our team that are teaching on the island so getting it into the schools was easy to do and we piggy-backed off them as well.”
Last year the club applied to successfully to the Global Games Development Fund for assistance with their ‘Building Bridges’ programme.
With the grant-aid they received, they were able supply those 18 schools with all the equipment they needed to play Gaelic Games.
“Realistically speaking, there is no way we would be where we are without that,” says O’Neill.
“Because we've been able to go into the schools and say, 'here, is the equipment, go play the sport, we'll bring in the coaches and do whatever is required, but use the equipment and play the game'.
“That being said, the teachers are loving it because it incorporates all the other sports they are doing and all their different skill-sets.
“Kids that would play basketball and may not play soccer are playing Gaelic Football. Kids that are playing rugby that don't really have a team to play for are playing Gaelic Football, that's where the growth has come from.”
The club’s next objective is to develop hurling as a sport in all of the schools they’ve established a relationship with on an equal footing with Gaelic Football.
After that, the key for the long-term viability of Gaelic Games on Prince Edward Island will be getting those school children to join the Celts and other clubs that O’Neill hopes can be set up on the Island in the coming years.
“The schools programme is great. What we have to try and do now is get the kids from schools to the field.
“That's going to be our next challenge. That's probably going to be our biggest challenge because it's going to require a lot of dedication.
“I would love to eventually see four clubs on PEI. I think we have the ground for that. If we can get four clubs here at all age groups from age 6 to age 14, that would be a great start.
“How far away are we? Definitely two to three years away from that.
“We’ll get there though. We've got Peter now who is going to be rolling out the foundation level course with all the teachers in November as well. So, you'll have 18 teachers taking the foundation course.
“It's incredible really that no-one knew about Gaelic Football three years ago. It's a lot of work, but it's fun.”