New York players celebrate after winning the Boys Division 1 Final at the 2017 John West Peile na nÓg.


Exiles excel at 2017 John West Féile Peile na nÓg

By Kevin Egan

The old phrase “Mol an Óige agus Tiocfaidh sí” is widely known in GAA circles, but every so often you see a statistic that really emphasises how true it is.

For example, in the first 27 years of Féile Peile na nÓg, 14 of the 27 Division one champion clubs went on to compete in an All-Ireland senior club final within ten years of their victory, while 10 other winners haven’t yet had a full decade to fulfil that dream.

One can hardly ask for a clearer sign that underage success often translates to greater triumphs at adult level.

It’ll take a dramatic shift in GAA competition structures for any of the New York footballers to emulate that achievement between now and 2027, but that their name now sits on the Roll of Honour alongside clubs like Nemo Rangers, Kilmacud Crokes and Corofin illustrates the remarkable achievement that was their success at Kingspan Breffni Park last Sunday afternoon.

Three knockout victories over very strong Ardboe, Castlebar Mitchels and Portlaoise teams were secured in a comprehensive fashion, and anyone who witnessed these visitors playing football would have been blown away by what they saw.

In players like full forward Brian Coughlan, they offered the type of threat that one might expect – a big, imposing player who was athletic and skilful, and who looked like he could turn his hand to any sport with ease.

Brian Coughlan of New York celebrates after the Boys Division 1 Final.
Brian Coughlan of New York celebrates after the Boys Division 1 Final.

However there were others, such as centre forward Senan Price and half back line players Collin Fleming and Niall McKenna, who showed an instinct and a natural understanding of the game that could fool a supporter into thinking they were brought up in a natural footballing heartland like South Kerry, North Galway or West Cork.

Certainly, only the bravest of souls would question the Irish heritage of these New York players, based on the passionate exhortations of their coach to “show them how Irish we are!” at half time in their semi-final clash with Castlebar!

Which is why perhaps the most remarkable story of this Féile Peile na nÓg event wasn’t the Division 1 Cup winners, but the Division 2 Cup winners from South London.

Selling gaelic football to a family with keenly-felt Irish connections is one thing, but selling gaelic football to London families of African origin is another matter entirely – and that’s exactly what a group of schoolteachers from St. Paul’s Academy in Greenwich have succeeded in doing.

“The week before Féile we had our annual primary schools competition and ten different schools from the one parish all took part” explains Michael Maher, who coached a South London side that was almost entirely of African extraction to their remarkable success at St. Tiernach’s Park in Clones last Sunday.

The South London team that won the Boys Division 2 Final at teh JOhn West Peile na nÓg.
The South London team that won the Boys Division 2 Final at teh JOhn West Peile na nÓg.

Maher is one of five teachers from the secondary school that has decided to spread the gospel of gaelic football into the heart of inner city London, starting with young primary school students.

“We encourage those pupils then to come to St. Paul’s and that means that when we get to Féile, these guys have had five or six years of coaching in primary school and probably two more at second level. They’re very fit, very athletic boys who play a lot of other sports at different times of year, but they have all the skills of the game as well," he explained.

All the skills, and a wonderful temperament too. The mutual love between these young footballers and the people of Bailieborough will be cemented forever after this weekend, while on the field, South London had to watch a nine point lead get wiped out by three quick goals from St. Gabriel’s of Galway.

When the young Tribesmen took the lead with five minutes remaining, many experienced players would have crumbled at yet another blow, but instead they rallied with three points to wrap up a 2-8 to 3-3 success.

“A huge amount of work has gone in, but we have our blueprint and we hope that other people in the UK will follow it, because if they do we could get to a stage when there could be ten counties that would be very competitive over here,” said Maher.

We’re based in an area of London that would be very deprived in a socio-economic sense, so we’ve to work hard

With players that are committed to other sports in Autumn and Winter, he and his fellow coaches have geared their season around the Féile competition in June.

“Every year we get going in late February, build up our training programme and then we travel to Ireland for six days to play a number of local teams. This year we were hosted by Cookstown Fr. Rocks, and they set up a tournament where we got great games against them, Ardboe, Ballinderry, Killeavy and school teams from Holy Trinity College and St. Pat’s of Dungannon,” he explained.

“We rely on a lot of fundraising events because even though we keep costs low – it cost us £75 a head to bring the lads over this week – to the families of these boys, that’s a lot of money and more than they have lying around. We’re based in an area of London that would be very deprived in a socio-economic sense, so we’ve to work hard – but we’re committed to it, and we’re committed to taking the next steps as well”.

“I’m determined that we will travel over to Ireland for the Dermot Earley under-15 competition next year, and ultimately my goal is for these boys to play in the All-Ireland under-17 championships in three years’ time. By hook or by crook, I’ll make that happen.”

Even in the lower divisions, this was a wonderful Féile event for exile teams, with Warwickshire picking up the boys division 9 title while the San Francisco girls also came home with silverware. It’s clear that while the Irish diaspora abroad will always have a great love for gaelic football, there is also a huge appetite for the sport among those who get the chance to sample it for the first time.

“Primary Schools love it over here,” explained Paráic Maddock, one of the coaches of Gloucestershire, who finished second in their group in the division 7 cup, with two wins.

“We find that the teachers love it because rugby has got very physical and they’re worried about injury at a young age, while soccer is taken too seriously too quickly."

“Parents are getting wary and they’re looking for something different, so we go in and we put in place a six or eight week ABC programme and then hopefully it’s up to the clubs (of which there are three, one each in Swansea, Cardiff and Gloucester) to take over from there”.

Julia Kelleher captain of Glanmire GAA Club, Co. Cork holds the cup as her team-mates celebrate after the Girls Division 1 Final at the John West Peile na nÓg.
Julia Kelleher captain of Glanmire GAA Club, Co. Cork holds the cup as her team-mates celebrate after the Girls Division 1 Final at the John West Peile na nÓg.

With our chat taking place on the sun-drenched terrace in Corlough GAA grounds as they wait for their quarter-final clash with Shandonagh of Westmeath, one young player comes over to ask why the men in lab coats are here. Clearly umpires aren’t as common in Gloucestershire games, but when these young players take the field, their enthusiasm and love for the game shines through, even if they aren’t as used to all the trappings!

And it’s not just the sport – Maddock explained how getting into the squad for Féile was a huge goal for the young players, after their experience in Féile 2016 when they travelled to Tralee.

“Last year in Tralee was great and it made lads want to come back”.

“This year we were hosted by Ederney St. Joseph’s and they pulled out all the stops for us, the lads have had an incredible time. There were Irish dances and all sorts of other events laid on for us, and the whole thing has opened everyone’s eyes to how embedded the GAA culture is in Ireland.

"They come from rugby heartlands but they come here to see how there are great facilities in every village, to be part of an event like Féile which is truly unique, and it leaves them with memories that will last them for life.

“And hopefully, it’ll foster in them a love of the game and we can get more families on board, because that’s what we’re all about – building community links to grow clubs and strengthen the game that way”.

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John West Féile Final Results

Boys Division 1 Cup: New York 3-7 Portlaoise 0-2

Boys Division 1 Shield: Gowna 3-8 St. Broughan’s 3-7

Boys Division 2 Cup: South London 2-8 St. Gabriel’s 3-3

Boys Division 2 Shield: Ballyhaise 5-7 Cremartin 4-3

Boys Division 3 Cup: Castleknock 4-5 Mungret St. Paul’s 0-4

Boys Division 3 Shield: Mayobridge 1-11 Emyvale 1-7

Boys Division 4 Cup: St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield 1-5 O’Raghallaighs 1-3

Boys Division 4 Shield: Killinkere 3-6 Clontibret O’Neills 0-4

Boys Division 5 Cup: Dicksboro 1-12 Buttevant 2-4

Boys Division 5 Shield: Fr. Prendergast Gaels 7-9 Belturbet Rory O’Moore’s 1-1

Boys Division 6 Cup: St. Nicholas 3-12 Graiguecullen 0-3

Boys Division 6 Shield: Wolfe Tones 1-7 Laragh United 0-3

Boys Division 7 Cup: St. Mogue’s Fethard 3-4 Glencar-Manorhamilton 1-3

Boys Division 7 Shield: St. Ciarán’s 3-2 St. Mary’s-Kiltoghert 1-5

Boys Division 8 Cup: Cappamore 0-6 Lissycasey 1-0

Boys Division 8 Shield: St. Finbar’s 3-6 Devenish St. Mary’s 2-6

Boys Division 9 Cup: Warwickshire 1-7 Ballivor 1-1

Boys Division 9 Shield: St. Joseph’s 2-3 Naomh Bríd 1-1

Boys Division 10 Cup: Currow 2-10 Clann na Banna 0-5

Boys Division 10 Shield: Killererin 1-2 Lámh Dearg 1-0

Girls Division 1 Cup: Glanmire 2-7 Castlerahan/Denn 1-0

Girls Division 1 Shield: Killygarry 5-2 Westport 1-3

Girls Division 2 Cup: Kilkenny City 3-4 New York 1-3

Girls Division 2 Shield: Galtee Rovers 3-7 Kingscourt 0-3

Girls Division 3 Cup: St. Joseph’s Doora-Barefield 3-1 Fr. Casey’s 1-4

Girls Division 3 Shield: Lurgan 2-9 Arva/Killeshandra 0-0

Girls Division 4 Cup: St. Ergnat’s Moneyglass 3-7 Steelstown Brian Óg’s 0-1

Girls Division 4 Shield: Naomh Eoin 2-5 Cornafean 1-2

Girls Division 5 Cup: San Francisco 3-5 Ballinascreen 1-3

Girls Division 5 Shield: Geraldines 7-11 Killinkere 0-1

Girls Division 6 Cup: Knockbride 6-1 Balyna 3-4

Girls Division 6 Shield: London 1-3 St. John Bosco 0-4