Jersey Irish GAA club's investment in youth is paying dividends
By John Harrington
The rich history of Jersey Irish GAA club is one of both tradition and reinvention.
Established on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands between France and England, as far back 1993, they’ve deeper roots than most GAA clubs outside of Ireland.
It says a lot about the people who first established the club that it was pretty successful from the off, culminating in a Gaelic football and hurling double London Championship success in 1999.
In those days there was a big population of Irish people living on the island, but the club’s fortunes waned when the Celtic Tiger started roaring back home in Ireland in the noughties.
The once steady flow of Irish migrants to the island slowed to a trickle, which obviously posed a big challenge for Jersey Irish.
Now participating in tournaments and championships run by Gaelic Games Europe, in recent years Jersey Irish have started to grow their numbers again, in no small part because they had the vision to begin coaching Gaelic Games in primary schools on the island.
Most primary schools in Jersey now include Gaelic Games as part of their sporting curriculum, which has led to a big boom in the number of young players joining Jersey Irish GAA club.
“We started that five or six years ago,” says Jersey Irish PRO, Conor Neeson. “It has increased in numbers steadily and is getting better year after year.
“A few of the older guys who had previously played for the team wanted to stay involved and decided to set it up.
They had a number of contacts around Jersey and on the back of those got into correspondence with the schools and most of them were keen to get in involved in their curriculum just to add something a bit different into the mix.
“So, we're now coaching Gaelic Games to children in 30-odd primary schools and the plan this year is to also start coaching in the secondary schools as well.
“Each of those 30-odd schools would have at least 30 kids at each session so we're coaching big numbers. And on the back of that we've more and more children getting involved in the coaching sessions we also run in the club. They've become hugely popular on the back of the schools visits.
"A ladies section has also been started up and for the 12 years I've been involved the club has never felt more like a real community."
Neeson estimates that up to 150 children could attend their Thursday night training sessions, and the club is already starting to see their investment in youth pay dividends.
“It's going great guns,” he says. “We're already seeing the first smattering of players coming up through that. They'll hopefully give us the energy we sorely need at the tournaments we take part in.
“You're playing lots of matches in a round-robin format and for men our age you're seizing up after two or three games, so we could badly do with the younger legs!
“The kids seem to love the game too. Rugby has always been big in Jersey but the rugby, because of the success, has turned into a bit of a machine.
“And unless you're really, really good you get cast aside. Gaelic Games is a way of giving sportspeople in Jersey a chance to represent their country and get away somewhere for tournaments.
“We've a little bit of streamlining to do in terms of efficiencies and moving more from a social place into a proper athletic club and I think that will also have to be considered in the next year or so now because of the way that things have been progressing.”
Thanks to their work in primary schools and the growing popularity of Gaelic Games among the youth of the island, the club’s profile is growing all the time.
Around 25% of the club’s senior players, both male and female, are now native Jersey islanders, and that percentage is expected to continue growing in the coming years.
The club will always be a home from home for the Irish living on the island, but they’re seeing now the benefits of working hard to extend the hand of friendship to everyone.
“The story of many GAA clubs abroad has generally that they've almost exclusively involved Irish migrants and that was the case here too,” says Neeson.
“But now there seems to be a bigger catch-on in the wider community and that's something we want to continue developing.
“Our club name, Jersey Irish, is currently being reviewed. We're thinking of dropping the 'Irish' association in the name. It'll obviously always be there in terms of our history, but perhaps having it in the name doesn't make it as appealing to people from other nations.
“We just want to be all embracing and that's a focus for us going forward in terms of developing the club. We want to appreciate all the different people in our community and give them the opportunity to develop new skills and be part of a wider community.
“The current chairman, Michael Gordon, is a Jersey born lad who's Dad is from Donegal. He was one of the first Jersey-born players to play for us and is now the first Jersey born chairman.
“Him coming along with a bit of youthfulness has brought others into the mix and we now have some really solid foundations in place that we can build on for the future.”