St Finnians are Vancouver's overnight success story
By John Harrington
The famous line, ‘If you build it, they will come’, from the movie 'Field of Dreams' tends to be overused when telling the story of newly formed sports clubs.
But it’s very much an apt one for St. Finnians GAA Club in Vancouver who have come a long way in a very short period of time since they were founded in September 2019.
The arc of most newly formed GAA clubs tend to involve a few tough years of scrabbling around to field teams followed by a period of consolidation before any sustained growth.
St. Finnians are a very different animal entirely.
Over 60 players, men and women, attended the club’s very first collective training session and ever since their numbers have continued to grow.
What makes the St. Finnians story even more remarkable is that they’re effectively a breakaway club having been formed by a small group of footballers who had previously played for the longest established GAA club in the city, ISSC (Irish Sporting and Social Club) Vancouver.
You’re probably thinking it must have been a bitter divorce, but that’s not the case.
Vancouver is a boom town with a rapidly growing population of Irish migrants, and such were the numbers playing for ISSC that it made perfect sense for another club to be established in the city.
“A few of us in ISSC, there were eight of us, who would have been on the senior team took it upon ourselves to set up a new club,” explains St. Finnians club chairman, Oisin Doyle, who also plays for the men’s senior team and manages the ladies football team in the club.
“There was a core group of lads who were just there a year and a half and we said there's a big need here for another team.
“Unfortunately for ISSC we took a good chunk of their team with us, but they understood. There was a need for another club and someone had to bite the bullet.
“We were thinking that at first we'd might just get 20 lads, one football team, just enough to compete.
“But the eight of us would be well known in GAA circles over here and we had people involved who would be strong in terms of social media so we quickly had people getting in touch showing an interest and had 40 lads and 20 girls in the first few weeks. So we were thinking, okay, this is going to be more than just one men's football team.
“Over that winter we were all training in small groups and then the following February at our first collective training session in a small hall we had 60 people and as the weeks progressed we were getting over 80 people, it was just outrageous.
“Then when we started training outdoors we were getting 50 lads up to training and around 40 girls. We have around 100 members on the books now.
“In last year's championship we fielded two men's teams, a senior team and a junior team. Unfortunately there wasn't a ladies football championship last year but we had games among ourselves.
“We're looking at having a second ladies team this year now so that will bring us up to four teams. It just the interest that's there in Vancouver in football.”
In total there are now six GAA clubs in Vancouver which in recent years has become a home away from home for thousands of Irish.
They’re drawn there for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are plenty of job opportunities, with large Irish owned companies such as IRL and CLS big players in the construction industry.
But a huge attraction too is that Vancouver is just a beautiful place to live with its rare combination of beaches and soaring mountain peaks.
“The scenery out here is breathtaking at times,” says Doyle, a native of Aughrim in Wicklow.
“We're basically in a valley of mountains and within a half an hour drive of the city you have three ski peaks, so when work finishes at 5pm you're up on the mountain by 6pm and you do three hours up there and you're home by half nine. It's an easy life out here.
“Then in the summer you have the beaches because we're beside the sea so there's beach volleyball, beach parties, all that kind of stuff. There's fancy yachts for boat parties, things like that.
“Then, if you're into adventures we're basically in the middle of a range of mountains so there's some fantastic hiking routes around here. It's a great place and it just catches your heart really.”
The vibrant GAA scene is also a big draw, with the common story being of friends and club-mates following in one another’s footsteps when word of mouth spreads back to Ireland.
The standard of both football and hurling is high in Vancouver - JP Ryans are the reigning North American Senior Hurling Champions – but there’s very much an emphasis on fun and participation rather than serious competition.
“Over here it’s as much about the camaraderie and social side of things as it is playing matches,” says Doyle.
“A lot of people are just out here for two years and don't want the seriousness of playing club championship like you would have back home.
“We are competitive when the ball is thrown in and the standard is high, but we really enjoy the social side of it and the trips away. You're here to make friends, and make memories, you're not here to win championships.
“It's the best of both worlds out here and that's the way it should be. You only realise how stringent club championship is back home in a bad way when you come out here.
“A lot of people come out here with no intention of playing football because they've lost the love of the game because of how tough it is back home. I've known a lot of lads who didn't play the first year they were here but then you drag them out because they're good footballers and they're like, jeez, I haven't enjoyed football as much in a long time.
“A lot of people who come out here have rediscovered their love of the GAA.”
As much as fun might be the top priority, there’s no doubt either that St. Finnian’s play to win.
It was probably written in their stars that their very first competitive match should pit them against their parent club, ISSC, and there was a tasty build up to the match considering a good chunk of the St. Finnian’s team had played in the ISSC colours the year previously.
If a Hollywood producer had scripted the drama that ensued when the ball was thrown in between the two teams they could scarcely have come up with a more dramatic plot.
“They're traditionally very successful and were the reigning Vancouver champions, so you can imagine how up for it we were,” says Doyle.
“The game ended up a draw so it went to penalties and we managed to beat them on penalties.
“You can only imagine, it was our first ever game as a club, and we beat the club that we were effectively formed from. It was just a great day for us.
“That's nothing against ISSC, we have a good relationship with them, and if it wasn't for ISSC I wouldn't be in Vancouver.”
St. Finnian’s didn’t quite complete the fairytale story of winning a Vancouver Senior Football Championship in their very first year, but they came close, losing the Final to Fraser Valley Gaels by just two points.
They did end their first ever year as a club with some silverware, though, with their Junior footballers winning their Vancouver Championship in some style.
“We celebrated that junior championship we won like we've been best friends since the age of five or six,” says Doyle. “I think that's the biggest joy of being involved in a club like this.
“To have won a junior championship in our very first year and contested a senior final, that bodes very well for the future.”
It’s quickly getting to the point where St. Finnian’s are almost a victim of their own success.
They have so many players now that and more registrations coming in all the time that Doyle is starting to think they might have to put a cap on new recruits.
Their club was set up with the aim of giving more people the opportunity to play matches, and less than two years after they were established he already thinks there’s a need for another club to be established in Vancouver to cater for the growing demand.
There’s a reason that so many people want to join St. Finnian’s – Doyle and his fellow club-founders haven’t just created a sporting club, they’ve created a home from home for Irish people in the city.
"Just seeing people enjoying themselves and making friends through the club has been great to see,” says Doyle.
“A lot of people are new to the city so it was a great way for them to make friends and network.
“We've partnered with Darkness into Light as well, that was one of the first things I wanted to do out here because it can be tough for a lot of people moving away from home. Some struggle a lot more than others and can take a year to get settled in, so have a mental health partnership like that was very important for us.
“Lots of people have gotten jobs through people they've met in the club. We're sponsored by A Few Good Lads which are a big Construction hiring firm, and we have sponsorships with other construction companies and a recruitment company so we if any of our members are looking for jobs we can point them in the right direction.
“And because we look after people that way, they appreciate it and buy into the club even more.
“There’s a fantastic social side to the club, we’ve have great nights out and I think that's probably the biggest joy you can get out of it.
“The whole thing has been a great journey and we've done a lot of things right. It's been magical, really.
“It's about leaving a legacy after us whenever we do go home, but it's hard now to even contemplate going home and leaving this club behind.”