Young Melbourne have big dreams
By John Harrington
As a player, Carl Walsh enjoyed some great days.
He was a team-mate of Maurice Fitzgerald when UCC won the 1988 Sigerson Cup, he played on the Milltown St. Joseph’s team that won the 1990 Clare Senior Football Championship, and then in 1992 he was a member of the Clare panel that won a first Munster Senior Football Championship for the first time since 1917.
As a son of the late, great Clare and Munster GAA administrator, Noel Walsh, he travelled the highways and byways of Ireland from a young age following various Banner County teams on good days and bad.
All special memories, and now he’s making some more ones on the other side of the world in Australia as founding member and Club President ofYoung Melbourne GAA club.
They’re officially the youngest GAA club in the world after launching two weeks ago, and have grown from Kids GAA Melbourne, an initiative started in 2016 that quickly became a real Gaelic Games success story.
“Kids GAA Melbourne started in 2016 to organise Gaelic Games for kids aged between really four and 16,” explains Walsh.
“It was two guys that started it, Michael Comerford from Kilkenny, and Keith Kavanagh from Dublin
“It started out reasonably casually and laid back, which was probably part of its success because what Irish people here and Australians who came along found was that it was unlike other sports that here in Australia where it's very well organized but very regimented and quite expensive.
“This was sort of like an antidote. It was more relaxed, very social, and at the same time the kids were sort of the games and learning the games at a nice pace for all abilities. In the five years since 2016 we've progressed nice and steadily and grown our numbers and grown the interest through social media and, I guess, by doing the right things.
“The reason we wanted to transition to Young Melbourne was we began to see the opportunities, lots of opportunities. For example, we've had one of our girls become a referee, and she refereed a lot of games in a recent tournament.
“We've seen two of our girls who are now teenagers go and play with one of local adult clubs. Some of our players are also interested in becoming coaches and some of the dads even talked about coming back and playing intermediate level or reserve level and playing with their sons or daughters.
“So it seemed logical that we should become a fully fledged club that offers all those of developmental opportunities, and also the ability to play with your same club into adult level like you would in my home club in Clare, Milltown St Joseph's.”
The plan is that Young Melbourne will compete in some seven-a-side and nine-a-side senior tournaments next year and build steadily from there, but the club’s priority will be to continue developing their youth and fostering an ethos of fun at all levels.
“I'm very zealous about the GAA and that's a good thing to be zealous about the GAA, but, you know, we do have a lot of people here who dip in and dip out of the GAA, as you do in Ireland,” says Walsh.
“So we do have to balance that because at the end of the day we don't want it to become so serious that it's like the other sports such as AFL and we don't want to become super-expensive like those sports as well.
“We want people to feel like it is fun and it is relaxed and at the same time that the kids are having a good time and are developing.”
Competing as a senior club will be nice and Walsh also dreams of Young Melbourne someday travelling to Ireland to compete in Féile, but his top priority is to continue developing the underage structures and grow the number of non-Irish-born people playing the games.
He reckons that within five years time the club should have a majority of native-born Australian members and to accelerate that process they have a really innovative plan in the pipeline.
“Gaelic Games Victoria has established a relationship now with RMIT University in the north of Melbourne, and we've signed a Memorandum of understanding with them," he says.
“We play a lot of our games there, they have a beautiful oval with a lined pitch, floodlights, proper goalposts, electronic scoreboard, everything.
“And one of the things we've actually been talking to them about is a scholarship programme, because they have a physical education college there.
“On behalf of Young Melbourne I'm going to get a sponsor of that scholarship so a student in their physical education college would get a bursary and their job will be as part of their year in University to go out to schools and promote our Gaelic games.
“We can't afford development officers, so the smart way to do it is use Australians to fulfil that role by engaging with Universities who themselves are very enthusiastic about it.
"They think it's a great because it's developmental for their student and looks well on their CV and the University is also seen to be contributing to the community.
“So I think that could be a good model for us to try and see then if we can grow that and develop it not only in Victoria but beyond.”
When Walsh talks about Young Melbourne and how it has grown from the hugely successful Kids GAA initiative it has grown from there's no disguising the pride and enthusiasm in his voice.
He and his fellow club volunteers have created something special in a short period of time and they’re all looking forward to seeing how it continues to develop in the years to come.
“You know, it renews your passion in the GAA and what the GAA is all about,” he says.
“I played inter-county for seven years and it got very serious and very intense and very inward looking. The thing about this is it's all about the fun and participation.
“We've got Asian kids playing and their parents have never seen Gaelic Games before. The thing they say to us and it's the same with the Australians is that we offer a sense of family, community, and togetherness where everyone feels welcomed.
“That is what people really respond to, what the parents respond to. The kids obviously respond to the activity but they also respond to the welcome because they're very intuitive and they respond to the vibe.
“And for those of us that have been involved the GAA a long time it actually renews your passion in what it's really about, the fundamentals of it, which is not winning All-Irelands.
“I mean it's great to win All-Irelands or Muster championships or whatever, but it's really about playing the games and enjoying the games.”