East Belfast has some long established sports clubs. Glentoran, who would host many great European nights at the Oval, came into existence near the shipyards and the ropeworks in 1882.
Dundela Football Club was formed by a group of dairy workers in 1895 and has played its football at Wilgar Park – the Hen Run – since 1900. Its crowning moment was in beating Glenavon to win the Irish Cup in 1955.
And as this part of the city seeks to revive its industry, attract more jobs and improve the infrastructure, it will be interesting to see what impact the birth of a new sporting club – East Belfast GAC – will have on bringing communities together.
Daithi MacRaibhaigh, who has worked in recruitment since returning to Belfast from a stint in London, had been thinking the idea over.
A friend involved in regeneration work in East Belfast wanted to involve a GAA club and had asked his advice.
“There wasn’t one, so we decided to set one up,” he explains.
“It didn’t matter what age group or code as long as one was started”
On Sunday morning as he munched his bran flakes while watching Andrew Marr interview the Foreign Secretary Dominic Rabb on BBC 1, MacRaibhaigh decided to test the waters.
He tweeted out a message to see what interest there might be in a new club.
The response was off the scale.
“I wasn’t expecting this thing to get so big. At this moment we’re looking at organising men and women football teams, camogie and hurling teams, and underage sides as well.”
“And because we are promoting this as a cross community project, several primary schools including some from the integrated sector have been in touch.”
MacRaibhaigh’s long-time friend, Richard Maguire, who is employed by the East Belfast Community Development Agency, had made the original suggestion of forming a team.
Maguire is slightly taken aback by the degree of interest.
“Daithi messaged me on Sunday morning asking if I wanted to be part of a wee team in East Belfast. I was thinking that a casual kick-about would be great,” says Maguire, who has been associated with Carryduff GAC and Instonians Rugby Club for many years.
“I thought there are enough people living around east Belfast who can’t travel to their other clubs, but might want to play. It’s good to explore these things. However, I didn’t see it having so much support so quickly”
And that is no exaggeration.
“By two o’clock on Sunday, I had enough people to field a team,” says MacRaibhaigh.
“The Bredagh and Carryduff clubs in south Belfast and St Paul’s in Holywood have sent us emails saying they are keen to help us out”
When East Belfast GAC gets itself up and running, it will come under the authority of the Down County board, who have already offered any guidance needed.
“It’s positive news that they want to field a cross community team,” says the board secretary, Sean Og McAteer.
“In the current climate where there are no activities on the playing fields, the fact that people want to launch gaelic games again in east Belfast is very welcome. We will do all we can to advise them.”
Cross community aspect ‘non-negotiable’
McAteer does not see any circumstance in which East Belfast GAC’s application to affiliate to the GAA will be turned down.
He expects that all the administrative paperwork will have been completed in time for the new club to enter the men’s Junior Football Championship by the end of 2020, circumstances permitting.
In 2021, the new club should be competing in Division 4 of the Down league.
“Some of the people who have been in contact with me have played gaelic games before, but the vast majority have never had a club to join,” says MacRaibhaigh.
“The interest is there. It should have happened years ago.”
Well it did. East Belfast had the St Colmcille’s GAA club, which played at fields at Ballybeen in Dundonald in the 1960s. It folded in the early 1970s after Charlie O’Donnell, the father of one of the players, was killed in a sectarian pipe bomb attack on his home in Grampian Avenue in August 1973.
47 years on from those dark days, MacRaibhaigh believes the time is right to involve all the communities in this fledgling venture.
“Our key aim is to be cross community. That is the only non-negotiable aspect of this,” he says.
Irish Language activist Linda Ervine has agreed to be the new club’s president and a meeting with City Hall is taking place this week to seek out a possible home ground.
“We really didn’t think it would be so popular, but this is terrific, says Maguire.
“We’re hoping that we might get the council to set up some posts and changing facilities or possibly pair up with some rugby clubs.”
“If we have an east Belfast team we want to keep it here.
“CIYMS, Malone, Civil Service are on this side of the city. There are so many overlaps between the codes that maybe we can assist each other. If there is a will there is a way.”
A bright start for a new club
In the space of 24 hours since the initial message went out on social media, MacRaibhaigh has received offers of cash donations and shirt sponsorship for the new venture.
“This has all snowballed so quickly, we haven’t even set up a club bank account yet. And we still have to be affiliated,” admits MacRaibhaigh, who is preparing for the club’s inaugural meeting as well as creating a newsletter to email out to the supporters.
MacRaibhaigh says the club’s name, East Belfast GAC, will remain unless the members decide they want to change it.
He thinks it would be appropriate to consider naming the club after someone from the east side of the city.
In the meantime, MacRaibhaigh and Maguire have their hands full, dealing with the tsunami of emails and press queries. They have to trawl through the many offers of help received from people wanting to be part of the new adventure.
“We have yet to sit down and decide what we are doing,” says Maguire.
“We need to see who is wanting to volunteer. Then it’s a matter of putting people with right skills and right attitude in the right place. If we can harness just a bit of that, it will be a bright start to a new club.”