- 28 Jul 20
“We thought, maybe there’s a civic responsibility to do this,” says David McGreevy of club that’s fielding competitive teams less than three months after launch.
One of the most unlikely sporting success stories of the lockdown period was the launch of East Belfast GAA. Though it’s fair to say the area isn’t renowned as a traditional GAA heartland, an impulsive decision by co-founders David McGreevy and Richard Maguire in late May saw them take the plunge and set up the club. To say the least, the response was greater than they could have expected.
Less than three months later, East Belfast are already fielding teams in competitive action, with regular training for men’s and ladies football, hurling and camogie.
“We really did not expect any of this,” acknowledges McGreevy. “Really, it all grew out of a conversation between me and the co-founder, Richard Maguire, about how there were no Gaelic teams in east Belfast. Both of us play rugby for Instonians, but we come from a GAA background. I said to him, maybe we could start a Twitter account, get enough followers, and hopefully enter an U12 boys’ team into competition next year. But it just exploded.
“About two hours after setting up the account, I had to give Richard a call back saying, ‘This has got really big – we could have a serious club here.’ At that point, we could easily have just deleted everything and walked away with no hassle, but we thought, maybe there’s a civic responsibility to do this. Because we’re from a GAA background, we know how to do it. In our own lives, myself and Richard would be very cross-community, so we thought let’s make that the main focus.”
It has to mark some kind of turnaround record for setting up a GAA club.
“Yeah, and I would imagine most sports clubs in Ireland get founded over a pint!” laughs David. “There was no alcohol involved in this whatsoever. (Laughs) Even now! We’re still waiting for that famous team night out. A few of us had a couple of pints on Friday, but nothing major.”
Was it purely a spur-of-the-moment decision, or had David been thinking about setting up a club for a while?
“It was a bit of both really,” he reflects. “I’m the minor manager in my own club, and I didn’t really have any intention whatsoever of leaving. Like I say, I sent the tweet on a Sunday and it exploded. I didn’t think it would be as big. I remember we were getting calls from different journalists later on that evening. There was a guy from the BBC and I had to say to him, ‘Look, you can’t put my real name in there – I haven’t told my chairman at home that this is me.’
He was like, ‘Well, I need to put a name in here, otherwise people will be saying it’s fake news.’ He suggested putting my name in Irish, and I was like, ‘Yeah, go ahead, no one’s going to know.’ So that was that. I gave the chairman a call on Monday, and it’s usually not as positive when you’re leaving your home club. But we’d gained momentum by then, and he gave some great advice on setting up committees. He was very positive. It’s been the same with most of the people from my home club – any help they can give, they’ve been completely open to it.”
Did David have any inkling there might pent-up demand for the club in the area?
“None whatsoever,” he replies. “We didn’t see that coming, but that’s been a really big thing: people reading about us and getting in touch, they don’t look at the world in binary. Up here, it’s very orange and green, and the majority of people just don’t really look at the world like that – that’s who we’re attracting to the club. There are people who maybe haven’t played in years and want to come back. Then there are others who’ve never played before, but who’ve always wanted to play. They’re fans of the sport, and we can provide that now.”
Is it essentially local people who just want to play sport?
“Yeah, that’s basically it,” nods McGreevy. “There is the other end of it as well, where people were locked up for ages. Obviously, playing sport, there’s huge mental health elements, and a lot of people across the club just wanted to get involved for that very purpose. It’s getting them out of the house and making new friends, it’s a new community. Everyone’s a massive stakeholder in it, so it’s really come together. On the Monday and Wednesday nights, we have football, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we have camogie and hurling.
“The first two weeks, you were getting people who had never played GAA before, and they were going every night! They just had that love of it. And we were going, ‘No, no – pick your nights! You’re not expected to be here all the time.’ We had to make that clear to them: we don’t want you out of the house five nights a week!”
The cross-community ethos of East Belfast GAA has additional resonance in a moment where social division has been a hot topic of conversation. Was that subject anywhere in the discussion when the club was conceived?
“It wasn’t really,” says David. “All we’re about sport and bringing people together. The real perfection in that is how simple an idea it is – I think that’s what’s grabbed people’s attention; there’s no big ideological reasons behind it. What’s non-negotiable is that we’re cross-community, and the majority of people are of that mindset.”
Another remarkable aspect of East Belfast’s story has been the appointment of Linda Ervine – the Irish language campaigner and sister-in-law of former unionist politician David Ervine – as club president.
“Richard and Linda worked in the same place before,” explains David. “I didn’t know Linda, but about 10 minutes after I sent the first tweet, she sent me a good luck message. I was like, ‘My god, it’s Linda Ervine.’ I was talking to her, and then when I mentioned it to Richard later on, he said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve worked with Linda.’ Then we said she’d be great to have as the club president.
“After that, we had to explain to Linda that the club president doesn’t really do that much! The person is more of a figurehead. She’d be a great example for people in east Belfast. I’ve met her a good few times now over the past while and she’s a great person.”
Ervine is known for her long-time engagement with Gaelic culture.
“Linda had a great article in The Sunday Times at the weekend with Michael Foley,” notes McGreevy. “Reading that, I was struck by her resilience. It was unbelievable and it sets an amazing example. I wanted to send the link out to everyone in the club and say, ‘The next time you’re out playing and you’re finding it tough, read this here. This is actually tough – playing a gaelic football or camogie match isn’t really that tough.’”
Having enjoyed such success already, it appears East Belfast is only set to grow and grow.
“It should,” agrees David. “The schools in the area have never had GAA in them before. That’s huge. There are 23 schools and that’s more than some regional boards have. It is a huge task, but we are chatting to the right organisations, to get us the right coaching in the right schools.
“Ulster’s kind of known for its football. I would love for camogie and hurling to be really promoted up here. It would be great to see the likes of Down or Antrim – or any other Ulster county – competing for the Liam McCarthy cup. I would love to see that, and if were the club to start it, that would be fantastic.”