The history of Gaelic Games in Brisbane goes hand in hand with the history of the city itself. Records show that the first attempts to play Gaelic Games in Brisbane go as far back as 1859. Ten years after The Great Hunger, also known as the potato famine in Ireland, it was the very year that Queensland first became separated from New South Wales to become a colony in its own right.
From 1886 to 1928, there are reports of some games being successfully played.
A feature of the 1887 St Patrick’s celebrations was a hurling match between the Brisbane Hurling Club and a battery of the permanent defence forces. The unexpected opponents are explained by the annual report of the Commandant, which discloses that 21 of the 45 artillery members were Irish. The game was played at the Brisbane Exhibition Ground in Bowen Hills in very wet conditions, with Brisbane Hurling Club winning 3.2 to one goal.
Things picked in the 1960s when the plan to build a new sewerage network was launched by Brisbane City Council. This resulted in the arrival of many Irish contractors, most bringing their own crews, and many games were played on the field opposite St Vincent’s Orphanage in Nudgee. These games had a dual purpose, one was to raise funds for the orphanage which was run by Sisters of Mercy, the other was so that the lads could have a keg of beer to drink on a Sunday, as the pubs were not allowed to open on Sundays back then. There was also a magazine produced in the Irish community during those years called The Irish Rover. This sporting group provided a great service to the Irish workers at that time, and provided the orphanage with much-needed funds, as there was no Government funding back then.
In 1972 a new group of Irish migrants came to Brisbane, and from this, a regular game was organized each Sunday morning. In 1973, the group met at the Alliance Hotel in Spring Hill and officially formed the Brisbane GAA. It began with two teams and the occasional challenge game against New South Wales.
Application was then made to affiliate to the GAA of Australia and change the name to Queensland Gaelic Athletic Association. In 1975, a Queensland Gaelic Football team travelled to Perth in Western Australia for the first-ever All Australian Championships. In 1977, Queensland hosted their first All Australian Championship at Coorparoo AFC.
In 1981, the Association secured a lease on grounds at Willawong from Brisbane City Council. The workload was really on the up at this stage, as we started to develop a playing field and building a toilet block and two dressing rooms.
In 1983, it was decided that the time had come to expand to four clubs (teams). The division of the clubs was determined on geographical basis. Thus four clubs were formed, Norths,
Souths, Easts and West. At this point, a non-Irish content was introduced, this proved to be a huge success with the standard of football and resultant competitions improving immensely. In 1986, Sarsfield’s Club was formed; this was followed in 1988 by the formation of John Mitchel’s Club. Harps was formed in 1992, and unfortunately, Norths folded around the same time.
Work started on building the clubhouse at Willawong in 1989 and it was completed in 1990, almost entirely by volunteer labour. The Association was so blessed with the volunteers who contributed their time to this project. Of the costs, $40k was contributed by the Australian Government of the day; however, the balance was raised through a Buy A Brick campaign, and community contributions via functions and other fundraisers.
1996 heralded the growth of the Association with the first ladies football team being formed, and travelling to Wellington, New Zealand in 1997 for the Australasia Championships. The success of ladies football over the next decade was a credit to everyone involved.
In 1997, we negotiated with Brisbane City Council to procure additional playing fields. Thanks to their support and help, we now have three fully standard playing fields, which has allowed the Association to host the Australasian Championship on seven occasions.
Over the last 10 – 15 years, we have continued to see changes that we weren’t prepared for.
With the devastating recession in Ireland as a result of the GFC and resulting flight of young Irish migrants to Australia, the influx of Irish players from 2008 onwards changed the dynamics of the Association. We were just not prepared to manage such huge numbers, and weren’t able to take advantage of so much talent in such a short time. Time has shown that this was a missed opportunity to expand.
Our grounds at Willawong were unfortunate to be hit by the 2011 floods, with 2.3 meters of water settling on the fields and clubhouse, and we were lucky that the clubhouse was a core-filled building so the walls were not damaged, but everything else was destroyed. Again with thanks to the community, we did finally recover, and fulfilled a full program that year, including a Family Festival Day, our regular playing season and the Australasian Championships. We won’t forget 2011 for a long time.
Having managed to get the clubhouse and playing fields back to operational status, we could not repair the dressing sheds. Thankfully, we secured a grant from GAA Croke Park and the Department of Foreign Affairs (Irish Embassy), which allowed us to remove all existing sheds and replace them with new buildings. We were very grateful for Croke Park and the Department of Foreign Affairs for their support, and we now have six dressing rooms, two new toilets and a separate referees’ area, each affiliated club now has its own designated room, making Willawong one of the best sporting complexes in Brisbane.
The clubhouse was purpose built as a community complex and it is suitable to host up to 200 people. We have hosted weddings, funerals, concerts, quiz nights, birthday parties etc, mostly run by other community groups. Unfortunately, we still don’t have air con, which is a problem in hot weather, however, we run around 10 functions during the year, which helps offset our ongoing costs. The Club’s affiliation and its kitchen and bar (which the clubs manage on match days) is our only income, and we are very grateful to all our volunteers, as we have never had any financial support, apart from grants for property improvement, and we have never had any paid employees.
We would consider what we have to be a great achievement, as we head towards our 50th year of looking after the many young Irish people who have been coming to Brisbane all through these years.