Post-war emigration from Ireland caused countless junior Gaelic sporting clubs – like the Abbey Shamrocks of Ballyshannon, County Donegal – to fold due to lack of players. But through sport, Irish diaspora activists have both celebrated traditional Irish games and connected with their host communities across Britain. Gaelic games and their county rivalries have remained a focal point for the Irish diaspora. Exiles of counties with proud sporting histories – especially, but not exclusively, Cork, Donegal, Dublin, and Mayo – have formed supporters’ clubs in cities like Leeds and Newcastle.

The Abbey Shamrocks Gaelic football team

Ballyshannon, County Donegal, c.1952

Photograph: Christine Fox

Sporting fandom has enabled diaspora activists in England to articulate a national cultural identity and pride in their county heritage. In October 1989, for example, after Cork won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship – their first in sixteen years – Corkonians in the north-east of England lobbied the Cork County Board to visit Newcastle during the celebrations. Tyneside Irish Centre manager Jerry Lynch – a well-known Cork native and former hotelier in Ireland – was instrumental in making the arrangements. Some 3,000 fans visited the Irish Centre to see Cork stars Barry Coffey and Tony Davis parade the famous Sam Maguire Cup. The occasion was the first fully-booked function at the centre’s Gallowgate site.

Sport also enabled Irish diaspora activists to connect with their host society. On Merseyside in 1976, a group of friends from County Donegal formed a soccer team. They called it Finn Harps, in homage to their favourite club from back home in Ballybofey. Playing in local leagues on Merseyside, the Harps included five brothers from one family, the Ryans, including centre-forward Jackie, a former professional with Luton Town and Notts County.

In 1978, when the ‘other’ Finn Harps qualified for the UEFA Cup, they were drawn, coincidentally, to play Merseyside giants Everton. When the Donegal club travelled for the second leg of their European tie, the Merseyside Harps hosted a welcoming reception at Liverpool Irish Centre.

Cross-channel sporting connections remain an important social bond within and beyond the Irish diaspora in England. First- and second-generation Irish immigrants play and promote Gaelic games, while also following the majority sports in England. Tyneside Irish Centre encapsulates these multivalent sporting links. The centre is home to home to Cú Chulainn’s Gaelic Athletic Club, the north-east’s only senior Gaelic club, formed by Northumbria University graduates in 2007. Within four years, they had reached their first ever all-Britain final. The Irish Centre also hosts the Tír na nÓg Caisléan Nua Ladies’ Gaelic football team.

As well as providing a base for a Glasgow Celtic Supporters' Club, Tyneside Irish Centre is also a vital community hub for the fanatical supporters of Newcastle United Football Club, whose St James’ Park home towers just the length of a pitch from the Irish Centre. When disgruntled fans mobilised against club owner Mike Ashley in 2008, the Irish Centre hosted packed meetings. More recently, since 2017, the Irish Centre has been the main site for Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust’s fundraising efforts for Newcastle West End Foodbank.

Supporters of Newcastle United and Glasgow Celtic outside the Tyneside Irish Centre before the pre-season friendly between the two clubs at St James' Park, 26 July 2007

Photograph: Nigel Wade/Flickr