History of Gaelic Park

Gaelic Park’s Origins

“A Short History of the Irish Australian Athletic Association (later to become GAA Gaelic Park Inc)” *

“When the 1939-1945 war ended and the Australian migration scheme began, thousands of Irishmen, already working in England, decided to try their luck in Australia. They had little to lose and plenty to gain.

Once the Irish migrants had arrived here they found the place lacking in many of the social activities they had taken for granted in Ireland and England. For example, the pictures showing at the cinemas were usually two or three years old, the hotels closed at 6:00pm, Sunday sport was practically non-existent. Australian Rules was not well publicised and did not appeal to the newcomers as it did in later years.

When the Irish Government appointed Dr Kiernan Ambassador to Australia, he became aware that while some efforts were being made to assist the European migrants to settle in their new homeland, nothing was being done to promote, or provide, any Irish games or pastimes. Dr Kiernan decided to approach Dr Mannix. A meeting was arranged and was attended by Father (later Monsignor) Power. As a result of that meeting a further meeting was held. Amongst those attending were Dan Breen, Tom Brown, Tim Casey and Rev Fr Mulligan. The wheels were set in motion to get the games (hurling and Gaelic football) going in Victoria. The association known as the ‘Irish Australian Athletic Association’ was set up on November 5th, 1948.

The first problems facing the committee were solved by the Irish Ambassador when he had 100 hurling sticks flown out from Dublin within two weeks. Having solved this problem the first hurling game was arranged to be played at Bungaree near Ballarat. The Bungaree team were nearly all Australian, captained by a man named Paddy Blood.

The next problem was obtaining a playing field in the Melbourne area, where games could be played on a regular basis. The Albert Park Committee was approached and a playing field was rented on a seasonal basis. At that time games were being played at various grounds including Warringal Park, Heidelberg, and trips were organised to such places as Romsey, Rochester, Drysdale and Geelong. Several clubs were then formed – Erin’s Own, Sinn Fein, Young Irelands, Eildon Weir, Sunshine and Geelong. In the later years Garryowen, St Kevin’s, Padraig Pearses, Pride of Erin (later to become Keysborough Shamrocks) and recently Western Gaels appeared on the scene. Some of these teams have disappeared from the competition, however, the men involved in them will long be remembered and talked about in wherever the Irish of Melbourne meet. Men like Joe Keogh, now living in Brisbane, practically carried the Sunshine Club for years. Joe organised dances, recruited players etc, and was still playing when he was nearly 60 years of age! In the Young Irelands, Mick Swift and Frank Daly hurled their way into the finals year after year. Other teams were well served by such players as John O’Donoghue, Jack Lynch (Tactics), Harry McConville, Val Corcoran, Tommy Buckley, Noel Eiffe, Joe O’Sullivan, Billy and Sean Leo, Billy and John Hynes, and Paddy Waters.

On the administrative side, the IAAA was well served by John Kerrigan (now living in the USA and a current member of Gaelic Park), Kathleen Keogh, Margaret Behan and Carl Harrison. There were many others of course, who were in one way or another of great assistance to the association. The IAAA remained on the scene organising the games, providing the playing areas and trophies, however it was hindered to some extent by the club system. This was due to the situation were the people who were prepared to work and administer the association were the same people who were trying to keep the various clubs afloat and operational.

In 1959 the association, under the chairmanship of Jim Harkin, organised a Sunday night dance in Carlton to raise the funds with the long term view of establishing an Irish Centre in Melbourne. After three years, a building at 96-98 Bridport Street, Albert Park was purchased for the sum of 10,000 pounds; on 3,000 pounds deposit and 30 pounds per week. The building consisted of five flats and two shops, the rent from which paid off the balance. In 1978 the property was sold for the sum of $110,000, of which $84,000 was used in November 1979 to purchase the 20 acres of land at Keysborough (now known as Gaelic Park).

With the land paid for and $30,000 in the bank, a committee was formed to obtain the various permits necessary, to raise funds, and generally accept the responsibility of establishing an Irish entertainment and sporting centre in Melbourne. Despite the hard work of the committee, it took two years to obtain a building permit. This was due to the number of bodies involved, i.e. the CFA, the MMBW, the Springvale Council, the State Health Department, the Dandenong Valley Authority etc, and a certain amount of red tape. Finally, however, we received a part permit on December 3rd, 1982, and began digging the foundations on a Saturday, December 4th. The foundations were poured on the 11th and the steel frame, which cost $26,000, was erected on the 18th.”

The call for voluntary labour was answered with unbelievable enthusiasm. Bricks and blocks were laid, concrete slabs poured with waste and water pipes in place. Philomena Cornu of Philomena’s Travel donated a return trip to Ireland which was raffled. Memberships and debentures were sold and at the end of the year $60,000 had been raised and most of it spent. As Christmas 1983 neared the financial position was not very secure, but again the remarkable support was there. An Irish contracting firm provided an interest-free loan of $20,000 and once again Philomena donated a return trip to Ireland. This was matched by the committee and the raffle returned $14,000. The voluntary work continued at a steady pace. In March 1984, the building stood with the frame up and the roof on, the brick and blockwork finished, the wastepipes in, the concrete slab poured. A truly magnificent achievement.

In the meantime an application had been lodged for a Government grant under the Commonwealth Employment and Training Scheme. In April we were advised that the application was successful and that we were to receive a grant of $138,000. However, as with all Government monies, there were conditions which had to be strictly adhered to. The conditions were that Gaelic Park employ seven people who had been unemployed and on the dole for the past nine months, that we employ them for a period of at least six months and that we pay them in accordance with the building trade award, i.e. pay workers compensation, holiday pay etc. These payments accounted for about $105,000, or more than three quarters of the total grant. In addition we had to provide $16,000 to pay a supervisor, and also provide a percentage of voluntary labour. I point this out, not to belittle the Government grant, but to put in true perspective the magnificent effort by the voluntary workers who came with their machinery, tools etc and worked month after month without pay. They deserve to be remembered and thanked by the entire Irish community.

*An excerpt from the booklet which was made for the official opening of Gaelic Park on 2nd June, 1985.

Message from the Ambassador for Ireland, Mr Joseph Small *

“The formal opening today of the impressive new sports complex at Gaelic Park by the President of Ireland, Dr Patrick J Hillery, marks the culmination of years of hard work and dedication by the many in the Irish community in Melbourne.

The magnificent complex which is Gaelic Park today is a tribute to the foresight, enthusiasm and perseverance of those who conceived and executed the project. When the site was purchased in November, 1979, its transformation into a modern sports complex must have seemed but a distant dream. Today it is a reality of which everyone associated with the project, and indeed every Irish person in Australia, can be justifiably proud.

It is, I think, particularly appropriate that the fine building should be opened this year, the 150th anniversary of Victoria, for the Irish contribution to the development and life of this State has, from the very beginning, been a remarkable, and in many respects a unique one, particularly in the areas of politics, public administration, education, law, religion, literature and the arts, medicine and sport. Gaelic football and hurling were being played in Melbourne as far back as 1842 and probably earlier. The great game of Australian Rules football owes its origins largely to Gaelic football introduced by Irish migrants.

Gaelic Park will, of course, be more than just a focal point for sporting activities. It will also serve as a valuable cultural and community centre for the Irish in Melbourne.

I congratulate Jim Harkin and his hard working committee as well as all of those associated with the project – those who gave so freely of their time and labour, and those who supported them at every stage in so many ways. Nor must we forget the valuable Government support for the project at both State and Federal level.

Gaelic Park will stand as a tribute to the dedication and generosity of all concerned for generations to come.”

*An excerpt from the booklet which was made for the official opening of Gaelic Park on 2nd June, 1985.

96-98 Bridport Street today.
Work is about to begin on Lot 17, Perry Road, Keysborough.
The building begins at Gaelic Park.


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