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The Houston Gaels Blueprint Is The Future Of International Gaelic Games

It’s no small feat starting your own GAA club, even less so when it’s a niche sport in that area.

Throw in the fact that the ethos is to build a self-sustaining club from the ground up using a homegrown talent base and, all of a sudden, the Houston Gaels blueprint looks like an impossible task.

However, here we are, on the brink of the club’s 10-year anniversary and not only are they thriving in the heart of the USA’s biggest state but they’re also showing Gaels, home and abroad, that our national game can go international.

Founded in 2011 by Philly Larkin of Moneygall, Castlebar’s Mike Murphy and New Jersey native Johnny Ziomek, the club, like so many other foreign clubs, once relied heavily on Irish ex-pats but they’ve managed to grow, evolve and most importantly survive by doing things their own way.

“The only way this club becomes self-sustaining and sustainable long-term is getting locals involved and having it built and run by people who are going to be here long term, that includes some Irish people as well but them alone is not enough,” Larkin, now the senior head coach, tells Pundit Arena.

“When we were starting it we sat in a pub and tried to come up with the name and the colours but we tried to come up with an ethos for the club too and that ethos was going to be this wasn’t a club as a vessel for Irish kids to come over for a summer and then leave, it was never going to be that.

“We’ve refused to do that with some people because it’s demoralising for those who’ve been training to watch somebody pop in, play and then leave again. Maybe he doesn’t train but he’s good right? So, we don’t do that.”

It’s a ballsy move, right? But clearly, one that’s working from talking to vice-chairman Adam Robertson as well as PRO Kelly Gaetano, both American-born Gaels who have proven central the club’s growth in recent years.

It’s not just Americans who have bought into the ethos of Houston Gaels as the club boasts a membership of 400 people stemming from all corners of the globe including; Nigeria, Nicaragua, Malaysia, Paraguay and Uruguay.

For Gaetano – whose husband is club founder Johnny Ziomek – the mix of different ethnicities and cultures brings an energy to the club that only enhances its unique atmosphere and continuity.

“I think it’s awesome that we get people from all over the world, all different ethnicities, all different cultures coming together to play this sport that they’ve only heard of through a friend or an advertisement.

“Obviously, we love the people that come over for the summer, it’s really exciting getting to play with people who have played their whole lives, they bring a different energy to the club. Having that homegrown base and then having players come from Ireland, it really adds to the atmosphere and continuity within the club.”

While she may be the co-founder’s husband, Mr Ziomek can take none of the credit when it comes to his wife’s involvement in GAA. A former Rose of Tralee contestant, Gaetano heard about the sport through her involvement in the world-renowned festival.

“No, I actually met him at a tournament,” she recalls.

“I was living in Austin and I was actually in the Rose of Tralee so I heard about Gaelic through that and started playing in Austin.

“Then I moved to Houston because my husband lived here and I joined the club here. I’ve been playing for eight years but I think what was so exciting for me was I grew up doing ballet, I was a dancer.

“So as a 24-year-old woman, there’s not a lot of sports options for women here unless you’ve been playing soccer. Soccer is great but for someone that hasn’t been playing their whole life, to just walk up and join a soccer team, it just wouldn’t happen as the standard is very high over here.

“I was able to join the Gaelic club and not feel as intimidated and learn the skills alongside everyone else which was the best experience for me.”

For Robertson – a former high school quarterback and wide receiver – his eyes have been opened by the culture of Gaelic games.

“I think it’s a really beautiful thing with this club, the fact that there is such a strong local homegrown talent, I’m not saying it’s bad for other clubs to rely on J1’s but you see other members who are American born and bred and had no idea what this sport was until they met someone on this team.

“Now, we’re going to Irish pubs on the weekend, we’re going to Irish events and we’re getting involved in the culture.

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Fantastic brunch with the Gaels!

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“Seeing what it’s like and playing a sport that in America we never knew existed until five years ago – I’m 32, so for 27 years of my life I didn’t know this sport existed – and now I love the culture and the family aspect of it.

“I think it helps that we keep it local and the Irish people who are part of the team, like Philly, Murphy, Chris Bohill, for example, are so welcoming, open-minded and open-armed about having non-Irish players come in and play this sport.

“It doesn’t feel exclusive, it doesn’t feel like we’re not allowed to be here or part of the team because I’m not Irish or didn’t play the sport growing up.”

According to Larkin, having personalities such as Gaetano and Robertson involved in the club key to implementing that homegrown ethos that sets them apart.

“Adam has taken over, he joined us, learning about the sport, learning about the culture and he took over as chairman. Kelly has done the same, she started over in Austin and thankfully we have her at Houston now.

“So we’re really trying to get Americans involved in key positions in the club. I’ve started a family now and when Johnny and Kelly start a family and we’re all too old for this, we hope other people are there who will be able to take it on and run with it.”

It’s easy to look at the club’s blueprint and be blown away by the innovation but it’s not all sunshine and roses in the Bayou City.

According to Larkin, the club is constantly battling, not just to implement their ethos but to do it in Houston, the fourth most populous city in the United States.

“It is very, very difficult to do it this way.

“Keeping the interest is hard and not just in the way we’re structuring it but Houston itself as well. Logistically Houston is tough, it’s a bit of a difficult place to pull everybody together because just trying to find a location that suits everybody is hard.

“The city is so spread out. There’s a lot of suburbs and people move to the suburbs because it’s a lot cheaper so people could have an hours drive to our training and trying to find a suitable location that is central to everybody is difficult.”

Finding a suitable location in a city of over two million people is tough but explaining to city officials why they need certain locations has proven even tougher.

“I’m coming in on the backend when it’s already running,” Robertson recalls.

“But they [the club’s founders] have done a great job in recruiting people, you need those numbers in a large city but also when you’re in a city like Houston, trying to explain the game of Gaelic, trying to explain that to someone is difficult enough but then trying to explain that to city officials when you are trying to rent fields is another ball game.

“You need to reserve certain parks as they are used to host so many sports, youth leagues, adults leagues, soccer, football, ultimate frisbee, rugby and people understand these other sports so they rent the park to them no problem.

“But the difficulty we have is they will say, ‘well what is this sport? Is there contact? What’s the insurance?’ So, it’s actually really difficult to find green space in Houston and rent.”

When everything is in place then comes the time for competition and there’s no shortage of that in the Lone Star State. Like all clubs, they compete in the US Championships while the club also runs an internal competition referred to as their ‘pub league’ which is a mixed-gender competition aimed towards introducing newer members to Gaelic games.

However, from talking to the lads you get the sense that the Texas League is what gets the blood coursing through their veins. It’s during these encounters with Austin, Dallas and San Antonio that rivalries are formed and bragging rights are claimed but it’s also incorporated a sense of camaraderie because without one another who knows if they’d have survived this long.

“The public is great and everybody loves playing against each other [in the pub league] but a big draw every year is playing against different cities, different clubs and I think it had to be a regional effort in order to grow the club,” Robertson says.

“If Houston was just by itself playing Gaelic, I don’t know how it would have thrived back when Johnny, Philly and Murphy started it.

“They also got Austin involved and San Antonio and Dallas and because of that, you have this fresh blood game every now and then where you are getting to see new faces, different skill levels and different things. I think if you don’t have that aspect and that blueprint of clubs supporting each other. It would be difficult.”

For Gaetano, who began her playing career with rivals Austin, the connection between the clubs is something that has helped one another to grow.

“I started on the Austin team before switching to the Houston team but even when I was living in Austin I had talked to Philly and there’s a nice camaraderie to that where the clubs want to see each other succeed and grow. There’s a connection between the clubs where they are willing to help each other when needed.”

Don’t get it twisted, though, sport is about rivalry and when they take the field there’s certainly no love lost.

“You know how the GAA goes, there have been a few humdingers over the years,” Larkin laughs.

“Thankfully it usually gets resolved and settled but yeah, we have derbies, we have rivalries, we have teams that we really want to beat a lot more than other teams and there are only four teams here so figure that one out.

“However, overall, the Texas League is important for sustainability, recruitment and everything we’re trying to get to.”

With the ongoing pandemic wreaking havoc worldwide, competition has been few and far between in 2020 for Houston Gaels with their annual pub league suspended shortly before the playoffs were due to begin.

However, this was never something that was going to stop the club. Due to the dispersed nature of the city, unlike clubs in Ireland, they haven’t been able to rally around one another as easily as others.

Again, though, they thought outside the box completing their pub league in the form of a virtual fitness competition while weekly “happy hour” zoom chats have taken place in order to keep its members connected.

“The fitness thing was awesome with a real competitive nature to it,” Gaetano says.

“I think it motivated a lot of people to stay active. You kind of built that team camaraderie among the pub league teams because each captain was reaching out to players and keeping track.

“Our pub league was suspended right before the playoffs, so we were trying to think of a way to keep it going and keep everyone kind of together so we could start going again, just to keep the camaraderie going. So we started these workout challenges just to keep people moving and motivated.”

“The zoom happy hour was similar,” Robertson recalls.

“We wanted to continue that camaraderie and friendship. Normally, during the pub league or Texas League, we had social events, whether it was happy hour at a bar or a family event. We would do that. With this [Covid-19], we understood we couldn’t. We couldn’t physically be with each other but we wanted to keep building the connections.

“Especially for people who just joined, we got a great influx of players this year, American players, we didn’t want to lose them. We don’t want them to come in and be gone for two months and not come back so we started this zoom happy hour were every Saturday for a while we would link in and do some quizzes or whatever, something fun and just chit chat with each other.”

This week, in particular, stands out for Houston Gaels as they’re new kits were officially launched with Guinness coming on board as the club’s official sponsor.

A rare achievement indeed but something that Robertson admits was lost on the homegrown talent.

“It’s interesting from an American standpoint, I think the impact of having Guinness as a sponsor might be lost on some of the American members because they might not understand that Guinness doesn’t sponsor every single team.

“Like, over here I could imagine Bud Light or Budweiser sponsoring any team that came to them, but I understand talking with Johnny and a bunch Irish folk, they don’t do it very often and to have an American club level team doing it is amazing.

“Financially, from playing and being on the board, seeing and having to deal with the finances every year, I mean it’s massive. It’s days and nights massive. It means we can get new kits, we can rent fields, new equipment, we can put money into social events now where we can go to bars and we can have a tab and that entices people to come out. It creates a good foundation for us.”

Seeing how the world-renowned company has pitched in and helped local establishments who support Houston Gaels is something that makes Gaetano proud to have the name splashed across her jersey on matchday.

“I think the cool thing about having Guinness as a sponsor is like this season, in particular, seeing the work they have done throughout Covid to support pubs and bars.

“Honestly it makes me really proud to have them on my jersey knowing they are sponsoring us and seeing how much great work they are doing throughout this time.”

We’ll leave the last word to co-founder, Philly Larkin, who speaks with such passion that it leaves a fellow Gael proud. Not just because they are spreading the word of the GAA but doing it in a way that will soon be looked back upon as innovative.

“I suppose to sum up it is a good blueprint. I think that’s the future as well.

“I think the J1 programme is getting wound down if it hasn’t already been so I’ve heard that some clubs up north are already struggling and I hope that’s not the case, I’m not saying that with any kind of glee.

“The future has to be this way. The members are fantastic, we’ve 400 members but getting people out to play, advertising it, finding a facility, these are the big challenges we face.

“We’re at that sort of transition phase where we need to find the right mix around who in the club, who is the next generation that can take over and be as passionate about the club as we have been and take it to the next level.

“That’s going to be the challenge and we need to find those people otherwise the club won’t survive.”

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