The Montreal Shamrocks Are Giving the City Gaelic Sports
The Organization is Pushing for a Permanent Home in Montreal
Quebec and Montreal have a rich Irish background, with Montreal’s Irish population making up about six per cent of the city’s total population.
With such a high number of people with Irish heritage, the culture is definitely alive and well in Montreal.
The Montreal Shamrocks Gaelic Athletic Club is a prime example of this. Founded in 1948, the Shamrocks are considered to be one of the main cornerstones of Irish sporting culture in Montreal.
In the late ‘90s and early 2000s Gaelic sports saw a sharp decline in interest.
“Gaelic sports were on [their] knees, and had become pretty much non-existent,” said Shamrocks correspondence officer, Steven Owens. “The Shamrocks are the only organization in Montreal that is keeping the games alive and have been directly responsible for its renaissance.”
Gaelic games are a huge part of the Irish culture. They represent a meeting place for people whether they’re Irish or not, creating a sense of community rivaled by few sports.
“It’s a very positive environment; the Montreal Shamrocks are very much about teaching the Irish culture and Irish sports,” said Julie Morrice, former captain of Concordia’s Gaelic football team the Warriors.
“It gets you really involved. A lot of the Shamrocks that we have are natives to Ireland; they were born there and they lived there their whole lives. People are coming from Ireland who are sharing their sport with Montrealers, so it really keeps you connected to the Irish community in Montreal,” she continued.
What started as a small league for individuals to get together to play Gaelic football (think rugby and soccer combined), hurling, a predecessor of hockey, and camogie, the women’s version of hurling, soon became a superleague.
“It started with about 20 people who just wanted to get together and play some football,” said Owens.
With five Gaelic football teams in the men’s category and four on the women’s side, plus three hurling teams, the league has seen huge growth over the last 10 years.
“We have almost 200 players playing men’s Gaelic football, ladies Gaelic football, hurling and camogie on a weekly basis from January through October,” Owens said.
At the youth level, the Shamrocks are looking to keep the momentum going by training the next generation of Gaelic games athletes.
Annie Gaumond joined the Shamrocks three years ago, and since then has been heading the organization’s youth programs.
The Shamrocks also run a six-week youth camp every summer, where kids have the chance to learn the basics of hurling and Gaelic football once a week.
“We do little drills and what’s called ‘go games,’” said Gaumond. “What we found is that competitive games can be too much for them so we make little mini games and they seem to really enjoy that.”
With the growth of the youth camp in the summer, the Shamrocks have been able to join on to the Continental Youth Championship, the largest Gaelic football tournament in North America.
“Last year we sent families from Montreal for the first time,” said Gaumond. “They played on Toronto and Ottawa teams and they had a really fun time.”
“It’s very hard to build a youth league when you’re always trying to look for a pitch. It’s really inconsistent for parents.” — Julie Morrice
The Shamrocks place an emphasis on making the sport accessible to all. Gaumond says she looks to go into boroughs that are low-income, recognizing that organized sports like hockey and soccer aren’t always an affordable option.
“Gaelic games are very accessible, and the Montreal Shamrocks pay for everything, equipment included,” said Gaumond.
“It allows these kids, a majority of them have Irish heritage, maybe they’ve heard of Gaelic games, maybe they haven’t, but it introduces them to a piece of their heritage that they may not have had access to before, for free,” she said.
Last year was also the beginning of a program in partnership with St. Mary’s University College Belfast, where the Shamrocks hosted two Gaelic football coaches for a period of six weeks. During that time, the coaches visited local schools and put on clinics to get kids exposed to the sport.
“Every day they went into a different school,” said Gaumond. “It was beyond successful, all the teachers were very happy with it, all the students loved it. Because of that we picked up the project again this year, and all of the previous schools from last year signed up in a heartbeat, and there are some new schools this year.”
This kind of growth, however, doesn’t come without its challenges.
The league has been fighting the city of Montreal and its boroughs for quite some time now. The problem? Not enough field time is offered for the league and its teams.
“We’ve become a victim of our own success in the last number of years,” said Owens. “Up until maybe three or four years ago, all we needed was one sports field a week, maybe for an hour. But now we have so many players and so many official games going, we need much more field time.”
The issue lies in the way the booking works within boroughs. To use a public field, an individual or organization has to go to the borough to obtain a permit to use the field for a set period of time on a given date. These permits are paid for. However, boroughs allow their soccer programs to book the fields for free and for any length of time that they wish.
What ends up happening is, for example, the Shamrocks will go to book the field in Verdun but will be turned away because Verdun soccer has it booked for that time slot, even though when you drive by there’s likely to be no one on it.
“A lot of the sports in Montreal that get the field time are soccer, or baseball. Those time slots are really for those spots, so whenever we try to book a pitch there’s always some sort of miscommunication with the city and pitches are double booked, and priorities are given to soccer,” said Morrice.
In the winter, the Shamrocks have found themselves a home at Concordia’s dome on its Loyola campus, but this struggle with the city leaves field time up in the air during the summer.
“We’ve constantly been at different meetings with the city,” said Morrice. “And they tell you that if you have youth program that you have priority but it’s very hard to build a youth league when you’re always trying to look for a pitch. It’s really inconsistent for parents.”
The Shamrocks hope to someday have a permanent home of their own.
“The long-term plan is trying to find some land to develop our own field and have our own clubhouse. It’s an ambitious plan to set up the first independent Gaelic sports field in Montreal,” said Owens.
The club thought they’d have access to land near the Black Rock, a historical monument commemorating the deaths of 6,000 Irish immigrants to Canada during the famine near the Victoria Bridge. However, that possibility has since fallen through.
As the search for their own land continues, the Shamrocks will continue to push the city for more field time, and spread their love of Gaelic sports to anyone who’s willing to give them a try.