The founding of the French club came from a group of people who love our games
The Paris Gaels club was founded in 1994 by Irish expatriates living in Paris. The club became the first club on the continent to be affiliated with the GAA in 1995. The origins of the club can be traced back to the Colleges des Irlandais, now known as the Centre Culturel Irlandais located in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, not far from the Pantheon where the remains of some famous French citizens like Voltaire, Emile Zola, Victor Hugo, Marie Curie and French Resistance leader Jean Moulin are interred.
The club was founded on a very social basis, every Sunday morning in the College des Irlandais there was mass at 10:30. In the pre-internet and social media days, the chat and cup of tea after mass was a good place for Irish expats to meet up and network. It was soon suggested that a kickpuck about should occur after mass and so it became tradition that every Sunday afternoon, a large group of Irish expats would make their way to the Bois de Vincennes for casual training session. This motley group of engineers, teachers, barmen, au pairs and IT professionals eventually formalized the club, and the Paris Gaels was born. The key people involved were Peter Gavigan, Ann Donnelly, and Ciaran McGuil.
Throughout the late ‘90s early 2000s, the development of GAA clubs was slow, mainly focused in big cities like Amsterdam, Brussels, Luxembourg, Den Haag etc and a European County Board was established in 1999 to govern rules and establish competitions. The European Men’s Football Championship was established in 2001, with the Paris Gaels winning the inaugural title, further championship success in 2003, 2005 and more recently in 2015 means that the club shares the honor of being the most successful in Europe tied with Den Haag GAA. On the ladies’ football front, the only European title came in 2007, although the Paris ladies have gone on to contest numerous finals. On the hurling and camogie front, the club has yet to win a European hurling title, although we contested finals in 2012 and 2013. The Camogie team won the club its first European championship in 2012.
On the domestic side in France, the club participates in the French Federal division along with all clubs outside of the Brittany region which have a parallel championship. In June, the top side from the Federal and Brittany division contest the French championship. Both the men’s and ladies’ teams have a very successful record in both the Federal and French Championships, but the level of play throughout all divisions has improved greatly with clubs like Rennes, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Clermont all now challenging for championship glory.
Hurling and Camogie on the domestic front remains under development, the club in 2019 launched a #Guerillahurling initiative, hosting initiation training sessions, and coaching days, inviting players from clubs all over France to participate in. The results were seen on October 2 2021, when the club hosted a hurling and camogie tournament, fielding two hurling teams and two camogie teams featuring players from various clubs in France. Belgium GAA also participated in what became an event to properly launch Hurling and Camogie in France.
In the club’s more recent history, a GAA Handball section was launched in 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic and the first French Handball championship held in 2021, Paris’s Naoise Greene has the honor of being the first ever French Handball champion.
The club has always looked at new ways to grow in Paris and have led numerous initiatives aimed at increasing awareness of the GAA while working with local communities to further cement the club at grassroot level. The club regularly hosts Initiation sessions, with the aim of attracting more French players to teams. Often this is done in conjunction with the local Mairies or townhall.
In 2018, the Paris Gaels organized a twinning initiative with CLG Na Fianna from Glasnevin. This led to their GPO Mark McManus travelling to Paris to carry out an in depth training session while always managing a initiation session for u-12s with a local community outreach group from the Paris suburb of Montreuil.
In November of 2018, the Paris Gael’s men’s and ladies’ football teams travelled to Dublin for a much-publicized exhibition match against two senior CLG Na Fianna teams. In 2019, the club was heavily involved in a town twinning event between Blackrock in Dublin and the Paris suburb Vincennes. As part of the festivities, the club organized a ladies football tournament inviting Dublin clubs Kilmacud Crokes and Fingallians to take part. The tournament drew such prestigious spectators such as the Irish ambassador, the Mayor of Vincennes as well as local politicians from around Paris and Dublin.
Among the long-term ambition of the club is the creation of a youth section. For many years the club has been invited to secondary schools to host workshops. These types of workshops tend to be one-off events and without volunteers and available pitches. Most of the time it’s very difficult to follow up on. However, the club has a growing number of current and previous players who are now Mums and Dads and the interest to create a nursery section and an u-8s is there.
Another strategic ambition for the club is the construction of a 15-a-side GAA pitch in Paris. The club has held preliminary meetings with officials from Gaelic Games Europe and the Paris Hotel de Ville. A site has been identified in Vincennes, but there’s a long way to go before a project like that can be realized.
Throughout the years, the club has seen a radical change in the demographics of its members. Previously, most players in the club have been Irish expats. Indeed up until 2010 there were only a handful of French players in the squad.
But an exodus of Irish players between 2010-2012, forced the club to open up and recruit more French players. The result has seen French natives become more and more involved at the club to the point that 2021’s committee features only two Irish natives (Shane Harrison PRO and Naoise Greene Irish development officer). In 2020, the club elected it’s first French female Chariperson Julie Lepitre who has been involved in the club since 2008.
Despite the club’s ambitious plans and the success on the pitch, the Paris Gaels still encounter the same challenges as clubs back in Ireland. Paris is a huge city which has a population of about 12 million people (including suburbs), the quest to find pitches within a reasonable commuting distance has always been a challenge. Since 2001, the club’s home pitch has been at the ASPTT Stade Raoul Montbrand.
However the grounds have been taken over by the French Rugby Federation who intend to revamp Stade Raoul Montbrand into rugby school of excellence. Whether there will be room for Gaelic games after the revamp remains to be seen.
Another challenge has been sponsorship. Throughout the years the club has often been sponsored by Irish pubs, such as the Coolin (now closed) and the O’Sullivan’s chain which ended in 2018. The club has relied on donations and fundraising events to make ends meet.
However, in 2021 the club has reached a three-year agreement with Hannon Transport which is looking to expand its business in France and sees the engagement with the Irish community in Paris as being a key step in that expansion. The shared values of both the Paris Gaels and Hannon Transport means that the partnership has the best of chances of bringing success on the pitch for the club and in the marketplace for Hannon.
The future of the Paris Gaels is no doubt very promising, the difficulties of finding facilities will surely be problematic, but the club has been engaging for years with local townhalls and councillors to come up with a more long-term solution. With the club attracting more and more players both from the Irish expat community and local Parisians at least personnel wise, the club is in very good shape.
But an exodus of Irish players between 2010-2012, forced the club to open up and recruit more French players. The result has seen French natives become more and more involved at the club to the point that 2021’s committee features only two Irish natives. In 2020, the club elected it’s first French female Chairperson Julie Lepitre.