It started out as a support network for Irish nurses working in Reading’s Royal Berkshire Hospital.
But two years after formation, the women of St Anthony’s GAA Club have graced the Madejski Stadium and grown into one of Britain’s most formidable football teams.
The moratorium on the recruitment of nursing graduates in Ireland has seen nearly 150 nurses take up employment in the hospital since the downturn in 2008.
Among their number is Dee Donohue from Crossmolina in Co. Mayo. She set up the team in 2010 and works as an occupational therapist in the stroke unit. She now doubles as Chairperson and player.
“It was something that started from girls living away from home and there were so many working in the hospital,” explained the 29-year-old, who has been living in Britain since 2002.
“We decided to get a team going. It was tough at the beginning with people working shifts. But what has happened since is unbelievable. Some nights there are 40 girls at training. There are also girls from England and Australia who have been drawn in to play because they’ve been working beside Irish girls on the wards.
“At the beginning they used to wonder what we were up to. Now they’re a part of it.”
Donohue said the team could have floundered because of the nature of hospital shift work. But the squad has already expanded beyond the confines of the Royal Berkshire – 20 per cent of the players live in the area but are employed in other industries.
And with so many wanting to play, Donohue said there’s never a problem putting out a team, and a very successful one at that.
Last season, St Anthony’s Ladies have won the London Junior Championship and the Junior League, only losing one game in the process
In January, Dee and her teammates played a demonstration match against Father Murphys at the half-time break during the London Irish versus Sale Sharks rugby union match at the 24,000 capacity Madejski Stadium.
The Chairperson said the contest was a great opportunity to showcase a club which travelled to Kerry this year to participate in a tournament organised by football great Páidí Ó’Sé.
“It’s a home away from home,” said Donohue. “It’s something we all enjoy and there’s a growing appetite to be a part of it. The Ladies team is getting a lot of attention right now. But there has been a men’s team in the club since 1960.
“I don’t know if they get jealous,” she joked. “But there is great banter and hopefully the competition between the lads and the girls will bring more success.”