IF YOU didn’t know Brendie Brien you’d think he was only a few hours off the plane from Shannon or Knock. His accent, “hurlin’ schtick, lovely schtuff” is as unpolluted as the east Galway air you’d swear he still breathes every day.
But he’s been here in the smoke since 1967. The subsequent 45 years have given him a lot but they haven’t taken from the 18 formative years in Killimor.
Brendie arrived a GAA man and that’s what he is today. How much of a GAA man? Well, he rolled up in London on Wednesday August 15, having travelled overnight. By Thursday night he over in Wormwood Scrubs, training with St Gabriels. Through the club he got a start on a job on Monday morning. Work was important, but he had to get hurling first; once that was taken care of everything else would follow. And it did. Accommodation was “no problem”.
Still, it was a culture shock. Kelvedon Road, Fulham was a lot different to the Ballinasloe Road at home.
“Getting used to living in a city was the biggest adjustment,” he says. “I was probably fortunate that I came over with a brother of mine, Liam, God rest him, he passed away in 2000.
“Life was very good … we had a great social life, there was the Hibernian up the road on Fulham Broadway. There was dancing Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights.”
Sunday afternoons were taken with by matches. Coaches would leave Fulham for New Eltam at 1pm. If you missed the bus, it was off to Charing Cross for the train where you’d bump into a few other stragglers.
“Players were more united at that time,” says Brien. “There was less activities, very little on television. They’d meet up for a pint maybe in the Kings Head in Fulham. At any function, you could guarantee there’d be 250, 300 there.
“The Irish community was certainly a lot tighter. After training there could be 20 or 30 lads sitting in the backs of cars and they’d be having the craic and asking what was going on. That was their social outlet … Contact with home, if you didn’t have the information, somebody else there would have it.”
It got to the stage where so much – mainly Galway – gossip was being peddled in the carpark at the Scrubs that when you rang home – “if they had a house phone” – Brien and his teammates would almost be breaking news of home to people at home.
The contrast with today’s instant-messaging, texting, tweeting, skypeing world is stark. But the new chairman of the Provincial Council of Britain says the need for the GAA, for a real-life social network and help with finding work and a place to live, remains.
“They need it more now than ever,” says Brien. “Before they leave home now they’re in contact with clubs and individuals. If clubs can get them work and accommodation, there’s a queue of people looking to get work.”
Brien has fielded more phone calls than most over the years from GAA people. Even as player, he was an officer. It was a lack of first-team playing opportunities led him away from St Gabriels and into his inaugural administrative role.
“I liked playing hurling, not standing on the line as a substitute so I transferred in 1975.”
After playing intermediate and junior for the Scrubs-based outfit, who were never far from being top dogs in London, Brien decided to throw in his lot with a small club that was closer to home. Tara hurling club in Fulham had merged with Young Irelands of Black Heath.
“I was living in Fulham and they were struggling to keep themselves going. I thought for what it’s worth I’ll join forces with them.”
Brien became secretary of the club because “no-one else wanted to do it”.
On the field they won the Junior championship in 1977. But by the end of the decade numbers were down and the few remaining players transferred away. Brien returned to the Gabriels.
He became treasurer of the club in 1980 and in 1981, at the age of 32, he’d broken into the Senior team and won a county medal to complete his set – which included an intermediate medal from 1973 and the junior one from 77.
He cites his finest hour on the field as 1984 All-Britain Championship. It was centenary year and an open draw culminated in a drawn final between the Gabriels and the Desmonds, with Gabriels winning the replay.
“I got a centenary medal, it was nice to get one, there’s only a few of them out there.”
The appeal of playing is obvious. The appeal of GAA politics less so. Brien, though, was drawn to both.
“For my sins, I was never shy of committees,” he says.
As well as serving as secretary, treasurer, county board delegate and various other positions for the Gabriels, Brien has sat on fixture committee in London, the CCC, old disciplinary committees.
Ask him what personal qualities are needed for these roles and he says: “It’s a matter of common sense. Go in with an open mind. Be fair and honest. That’s what I’ve found.”
And down the road, “you could meet with a player [that has been before a disciplinary committee] and he’ll say ‘Come on I’ll buy you an auld pint … maybe I deserved what I got’. That’s what makes the GAA so great. In all my time, you’d deal with different people but you’d never have a grudge with anyone.”
Away from the committee rooms and fixtures and disciplinary boards, Brien has done his bit to train the next generation of players. Attracting volunteers to the GAA is getting harder but, he says, it can be done.
Along with Mick Corcoran he coached Gabriel’s underage side of the time, Ruislip Gaels, during most of the 1990s.
“We started off with seven or eight players. Three or four months later we had 40 to 50 players,” he says. “Each parent that was there, we gave them a job to do. After a while, you’d have another five or six parents. Soon we were going down to Mitcham for a game and you’d have 10 or 12 parents with you. That’s the way forward. Parents will still do that, if you get them involved.
“Mick Corcoran used the company van for transport. Caoimhín Flaherty did the fundraising, he was very good. His son Seosamh was wing-back for Moycullen against Robert Emmetts this year. He started off his hurling in London with us.
“We also had Kieran Campbell, he played rugby with London Irish and Ulster and underage for Ireland. Then there was Adrian Flavin, he played for London Irish too. He plays for Connacht now.”
Friendships forged then among the players, parents and mentors, at training, matches and a trip to Belmullet, are still in place. Of everything he’s done in the GAA, Brien cites coaching Ruislip’s young Gaels as “probably the most enjoyable of the lot”.
Playing, coaching, administration; all have been strands through which friends were made. That, says Brien, is what he’s most grateful to the GAA for: the friends he’s made along the way.
Could he imagine a different life, one with no involvement in hurling or football or fixtures committees or the CCC or the overseas committee or the centenary final in 1984, the craic in the car-park at the Scrubs, or even now, standing on the bank at Ruislip, shooting the breeze with the old heads, being introduced to new ones?
“I’d find it very difficult to imagine life without GAA,” he says. “It has been the main activity, all my life.”