The Irish Experiment is the popular name for the interest, primarily from VFL/AFL clubs, in bringing Irish Gaelic footballers over to Australia to play Australian rules football professionally. The AFL's focus on Gaelic footballers is due to the similarities between the sports.
The Irish Experiment began in the mid-1980s as an informal project of the Melbourne Football Club. Despite its initial success, enthusiasm for the project lapsed until the 2000s, when it again became ongoing and currently increasing due to globalisation and professionalism in sport.
The highest profile product of the experiment to date has been Medal of the Order of Australia and Brownlow Medal recipient Jim Stynes, who was an early recruit. Irishman Tadhg Kennelly was a key player in the Sydney Swans 2005 AFL Grand Final victory. The highest profile Gaelic footballer to sign an AFL contract is Tommy Walsh.
Early interactions between the VFL/AFL and GAA
In 1967, Harry Beitzel drew inspiration from watching the 1966 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship final on television and formed an Australian side, nicknamed "The Galahs", to play the game against an Irish side. The next year he organised The Australian Football World Tour, a six-match series with games played against Irish teams in Ireland, the United Kingdom and United States of America. What followed was the beginning of regular interaction between the two codes which was to become the hybrid code of International Rules Football.
Beginnings of the Irish Experiment
Ron Barassi, drawing comparisons between Australian rules football and Gaelic football was of the opinion that Gaelic Footballers could provide a previously untapped pool of potential Australian Rules players. At the time, Australian Rules was, with the introduction of the Sydney Swans, increasing its national focus and emerging from a semi-professional sport to a fully professional one. As a result, wealthy Victorian clubs were scouting the country far and wide for new talent to gain an advantage in the sport's premier competition. In 1982, Barassi (then the Melbourne VFL club coach) and his recruiting team including Melbourne's Barry Richardson travelled to Ireland, looking for young, tall, and talented players.
The first recruit was Sean Wight. Further advertising resulted in the recruitment of a "tall, skinny lad", Jim Stynes. Both Wight and Stynes, still very much learning the game, played together in the club's 1987 night premiership. While Stynes captured the Melbourne reserves best and fairest that year, he also involved in an embarrassing event which cast doubts on the Irish experiment. His lack of understanding of the rules single-handedly cost Melbourne a berth in the 1987 VFL Grand Final. The infamous Preliminary Final incident in which he ran over the mark before the siren made him and the Irish experiment the focus of Melbourne media. The mistake awarded Hawthorn's Gary Buckenara a 15-metre penalty which resulted in a winning goal to qualify for the Grand Final. Despite the setback, Stynes and Wight were both to improve in the following seasons and become regular senior players.
Other clubs watched the Irish experiment's mixed bag of success and failure warily. St Kilda was the only other club to attempt to convert a gaelic footballer, Dermot McNicholl. McNicholl's decision to return home after 3 matches with the club helped to fuel the notion that the Irish experiment would attract few stayers.
Despite the Melbourne Football Club's enthusiasm for the Irish experiment and early success with some Irish players, the majority of players from the Irish Experiment did not fare as well. Most failed to meet expectations, not make VFL level, and many instead returned home to Ireland.
Wight and Stynes both featured in the 1988 VFL Grand Final. However despite high expectations Melbourne was convincingly thrashed by Hawthorn, then the dominant club of the era. However, Stynes was voted best on field for the Demons. Hawthorn's emerging champion Dermott Brereton, of Irish descent, dominated from centre-half forward with a haul of 5 goals.
A much improved Jim Stynes won the Brownlow Medal in 1991, elevating him in the elite category of players for many years to come. However the rare successes were increasingly seen as "one offs" and other clubs showed little enthusiasm with the "hit and miss" strategy. Melbourne, the trailblazer club was not translating recruitment into onfield success and was fast losing financial resources that were required to sustain international recruitment. As a result, few AFL clubs recruited Gaelic footballers played at the highest level in the 1990s. Even the recruitment of Jim Stynes' brother Brian yielded just a handful of unimpressive senior games.
With the increasing professionalism of the AFL competition, some clubs continued to speculate about the overseas talent pool. Kevin Sheedy in particular conducted a series of his own experiments with overseas players from various sporting backgrounds, but did not include Ireland or gaelic football. Despite generating media publicity, none of these experiments were ultimately successful and increasingly sections of the Australian media began to mock the idea of international recruitment.
The Irish experiment lay dormant for many years until Melbourne once again began to take an interest in it. The Sydney Swans followed with the recruitment of Tadhg Kennelly through its rookie list. Kennelly was an almost overnight success, being nominated for the AFL Rising Star award in his first season and widely hailed by the media. As a result other clubs began to show a much keener interest in Irish talent.
With access to additional resources, AFL clubs began to spend more time and effort in identifying and training athletic and talented rookies. Collingwood, Carlton and Brisbane in particular began to show an interest and hold scouting sessions and tryouts for Irish players.
Carlton followed and its experiments with Setanta and Aisake Ó hAilpín began to bear fruit and attract significant media interest in both Australia and Ireland. These experiments were of particular note, as for the first time a club was looking to other sports than gaelic football, by identifying talented hurling athletes with the right ingredients to become AFL players.
With Gaelic footballer Colm Begley's rapid conversion at Brisbane and Martin Clarke's successful AFL debut, media commentators hailed a new era for the Irish experiment. During the 2007 AFL season several AFL clubs began sending talent scouts to Ireland.
In March 2008, it was revealed by the media that the AFL had considered a radical proposal to launch an Irish-dominated team in Sydney's western suburbs, which would perform before an international audience under the Celtic brand name. The "Sydney Celtics" plan was first put to AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou in early 2007 by Gaelic Players Association executive Donal O'Neill. It was said that the proposal originated at the International Rules series in Ireland in late 2006 where O'Neill put forward a plan to purchase an AFL licence in Sydney. However, the AFL later dismissed it as simple speculation.
Mid 2008, the interest of clubs reached a peak and Tadhg Kennelly and Jim Stynes spoke out about the increasing recruitment activity. AFL player manager Ricky Nixon set up recruitment networks in Ireland to complement those already in place by clubs such as Collingwood, Carlton and Brisbane. Nickey Brennan, GAA boss spoke out against the recruitment activity in June 2008. The AFL and GAA had ongoing discussions about putting limits on the recruitment of players.
Despite the rise of former hurler Setanta Ó hAilpín in the AFL, recruitment interest in Ireland began to wane in mid-2010. Several Irish players cancelled their rookie contracts to return home, others were delisted after brief bouts in the various state leagues. With a media circus surrounding the recruitment of Karmichael Hunt to the Gold Coast Football Club and Israel Folau to the Greater Western Sydney Football Club focus began to shift to other sports, particularly rugby football as a potential source of talent. With the success of Canadian rugby union player Mike Pyke's conversion and many other players transitioning at junior level the AFL and commentators began to speculate that professional rugby league players might make an easier transition to the AFL due to coming from a high-contact professional sport involving an oval ball.
This list includes any player who at minimum (regardless of whether he ever went to Australia or played actual VFL/AFL matches) meets any one of the following criteria:
- a) brought to Australia by an AFL club
- b) spent time training with an AFL club
- c) played in an AFL club's affiliated state league club or AFL practice match
- d) offered an AFL contract by a club
- e) listed on an AFL rookie or senior list
The following players from the Irish Experiment have either played a VFL/AFL game, or are currently on an AFL list.
|Bolded VFL/AFL club names indicate that this Irish sportsman was the first player associated with that club|
|Irish sportsmen formerly associated with VFL/AFL club highlighted in blue played at least one game at VFL/AFL senior level|
|Irish sportsmen highlighted in green are currently on an AFL senior list|
|Irish sportsmen highlighted in yellow are currently on an AFL rookie list|
|Year linked with AFL||Player||GAA||Initial VFL/AFL club||Draft status||VFL/AFL Debut||VFL/AFL Matches||Notes|
|1982||Sean Wight||Kerry||Melbourne||rookie||1985||150||Melbourne's first Irish recruit. Had a serviceable career at Melbourne.|
|1983||Paul Earley||Roscommon||Melbourne||1984||1||Returned to Ireland.|
|1984||Jim Stynes||Dublin||Melbourne||rookie||1987||264||Won the Brownlow Medal in 1991. Inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 2003. Still holds the AFL record for consecutive games played.|
|1987||Dermot McNicholl||Derry||St Kilda||1988 National Draft (Pick 99)||1990||3||St Kilda's first Irish player returned to Ireland in 1990 because his university refused to let him defer his course any longer.|
|1990||Brian Stynes||Dublin||Melbourne||rookie||1992||2||Younger brother of Jim Stynes.|
|2001||Tadhg Kennelly||Kerry||Sydney||2001 AFL Draft (rookie)||2001||197||Sydney's first Irish player was also the first to win an AFL premiership medallion (in 2005) and his much celebrated AFL career led to renewed interest in Irish recruitment. Retired from AFL early in a bid to win the 2009 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final which he did before deciding to return to Australia and resume his career at the Swans in 2010.|
|2004||Setanta Ó hAilpín||Cork||Carlton||2004 AFL Draft (rookie)||2005||88||Better known as a hurler
Shifted to Greater Western Sydney in 2012.
|2006||Colm Begley||Laois||Brisbane||2006 AFL Draft (rookie)||2006||30||Brisbane's first Irish player made a rapid conversion which stunned the Australian media. Played his first AFL game just weeks after his arrival in Australia, however was eventually delisted by Brisbane but given a second chance by St Kilda Decided to return to Ireland after the 2009 AFL season and was delisted.|
|2006||Martin Clarke||Down||Collingwood||2006 AFL Draft (rookie)||2007||73||Clarke was Collingwood's first Irish recruit, and was very successful upon debut in 2007. He returned to play Gaelic football for Down in 2010, and returned to play Australian football for Collingwood in 2012.|
|2007||Pearce Hanley||Mayo||Brisbane||2007 AFL Draft (rookie)||2008||96||Promoted to Brisbane's senior list for 2010|
|2008 (August)||Michael Quinn||Longford||Essendon||2008 AFL Draft (rookie)||2009||8||Essendon's first Irish AFL player surprised many, as he was possibly the shortest ever Irish recruit. Played in the 2009 NAB Cup and debuted in Round 2, 2009 for Essendon. On debut took the record from Martin Clarke for the quickest time to convert between codes.|
|2008 (August)||Zach Tuohy||Laois||Carlton||2009 AFL Draft (rookie)||2011||76||Offered 2-year rookie contract, and made his senior debut in 2011.|
|2008 (August)||Niall McKeever||Antrim||Brisbane||22||Trained with Richmond's senior squad in Melbourne. Was also linked to North Melbourne before signing a rookie contract with the Brisbane Lions.|
|2008 (December)||Tommy Walsh||Kerry||St Kilda||2009 AFL Draft (rookie)||2012||5||A high profile talent and who after several offers accepted an invitation to train with St Kilda in Melbourne but withdrew, leaving open the possibility of a future contract with an AFL club. Finally agreed to sign for St Kilda in 2009 but didn't play a game. In 2012 he signed with Sydney. In 2014, he decided to return to Ireland.|
|2009||Jamie O'Reilly||Down||Richmond||2009 AFL Draft (rookie)||2010||4||Richmond's first Irish signing. Delisted in 2011|
|2011||Caolan Mooney||Down||Collingwood Football Club||2012 Rookie Draft||2012||6|
|2013||Ciarán Sheehan||Cork||Carlton Football Club||2014 Rookie Draft||4|
|2013||Ciarán Byrne||Louth||Carlton Football Club||2014 Rookie Draft|
|2014||Cian Hanley||Mayo U18s||Brisbane Lions|
The following players have been connected with a VFL/AFL club, but never played a senior game.
|Year linked with AFL||Player||GAA||Initial VFL/AFL club||Notes|
|1990||Anthony Tohill||Derry||Melbourne||Broke his leg playing Aussie Rules and returned to Ireland in 1991.|
|2001||Bernie Collins||Cork||Western Bulldogs|
|2004||Aisake Ó hAilpín||Cork||Carlton||Brother of Setanta, and better known as a hurler. He returned to Ireland in 2009, then returned to Melbourne in 2011, where he currently plays suburban club football.|
|2006||Cathal Corr||St Kilda||Played for Coburg Tigers in the VFL|
|2007||Brendan Murphy||Carlow||Sydney||Decided to return to Ireland after injuries hindered his attempt to adapt to the new code.|
|2007||Conor Meredith||Laois||North Melbourne|
|2008 (August)||Ian Ryan||Limerick||Essendon|||
|2008||Carl Dias||Dublin||Adelaide||Trialled in Australia by Adelaide but not offered a rookie contract|
|2008 (August)||Chrissy McKaigue||Derry||Sydney||Hurler and footballer offered a rookie contract Trialled in Australia by Sydney. Signed a rookie contract in September 2009.|
|2008 (August)||James Kielt||Derry||St Kilda||Trained with both St Kilda and North Melbourne.|
|2009||David Moran||Kerry||St Kilda|||
|2009||Ger Cafferkey||Mayo||St Kilda|||
|2009 (June)||Paul Cribbin||Kildare||Collingwood Agreed to join the club in 2010 |
|2009||James McCarthy||Dublin||North Melbourne|||
|2009||Barry Reilly||Cavan||North Melbourne|||
|2010||Paul Cribbin||Kildare||Collingwood Football Club||2011 Rookie Draft|
|2011||John Heslin||Westmeath||Richmond||Returned home citing homesickness as his reason to pursue a GAA career|
|2012||Ciarán Kilkenny||Dublin||Hawthorn||Decided for personal reasons to remain in Ireland where he wished to pursue a career with Castleknock and Dublin.|
- "150th Memories – The Irish Experiment". http://melbournefc.com.au/ Melbourne Football Club. 1 January 2008. Retrieved 25 October 2008.
- "Begley warns Aussies are watching". http://www.gaa.ie GAA. 3 January 2006. Retrieved 26 January 2009.
- Murphy, Catherine (14 October 2008). "Blues persist with Irish experiment". www.afl.com.au. Retrieved 3 February 2009.
- Murphy, Catherine (11 July 2008). "Crows begin Irish experiment". www.afl.com.au. Retrieved 3 February 2009.
- Broad, Ben (22 August 2008). "Cats join in the Irish experiment". www.afl.com.au. Retrieved 4 February 2009.
- "Aussies to swoop in 'most concerted ever' trawl for Irish talent". http://archives.tcm.ie/irishexaminer/ Irish Examiner. 27 July 2007. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
- "Brennan reveals anger at AFL scouts". RTÉ. 10 July 2008. Retrieved 1 February 2009.
- Breheny, Martin (30 October 2008). "GAA plan to curb talent flow Down Under". www.independent.ie Irish Independent. Retrieved 1 February 2009.
- Pluck of Irish shines through in Essendon's win over Fremantle from heraldsun.com.au
- "Barassi named No. 1". 15 March 2009. Retrieved 22 August 2009.
- Hutchison, Craig (13 September 2008). "History repeats for Jim Stynes". Adelaide News. Retrieved 6 March 2009.
- Caroline Wilson (12 July 2008). "AFL eyes Ireland for Celtic team". The Age. Retrieved 12 July 2008.
- League code switchers may have jump on Irish by Jake Niall for the Sydney Morning Herald 8 June 2010
- "Swans' Irish experiment ready to throw off his tag". Melbourne: http://www.theage.com.au The Age. 20 January 2003. Retrieved 25 October 2008.
- "Keeping Irish eyes smiling". http://collingwoodfc.com.au Collingwood Football Club. 23 October 2007. Retrieved 25 October 2008.
- Robinson, Mark (7 October 2008). "Carlton appear to be put O'hAilpin brothers on the market". http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/ Herald Sun. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
- "Carlton chief reckons Aisake still has Oz future". http://www.herald.ie/ Evening Herald. 15 October 2008. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
- "Elite Athletes – Colm Begley". http://www.griffith.edu.au/ Griffith University. Archived from the original on 22 August 2008. Retrieved 25 October 2008.
- "Ireland triumphs in first match". http://sportsaustralia.com/. 29 October 2006. Retrieved 25 October 2008.
- "Selection 83: Colm Begley". http://www.afl.com.au/ Australian Football League. 28 November 2008. Retrieved 28 November 2008.
- "Begley calls time on AFL career". The Irish Times.
- "Dons list Irish rookie Michael Quinn". Herald Sun. 17 November 2008.
- Irishman Michael Quinn becomes Bombers' success story
- "Walsh latest star to get trial in Australia". The Irish Times. 11 November 2008.
- Roffey, Chelsea (16 November 2008). "Demons' regret is Ireland's gain". www.afl.com.au Australian Football League. Retrieved 22 May 2009.
- "Cavanagh turns down AFL offer". RTÉ News. 14 October 2005.
- Boulton, Martin (25 September 2009). "Clarke opts for Ireland over the Pies – RFNews – theage.com.au". The Age (Melbourne).
- Keys, Colm (22 August 2008). "Ryan and Quinn on brink of Essendon deals after trial". Irish Independent.
- Campbell, John (22 August 2008). "AFL scouts eye GAA young guns".
- "Ciarán Kilkenny leaves AFL club Hawthorn to return to Dublin". RTÉ News. 10 January 2013.