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.
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.
At the end of the 1988 season, Victoria Football Association (VFA) club Prahran enticed Dermot McNicholl, who had starred in two previous International rules series, to move to Melbourne. Two weeks later, St Kilda drafted him with the 99th selection in the 1988 VFL draft. In the same draft, Melbourne recruited two more Irish players, Jim Stynes' brother Brian and Tom Grehan. McNicholl spent the 1989 season playing for Prahran, before injury forced him to miss the first half of the 1990 season, after which he recovered and made his senior debut for St Kilda. He played three senior games before returning to Ireland to complete his university studies.
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.
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. Even the recruitment of Jim Stynes' brother Brian yielded just a handful of unimpressive senior games and McNicholl's returned home after only 3 matches.
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 Giants 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. The transition of two highly publicised rugby league players has since proved to be of little success, and the cross/code focus of AFL recruiters has returned to the GAA and expanded to include American professional sportsmen.
In 2018 the Irish contingent in the AFL consists of five senior-listed players and six rookie-listed players.
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.
|*||Indicates that this Irish sportsman was the first player associated with that club|
|^||Irish sportsmen formerly associated with a VFL/AFL club/s played at least one game at VFL/AFL senior level|
|†||Irish sportsman is currently on an AFL senior list|
|‡||Irish sportsman is currently on an AFL rookie list|
|Year linked with AFL||Player||GAA||Initial VFL/AFL club||Draft status||VFL/AFL debut||VFL/AFL matches (to end 2015)||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 All-Ireland Minor Football Championship with Dublin before joining Melbourne and winning the Brownlow Medal in 1991. Inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 2003. Still holds the AFL record for consecutive games played. The Jim Stynes Medal, the Australian Player of the Series award in the International Rules Series, is named after him. He was honored with a state funeral in Melbourne when he passed away in 2012.|
|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 – the Swans' first Premiership in 72 years) and his much-celebrated AFL career led to renewed interest in Irish recruitment. Took a sabbatical from AFL in a bid to win the 2009 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final with Kerry (his father Tim had won five All-Irelands with Kerry), which he did before returning to Australia and rejoining the Swans in 2010. Also won the 2011 GAA Medal for being Irish Player of the Series in the International Rules Series. He is the first player to have won both the All-Ireland Senior Football Final and the AFL Grand Final.|
|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||142||Promoted to Brisbane's senior list for 2010|
|2008||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||Zach Tuohy†||Laois||Carlton||2009 AFL Draft (rookie)||2011||145||Offered 2-year rookie contract, and made his senior debut in 2011.|
|2008||Niall McKeever^||Antrim||Brisbane||2009 AFL Draft (Rookie)||2011||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||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*||2012 Rookie Draft||2012||6|
|2013||Ciarán Sheehan^||Cork||Carlton*||2014 Rookie Draft||2013||4||The second player to have played for both GAA and AFL teams to win the GAA Medal as Irish Player of the Series in the International Rules Series (2013).|
|2013||Ciarán Byrne†||Louth||Carlton*||2014 Rookie Draft||2014||15|
|2014||Conor McKenna†||Egrish||Essendon*||International rookie||2015||33|
|2015||Conor Glass‡||Derry||Hawthorn*||International rookie||2017||4||First Irishman to play for Hawthorn|
|2015||Colin O'Riordan†||Tipperary||Sydney*||International rookie||2018|
|2016||Mark O'Connor‡||Kerry||Geelong||International rookie||2017||2|
|2016||Conor Nash‡||Meath||Hawthorn||International rookie||2018|
|2016||Ray Connellan‡||West Meath||St Kilda||International rookie|
|2016||Darragh Joyce‡||Kilkenny||St Kilda||International rookie||2018|
|2017||Cillian McDaid‡||Galway||Carlton||International rookie|
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||Carl Dias||Dublin||Adelaide||Trialled in Australia by Adelaide but not offered a rookie contract|
|2008||Chrissy McKaigue||Derry||Sydney||Hurler and footballer offered a rookie contract Trialled in Australia by Sydney. Signed a rookie contract in September 2009.|
|2008||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||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.|
|2014||Daniel Flynn||Kildare||Port Adelaide||Returned home citing homesickness|
|2014||Cian Hanley||Mayo||Brisbane Lions|
|2015||Paddy Brophy||Kildare||West Coast Eagles|
|2019||James Madden||Dublin||Brisbane Lions|
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