My epic November was to be rounded off with an afternoon at Twickenham to watch England play Australia. When I got a press release through giving information about the opening of Hazelwood – London Irish’s new training facility in Sunbury that same morning, I didn’t really have any idea of what to expect but as Sunbury is but a stones throw from HQ it seemed a plan to go.
I turned up nice and early to discover a wonderful facility. In place of what was a 9 hole golf course are rugby pitches as far as you can see; I counted 6 sets of posts; one of which is placed on a 4G surface. Beyond the final set is an area big enough for mini-rugby to be played.
The morning was to be a very special one; Irish have moved from their old base at The Avenue, maybe a mile away from their new home. Over the 79 years the club have been in situ many families have spread their loved ones ashes at The Avenue. The club were clearly very mindful of the sensitivity of the move and the opening ceremony in effect started with what might be called a ‘closing ceremony’.
The Avenue is now a building site, with a Virgin Active gym already in place. In the midst is a huge and lovely tree, a ceremony took place beside the tree, led by The Rev Fr Patrick Devine; a hugely inspiring man who lives and works in Africa as Executive Chairman of The Shalom Centre for Conflict Resolution and Reconciiation. What an incredibly inspiring man! He spoke about the history of London Irish and its place in the lives of Irish men and women in England.
The ceremony was very moving and clearly touched those in attendance; including local councillors, dignitaries, members of both the professional and amateur clubs as well as family members of those whose ashes had been spread.
As part of the ceremony a rugby ball was blessed and Fr Devine took some soil and marked it with a cross. That ball was then transferred in a rugby relay to Hazelwood; the relay was started by London Irish Captain George Skivington and finished with one of the very youngest members of the club, U6 player Lars Esse.
Waiting at Hazelwood was The Mayor of Spelthorne, Councillor Suzy P Webb; a shy Lars handed the ball over to the Lady Mayor who then cut the ribbon to see Hazelwood officially opened! We then moved round to the back to unveil a beautiful bench engraved in memory of those whose ashes were spread at The Avenue. Again a very moving moment as Fr Devine and the Anglican minister who also attended both ceremonies blessed the bench.
We then moved inside where 2 special shirts were awarded to Louis Magee President of the IRFU; in memory of his Grandfather and namesake Louis Magee. He was one of the first inspirational players for the club; he represented Ireland 27 times between 1895- 1904 and was key in attracting players to London Irish. I’m going to take a quote from the website now to explain what was behind the inception of the club.
“As the 19th century drew to a close there was a consensus of opinion on both sides of the Irish Sea that a sporing club for Irishmen in London was badly needed. Part of the inspiration for this was the example of the exiles from the other home countries. London Scottish had been formed in 1878 and London Welsh seven years later in 1895. These clubs offered their countrymen a home away from home in London, a place to meet and relax while employment or education or other reasons took them away from their country”
“So it was in 1898 that a group of Irishmen cmd together to form their on club, the London Irish Rugby Football Club”
What is obvious to this day is that London Irish as well as being a Premiership rugby club is also a club with the community at its heart; I left to go to Twickenham feeling very honoured to have attended such a special event and wanting to know a whole lot more about London Irish!
London Irish Executive Chairman, David Fitzgerald, who is also Chairman of the Amateur Club said of the day –
‘The Avenue was a special place to London Irish for many years. We are hopeful now of making Hazelwood the same quality of location and home for London Irish men and women as well as the entire community of Sunbury and Spelthorne for the next 80 years and beyond”