The Beginnings... and The Now
The idea for the Washington Irish RFC arose at a match fixture against the Richmond Area Touring Side (the RATS) in the Fall of 1979. The match secretary of the American University Rugby Football Club was John Adams. As the match secretary, he had scheduled two sides against the RATS in Richmond. When the cars arrived, they didn’t have enough players to play two sides. So on the way back to DC, and with the help of a few traveling beverages, discussions began on setting up a new men’s club in DC that was independent of American University. Hence, the idea was hatched.
The originators of this plan were John Adams, Jeff Shumaker, Tom Guidiotti (Dr. Doom), and Jerry Cave. The four of them returned to DC and started calling friends and fellow players with the idea. They got a tremendous and encouraging response. The response lead to formation meeting which included John Adam, Jeff Shumaker, Dr. Doom, Bob Kimmitt, Jay Kimmitt, Pat Martell, Don Cotchen, Greg Merrill, Jerry Cave, Herb Berst, Mike McGowan, AB Behnia, John Braun, Jim Borrell, John Fiore, Eric Edgington, Steve Gannon, Randy Bryant, Jack McCarthy, Jim McVey, and others lost to lore. Roger Chaufournier, Rick Devens, and Tim Harrington would be quick to follow.
The initial recruiting went beyond the former American University and was tremendously successful. The team placed advertisements in the Washington Post and everyone started calling buddies playing for other clubs. The club put up signs on bulletin boards all over town, and it advertised in the early editions of “Rugby Magazine” — which led to many military guys who were being rotated through DC to get in touch. Many a posters were posted at the Irish Times bar, and that bar became the first unofficial club house of the Irish.
Pat Martell missed one of the meetings and was elected to be the first president. John Adams opted for match secretary and he implemented a strategy for club development by clever arrangement of matches the first two years. The Potomac Rugby Union (PRU) was contacted and the club was put on the agenda as a “new club” proposal. John Adams also pushed through the annual promotion/relegation scheme since the team was entered into the third division and very much wanted to move up to the first division. Of course, the team did very well and won the challenges for two straight years and made it to the first division in the minimum time.
The team held its first practice in January 1980 at the Lincoln Memorial in the snow. The first match was against the team that started it all – the RATS. The Irish won that match 16-0, with Johnny Mulligan scoring three penalties and being the man-of-the-match.
The turning point for the club as a rugby organization (as opposed to a social organization, which the Irish never had a problem with) was the Hudepohl Classic rugby tournament at the end of summer in our first year. Sixteen guys travelled to Cincinnati, Ohio, on a Friday, arriving late that night (there was an effort to persuade us not to go because we might embarrass the nascent Irish and the PRU). The club played five matches in two days and came a hair from winning the tournament. Johnny Mulligan won the semi-final match in a kicking contest after two overtimes without a tie-breaking With respect to the current patch, John Adams was in London on a few occasions that first season and working with the fixtures secretary for the London Irish RFC. John got a ton of pointers and all the London Irish’s “booklets” and such, on how to set up a great club. They met at The Rugby Club in Hallam Street in London. John was shown the London Irish patch — a combination of the London City flag and the Irish Shamrock. It was a no-brainer to design the WIRFC patch on the same exact idea. Matt Godek got behind the designing of the patch since the Irish were the first club in many years to design a new patch in the PRU.
The organizers also found out early that the National Park Service could approve our use of the then open area to the south of the reflecting pool just in front of the Lincoln Memorial, opposite the eventual Viet Nam Memorial, and where the present Korean War Memorial is located. The appropriate people were called and permission was granted. Goal posts were raised and the team drew wonderful “crowds” of mall visitors — especially on the Saturday when the Viet Nam Memorial In 1982, the club started the Washington Irish St. Patrick’s Day Tournament; Keith Bonner and Tim Harrington were the first co-chairmen. Eight teams played on the Washington Monument grounds and the winner of that first tournament was the James River RFC. Mike Scully actually cooked the Saturday night dinner the club served to the visiting team at the American Legion Hall on Capitol Hill, and John Mulligan did the program which included letters of welcome from President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neal. Bill Hardy took it over several years later, followed by Ed Reesman, and turned it into what has become one of the most profitable rugby enterprises on US Of note is the first try scored by the Irish at our tournament – the date of that feat is unknown but the player’s name is not forgotten – it was Rob Beshaw.
The John Braun “Spirit Award” was instituted in 1983, to honor the player who contributed in many, many ways, but who didn’t make it as a “most valuable” in any one way – always there, always eager, always dependable, always could be counted on to make stuff happen, etc.
The Irish have excelled over the years. The club ran into a few bumps in the early 90s, such as having its tournament cancelled because of a freak blizzard, and being $25,000 in debt because of clubs wanting their monies back from the tournament. It has lived through coaching changes, the Russians and the Russian Mafia, no coaching at all, no practice or home pitches, relegation to Division IA and then to Division II, coaches who could not be understood because their accents were so heavy, travelling hundreds of miles and playing two matches with fifteen players – five of which had never played before, the paying of bills through the largess of the officers, playing on pitches filled with crack bags, and being chased off of practice pitches by thugs.
The club has travelled to Dublin, Galway, Edinburgh, Charleston, Kansas City, San Diego, Newport, Bermuda, Boston, New York, Savannah, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Fort Worth, Wilmington, and everywhere it has gone, it has played with pride, distinction, and élan. We have taken on the mantle of rugby ambassadors and shown others that the Irish are strong and serious competitors, good rugby players, and lovers/keepers of the tradition and game of rugby.
The club has since returned to its roots and once again plays in Washington, DC, at Haines Point – the southern tip of land leading to DC.
Since the beginning, the Irish have always strived for excellence both on the pitch. The Irish have sent the following players on to LAU, territorial, military, and national select sides: Brian Collins, John Solomon, John Dillon, Antonio Rios, Damian Maguire, Nate Kusner, Jon Markiewicz, Bill Johnston, and Brad Burns. Brian Collins has the distinction of playing internationally for Atlantis and Brad Burns played for the United States at the Maccabian Games in Israel. On the field, the Irish have been either the champions or co-champions of the Potomac Rugby Union since 1998. They have placed well enough to play in the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union (the territorial – the old East) championships and were the MARFU champions in 2002. The team has been consistently ranked in the top 12 of all men’s rugby teams in the territory for the past five years, and it will be returning to the playoffs when it returns from this trip to Edinburgh.
The team today is as strong as ever. It is currently competing in Division II South of MARFU. Its roster has over 50 strong, and the average age for the starting side is 26 years old. The club has become one of the strongest teams in the Potomac Rugby Union, and ranks usually third or fourth in the territory in size. Its players have gone to be select side players, referees, local administrators, and there are administrators at the USA Rugby national level. Players who have played for the Irish, whether they have played for a season or longer, have become ambassadors of the game and can be found in leadership and player positions of other clubs throughout the United States and abroad. Even during war, the team has sponsored teams in Saudi Arabia and Iraq., and our players have travelled with Irish gear to Afghanistan, Hong Kong, and even Abu Dhabi. There are players throughout the world wearing the Irish crest – that same crest that was conceived 31 years ago. May the club and her players play another 31 years!
Written by Pat Costello