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Alan Whelan, founder of popular New York City rugby club, dies at 79

The Dublin, Ireland native turned his love for rugby into a lifelong passion. The Manhattan pub he owned served as the unofficial meeting place for NYC rugby players, friends say.

Alan Whelan, the Williston Park founder of a

Alan Whelan, the Williston Park founder of a popular New York City rugby club, died July 8 at the age of 79. Photo Credit: Whelan Family

Alan Whelan, the Williston Park founder of a popular New York City rugby club, died of complications of cancer July 8 at Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan, his family said. He was 79.

Whelan was born on May 24, 1939 in Dublin, Ireland where he developed an early love of rugby, his nephew, Peter Cavanagh said. He was a talented flanker and played for St. Mary’s College in Dublin and later on rugby teams in Ireland and London before moving to New York City in the 60s to join the New York Rugby Club.

As his playing days wound down, Whelan took to coaching and launched the St. Francis College rugby club in 1971 before founding a team at St. John’s University.

“I think he lived rugby,” said Cavanagh, 46, of Brooklyn. “He exuded rugby and was relentless about promoting it.”

For over a decade, Whelan owned The Red Lion, a Greenwich Village pub that became known for its live music and as the unofficial meeting place for the city’s rugby players.

From behind the bar, he quietly recruited players from around the world to play for established teams in the city and eventually for the Village Lions, a club Whelan would start in 1989. He’d take many of them under his wing, hiring them as bouncers and bartenders at his bars, said Kieran Holohan, who started playing for the Village Lions in the 90s.

“He would give you the last dollar in his pocket,” said Holohan, who said Whelan gave him a new pair of rugby cleats every season until he graduated from law school. “He’d do anything for his players.”

Francis Laros, who was also coached by Whelan, said he first met the bar owner in 1987. Laros said he had come straight from South Africa and was suffering through his first New York City winter looking for work, when on the spot, Whelan offered him a job at The Red Lion and let him live in the bar’s basement.  

“He was generous to a fault,” said Laros, 55, of Harlem. “I don’t think I’d be in New York if not for Alan.”

Whelan enjoyed bringing people together, whether it was over a round of drinks at the bar or at the potlucks he’d host after rugby matches, his wife, Fran Whelan said.

“He was a people person,” she said. “He loved connecting with other people and having them enjoy themselves.”

The Village Lions grew from a small group of men to one of the largest clubs in New York which now supports five full teams, said Quin Works, the club’s president.

“He created this wonderful thing,” Holohan said. “This beautiful club that survived and thrives from just a kooky idea he had.”

In addition to his wife, Whelan is survived by his five siblings and son, Sean Whelan, 30, of Williston Park.

A memorial was held for him July 14 at Weigand Brothers Funeral Home in Williston Park. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in Whelan’s name to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.  

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