Alan Whelan, 79, bar owner, rugby team founder

After selling his Village bars, Alan Whelan became less involved with rugby and turned to his other passion, fishing.

Alan Whelan, a Dublin-born man who founded the Village Lions Rugby Football Club out of his Red Lion Pub in Greenwich Village, has died at the age of 79. He had battled cancer for 10 years.

Surviving Whelan, who lived in Manhasset, N.Y., are his wife Fran and son Sean.

“All of the Lions are heartbroken to learn of our founder’s passing,” said Quin Works, the Village Lions president. “Alan Whelan was the heart and soul of the Village Lions from the day he launched the club three decades ago until his death.”

Born in 1939, Whelan had excelled at one of Ireland’s major rugby universities, St. Mary’s College, playing flanker, and joined the Shirley Wanderers after moving to London. The club owned an old airplane hangar, and held uproarious post-match parties in the mammoth space. Whelan loved hosting the visiting team, as rugby traditions go, for food, drink, socializing and song after the match.

He joined the New York Rugby Club when he arrived in the U.S. When Whelan’s playing days wound down, he helped coach the New York University Medical School team, whose players often hung out at the Red Lion, at Bleecker and Thompson Sts. He had also launched the St. Francis College rugby club in Brooklyn in 1971, and the St. John’s University squad in Queens a year later.

Whelan created the Village Lions in 1989, much of the team made up of bartenders and bouncers at the Red Lion and his nearby music joint, the Lion’s Den, on Sullivan St., which closed in 2007.

“The prerequisites to working at the Red Lion was, you had to play rugby, regardless of whether you had a cooking diploma or not,” Whelan said. “If you wanted a job in the kitchen, you had to play rugby.”

The Village Lions won the Metropolitan New York Division III title in 1990, and developed a reputation for offering the best post-match food-and-drink spread in New York, at one of Whelan’s Downtown pubs. The Lions again won their league championship in 1991, and earned a spot in New York’s Division II.

Whelan’s Lions would not be stopped. They romped through Division II in 1992 with a 7-1 record, and were promoted to Division I in 1993.

Whelan emerged as a central figure in the city’s rugby scene.

“There Alan was, this madman down in the Village,” said Ed Hagerty, former editor in chief of Rugby Magazine. “And I say that in the most reverential terms. Alan thought, ‘Here’s this neat thing.’ He wanted people to experience it, and they flocked to it.”

Tougher times followed for the club, and Whelan was less of a presence around the Lions. He sold his bars and was mostly at home on Long Island, where he partook in his other passion, fishing.

These days, the Lions have a team in New York’s second and third divisions, and a thriving women’s club, as well. Both the men and women field seven-a-side teams in the summer. In a nod to their founder’s hosting skills, the Lions host two tournaments. Thousands of players worldwide, from some 46 countries, fondly recall their time playing with the Village Lions.

The Lions were always close to Whelan’s heart, and club members remain thankful to him for starting it all. Said Village Lions president Works, “We’ll think of Alan whenever the Lions are together, and we’ll play hard, and host with similar ardor, to forever honor Alan Whelan’s indomitable spirit.”

Reflecting on the Village Lions Rugby Club, Whelan mentioned how the players, in the club’s earliest days, were a frequent target for more established rugby clubs looking to absorb the Lions into their fold.

“They’d come to me and say, Why don’t you throw your lot in with us, we have Division I status, you have a lot of bodies, a lot of young guys,” Whelan said. “I basically told them all, We’re not joining anybody, we’re not changing our colors, we’re not changing our name. We are the Lions. We’re gonna stay the Lions and we’re gonna die the Lions.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *