GAA: the social network for emigrants
While GAA clubs lament the loss of their players to emigration, their games are flourishing overseas, and the organisation also provides invaluable connections to help young emigrants settle in, writes Ciara Kenny.
While GAA clubs lament the loss of their players to emigration, their games are flourishing overseas, and the organisation also provides invaluable connections to help young emigrants settle in, writes CIARA KENNY
AOIFE CAHILL hadn’t played Gaelic football since she was 14 years old, but when she heard that a GAA team was setting up near her new home in Warsaw in 2009, she and her roommate Aisling O’Loughlin, both in their mid-20s, had their old boots posted over from Ireland and set about re-mastering the art of soloing.
The two students joined Cumann Warszawa hoping for a break from their veterinary books for a couple of hours every week, but they soon discovered that the game could provide them with much more than just a distraction from their studies.
“It made us feel at home. We found the camaraderie and the community we thought we had left behind, that we were told we wouldn’t find out here in Poland,” says Cahill. “I’m probably more Irish here than I ever was in Ireland, and the team has had a huge part to play in that.”
The club had just four Irish members when Cahill and O’Loughlin signed up, which has since grown to almost 30, with a mixture of Irish, Norwegians, English, Swedish and Mauritians on the team. “Three years later, I am chairperson of a club for a sport I hadn’t played at home in years, in a country that has never heard of GAA, playing against teams from other European countries who are doing the exact same thing,” says Cahill. “It is a different community, a different camaraderie, but in a way, it is just like home.”
At the GAA Annual Congress earlier this month, incoming president Liam O’Neill pledged to tackle the issue of player emigration, which is decimating rural teams and causing a crisis in the GAA in Ireland.
But while the Irish clubs lament the departure of their players at both local and county level, the game is flourishing overseas, with GAA clubs across Europe, North America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand enriched by the influx of young and talented Irish players such as Cahill and O’Loughlin who are eager to maintain their connection with Ireland by playing their national sport.
While researching the Irish diaspora in London for her PhD from Queen’s University in Belfast, Frances Harkin discovered that although other traditional features of the Irish emigrant experience, such as the pub or social club, are no longer as important as they once were, the GAA remains a strong focal point for young arrivals and older, more established Irish alike.
“Even those who don’t actively engage with the GAA as players will watch the matches in the local pub, attend functions such as dinner dances and fundraising events, and often wear GAA county jerseys while out and about in London,” she says.
The pastoral nature of the GAA network is just as prevalent in the clubs overseas as it is in Ireland. It can provide invaluable connections for Irish emigrants seeking work and friends when they arrive in an unfamiliar place, she adds.
Clubs such as the Tir Chonaill Gaels, one of the biggest of the 40-odd GAA clubs in London, offer to help new recruits with the practicalities of moving, with support systems in place to help prospective emigrants before they even leave Ireland.
“A lot of these young people are leaving home for the first time, which can be a very daunting experience,” says club chairman Tom Mohan. “They can call us before they go to find out what paperwork they should bring, or send us their CV so we can help them to find employment through the network of companies we have worked with over the years.”
The club has connections with several properties in the city where new arrivals can rent a room without having to worry about paying a huge deposit, and they often provide meals after training sessions where new and old players can socialise.
The club has signed up more than 30 new people since the beginning of the year, and has recently created two new teams to cater for its swelling numbers.
“The standard of the game in the UK has improved hugely, and it is only going to get stronger,” says Mohan. “We have four players at the moment who have played at county level in Ireland. With the amount of good-quality players coming over to London now, the clubs will soon be on par with any county team in Ireland.”
On the other side of the world, teams in Australia and New Zealand are also seeing record numbers turning up to training sessions. Jamie Fitzsimons, club PRO for Michael Cusack’s club in Sydney, says the GAA scene there has grown fast in recent years. “Increasing numbers of Irish are moving to Australia, and staying on longer than was the norm in the past,” she says.
“More and more are moving here long-term, obtaining sponsorship and permanent residency rather than backpacking through. At times there have been over 80 men’s footballers and hurlers attending training sessions, and growing numbers for ladies’ football and camogie too.”
As Sydney’s largest club, Michael Cusack’s has attracted some of Ireland’s top county players, who are looking for a place to continue the sport when they arrive in the city. Former Longford footballer Padraig Berry signed up to the team on his first day in Sydney in 2010.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived because I had never played football away from home before, but the standard is very good,” he says.
“It has improved this year even compared with last year, with the number of emigrants arriving over from Ireland. A lot of the players have played at county level in underage teams, and there’s a lot of talent here.”
Berry is a qualified sports therapist but couldn’t find work in Ireland. He says that leaving the Longford team was one of the most difficult decisions he has had to make, but he is now working in construction in Sydney, and plans to stay for another few years until the jobs market improves at home.
“I still think about going home and going back to the team, but there’s nothing for me to go back to for now,” he says.
“The GAA out here has helped to keep my mind off home.”
Philip O’Connor: Stockholm Gaels
Since I wrote A Parish Far From Home, a book about the formation of the Stockholm Gaels in 2010, one of the questions I often get asked is what GAA clubs abroad offer the Irish emigrant community.
The simple answer is that they offer exactly what the clubs back home offer, and a whole lot more besides.
When we started, I wanted our club and our sports to be the gathering point for the Irish community in Stockholm. Together with our sister clubs in Scandinavia, we have become hubs for the Irish community here, providing a gateway into these new and very different cultures for new emigrants.
We help them find jobs and homes and to register for tax and benefits. We find them baby-sitters and dentists, and priests when they’re needed.
We provide a place for them to train and to play the games they love, and we provide a shoulder to cry on when they are jilted or lonely or upset. We become their family and friends, because essentially, we are all any of us have.
As we grow in strength and numbers – there are now more than 50 clubs in Europe alone – we are increasingly taking on the role of marketers and ambassadors for Ireland.
In the heart of Stockholm, people see us practising a sport that is an integral part of our culture, and they stop us and ask questions. We tell them all about it, and everything else great about our country. One such Swedish passer-by is now a key midfielder for our ladies’ team.
More than anything, our clubs give us a platform to show our pride in ourselves, our homeland and our new-found communities. Most of us are sick of seeing the black headlines in European newspapers about our economy and our idiot politicians.
When we take the field in our competitions, it is a chance to show people that, contrary to everything that has happened in Ireland in recent years, we are strong and capable and brave, and we can work together to make something that our whole community can enjoy and be proud of.
This article appears in the print edition of The Irish Times today.