Gort still reverberating to the samba beat
The Galway town became a hub for Brazilian emigrants during the boom and strong links still persist to this day
Leonardo Gomes’s maroon helmet, two hurleys and a sliotar are resting by the post of a soccer goal at one end of a field of parched grass. Through the netting and the trees you can see the red chimney and low roof of an adjacent factory set against a sky so blue it’s as if a painted dome had been placed over the hemisphere.
As a place for Leonardo to exhibit his skills as perhaps Brazil’s only hurler this pitch has the merit of convenience, but especially of symbolism: the factory and the hurl, the seed and the fruit.
It is hard to know where this story begins, and impossible to guess where it will end. We can say for sure that what happens between those points involves an unlikely marriage of the town of Gort, Co Galway and this Brazilian city of Anapolis, 334,000 people strong and 140km west of the capital Brasilia in Goiás state.
What was once a straightforward if unusual tale of a poor Brazilian community meeting Ireland’s boom-time employment needs has transformed, as all migration stories do, into something much richer and more complex: one of repatriation and sadness, separation and longing, kindness and decency, gratitude and joy.
In the house where he lives with his warm, cheerful father, Cleomar, in the suburb of Nossa Senhora D’Abadia (Our Lady of the Abbey), Leonardo takes out the bundle of photographs and newspaper cuttings that are the most direct way to summon the memories of nine years spent growing up in Ireland.
Now a tall, muscular and handsome 17-year-old, Leonardo was a small 10-year-old when two-time All Star and former Galway goalkeeper John Commins described him as “as good as any underage hurler of his age in the county”. Leonardo was a centre-half-back, a captain and fledgling leader.
In one brilliant photo taken during the under-12 county B final between Gort and Killimor, four players fruitlessly try to tackle the Brazilian-born boy as he fires downfield. On the sideboard is a scroll commemorating his taking part in the RTÉ hurling programme for kids C’mon Camán. In a frame beside it Leonardo holds a big trophy with Cleomar’s arm wrapped around him. There is a booklet with testimonials by migrant children playing Gaelic Games. Leonardo writes: “My favourite thing about Ireland is the people because they are nice to me.”
Leonardo’s talent was unusual but his family’s journey was not. Cleomar was among those many Brazilians from Anapolis who travelled to Ireland in search of work and a better life in the years around the turn of the millennium.
The link was a happy outcome of the closure of the huge meat factory – the one beside the soccer pitch – in sleepy Vila Fabril, a suburb on the outskirts of the city. One of the factory managers at the time was an Irishman named Jerry O’Callaghan, who had worked in Brazil’s meat business since the 1970s.
O’Callaghan knew the industry in Ireland was seeking skilled workers, and he acted as a go-between: first helping to send workers to the Kepak plant in Clonee, Co Meath, and then, in 1999, a further consignment to Seán Duffy Meat Exports in Gort. A trickle soon became a flood.
By 2007, some 1,600 people, or 40 per cent of Gort’s population, was estimated to be Brazilian. The town became a flag-carrier for Ireland’s boom-time migration, attracting TV crews and journalists eager to tell the tale of Brazilian exoticism infiltrating small-town Ireland.
Cleomar first travelled over for six months and worked in Gort’s meat factory – “I couldn’t even use the knife,” he remarks – before returning to fetch the rest of the family. Leonardo was three years old.