Full marks to Foley as GAA goes to Scotland
Wild Geese: Jonathan Foley, Broughton High School, Edinburgh
Jonathan Foley: “I came here as a teacher. Now I’m a writer and a documentary-maker as well”
Such is the intensity of his passion for Gaelic football that the Edinburgh-based teacher has indoctrinated scores of schoolchildren, helping to create a new generation of players in Scotland.
His finest moment was perhaps last year when he brought a group of young Scots to Croke Park to watch Donegal play Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. The kids wanted to support Dublin, the “glory team”. I said, ‘nobody from Dublin coaches you. I’m your coach and I’m from Donegal’.”
When the coach’s team won, the children went wild.
It was thanks to a long-lost cousin in Glasgow that the Letterkenny man crossed the Straits of Moyle in 2009. Having completed an MA in Irish history and politics at the University of Ulster, he was contemplating his bleak prospects when it occurred to him that Scotland might be worth a try.
He embarked on a post-graduate teaching diploma at the University of West Scotland, training to be an English teacher. In many ways, however, with generations of Irish heritage in the region’s bloodlines, being there felt like being back home.
The real move abroad came when Foley moved to Edinburgh, getting his first teaching job at the city’s Firrhill High School. It was a difficult time, his father having just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At one point he almost returned home, but his father, who passed away that same year, would hear none of it.
In Edinburgh, Foley wasted no time in joining Dunedin Connolly’s Gaelic Football Club.
Drawing on previous experience as a sports reporter for the Donegal News, he ended up taking care of the club’s public relations, developing a website and social media communications. “I got a couple of pints out of it,” he says.
When not teaching Foley has been hard at work fuelling the sport’s propaganda machine. In 2013 he unveiled a book on the history of Dunedin Connolly’s to mark the club’s 25th anniversary.
Having taught himself video-editing, he is now busy filming hours of footage on the club for a documentary.
Yet the project dearest to his heart is a novel which brings together his passions for language, history and the sport. Named The Pride of the Parish, it is currently being serialised by Glasgow-based newspaper the Irish Voice. Foley came up with the idea after questioning why a nation like Ireland, which is so passionate about literature, did not have more works on Gaelic football.
Much of his inspiration came from 1980s hurling film The Clash of the Ash. Foley tracked down writer and director Fergus Tighe, who offered encouragement and mentoring. The project has immersed Foley into the GAA subculture.
“I’ve been involved in the game on so many levels,” he says. “Now I need to get to know it in-depth, come up with things GAA people can appreciate.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Foley’s passion would end up finding its way into the classroom. After completing his teaching probation, Foley introduced Gaelic football into the curriculum of his new workplace, Broughton High School. Pupils not only had to partake in games but were also introduced to the sport’s socio-political origins and...Effin’ Eddie Moroney.
Foley’s own school career almost ended abruptly at the age of 16 with “deluded notions of heading off to America and making a mint as a barman”. However , he decided to repeat a year instead, winning the support of two teachers, who ignited his passion for English and history.
From personal experience he relates to struggling children who may feel school is not for them, teaching in a style that has “real-world relevance”.
Foley, who can often be found in Donegal or St Eunan’s kit, still imagines a return home one day “but if I did go back I wouldn’t recognise lots of faces. A lot of my friends on the team I used to play with have flown.”
Although Scotland might not be a million worlds away, he acknowledges that there can be a fear factor involved in moving.
“Even if you’re not in Irish circles, the people will welcome you. If it’s not for you, it’s just a short hop back again.”
As a whole the experience has enabled him to spread his wings. “I came here as a teacher. Now I’m a writer and a documentary maker as well.”