Cayman Islands GAA: A home from home for Irish in the Caribbean
Tropical island’s club has 250 playing members and multiple nationalities
Cayman Islands Gaelic Football Club is the biggest sporting club on the island, with 250 playing members. Photograph: gaa.ie
At Cayman Islands GAA, our selection process is far from harsh. If you can afford the flight ticket for matches abroad and can get the days off work, then you make the squad. It’s a novel approach to picking your team, but living on an island in the middle of the Caribbean, it is the only way to ensure we have enough players to enter a tournament like the GAA North American Championships, held in San Francisco last month.
We are never short of a squad to pick from; in fact the Cayman Islands Gaelic Football Club is the biggest sporting club on island, with approximately 250 playing members and a further 500 plus ex-players and social club members. This year also saw the launch of our kids club, with 70 budding young GAA stars picking up the game.
Our club membership boasts a plethora of nationalities - Irish and Caymanian of course, along with players from South Africa, Canada, the US, UK, France, Italy, Australia, Zimbabwe and New Zealand, to name but a few. Most members new to the island have never seen Gaelic football or hurling before, but are soon welcomed and shown the ropes.
Your level of play is not an issue; everyone is invited to join and everyone is assigned a team, regardless of ability. Each year the team captains draw players much like an NFL draft, to ensure the standard is as equal as can be going into the next season of games, with six teams in the Men’s and four teams in the Ladies’ Leagues.
On the dewy playing fields of Treasure Island, an old deserted naval station home to the playing pitches of San Francisco GAA, our Men’s team kicked off with an early morning game. We were hopeful, but (being a Mayo supporter myself) we were also prepared for the imminent heartache ahead. We knew we could never be a match for the county players over in the US on their J-1s.
Weeks and weeks of training, injuries and exhaustion seem wasted as we were knocked out of the cup in the first game. Who could blame us, a squad all over 30 years old, having travelled 4,500km and arriving only 10 hours before? Despite our best efforts, it was just not meant to be.
Immediately after the final whistle blew, the Ladies game kicked off. Every dejected and battered body walked across the fields to cheer them on. No one went home. No one left to explore San Francisco.
The Cayman Ladies started well, kicking points for fun. Our minds started to run away, a glimpse of glory teasing us. But with just 14 women able to travel, and thus only one substitute available in a game of rolling subs, our joyous thoughts were soon put to bed as the fresh legs off the other bench outran us in the searing heat of the Californian sun.
Former Dublin footballer and columnist Vinnie Murphy may disagree with me here, but it is “alright to be a loser”. Yes, there were some tears after all the training and travel but like the Mayo supporters cushion the blow for their players, we rallied around and were back in high spirits (with some help from the campus bar).
We were back in Cayman in time for the All Ireland, and the travelling team members and other club players met early in the morning to watch the game. The supporters in Green and Red numbered a mere five, but the neutral crowd was roaring for the same result. After Dublin’s victory, one by one the rest of the club members came up to shake our hands and pass on their heartfelt commiserations. It felt like we were the receiving line at a funeral, each member of the club (Dubs aside) sharing in our grief.
That is what makes us special. Our club provides an on island community for people from far and wide. It is somewhere for new people to go on the island, no matter the job title, nationality or Gaelic prowess. All are welcomed, and brought into the passion for the game. Despite our lack of international results, it makes us proud to see our players on the field at the North American Championships, most of them never having been to an All Ireland game or played at all themselves before arriving to Cayman.
This same sense of pride was shown by the Syrians travelling up to Croke Park to support Mayo, enjoying part of being a team, as one, taking part, and establishing a connection with the Irish sport, and the community that surrounds it.
Gaelic provides unity; from the grass roots clubs, to overseas clubs like ours, to the county teams and the supporters; it is something everyone can be a part of. As an expat, it provides a home from home, with familiar accents and connections and a place to go to meet new friends and learn about other cultures.
Home and away - Gaelic provides this sense of togetherness and belonging, and ignites a passion for your team, club and county - no matter whether you are Irish are not.
And I should know; sure I am only a blow-in from Scotland myself.