'Anywhere I've gone in the world there's been a Gaelic team'

1,700 players gather in Dublin this week for GAA World Games. With so many overseas players, it still an Irish sport?

Karen Maguire from Tipperary and Cait Lynch from Castleisland both play for the Dutch team Hollux. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

It’s 9am on a sunny Saturday morning and the clear sky above holds the promise of plenty more sun to come. Scattered in clusters on immaculate pitches, pale-limbed players in multicoloured jerseys chat and stretch, some leaning on portable GAA goalposts.

This could be anywhere in Ireland but we’re on the outskirts of Munich, hosts of this year’s pan-European GAA championship. Some 16 teams and 238 players from across the continent have gathered in the Bavarian capital to indulge their love of Gaelic football.

“There’s just nothing like this in Germany: the training, the game itself and the social side,” says Nadja Hennig, a 30-year-old Berliner and passionate player. “GAA has gone everywhere the Irish go – and we know the Irish go everywhere – but now GAA is bigger than the Irish. They should be proud and tap the potential.”

That potential goes on display from August 7th, when more than 500 GAA clubs and 1,700 players from more than 20 countries compete in the week-long GAA World Games at University College Dublin. The finals take place on August 12th in Croke Park.


Redefining Irish identity

The GAA helped define Irish identity before there was an Irish state. In recent years it has assisted in helping to redefine Irish identity by allowing new arrivals in Ireland to integrate into daily life on the island. Such is the international uptake of Gaelic games, among both the Irish diaspora and non-Irish players in other countries, the GAA is now as much about Munich as Mullingar. But do people agree back in the home of Gaelic games?

GAA began its formal life in Europe in 1978 (see panel, right), but recent crisis-driven emigration to the continent gave European GAA a shot in the arm. For Frankfurt-based referee Ray Coleman, European GAA allows Irish emigrants to keep a link with Ireland. But only, he concedes, if they know it’s there.

“We still get a lot of Irish people around continental Europe who don’t know about us, who don’t realise that there is a growing and thriving structure for them,” he says.

European GAA players gathered in Munich for this event say their motivation is far more than just an emigrant candle in the window. For many, Gaelic games are a welcome alternative sport in countries with a soccer monoculture.

And then there’s the GAA’s soft diplomatic power. On this Saturday morning in Munich, the sideline tent is buzzing to the Horslips’ Dearg Doom from a tinny smartphone speaker as enthusiastic volunteers ply disclaimer forms and sticky slices of “Rocky Road”.

Overseeing the tent is Maria Kivlehan, a beaming bundle of energy who cofounded München Colmcilles in 2001 after spotting an O’Neill’s ball being kicked around a city park. “I just went up and asked if I could play, though I’d never played in Ireland,” she says.

Munich native Nicole Werner had a similar chance introduction, spotting a game in Boyle when cycling through Ireland.

“Then I realised there was a mad group in Munich with wooden sticks and leather balls,” she says. “It was great to learn something new, with so much variety and dynamism, where you throw your whole body in.”

As chairwoman of München Colmcilles, and despite breaking her collarbone a few weeks ago in a game in Brussels, Werner has pulled together the pan-European games in Munich to great acclaim from all sides.

Standing at the side of the pitch is Erich Eigenstetter, a manager of the Munich facility. As a soccer referee for 50 years, he is impressed by the speed and energy of Gaelic football, but impressed even more by the volunteer spirit, which he says has been lost from German soccer clubs.

“Here even the lousiest third-leaguer in Germany wants payment for everything; money has ruined a lot,” he says. “The Irish were here until 10 o’clock last night marking the pitches and setting up – and as volunteers. It’s amazing and we’re glad to have them.”

Heading up the Red Cross first-aid truck, local woman Nadja is kept busy handing out ice packs to injured players every few minutes.

“I’ll say one thing for them: these players can take a lot more than your average soccer player,” she jokes, loosening up another pack for the next casualty.

In a shady pitchside shelter, referee Matty Morris is taking a break from the games – and the sun. Next year the 47- year-old Wexford native will marry Eimear, also from Wexford. The two met through the Hague hurling team. “Lots of men and women meet this way, Irish and non-Irish,” he says. “GAA is so inclusive in Europe, amazing when you consider where the GAA has come from in Ireland.”

Before the next match, he is quickly scrolling through the rules of women’s Gaelic football on his smartphone. In European GAA, he says, it’s even more important than in Ireland to be abreast of the rules – something everyone here agrees with.

“I find we sometimes have quite anachronistic refereeing in Ireland, which is fine there but can drive the non-Irish mad here,” says Tony Bass of Maastricht Gaels.

He’s the European County Board’s delegate to the GAA congress. Representing 86 European teams with nine votes, Europe now has more influence than some Irish counties at congress.

In Dublin, Bass tries to impress on other congress delegates the runaway success of European GAA, driven in large part by non-Irish volunteers and players: like the all-Spanish teams in Galicia or the all-German student team in Darmstadt.

Like many here in Munich, he sees European GAA at a tipping point. European Gaelic gamers have the luxurious problem of having reached a size where volunteers alone say they can no longer cope. They would like full-time administrative assistance from Croke Park.

Others are hoping for improved training and translated club materials, for non-Irish adult beginners or non-English speakers. To make it easier to book city pitches from officials who have never heard of GAA, many would like to see Croke Park push for the sport’s Olympic recognition. Also on the wish list: greater visibility of GAA abroad, beyond the subscription-based service GAA Go.

“Eurosport shows international log-chopping contests,” says Tony Bass. “If you offered them an edited version of the Sunday Game at no cost, they would show it and boost the GAA’s profile around the continent.”

An expensive game

Perhaps the most pressing, vexing concern among European GAA is the cost of participating.

“Each year people can spend up to €2,000 out of their own pocket if they attend all the European tournaments,” says Tara Skelly, who set up a team in the Bavarian city of Augsburg.

Women have made a remarkable contribution to the European GAA success story, off the pitch and on. Many experienced female players have found their continental GAA teams more supportive than they remember in Ireland.

“Teams are more welcoming here, whether you’ve never played before or not played for a long time,” said Cáit Lynch (24) from Castleisland, Co Kerry, who has lived in Amsterdam since January.

After four years of Kerry county football, her new team has Irish, Poles, Dutch, Welsh and a woman from Kenya.

“In Ireland I found there was often an attitude on teams that you should be a good player from the start or perhaps best find another team.”

As the strong midday sun pushes temperatures towards 30 degrees, players gather under trees to enjoy their packed lunches and to swap GAA stories.

Among them is 25-year-old Toby Zeitler from Franconia, northern Bavaria. Beaming in his yellow München Colmcilles jersey, he says finding the GAA gave him a new circle of friends when he moved to Munich last October for his studies. He’s hopeful that even more Germans will come on board soon.

“We Germans have a good build for GAA; Manuel Neuer would be perfect,” he says, a nod to the goalkeeper of Bayern Munich and the German national soccer side.

As the afternoon drags on, eliminated players watching the finals can agree on one point: they would like greater recognition from Ireland.

“People were very surprised when we won the Paídi Ó Sé tournament in Kerry,” says Anne Buck of München Colmcilles. “I was surprised that many Irish don’t realise non-Irish people can and do play GAA.”

Watch for a while and you soon see how European GAA has been enriched by players with different technical gifts: handball passes, basketball leaps. On top of that, Irish players say the European tournament model – born of the necessity of having to travel far greater distances for games – encourages greater bonding among rival players than was the case in their experiences of Irish GAA.

To the victors, the spoils

By late afternoon, with players wilting after an exhausting, scorching tournament, the finals loom.

Favourites Belgium come out on top in the ladies’ league. Among the men, Luxembourg squeeze past Augsburg in extra time to take the top prize.

A few hours later, the teams gather in a circus tent with adjoining beer garden for their prize dinner. Listening to their stories and concerns is former Leinster GAA chairman Martin Skelly, who is visiting Munich in a private capacity.

Skelly, who is running for GAA president next year, says everyone in Ireland should be aware of how strong the game is in Europe and beyond.

Although he is wary of funding demands on an already stretched GAA, he adds: “We don’t want a situation where people cannot afford to play. This is bigger than the GAA now. The Government have to come in with extra financial support.”

On that point, there is widespread agreement among the European GAA figures in Munich.

“The GAA is probably the best-organised Irish group abroad now, so state funding in this direction would be money well spent,” says Tony Bass, adding a caveat: “Any funding hinges on the GAA deciding what it wants to be in future: an Irish sport with an Irish organisation or an international sport with Irish roots and international organisation.”

On that point, this week’s World Games will offer a chance for interesting debate.

It’s getting late in Munich and, after dinner the first prizes are handed out: Bavarian gingerbread hearts for the five referees. Player of the tournament is an overwhelmed Axel Ntumba of Luxembourg, whose teenage introduction to GAA came after moving to Naas from the Democratic Republic of Congo (see panel, left).

In a delightful bit of convoluted European GAA magic, the trophy for the winning Belgian ladies’ team is collected by Anay Roise, the team’s Spanish-born captain.

“This is a big achievement . . . for friendship as well as for the sport,” she says, as audience heads nod in agreement.

Looking ahead to the looming World Games, she shouts out happily to her GAA friends and rivals from across Europe before her: “Dublin will give us a chance to play together.”

Watch out world, and warm up, Ireland: the European Gaelic gamers are coming.

Meet the players: ‘Irish people would be surprised at how far their sports have spread’

"I have no Irish heritage and got into GAA last year in February when I was living in Vietnam. They have a Gaelic team in Hanoi and all over southeast Asia. A friend introduced me to GAA, and it made sense to get into the sport again when I moved here. Vietnam didn't have super-strong teams but Bangkok, Singapore, Shanghai all do and there's a tournament there every few months.

“Some of the best players on my Vietnamese team were locals. The Irish have an advantage in one sense because they’ve been playing their whole lives, but we come with a fresh eye. I think Irish people would be surprised at how far their sports have spread. Anywhere I’ve gone in the world, there’s been a Gaelic team. That’s very impressive considering the size of Ireland.

"This is my fourth year as chair of the European County Board. We'd like more appreciation and real understanding from Dublin about what's going on internationally. Now we've reached 85 clubs in Europe we need to look at our structures to make them less centralised.

“The guys and girls on teams in Galicia, almost all locals, are playing town-against-town matches every weekend, just like in Ireland.

“We also need a full-time management person, perhaps based in Brussels, who has experience of logistics and organisation, someone with links to deal with government and EU funding, perhaps with a diplomatic background.

"When I was 13 I came with my family from the Republic of Congo to Naas in Kildare, where my PE teacher got me playing GAA. I had no gear and for my first training I showed up in jeans shorts and runners, but people helped me out.

“When I first came to Luxembourg in 2013, I was surprised there was a GAA team, but I thought it would be a nice way to meet Irish.

“Anyone outside Ireland can pick up this sport the way I picked it up and, though people look at it and think it looks weird, it’s growing. It’s great that we won today, I couldn’t speak for five minutes afterwards. It’s a good day for Luxembourg.

AMJED: "We're from Baghdad and came to Berlin in October. This is a new sport for us and it has given us new friends and a new life. We're learning about new cultures through the players from Ireland, Holland or Germany. The Irish are more comfortable with us, they don't treat us any different and they are such kind people. Sometimes the small countries are great."
AHMED: "I like to use my hands when I play, so this is better for me. We want to thank [Berlin club head] Anthony [McDermott] for everything he's done. How do you say? Good luck!"

This article was supported by a grant from the Global Irish Media Fund