It is 15 years since Krzysztof Jendrulok first set foot in Ballymun Kickhams. His son Mateusz came home from school one day with a letter from his teacher, written in a language they couldn’t read, about a sport that was alien to their experience. They were new in Ireland, but had no desire to live as outsiders. Across a cultural moat, here was a drawbridge.
The letter had come from Paddy Christie, the former Dublin player, casting his net into the water for Ballymun Kickhams. Kryzsztof accompanied his son to the first training session, and they kept coming, pushing back at the strangeness until the whole business felt normal. “I didn’t speak English when we came here,” he says. “That was a big deal [training in Ballymun]. A sign we were settling in.”
After a while, Krzysztof started to help Christie with the team – filling water bottles, gathering the gear – and they built such a relationship that when Christie trained other teams outside of the club he would ask Krzysztof to join him: Trinity College, DCU, the Dublin minor footballers. Before long he was immersed – the oldest impulse in the GAA.
Krzysztof served three different Dublin minor football managers as kit man, before Mattie Kenny approached him to join the senior hurlers; when Kenny stepped down, Michael Donoghue made sure that the kit man continued.
“The people that I meet in my life in the GAA, it’s very friendly, it’s very open. I never hear bad words. ‘You’re from Poland – what are you doing here?’ – or something like that.”
He says that he sees more Polish children involved in the GAA now than when he started, but those floodgates have never opened. “Soccer is very popular in Poland,” he says. “A lot of the young [Polish] lads who live here play soccer.”
The GAA is acutely aware of the landscape and its contours. By 2011, the number of Poles living in Ireland had grown to over 122,000; five years later, in the next census, that number had fallen by just 70. Clearly, they had come to stay. What did that mean for the biggest sporting organisation in the country? It should have meant a recruitment blitz, but the outreach has been tentative and the response has been cold.
It is not just the Polish community. According to the 2016 census, the number of non-Irish nationals living here is more than 535,000. It is impossible to claim that such a dramatic population shift is reflected on the playing fields of the GAA.
“Despite the population being out there we haven’t made many inroads yet,” said Colm Cummins, when he was chair of the GAA’s community development committee. “My own observation would be that we probably underestimated how broad a church it is in terms of the different cultures and how they perceive the GAA.”
On the ground, there are challenges. Lucan Sarsfields is a massive club now, with a densely populated hinterland. “At the AGM last week they said we had 3,622 members,” says Ciara Dardis, secretary of the juvenile club. “When I was growing up, there wasn’t even three and half thousand people living in Lucan.”
The population now is over 55,000. Their Games Promotion Officer (GPO) visits 16 primary schools where the invitation to try Gaelic games is extended widely and warmly. Every one of those invitations will have a different landing. In the schools, he reckons, about 30 different nationalities are engaged with the games on some level; in the Lucan Sarsfields academy, there are more than a dozen different nationalities.
“You would get calls at times from people saying, ‘I want my child to play football,’” says Dardis. “Then we have to explain that it’s not soccer and they lose all interest. That’s not what they’re looking for. Sometimes there’s issues with language. We’re talking to the parent and the child is translating for them.”
With some kids from an Asian background cricket becomes their priority when they reach a certain age; the fixtures clash and they drift away. “We don’t always hold them as far up as we would like.”
But the effort is sincere and consistent. Abood Al Jumaili gave a talk in Lucan CBS last week, and he has been out to the club too. Al Jumaili was born in Iraq but came to Ireland as a child, where he developed a flaming passion for hurling. This year, the Dublin county board engaged him as a diversity ambassador.
“He was out with us trying to organise something for the Sikh population,” says Dardis. “Kind of introducing adults [to the GAA] in the hope of introducing children. It was even simple things like turbans and helmets, and how that was going to work?”
In some places, the chemistry has worked. The demographics of Longford town changed so dramatically over the last decade that the GAA club needed to react. According to the last census, only about two-thirds of the town’s population was born in Ireland. More than 3,000 of the town’s residents indicated a language other than English as their first language.
“To keep the numbers up at under-age levels we needed to be able to reach out to foreign national communities,” says Adrian Flynn, the Longford Slashers club secretary.
Much of the recruitment is driven by a GPO in their eight feeder schools, but some of it is organic or accidental. One retired businessman in the town was living on a street where many of his neighbours were from the Slovak-Romani community. He could see that, after school, some of the children were at a loose end.
“He brought them up to us and they really got involved in the hurling,” says Flynn, “between 10 and 12 Slovak-Romani kids. He was like their guardian [in the GAA]. Their parents didn’t have the language capabilities in certain cases, and didn’t have an interest in the GAA. But the kids felt a real affinity for the sport.”
By 2015, half of the U-12 panel in the club came non-Irish backgrounds; a year later, they won an U-13 championship with a team drawn from seven different nationalities. Four years ago, a boy who was born in Romania, and another boy with two Russian parents, represented Longford Slashers on the county minor football team. It was a natural outcome of the openness the club had cultivated.
As part of their outreach programme they appointed an Integration Officer, Remu Adejinimi, a local councillor, who arrived in Ireland about 20 years. Her son joined Longford Slashers as a young boy, and is playing on their adult teams now.
“It’s an ongoing thing – to explain what the GAA is about, who we are, what we offer – because culturally, obviously, the GAA wouldn’t be a big thing for these communities,” says Flynn. “You can’t take it for granted that these folks are going to know anything about the club or are going to come up off their own bat.”
For generations it was taken for granted that every GAA club reflected its home place. That is a far more complex equation now.