Gaelic GamesTipping Point

How Donie McCarthy helped Gaelic games to fulfil its eastern promise

Our clubmate and friend, who died earlier this month, was instrumental in setting up hurling clubs across the Middle East

You think you know somebody.

A few days after the death of Donie McCarthy, our clubmate and friend, a tribute appeared in the Irish Star newspaper in the US. In the piece Donie was remembered as the man who brought hurling to Atlanta and the American South, a vast wilderness on hurling’s globe.

The other dreamer in this scheme was Kieran Claffey. They watched the 2001 All-Ireland hurling final together in the Fadó Irish bar in Atlanta and resolved to start a team. You can imagine the scene and the pints and the humour that came over them. You have made promises in that mood too. How many have you kept?

Claffey had tried to foster hurling once before, a few years earlier, but the seed died in the soil and no other attempt was made until Donie agreed to coach the team. For their first training session, in October 2001, 40 enthusiasts turned up, a mixum-gatherum of lapsed hurlers, novices and daredevils.


Many of them, according to Claffey, had never held a hurley before; some of them, he says, had never seen a hurling match. Standing in the middle, Donie was both arsonist and fireman.

“That first 20-minute game had players recklessly swinging hurleys and holding hurls the wrong way,” said Claffey. “It was dangerous, but Donal took control. At the end of training Donal said to me, ‘We have our work cut out, boy – that was like something out of Braveheart.’”

When they eventually fashioned a team, the nearest opposition was 900 miles away. Their first game was against Milwaukee, a miraculous outfit made up entirely of American-born players. The Atlanta team was half expat, half native. What had they done? Started something that had a heart.

“Today there are 14 men’s hurling teams in the South,” says Claffey. “Hurling has truly spread and flourished in a part of the US where no hurling had been before. Donal McCarthy did that. He may not have started the other 13 teams but he lit such a fire under us in Atlanta and that helped light a spark that spread across the southern states.”

Donie, though, was already a veteran of audacious overseas start-ups. Seven years earlier, in Saudi Arabia, he co-founded the Naomh Alee club in Riyadh. At the time he was working for an Irish company “who would create the world’s largest dairy herd, without a blade of grass”. That was the spirit.

Gaelic games has put down roots in the Middle East over the last 20 years, with 14 clubs spread across six jurisdictions now, but imagine what it was like when Naomh Alee came into existence in the mid-1990s? Imagine the energy it took to start from scratch.

The GAA wasn’t nearly as tuned in to the Irish diaspora as it would be later; the Middle East county board wasn’t founded until 2013. Donie, and others of like mind, were pioneers in the strictest sense of the word.

“In 1994, there was no Irish community within which to nurture the seed of Gaelic games in Saudi Arabia – nor across the broader Middle East. It simply didn’t exist,” according to a history of the GAA in the region, published by Croke Park. “This was the literal ‘green field’ project.

“The ambitious few, including Charles Sullivan, Donal McCarthy and Johnny Rea, took it upon themselves to organise the burgeoning Irish community in the region and express themselves through sport.”

In later years Donie moved to the UAE. The Dubai Celts club was already in existence when he joined, but Gaelic football was their focus and Donie’s passion was hurling. Under his influence, they broadened their horizon. When the Middle East fielded a hurling team at the World Games in 2014, Donie was the manager.

Every GAA club is a village, no matter where it is in the world. For Irish people starting a new adventure overseas, GAA clubs are a place of asylum, if that’s what you need. Never “full”.

For much of his adult life, miles from our sight, Donie drove that dynamic, wherever he went. We didn’t appreciate the breadth of it, or the soul of it. After he died a series of glowing tributes appeared on the Facebook page of Dubai Celts; one, above others, captured his place in their world.

“Today, we lost one of the greatest,” Conor O’Riordan wrote. “Donie’s love for hurling, people, and general craic never ceased to amaze me. He went on to help me and hundreds of other expats that landed in Dubai, looking for accommodation, a job, a friend.”

Though he spent a lot of time overseas, Donie was wrapped up in Carrigtwohill. His family was steeped in the jersey, stretching back generations. In the 1960s and ‘70s he lined out for us in county finals, either side of a stint playing for London. When the club was gathering money for a new pitch in the 1980s, Donie raised funds in England and sent it home, like the Dagenham Yanks.

Many years later he managed our hurling team for a couple of seasons during a long recession in our fortunes. For too many seasons around that time our year was bluntly divided between six months of bubbling optimism and six months of sour recrimination. There was no oasis of middle ground. Adele hasn’t written a song about this yet, but the simplest way to have your heart broken is to give it to the GAA. If you’re lucky you’ll get it back in two pieces. Expect it to come back as a jigsaw. Donie understood this too.

He spent the last few years of his life at home, battling a long illness with grace and good humour. During that time he immersed himself in the club. Conversations about matches and players were his daily bread. Feedback from Donie sometimes had an unfiltered quality, but only because he was desperate for us to succeed and drive on.

He spent his last year scoping out the best solution for the new hurling wall we need to build and an astro pitch to go with it. He wouldn’t have stopped until it was done. We’d better step up.

Rest in peace Donie. Carrig Abú.