Paraic McGrath is the westerner bringing home the Eastern promise
Singapore-based referee will take charge of exhibition match in Croke Park to promote the GAA's Asian Board
Kerry’s Sean Ó Sé and Paul Brennan of Donegal. The counties meet again at Croke Park next Sunday. PhotographCathal Noonan/Inpho
All of 37 years since his father PJ refereed the All-Ireland final that famously settled the last attempt at five-in-a-row, Paraic McGrath will take the whistle himself for a few minutes at half-time in Sunday’s Donegal-Kerry quarter-final group match in Croke Park.
To mark 40 years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and China, a group of Chinese students, currently studying in Ireland, will play a mixed match under conditioned rules against Down club St John’s from Drumnaquoile.
Singapore-based McGrath, Asia Pacific Business Director for Taxback International, is also vice chair of the GAA’s Asian Board – “geographically, the biggest county board in the GAA!” – and explains how the venture came about.
“Jack Meng, who’s involved with Athlone IT as their Asia director, has played with our club in Shanghai and has brought together a bunch of students from Beijing and Shanghai studying in Ireland and said that he’d train them for the match. Seán Cunningham, another officer of the Asian Board, said he’d get in touch with his home club St John’s and pull it together.
“There’ll be 10 or 11 on each team, mixed, and all it’s doing is highlighting is the profile of the GAA in the Far East.”
Six years ago the GAA struck up a relationship with the Shanghai University of Sport. An All Stars hurling trip provided an opportunity for demonstrations of the game and students from the university travelled to Dublin to study Gaelic games, an academic option that remains for students and one that continues to be exercised, albeit not every year.
Established since 2006, the GAA in the region boasts 23 clubs and about 1,000 players.
“There’s a young fella, Aaron Costello, from my home town of Claremorris who we’ve welcomed out to Singapore for six months and he’s bringing Gaelic football to around 5,000 Singaporean students in local schools.
“The Beijing-Dublin International Institute (a joint-project between UCD and Beijing University of Technology) is another involvement because the students there are all introduced to Gaelic as part of the culture.
“There are about 40 nationalities involved – all-Japanese teams, all-Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, Taiwanese and they’re attracted to it for a variety of reasons.”
One of the principle attractions, he says, is women’s football.
“It’s non-contact and an opportunity to play a team sport, which wouldn’t be traditional for Asian women. For the lads it’s social because the Irish are known for the craic and to be honest we try to promote the social side of things because it’s a home away from home. It’s like that meitheal idea: let’s all get together and help each other.”
The sheer geographical size of the region poses organisational challenges so there are two regional tournaments, one in North Asia and the other in South Asia, which are held early in the year.
“Most clubs tend to show up and we hold the tournaments in different places, like Ho Chi Minh City or Phnom Penh. Then there’s the Asian Games, which is a big event with 1,000 players over two days.”
The draw of women’s football is reflected in the numbers, which show more women than men competing in the Asian Games and McGrath sees big prospects for the women’s game.
“I couldn’t see why in 20 years’ time it will not be an Olympic sport and world dominating.”
* Paraic McGrath is also keen to gather any records or memorabilia anyone might have of the 1986 International Rules series, then first one held in Australia. His father and former Connacht Council chair, PJ McGrath, who is now unwell, was a well-known football referee and as well as officiating at the 1982 All-Ireland final he travelled in 1986 with Paddy Collins as one of the GAA officials. If anyone has any of the above materials, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.