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‘Few and far between’ – Why are so few POCs and Eastern Europeans joining the GAA?

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Almost 16% of people living Kerry are of non-‘White Irish’ descent, yet our Gaelic football teams are almost exclusively made up of white Irish players. In Part II of a three-part series on racism in Irish sport, Adam Moynihan asks why so few foreign nationals and people of colour are lining out for their local GAA clubs.

 

A little over 12 months ago, the GAA published a new manifesto titled ‘Where We All Belong’. It was part of a wider campaign aimed at highlighting the role the Association plays within the community, and a “celebration of our shared values and of all the people who make our GAA what it is”.

“We all belong here,” it begins. “In this place. At this time. Being here means belonging. Belonging means knowing you’re part of a community. A community that has a place for all.”

It’s a nice thought and the GAA does undoubtedly play a huge role in Irish life but, in light of recent revelations, one has to wonder if people who are not white and Irish really feel like they “belong” in our national games.

High-profile intercounty players like Lee Chin of Wexford, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín of Cork and Boidu Sayeh of Westmeath have all been the victims of racism on the pitch and, over the last week or so, many more people of colour within the GAA have spoken out about the vile racial abuse directed at them by opponents.

In Kerry alone, Brian Okwute of the Killarney Legion, Stefan Okunbor of Na Gaeil and Franz Sauerland of An Ghaeltacht have all told of their own personal experiences.

No matter how welcoming your own club and your own teammates are, it must be difficult to feel like you truly belong when a member of the opposition asks, “why are you playing this sport?” or says, “go back to your cotton fields”.

Sauerland, a Gaeilgeoir who was born and raised in Ard na Caithne in West Kerry, has been on the receiving end of both of those comments. Of course, the great irony is that if Sauerland replied as Gaeilge, the other lad, who no doubt considers himself to be as Irish as Irish could be, probably wouldn’t be able to understand him.

Historically, Gaelic games have always been considered innately Irish and, on the one hand, that is a source of great pride to us all. But what if this ‘GAA = Irish’ mentality actually contributes to these instances of racial abuse on the pitch?

Ireland is an increasingly multicultural society but do some of our young men still feel as though Gaelic games are for Gaels only, which in turn makes it easier for them to single out people of colour like Sauerland (despite the fact that many POCs and sons and daughters of immigrants are as Irish as the rest of us)?

And does holding the GAA up as this bastion of Irishness actually make immigrants and the children of immigrants reluctant to join the Association in the first place?

The numbers suggest that something is keeping people whose ethnicity is anything other than ‘White Irish’ away.

Take Kerry as an example. Almost 16% of our population is Black, Asian, Eastern European, mixed race or another non-‘White Irish’ ethnicity, but only a tiny fraction of our Gaelic footballers come from any of these communities.

If you look at senior men’s football, how many non-‘White Irish’ players are there in the entire county? I’ve done some research and consulted with supporters and between us we can only come up with eight names. Eight. (The true figure may be higher but I would be surprised if it’s much higher than that.)

Let’s say the 72 teams (including B teams) playing senior football in Kerry have roughly 1,600 players between them. That would mean that approximately 0.005% of our adult playing population has an ethnicity or nationality or any kind of background at all that’s anything other than white and Irish.

Of course, a significant portion of the 16% mentioned earlier would be the children of immigrants who are simply not old enough to play senior football yet. It is, however, unlikely that they’ll graduate to senior if they’re never picking up an O’Neills in the first place.

A SMALL PERCENTAGE

The Killarney Legion is a relatively large town club in a relatively diverse town. One would imagine that, of the 60 or so Gaelic football clubs in the county, Legion would have more POCs and players of non-Irish descent than most.

However, club chairman Fergal Moynihan says that although they have tried to recruit children from different backgrounds, juvenile players who are not white and Irish are “few and far between”.

“The club has made an effort to reach out and attract more people because of the demographics in Killarney,” Fergal explains. “There are a lot of different ethnicities here, and the Irish population is lower than it was before.

“There would be some Polish children involved but if I look at the academy now, there doesn’t seem to be a high participation rate across different ethnic groups within the Legion. And I haven’t seen it at other clubs either, to be honest with you.

“There are a few but it would be quite a small percentage.”

The low number of Eastern Europeans taking part in Gaelic games is somewhat surprising considering the size of the Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian communities in this part of the world.

What’s keeping them away?

IRISH FOOTBALL

Polish man Adrian Jasinski has been living in Killarney since 2012. As a person with a strong background in sports, and the father of a son who gave the GAA a go, perhaps he can give us some insight.

“I live in an estate where there are 10 other Polish families with kids who could easily be playing GAA, but the parents have very little knowledge about the sport,” Adrian says.

“They hear it being called ‘Irish football’ so they think that it’s only for Irish people, not for other nationalities.”

Jasinski’s 12-year-old son lined out for Dr Crokes for five years before leaving the sport to focus on soccer and, while Adrian speaks very highly of the Lewis Road club (“there was always a great atmosphere there and the people were very friendly”), he can see why so few Polish children are playing Gaelic football.

“It’s very hard for the Polish kids to make friends,” Adrian says. “If an Irish child goes to play GAA, he knows the other players, the parents know each other, maybe his brother played before… If most of the Polish kids aren’t playing GAA, it’s very hard for that one kid to go and play because they feel more comfortable with kids from their own community.

“The Polish kids are not integrating that well with the Irish kids. I think that’s a big problem.”

Legion’s chairman also has concerns about the levels of integration outside of sport.

“I think it might be a broader societal issue as well,” Fergal suggests. “Is there big, big interaction going on between Polish children and Irish children in school? Are Polish and Irish families meeting on a daily basis? I’m not sure that’s always the case. I think if there was more integration in the community at large, barriers in the GAA would be broken down along with it.

“The GAA is a subset of society and if something isn’t happening in the broader community, it makes it more difficult for it to happen in the GAA as well.”

START THEM YOUNG

Adrian, who coaches Killarney Athletic’s U12 team, believes that it can often be more of a challenge to get the children of immigrants involved in organised sports across the board.

“A lot of (Polish) people in Ireland only think about work,” he says. “They’re doing overtime and they’re working, working, working, and saving money. They don’t have time to bring the kids to sport.

“Sometimes they might want their kids to get involved but because of their working hours, they just can’t manage it. And they don’t have family members who can look after the kids. They have no grandparents, no aunties, they don’t have cousins who can go together, maybe they don’t know their neighbours well enough to let them take the child along… And sometimes the older kids in the family have to mind the younger kids.”

He does, however, feel that the GAA could be doing more to attract players at a younger age. And the younger they get them, the better.

“You have to get them started early because even at 10 or 11, it’s almost impossible to break into the groups. You have to be a strong character to get into that group and feel part of the team even if you’re an Irish child, and it’s harder again for the foreign kids.

“It’s a physical sport and if you’re coming to it late, and you don’t know the other kids, it can be hard to get into it. You might think, ‘maybe I’m not in the right place’. That happens.”

 

[caption id="attachment_32323" align="aligncenter" width="367"] Deividas Uosis of Dingle is a rare example of an Eastern European Gaelic footballer. The Lithuanian-born all-rounder won an All-Ireland with the Kerry minors in 2017. He is now set to join the Brisbane Lions in the AFL. Pic: Sportsfile.[/caption]

 

For his part, Fergal is hopeful that more players of different ethnicities will break through in the years to come and he says that Legion are committed to making all of their members feel at home.

“All we can do is reach out to the various communities, bring them in at a young age and make them feel welcome. By doing that, eventually you’ll see more people getting involved.

“It’s very important to us that players from different backgrounds are welcomed with open arms and I think Brian (Okwute) is a great example of that. He made his debut for the seniors earlier this year and he’s included in absolutely everything. I can see that he has a great affinity with the club. Hopefully Jamie Alade won’t be far behind him.

“Whatever background our players are from, they’re Legion players at the end of the day and their ethnicity doesn’t matter."

"From our perspective, they’re just as important to us as everyone else. They’re not treated any differently.

“Their nationality or the colour of their skin never comes into it.”

UNDERREPRESENTED

It’s a complex issue and there are myriad factors to consider but the bottom line is that minorities are underrepresented in Kerry GAA. Wider societal issues beyond the control of the clubs certainly appear to be of some significance, but surely more can be done to open the door to people from different backgrounds, and to make them feel more comfortable within the GAA family once they get here.

Speaking to our young players about racism might be a start. It’s all well and good being welcomed by your own club but if players are telling us that racism is a problem on the pitch, we have to believe them and address it head on.

Who knows? If we can somehow create a positive, open environment that has a place for all, maybe one day a Kerry star of Polish or Nigerian or Malaysian descent could be the one to bring Sam Maguire back to Killarney.

And that, Adrian believes, could change everything.

“If you had one foreign player, maybe Polish or another nationality, who has great success in the GAA, that would definitely attract plenty of more foreigners to play.

“People need someone to follow.”

In all likelihood, that “someone” is already among us. They just need to feel like they belong.

 

Main Pic: Stefan Okunbor of Na Gaeil is one of a number of black GAA players to speak out about the racial abuse he has been subjected to on the pitch. The former Kerry minor now plays for Geelong in the AFL. Pic: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile.

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No reform for football championship as Plan B falls short

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by Adam Moynihan

There will be no radical change for the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship in 2022 after a motion to restructure the format of the competition failed at GAA Special Congress on Saturday afternoon.

Motion 19 (also referred to as ‘Proposal B’ or ‘Plan B’) proposed that the National League and All-Ireland Championship should become one competition, with the provincial championships being separated from the All-Ireland series for the first time ever.

The motion needed support from 60% of delegates but, contrary to projections, it fell well short of that majority. In the end, after an hour-and-a-quarter of debate, just 50.6% of voters opted for Plan B.

Plan A – four groups of eight “provinces” plus an All-Ireland series – garnered far less support. 90% of those present voted against that particular proposal, which was down as Motion 18 on the agenda.

The end result of the two failed motions is that intercounty football will revert to the status quo as it was before the Super 8s were introduced in 2018, with a qualifier or “back door” system in place. A second tier competition known as the Tailteann Cup will also be staged.

ARGUMENTS

Introducing Motion 19 to delegates at Croke Park, former GAA President John Horan described the proposal as a starting point.

“If we feel we need to improve it, that opportunity would be there,” he said. “This proposal will mean more matches for our players and a better playing to training ratio.”

CEO of the Gaelic Players Association Tom Parsons said the ‘league as championship’ model would spark life into Gaelic football, before reading the testimonies of some intercounty players who supported Plan B. Among them was current Kerry captain Paul Murphy, who was quoted as saying: “The time has come to try a new structure for our football championship.”

Parsons added that some players are being “laughed at” while wearing county tracksuits after suffering heavy defeats.

Former GAA President and ex-Kerry GAA Chairman Seán Kelly also spoke out in favour of Proposal B, suggesting that it should be trialled for a period of three years.

“If you stand still, you go backwards,” the Kilcummin native said. “This motion should be trialled for a maximum of three years and then reviewed. To turn our backs on the voice of the players does not make sense to me.”

Michael Duignan from Offaly, Colm Collins from Clare, Seán Carroll from Sligo, Kevin O’Donovan from Cork and Declan Bohan from Leitrim all backed the proposal.

Representatives from Mayo, Donegal, Antrim, Cavan, Derry, Monaghan and Armagh argued against.

Mayo GAA Chairman Liam Moffatt raised concerns about the sixth place team in Division 1 not qualifying for the All-Ireland series while teams from lower divisions would.

Tiernach Mahon of Fermanagh GAA said that “this motion has the potential to destroy the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of Fermanagh people”.

Meanwhile, Kerry GAA chair Tim Murphy called for Motion 19 to be voted on at Congress 2022 instead.

“It’s a really strong motion with really good attributes and something we should really consider. But I would caveat that by saying it would be a travesty today if the motion is put to the floor and defeated. All the work of the committee would go to waste.

“The sense I get from the floor is that everybody is for change and for us to grow and evolve as an Association we have to accept that. I do feel the motion has huge attributes, but maybe we should go around to the provinces and invite in county officers and players to have their view. If we come back in 12 or 13 weeks with the same motion, then no-one can say we haven’t discussed it properly.

“Perhaps bringing this motion to Congress 2022 is the best solution to the situation we find ourselves in.”

Bringing the debate to a close, Horan again urged delegates to back the proposal.

His pleas fell on deaf ears, however – at least for 83 of the 168 people in attendance. 100 ‘yes’ votes were needed for change, but Motion 19 received just 85.

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A lover of music and song: Jimmy O’Brien RIP

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Eamonn Fitzgerald remembers the late Jimmy O’Brien, the eminently popular bar owner, singer and GAA fan who left an indelible mark on the town of Killarney.

Publican Jimmy O’Brien was laid to rest at sunny Aghadoe on Monday last. He wouldn’t want any fuss, but he got his promise from his lifelong friend, Jimmy Doyle. Jimmy was on the button accordion playing ‘Mary from Bonane’, a firm favourite, and even more so in recent weeks when Bonane native Seán O’Shea was kicking points from all angles.

After his love for his family, nothing meant more to Jimmy O’Brien than football, music and song.

Born in the town land of Lyreatough, Kilcummin in 1932, he attended the local Anabla NS and was well inducted in the various stages of getting the turf from sleán to the reek in the haggard. He was of the bog and proud of it. But he knew it was very hard work and headed for town, specifically Culloty’s Garage at Fair Hill (now Killarney Hardware). There he learned his trade as a mechanic. He didn’t boast about it but was very proud of the papers he received to certify him as fully qualified.

Like so many more people of that time, he was taken to America by Patrick Cronin in 1956 and was home for good in 1961. He must have collected a fair fistful of dollars and held on to them because, when Conno Healy’s pub came up for sale in 1959 (across the road from Culloty’s), he bought it. He returned home to open up Jimmy O’Brien’s pub along with his wife, Mary.

The family came along in due course – Siobhán, Ann and Jim – and the business grew. All went well until September 29, 1994, when his beloved Mary passed away aged 61. Too young to die and it hit him hard. No wonder; wasn’t she his life and soul?

His three children, the bar and his twin loves of football and song kept him going. He had no time for soccer, recounting times he would go up to the Friary, say the rosary, and still no score when he returned.

He was an ardent supporter of the Kerry football teams, but even more passionate about club football. Which was his club?

ROGUES

Set the scene in the Fair Hill bar, with a nice crowd inside. That’s the way he liked it – he got a bit flustered if it became jam-packed. It’s summer time and the O’Donoghue Cup draw has been published.

Johnny Batt (Cronin) was the instigator, and his Spa club mates the Herlihy brothers (Dave and William) stirred it further. Who was Jimmy going to support in the forthcoming matches, in which the rivalry would be intense? Mick Gleeson was as philosophical as ever; he knew better than to try and win this one.

The McCarthy brothers from Gneeveguilla, Thado, Joe and Billy, were in fast to lay claim to the boss of the house. After all, wasn’t he reared in the traditions of Sliabh Luachra and one of its finest sean-nós singers? Rosy was far more definite. Gneeveguilla, of course, I have to say.

Kilcummin’s Dermot Moynihan was in no doubt about how the allegiance would stand. After all, Jimmy was born in the parish, went to school in the parish and the parish rule was, and still is, sacrosanct in Kerry football.

The odds favoured the country clubs and were stacked against the townies. Weeshie Fogarty was a regular and he had lined Jimmy up for Terrace Talk.

His daughter, Ann, married Harry O’Neill (Dr Crokes), Tom Long was his gun club friend traipsing around Cock Hill and not a word out of him, but beside him supping porter and watching the scene develop was Mike Cooper, the man who was born just inside the county bounds and was now living in Killarney. The Crokes are the team, said Mike, his chest swelling with pride. He had just returned from Cahersiveen where Dr Crokes had defied the odds to beat the Maurice Fitzgerald-led South Kerry team in the Kerry County Championship. Five of his sons played the full match to secure victory. But I thought there were only four?

“No, I have five, all good, but the youngest is only a slip of a lad. You’d think you’d blow him over, but the foxy boy will be the best of all of them.” How right he was. The boy became a man and won five All-Irelands with Kerry. Crokes went on to win the 2000 Kerry SFC, managed by Harry O’Neill, Jimmy’s son-in-law.

How was the proprietor going to get out of this one before the gallery of rogues? Sure, he was the greatest rogue of all himself, but we loved him for it.

Everyone looked to Jimmy for an answer, but he turned to another regular, the independent voice of Bracker, from the Rock.

Plenty of grimacing and carry on, but no answer to Johnny Batt’s question. Jimmy O’Brien had the knack of not falling out with anyone and he couldn’t win this one, so he carried confirmation of club allegiance with him to his grave.

I’m pretty sure it is Gneeveguilla, in the heart of Sliabh Luachra, which made Jimmy O’Brien a household name in traditional music, especially with his lifelong ‘brother’ Jimmy Doyle. He embraced the greatness of Julia Clifford, Denis Murphy, Johnny O’Leary, the Doyle brothers and many more.

SINGING

What’s more, he enhanced that marvellous tradition, not in playing, but in singing. I asked Jimmy Doyle at the graveside about Jimmy on the melodeon. “Oh, he could play… But he was only alright! But for singing he was tops, pure and just outstanding. He could interpret a song so well. You wouldn’t hear a pin drop when he sang unaccompanied.”

Is it any wonder that his pub in Fair Hill was a mecca for traditional singers and musicians? They came to the master’s pub for a session.

Paddy Moloney, chief of The Chieftains, was a regular caller; as were The Dubliners; and the Kelly brothers, Luke of ‘Raglan Road’ and Paddy, who was also a beautiful singer. When Paddy was head of the Trade Unions, they held their conferences in Killarney’s Great Southern Hotel. Business over, they trooped down to O’Brien’s. The pint was much cheaper there and they would have a right session singing, and what are you having yourself, sir?

Dolly McMahon, The Wolfe Tones, and the Begley’s all came to sing and play.

There were so many impromptu sessions and you’d get the discreet phone call that the session had already started. “Come, you’ll enjoy it, but ná h-abair focal to anyone.” What an invitation to listen to musical greats from the list above.

“Johnny O’Leary and the Doyles will be here around 10. We have Seán Ó Sé (Poc ar Buile), Johnny Lehane and Diarmaidín Ó Súillabháin will be here from Cúl Aodh. He’ll have the recorder for Radio na Gaeltachta.”

Regular visitors were Mick O’Connell, Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, Donncha Ó Dulaing and Cíarán Mac Mathúna. Thankfully, Ciarán recorded so many of Jimmy’s songs, preserving this priceless legacy for the Irish oral tradition.

And then there were the American tourists drawn to a real Irish pub. They wanted ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Galway Bay’. They also wanted to know what music college from which the vintner graduated. The prime boys from UCC provided him with the answer for the Yanks question. The University of Sliabh Luachra, with its constituent college in Lyreatough. “Wow, fancy that. Must Google that when we get back to the States.”

FRIENDSHIP

My friendship with Jimmy O’Brien goes back a long ways, but specifically to November 1969, when East Kerry won the second of their Kerry SFC titles and the Bishop Moynihan Cup had pride of place.

He introduced me to so many people, including Con Houlihan, sitting in the high seat inside the door, hair well down his back, no pigtail and his hand cupped to his nose. This genius of a wordsmith was a shy man that I met many times later in Dublin.

Just like Paddy Moloney, Jimmy shared his talents with so many young up and coming singers who went on to great things in life. I recall one such case. A very young nervous girl was preparing for her first time on stage, a recitation in Scór. Would he help her out?

Would he what? Bring her along. To this day the now adult woman recalls sitting up on that seat inside the door and this gentle, loving man encouraging her with great tips.

That seat is long gone, but not the bar stand. He splashed out on a magnificent mahogany piece, surplus to the requirements of the Great Southern. “That’s not like you,” says Johnny Batt. “What’ll you use it for?”

“It’ll be a fine bar counter,” Jimmy replied. “And what’s more, when its job is done, won’t it make a fine coffin?”

He was a great Friary man and the highlight of St Patrick’s Day was the singing of the Ár nAthair. Father and daughter, Jimmy and Siobhán, the All-Ireland champion singer unaccompanied in touching harmony. Flawless. Enchanting.

His relationship with his son Jim was more like that of brothers, looking after each other. They got great joy out of travelling to matches in the ageless red Mercedes, certainly the only one in Killarney, if not in Europe. He never got a parking ticket and definitely was never caught for speeding. I’m convinced that the former mechanic set cruise control at 40km and away she went with co-pilot Jim Bob. No need for GPS, Jim Bob in control. God help the poor motorist trying to pass out on the rural roads.

July was his favourite month to live his passions. The Munster final in Killarney on the first Sunday of July was the occasion to meet so many of his friends from afar. It was also the first day of the Willie Clancy festival at Miltown–Malbay and that ran for a week. He never missed it, linking up with Galway hurlers Joe McDonagh and the Connolly brothers and especially their aunts and uncles, the Jimmy O’Brien cultivators of traditional singing and music in Connemara. It was his spiritual retreat. Sustenance for another year.

His nephew, Fr Liam O’Brien, celebrated the touching funeral mass, enhanced by the singing of Maura Reen.

I had the good fortune to spend an hour with Jimmy less than a fortnight before he died. He wanted to know the inside story on Jack O’Connor’s return and then sang ‘The Boys of Bárr na Sráide’ and Garry McMahon’s ‘Kerry’s Green and Gold’.

Pitch perfect. Word perfect. Never a faltering note.

“Not bad for an ould fella,” were his parting words. He knew he could still do it and I was so happy to video live the Master of Songs, treasured recordings for the memory bank.

I wonder if St Peter will listen in on the hop balls between new neighbours, Johnny Batt and Jimmy O’Brien?

To Siobhán, Ann, Jim and extended families, as well as friends from far and near, comhbhrón ó chroí.

Traditional cultural Ireland has lost some great people in recent weeks: Tony Loughnane, Paddy Moloney, Máire Mac an tSaoí, Brendan Kennelly and Jimmy O’Brien. Class acts.

And Jimmy, go gcloisfidh tú na h-aingil ag déanamh ceoil leat ar Neamh.

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