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

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by Adam Moynihan

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.”

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.

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.

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Kerry will need more intensity, more physicality and more collaboration to bounce back from Dub drubbing

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by Adam Moynihan

In the 22nd minute of last Saturday night’s league match in Croke Park, Lee Gannon collected a pass on his own 65 and carried the ball unchallenged right into the heart of Kerry’s defence. Brian Fenton took over and a tackle by Diarmuid O’Connor slowed the attack.

Then Fenton looked up and saw that Niall Scully was standing at the top of the D, completely unmarked. It was a simple five-metre handpass to the centre, and Scully had all the time in the world to steady himself and shoot. His point made it Dublin 2-8 Kerry 0-5. Ten shots for Dublin. Ten scores. One-way traffic.

The Dubs deserve credit for their accuracy in front of the posts – Con O’Callaghan was particularly excellent – but the ease with which they were creating their openings was startling from a Kerry perspective. For Scully’s score, the resistance was non-existent. If the same thing happened in a training match, the manager would be well within his rights to call off the session and send everyone home.

The cameras may have been trained on Kerry’s full back line and, yes, Jason Foley and Dylan Casey were struggling against O’Callaghan and Paddy Small, but Kerry were found wanting all over the pitch. You could have sailed the Titanic down the centre of their defence and O’Callaghan exploited that space to great effect for his third goal. Foley got hoodwinked by a lovely piece of movement by the Dublin full forward, but where was the help?

Centre back Tadhg Morley was pushing up on Dublin dangerman Seán Bugler but that’s the thing with Dublin: all their forwards are dangerous in one way or another. Maybe Tadhg was following instructions but you wonder if he could have cheated off Bugler when the all-action centre forward was outside the 45.

Whether it’s Morley or someone else, that gap in front of the goal needs to be filled – especially against teams of Dublin’s calibre.

What we saw in Croke Park last Saturday was a far cry from the solid defensive structure that won Kerry an All-Ireland in 2022, that’s for sure. You can be certain that Jack O’Connor will be demanding a far more intense, more physical and more collaborative performance against Tyrone on Sunday (1.15pm).

KICKOUTS

Speaking after the Dublin game, O’Connor said that his side “malfunctioned” on the kickouts. While Dublin keeper David O’Hanlon was firing out his kicks like a machine gun, Shane Ryan was far more measured with his. Dublin’s press was brilliant in fairness to them but you’d have to question Kerry’s appetite for making honest, hard runs and receiving the ball in potentially tight areas.

Graham O’Sullivan and Brian Ó Beaglaoich (who is currently injured) are outstanding when it comes to breaking free and accepting that responsibility. You’d like to see one or two more backs getting in on the act.

As for Ryan himself, could he be a bit quicker and a bit more adventurous with his distribution? Look, if there’s nothing on, there’s nothing on, but I think at times he could back himself more resolutely. He has the range and the accuracy.

Of course, if he takes a risk and it gets intercepted he’ll be in line for even sharper criticism, so you can understand him being cautious when the kick isn’t 100% on.

Whatever the solution, on the evidence of the Dublin and Derry games, Kerry do need to try something a bit different to beat the press. Tyrone are unlikely to be as aggressive as Dublin were but when they do push up, it will be fascinating to see how Kerry deal with it.

Kerry’s midfielders also need to compete aerially against whoever they’re up against when it goes long – even if that’s Brian Fenton or Conor Glass or Brendan Rogers. It’s not easy to get the better of these guys in the air (or to break even, which would do) but that’s the level required.

Joe O’Connor showed that his ball skills have improved markedly by taking his goal and his point so cleanly, and he is doing well in general, but he and his namesake Diarmuid will have to be more impactful both from kickouts and without the ball if Kerry want to be a real force this season.

Personally, I would like to see Seán O’Brien getting some more game time. He has only played six minutes since being taken off early on his debut against Derry five weeks ago. Kerry will need back-up at midfield as the season goes on and O’Brien has a lot of potential.

FORWARDS

Up front, the main positive is that Cillian Burke continues to make his presence felt. Even when his more experienced teammates were faltering the last night, Burke stood tall and played his usual game. And he swung over a great score for good measure.

David Clifford will be disappointed that he didn’t convert one of his goal chances – the first one was definitely there for the taking – but you know that over the course of the season he’ll finish more of those than he misses. I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if he comes out and strokes one in on Sunday.

It’s nice to see Tony Brosnan back on the pitch as well. He deserves some kind fortune following a tough spell with illness and injury.

Tyrone coming to Killarney gives the players the perfect opportunity to bounce back quickly and show supporters – and themselves – that the Dublin game was a glitch and nothing more. Improvements are needed all over the pitch but the sight of the Red Hand should bring focus and resolve.

A good performance, a win and two points would put a lot of minds at ease.

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Killarney girls will answer Ireland’s call

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A trio of talented young Killarney rugby players have been called up to the Ireland U18 squad for the upcoming Six Nations festival in Wales.

Ava O’Malley, Fia Whelan and Emma Dunican have all been included in Matt Gill’s panel for the tournament, which will take place between March 29 and April 6. They will link up with their new teammates for three weekend training camps at the IRFU’s High Performance Centre on the Sport Ireland Campus in Dublin during the month of March.

Gill, the current Women’s Provincial Talent Coach for Leinster, will be assisted by Sana Govender, who has previously coached Munster Women’s teams.

“I’m really looking forward to continuing our Irish U18 Women’s Six Nations preparations and getting our camps underway,” the head coach said. “I’m excited to work with Sana and our management team, and to work with this incredibly talented group of players.”

O’Malley, Whelan and Dunican are products of Killarney RFC’s blossoming youth set-up and all three were on the U18.5 team that recently won the Munster League.

Including the Killarney girls, there are seven Munster-based players on the 35-woman squad with 15 hailing from Leinster, eight from Connacht and five from Ulster.

“It’s a very proud day for the girls, their families, teammates and coaches, and for Killarney RFC,” the club commented. “Best of luck, girls!”

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