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Kerry diaspora doing things the Kerry way

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by Eamonn Fitzgerald

In Part 1 of his exploration into the GAA abroad, Eamonn Fitzgerald tells the story of Kerry Middle East, the Dubai club with strong Killarney connections.

Tomorrow Austin Park, Tralee will be packed to capacity with Kerry and Dublin supporters as the age-old rivalry between the Jackeens and the Culchies will be played out under lights. Jack O’Connor and Dessie O’Farrell will be keen to garner league points, while the spectators will look for even more, especially the bragging rights.

Nothing less than a win tomorrow will appease the supporters, who look to Jack on his third coming to deliver Sam. Jack eile did it when Ireland held its breath during the golden Charlton years. These past number of years have been annoying and frustrating for Kerry, knowing they should have won at least two more All-Irelands. Some of it was our own fault.

Will tomorrow night’s game on home soil provide credence to the high hopes that the famine will be overcome in July?

DUBAI

At home, spectators will wonder, but so too will the Kerry diaspora. Where better to start than in Dubai where the green and gold of Kerry is featuring so prominently. Kerry Middle East (KME) is the name of the newest club founded in 2018 and there is a strong Killarney connection.

Galen Carroll, Jamie Wrenn and David Leacy grew up together in Woodlawn. They attended the local primary and post-primary schools and had the benefits of third level education. Like so many others, they played games. All three Woodlawners loved sport, but they left it all and settled in Dubai.

Of course, most people have family members or friends who emigrated over the years. Now the big attraction is not the Bronx or Kilburn. It’s Sydney and increasingly so Dubai.

The main differences between emigration of over a century ago and that of the present day is that the young Irish of today are highly educated and most of them are graduates with academic degrees. Secondly, many are not leaving Ireland because they have no job. Unemployment was 5% prior to COVID; it has grown these past few years to 7% - still way better than other eras when it approached 20%.

Everywhere the Irish went they took with them their native customs: their music, culture and sport, predominantly Gaelic games, and that has hardly changed over the past 100-plus years. So now, instead of Gaelic Park in New York or McGovern Park, Ruislip, the music, songs and games are thriving in places like Dubai.

The GAA has an international section to deal with overseas and of course Larry McCarthy the President of the GAA emigrated to New York, but has relocated to Ireland for the duration of his term of office.

Kerry Middle East play their games as part of the Middle East GAA club circuit, somewhat like our county board, and it has 16 clubs in its remit across the Gulf Area, mainly in the United Arab Emirates.

Notwithstanding the strong Kerry base, KME are extremely proud to have players from all four provinces as well as the United States and the UK, welcoming people of all backgrounds and skill levels. It is an inclusive club with a strong focus on enjoyment and the social aspect of club membership.

It’s a win-win for members who join KME club, who are one of the only GAA clubs worldwide that do not charge a membership fee. They provide all players with match jerseys. They train one night a week and members only pay for individual training sessions on a “pay as you play” basis.

THE KERRY WAY

Interestingly, this fledgling club aims to train and play "The Kerry Way" with an emphasis on skill development and total football. Many Kerry supporters will be delighted with that and will wonder what other elements must be included in The Kerry Way, the fast highway to title No. 38 in Croke Park.

If KME keep that up, will we see the day when an immigrant MEK player will be flown home for a weekend to slot straight into the Kerry team, having played in Dubai?

KME  had their first tournament game last weekend in temperatures of around 25 degrees. We would term that a heatwave in Ireland. The temperature at the Kerry v Dublin game tomorrow night will be about 4 degrees. Brrr!

Dubai is mostly of the Muslin religion so match/tournament days are usually on Saturday/Sunday to avoid the Muslim Sabbath, which is Friday.

KME have set out their stall with lofty aims. They do not confine membership to Kerry women and men.

With the ever increasing number of young Irish women and men emigrating to the UAE, it  doesn’t surprise me in the least that there are more women playing GAA in the UAE than men, because most of the expats there are teachers and here in Ireland the profession is dominated by females.

There are 35,518 female teachers in national schools and just 6,494 male teachers. At post-primary level there are 15,367 female teachers and 6,991 males.

Too many of the talented teaching graduates find it difficult to be appointed to a permanent teaching post after graduating in Ireland so a significant number emigrate, especially to places such as Dubai, an exciting city in the UAE.

As of December 2021, the Middle East GAA has 1,478 Irish members and a further 199 from other nationalities. Breaking the Irish members down further there are 710 playing ladies football, 23 in camogie and 129 dual players. Compare that to the cohort of active male members: out of a total of 775 players, 549 play football and 117 play hurling. There are 109 dual players.

Does it surprise you in light of the statistics shown above that the top occupations of the immigrants are 1,318 for teaching? And you can be sure that the majority of these are females. IT/professional services/sales (89), engineering and construction (59), banking and finance (39), healthcare (38) account for the rest.

The top 3 home counties of these Irish are Cork (90), Kerry (60), and Dublin (54). Is it any wonder that the drain on Kerry GAA players, male and female, to the Middle East and elsewhere, makes it hard to compete with the Dubs?

It has a population of well over a million, making those five-or-six-in-a-rows extra hard to achieve for Kerry and other counties. Food for thought for Kerry sport and indeed for our politicians.

But enough statistics for this week. Part 2 of GAA in Dubai and elsewhere in our next edition on February 11.

Idir an dá linn I expect Kerry to beat Dublin tomorrow night even without the service as of their most valuable defender Gavin White. He will be lucky if the mighty physio Jimmy Galvin has that hamstring injury cleared up by Round 3 of the National League.

ALL-IRELAND FINALS

Best of luck to Kilmoyley hurlers in their bid for a first ever All-Ireland club title. The same goes for Gneeveguilla in Croke Park. Four goals in the first half of last weekend's semi-final showed what the Sliabh Luachra men are capable of. But tabhair aire. Rosie did climb those hallowed steps for Sam. So, too, can you, but All-Ireland finals are never easy to win.

The cows may not be milked for days if you do it. Give Tim Joe and Jimmy O’Brien a reason to take out the rosary beads. Prayer does work. Good luck.

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Killarney Valley AC named Club of the Year at national awards ceremony

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Members of Killarney Valley Athletics Club had cause for celebration on Wednesday as they picked up the prestigious Development Club of the Year prize at the 123.ie National Athletics Awards.

The award is handed out annually to a club who have made a positive impact on behalf of the sport within their community.

Sprinter Sarah Leahy of Killarney Valley and UL was also honoured with the Female University Athlete of the Year award.

Speaking to the Killarney Advertiser, coach and committee member Tomás Griffin said he and his clubmates were “delighted” and “very proud” to accept the Club Development award on behalf of all their athletes, coaches and administrators. The opening of their new track alongside St Brendan’s College in 2020 has been crucial, Griffin explained.

“The facility a catalyst but the passion was always there and we had people doing their best and coaching long before there was a track. To see the momentum that came with the opening of the track being maintained is great. We now have a waiting list of people looking to join the club.

“Did we see ourselves winning an award like this, in an organisation of 53,000 members and 400 clubs? No. But was it always possible? Yes. Killarney as a town across all sports – Gaelic football, soccer, basketball, cycling, judo, rock climbing – it’s a place where people excel. The bar is already raised. But being able to reach this level and achieve what we have in just two years shows what other talent is out there.”

Killarney Valley now boast five Irish internationals, 320 registered members and 22 Athletics Ireland accredited coaches. The club won 107 provincial and national medals in 2022, and they had 155 graduates from their Couch to 5k programme. Many of these participants are now regulars in the local Park Run and are continuing their personal health and fitness journeys with the club.

Nine Killarney Valley representatives attended the awards ceremony on Wednesday: Tomás Griffin, Jerry Griffin (chairperson), Bríd Stack, Gene Courtney, Con Lynch, Karen Smith, Sarah Leahy, Jordan Lee, and Madie Wilson-Walker. Sarah’s parents Mike and Marie also made the journey.

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Jiu-jitsu champion Wilson da Silva sets sights on world title

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This week Adam Moynihan called to the Movement & Fitness Club on New Street to catch up with Killarney man Wilson da Silva. The 38-year-old Brazilian recently won gold at the European Championship for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and now he’s gunning for a world title.

Wilson, congratulations on your latest success in Rome and Abu Dhabi.

Thank you, Adam.

Before we chat about that, let’s go back to the start. How did you end up living in Killarney?

I came here around 15 years ago because I met someone from Killorglin and we went out for five or six years. After we broke up, I came to Killarney. I’m pretty much half-local, half-Brazilian now.

What part of Brazil are you from?

The northeast. A place called Recife. If you look at the map, it’s the nearest point to Ireland.

Do you get to go home often?

I try to go once a year, you know? I was home earlier this year and then before Covid. But once a year I go home in the summertime.

It must be nice to get some sunshine.

It’s nice, man. Even recently the doctor told me I have Vitamin D deficiency. My skin colour needs the sun! So I go home once a year. I follow the doctor’s advice.

How did you get into jiu-jitsu?

I did it back home in Brazil but I continued here in Killarney. I trained with guys here, Pedro Bessa and Tom McGuire. Then there is another club in Killarney and I trained with them up until four years ago. Things weren’t working out so I started my own gym. I just wanted to do things my way which was to have a clean place, no ego, no drama, no stress, no jealousy. Just come, train jiu-jitsu and help each other. And it’s going well.

Was it hard to go out on your own?

In the beginning it was really difficult because I was opening a second club in the town, on my own. There was really only one guy who wanted to train with me, but then my fiancé (Ewelina) started training and one became two, two became three, and it started to grow. Now we have classes for babies from three years up, kids and teenagers. We’re doing jiu-jitsu and capoeira for all ages. I guess it’s something good for the community.

Can you tell me a bit about jiu-jitsu? Is it similar to other sports?

If you were to describe jiu-jitsu to someone who never saw it, it would be very similar to judo. You have people throwing each other and putting each other on the floor. The jiu-jitsu match is five minutes long and the goal is to checkmate the opponent, to make your opponent quit, or tap out. So there is a lot of ground work, grappling, and wrestling. It’s an excellent sport and great for self-defence. I can’t recommend jiu-jitsu enough.

So there’s no striking?

There is no striking but [in terms of self-defence] there is ducking from striking, turning a strike into a mobilisation. It’s about finding locks on the body – the joint moves this way for example (he turns his arm) – figuring out how the anatomy of the body works.

It seems quite technical and intellectual.

Yes, it’s a very intelligent sport. I trained in weightlifting for a long time, for many years. With time it simply comes down to reps, breaking muscle fibre, and you’re not learning anything. It’s boring. With jiu-jitsu you’re constantly thinking. You’re constantly working your brain.

I compare it to a game of chess. First you figure out how to move the pieces, and then you have to play strategy. Look ahead to the next move and what your opponent can do to you. The moves are complicated and you’re always learning new things. It requires a lot of focus and discipline to get good at it. You don’t get bored with jiu-jitsu.

Is the focus and discipline side of it good for the kids who come to your gym?

Yes, definitely. I find that it is so beneficial for the kids. The kids want to win but if they want to win, they need to learn the moves. In order to learn the moves, they have to pay attention. So straight away it develops focus and concentration and discipline. If they do not pay attention, if they run around the place, they’re going to lose when they spar. It fixes itself. The guys who come in, pay attention, and it makes the others not want to lose so they pay attention and worker hard to learn the moves.

You can see the difference in the kids when they come here. We try to make them comfortable in uncomfortable situations so that when you take the child out of the jiu-jitsu class and they have a to deal with a hard subject in school, or a bully, they are mentally stronger.

I have witnessed that myself. I worked in security for many years and before I dedicated myself to jiu-jitsu, I found it easy to lose the head. But the more hours I put into the gym and training in jiu-jitsu, the more comfortable I became with frustrating situations. You’re able to remain calm. That’s a benefit of jiu-jitsu.

How important is size in jiu-jitsu?

That’s a tricky one. People say that size doesn’t matter. It definitely does. There’s no doubt about that. But the beauty of jiu-jitsu is that once you have the technique, you’re able to apply it against bigger guys. You know, the bigger guys have big muscles and bigger egos, but if the small guy trains hard he will be able to move the big guy’s body in a way that works against him. The big guy who goes to the gym, he’s used to pushing the bar this way (straight out), whereas the guy who knows jiu-jitsu knows that if he moves the bigger guys arms here (upwards), he’s not strong anymore. Now the bench press is worth nothing.

Bigger guys think they are unbeatable. The small guys have to work for it. I always motivate the guys here in the gym to be humble. You always have to consider yourself the second best, the guy who wants to be first. The moment you think that you’re bigger and better than everyone else, you stop working.

Tell me about your recent victories in London, Rome and Abu Dhabi.

Yeah, so I went to the UK and managed to win four golds at the London Open in the ‘Gi’, ‘A’, ‘No-Gi’ and ‘Absolute’ categories. (The ‘Gi’ is a uniform sometimes worn in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. There are categories in which the Gi is worn – ‘Gi’ – and categories in which it is not – ‘No-Gi’. The ‘Absolute’ is an open weight division).

Then a couple of weeks ago I travelled to Rome to compete in the European Championship. The day before that event, the Rome Open was on and since I was already there, I signed up for that too. I won the first fight, submitted the guy, but then in the final I lost. It was a good lesson for me. Coming from so many wins, I thought I was going to smash this other guy. I got a bit cocky. Losing settled me down and humbled me a little bit. I went back to my accommodation and analysed my mistakes. I hoped that the next day I would be able to play a strategy to win.

In the end I managed to win four fights and win the biggest European tournament – the No-Gi European Championship. It was my dream. I have been there twice before and got knocked out in the quarter-final, and came third in the Gi division.

It was really emotional for me. It was a great achievement. Even now when I’m talking, I feel emotional. I don’t train that much with No-Gi so to come first in Europe, it’s hard to believe.

It’s really hard to run and promote a club and also train and win tournaments, a lot of people say it’s not possible, but I’m putting a lot of hours into this and proving that it is possible. When you work so hard, with the help of my training partners, the results have to come.

And you weren’t finished yet. Where did you go next?

Yeah, to finish the story, after winning the European tournament on the Saturday, I flew to Abu Dhabi on Monday for the World Championship. I managed to go there and win three fights before losing the semi-final after getting beat pretty hard. I got my ass kicked by the winner. Then I had to fight to win the third place [match]. So, even though it’s only third place, it’s third place on the biggest podium in the sport.

Is it normal to compete in this number of events in quick succession?

No. It’s crazy to do so many competitions in a short period of time. I usually take a month or two months off before the next competition. It’s expensive too and I must thank Kevin Leahy [from the neighbouring Black Sheep Hostel] for sponsoring me. But after London, I had a feeling that there was no stopping me. I’m healthy. I’m not injured. Now is my moment and I have to take the chance.

It was hard enough to believe that I won the European Championship but to go to Abu Dhabi and fight against the best guys in the world… It’s a dream. Well, it’s not a dream now because it happened. It’s a reality.

Is this it for you now? Have you achieved all you want to achieve?

No, there’s more. Much more. I want to win the World Championship in California next year. For sure I would like to win the European Championship next year too.

But my goal is more than just winning championships, it’s to build champions. I want to teach people and share techniques that are proven to work. As I try to grow the gym, I will continue competing for as long as God blesses me with this health. That’s it.

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