HANDS up, when the GAA World Games was mooted and launched last year, I just gave it a polite hat-tip (more of a good day, sir, than a how’s your sister), and moved on.
Days passed, then months, Christmas gorging came and went, Valentine’s was survived, and not a moment’s thought was set aside for the first-ever GAA World Games that are being held in Abu Dhabi this week. Head in the clouds on my part, I admit.
In the middle of last month a phonecall from Finbarr Santry in Castlehaven refocused the mind, and got me thinking.
Finbarr filled me in on three Castlehaven women – sisters Mairead and Siobhan Courtney (both in Dubai) and their neighbour and friend Noreen O’Sullivan (based in Sydney) – who have all been selected on various Middle East and Australasian teams for this weekend’s competition in the United Arab Emirates.
First instinct: great story. Ticks a lot of boxes.
Before even touching base with any of the three Haven exports, in another phonecall from an (over) excited aunt speaking in hurried ‘aunt-talk’ – it’s what happens when Lord of the Rings’ Elvish language mates with 100-mile-an-hour Spanish – the bottom line was that a cousin of mine, working in Bahrain, had also been selected on a team to compete in the GAA World Games.
We all know the saying that the world is a small place, which can sometimes come across as a tad patronising, but, donning a sincere cap, the world can genuinely be a small place. Scout’s honour.
Last weekend while Mairead Courtney, older sister to Siobhan, filled me in on why both of them are working in Dubai and why they joined Dubai Celts GAA Club and how they were picked on the Middle East ladies’ team for this weekend’s GAA extravaganza in Abu Dhabi, the penny dropped in one of those moments when two plus two does actually equal four.
Remembering that my cousin, Frank, also a McCarthy (how original, eh), who plays with the Arabian Celts in Bahrain, has been selected on the Middle East 1 men’s team, I mentioned it in passing to Mairead.
She knows him. Small world, indeed.
Here are two people, Mairead and Frank, dotted in different parts of the globe, but through the power of the GAA abroad, and this innovative GAA World Games, their paths crossed. If it wasn’t for the GAA, they’d be passing ships in the night.
Often, and with good reason too, the GAA can frustrate more than a Rubix cube, but credit where credit is due, as its power is far-reaching, and hugely important to those who have left our shores for different climes.
Chatting to Frank late on Sunday night he filled me in on the GAA scene in Bahrain and the Middle East, and it was an eye-opener. Without the GAA, he explained, the Irish community would be lost. It’s what brings everyone together and that’s very important in Bahrain which is very ‘cliquey’. You have a community or a close group of friends, or you have no one.
In his early days in Bahrain, there for work, he knew nobody. Having played a bit of ball at home, club and divisional, he found out about the Arabian Celts and joined up – the best decision he ever made.
‘People from all ages come and play, socialise and act like a community, almost like a home away from home,’ he explained.
Mairead, too, started playing football in Dubai for the social aspect: ‘It’s a fantastic way to meet people when you move abroad’.
Their story is repeated by thousands of Irish emigrants all over the world who, through the GAA, are forming new communities world-wide, and at the same time spreading the GAA gospel and exposing our games to a new audience.
On that note alone, of the 28 teams that will compete at the GAA World Games this Friday and Saturday, eight will duke it out in the International World Cup with teams from Argentina, Galicia in Spain, the Middle East and South Africa, made up of natives from these countries who have taken up GAA. Step by step, the GAA empire expands.
Back to the standard in the Middle East, it’s a lot higher than people think, and both Mairead and Frank, while in different countries, were reading off the same script, explaining that it’s becoming more and more competitive, and the standard is increasing steadily, with senior, intermediate and junior teams all competing in their various countries.
In the Middle East, there are GAA teams in almost every country – Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and the UAE which is made up of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.
In the Bahrian tournament last October there were 56 teams of 12 playing in one tournament. Do the maths. That’s a lot of GAA players. And that’s just Bahrain, there’s the Middle East, Australia, Asia, America, Canada, mainland Europe and more all playing GAA, and nearly all will be represented at the GAA World Games this weekend, as 20 teams (mostly of Irish players) will compete for the inaugural GAA World Cup.
Siobhan and Mairead Courtney from Castlehaven will be there, lining out for the Middle East. Noreen O’Sullivan, who plays for Cormac MacAnallens in Sydney will be there, playing for Australasia. All three have their Castlehaven jerseys ironed and ready. Odds are there are more West Cork players there, and if so, let me know.
A cousin will be there, as will another fella, Cian Tobin, former Kerry minor, who I worked with, and the list goes on.
We’ve all made a pastime of battering the GAA but this weekend in Abu Dhabi will be special for all our family and friends abroad who are involved, and even those who aren’t but who play GAA all around the world. It’s helped create a home away from home for all our Irish emigrants.