GAELIC games are an essential part of Irish culture. The ancient sports played a significant role in Ireland’s political history, symbolising an idea of nationhood and unifying a divided country after the horrors of the Civil War. In that sense, the GAA transcends sport, whilst the sight of a puck or solo being performed is something that we Irish can uniquely claim as our own.
Rarely will you find a sport that is so passionately enjoyed by a country and its people, yet not consumed by wider global communities. In this respect, the mere act of playing Gaelic Football or Hurling is something that extenuates one’s feeling of Irishness. It is part of our identity and something that makes us who we are.
For Gaels and their descendants abroad, the GAA is an extremely powerful movement. A lot of coverage is given to Irish communities establishing bars, performing music, and supporting political causes. Meanwhile, in Glasgow the name of Celtic Football Club is synonymous with children of the Great Hunger. However, an often-overlooked aspect of Irish diasporic culture is the presence of Gaelic Football/Hurling clubs.
The Irish in Scotland have a long history of playing Gaelic games. The most prominent GAA clubs, at present, are Glasgow Gaels and Dunedin Connolly’s in Edinburgh. Both have enjoyed notable success in the All-Britain Championships in recent times.
When one joins a GAA club outside of Ireland, it gives them a great sense of belonging. Not only are immigrants able to play the sports they love, but they can enjoy a taste of home. These clubs are cultural institutions and social outlets.
To exemplify this point, I draw on my own experiences as a member of St Jude’s GAA (Bournemouth and Southampton). The club has a number of members, both players and non-players. The majority of these people are Irish-born, but there is a significant minority of descendants involved—such as myself—who were born in the UK. In our daily lives, we integrate with locals, engage in various activities and work in the place that surrounds us—just like every other person living in the area. But when we link up with the GAA club, we are able to feel connected to the Emerald Isle.
For those born in Ireland, this is a way to settle in their adopted homeland and make friends in similar circumstances. It is also an opportunity to continue playing the sports that they left behind. On the other hand, people like myself, who were raised here, can express our Irishness by partaking in the cultural roots that were passed down to us. Together, we train, compete against other clubs and hold a number of social events. What’s more, wives, husbands and friends are invited along and so we end up with a whole mix of nationalities and different types of people integrating. We even link up with a local Aussie Rules team for exhibition matches and shared fundraisers from time to time.
Gaelic Football is taken very seriously at St Jude’s, without excluding anyone. The Men’s Seniors reached the All-Britain semi-finals in 2019, when they were narrowly beaten by Glasgow Gaels (1-12 to 1-9). A Ladies Team and Youth Team has also been established, and everyone is given the opportunity to play, whether that be in competitive fixtures, organised competitions, or internal tournaments.
Away from the field of play, we have hosted several nights of traditional Irish music, Irish language lessons, quiz nights, race nights, charity golf days, beach parties, trips to Jersey, an annual dinner dance, and socials on the town.
The away matches are always golden experiences too. Serious heads are on for the outbound journey, then once the football has been enjoyed, the bus is usually loaded with a cargo of Irish whiskey and cases of cider. The speakers bequeath our ears with a mixture of traditional ballads, songs from the charts and dance tunes, before inevitably someone takes the microphone and mayhem ensues. One member once said to me: “I think we’re a drinking club with a GAA problem.”
Friendships, sport, culture, music, beer, and Irish identity—the GAA is badly missed by the Irish abroad. It will always be a powerful force.