THEY are Ireland’s lost generation, swapping turf and rain for surf and sexy tans Down Under. But while our young immigrants may be munching on marmite and glugging back ‘goon’, one thing they won’t be losing during their exile in Oz is their sporting culture.
Walking through Sydney’s city streets, it’s easy to spot an Irish person – and not just by the burnt, freckley skin and general dishevelled appearance due to the glugging of goon! While usually saved for match days at home, young Irish travellers wear their GAA shirts here at every opportunity.
Down Under, Gaelic games are a way to keep immigrants connected with Ireland, with their clubs, fellow players, and the family and friends they have left behind. GAA clubs in Sydney have become second homes for many young professionals forced to find work abroad. One such club is Young Ireland GAA Club, New South Wales’s oldest and most successful association, promoting Gaelic football Down Under for the last 44 years.
Chatting to some of their star players, they reveal that while emigration may be affecting smaller clubs back home, it is helping the GAA to thrive across the world.
“I grew up playing in school and being able to play football definitely makes it easier to meet people,” says David Murphy (26), from Kilconly in Galway.
“Back home, growing up in a small parish, the people you play football with are the people you go to the pub with on a Saturday night, they’re the people you go to parties with.
“When you come out here you’re looking to replace that and becoming part of a GAA club helps you do that.”
A carpenter by trade, David came to Australia three years ago to find work and since arriving in Sydney 12 of his former team-mates left his former Kilconly GAA club.
“Before I left home our club was struggling to get 30 players for the team as it was, then five of us left and four more went a year later. Eventually 12 of us were gone from the club and they were not being replaced. The team just fell apart in the two years that everyone was gone.
“But most of the boys went back and in the last year the club went back up from intermediate to senior level.”
Driving to the club’s beach tournament, club secretary Noirin Kelly (28), has Today FM playing on her stereo.
“I love Ray D’Arcy, I couldn’t miss him so I downloaded the iPhone App to listen to his show,” says Noirin – official secretary of the Young Ireland Football Club. The Galway girl, from Caltra, singlehandedly formed Young Ireland’s first female team last year, spurred on by watching her fiancé’s Sunday matches in Sydney for the last five years.
“We started out with five female players last year and now we have 35 players registered with us. The whole club is growing, there’s over 120 registered players,” says Noirin, who works at the University of Sydney.
“When we came down here first my fiancé was the only Connacht man on the Young Ireland team.
“It went from being a mainly Cork/Laois club to having someone from every province. There’s even girls on the team from Brazil, England, Canada and Australia.
“David Murphy’s girlfriend, Catherine Schedlich, is from Sydney and she’s the vice-captain on the girls’ team and she hadn’t even played the game until last year.
“She came down to the beach for a sunbathe and to watch the match and I threw a jersey at her and said ‘come on’.
“It’s great to see Aussies getting into the GAA. They have so many sports that they play down here that it’s hard to break into the Australian culture, but the people who do come along and play love it.”
Seeing this new Aussie member of the team in action, she looks like a natural, soloing the ball with ease along the sand.
“I’ve played netball since school so I know my way around a ball, but there’s no contact in netball so GAA is rougher and a lot faster,” says Catherine (29).
“One of the girls actually broke her toe in last week’s win – it was blood, sweat, tears and broken toes.
“But I love the game, I’d only ever heard of it in passing before I met David, now I’m a Galway supporter of course.
“We went back to visit last June and I loved Galway, I had many a night out in Tuam and I can’t wait to get back there this year.”
Cork player Michael O’Laochdha (30), from Youghal, also encouraged his fiancée Caroline to join the club.
“Caroline’s from Clarinbridge, Galway, and although she never played GAA before, she’s picked it up really well.
“Playing football makes it easier to meet people, we have social events, barbeques, kayaking and paintballing trips.
“It’s much different than at home. Back in Ireland the GAA has a parish feeling, whereas here you are playing with people from all four provinces.
“We try and make it one happy family as much as we can. Everyone is from a different background, a different town, but the GAA brings everyone together.”
This news will come as some comfort to remote towns that have lost valuable team players due to mass emigration over the last few years. In February, the Sunday World reported on Kilmihil, Co. Clare, whose town had lost one seventh of its population since 2010. Gerry Johnston, an officer in the local Kilmihil GAA club, revealed that eight players had emigrated in the last two years and there was nobody to replace them.
He did a door-to-door survey which found that 87people had left the village since 2010.
“I think the GAA is great for rural communities,” said Gerry at the time. “It’s terrible to see the clubs losing players to emigration.
“We’re not the only place hit by emigration, but this is a small village and emigration has torn the heart out of it.”
The Young Ireland Football Team currently has eight players from Kilmihil, and the Sydney club is helping them to stay close to their roots.
“Your friends out here do become your family.We’re all in the same situation, we all came out here on a Working Holiday Visa and then ended up staying on,” says childcare worker Evelyn Frawley (29), from Kilmihil.
“We’re so far away from our families, our GAA clubs, and the friends we grew up with, but through the Young Ireland club you meet new friends that you’ll have for life.”