GAA spreading rapidly from Guernsey to Galicia -- and not just with ex-pats
WHEN Tim Donovan was packing his bags to take up a job abroad, the first thing he did was to go online and search -- not for an apartment but for a GAA club.
In finding one, the man from Leap, west Cork, opened the door to a whole new ball game, with Gaelic games now blossoming in the most unexpected places -- and not just amongst the growing Irish diaspora.
Gaelic football and even hurling are now being played in locations as far flung as Galicia and Poland, as eager converts to the games are hooked on this "new" alternative to soccer.
There are now 70 Gaelic football teams in 23 countries throughout Europe, with 14 teams in north-west France and seven in Galicia in Spain.
And while die-hard GAA fans here might have assumed the Championship was all over for another year, they might have been taken aback to discover that another football final took place over the weekend.
In a narrow victory, Belgium triumphed over the Guernsey Gaels in the O'Neills European Gaelic Football Championship finals.
They beat them by a point, with 1-6 to 1-5 the final score. It was the biggest tournament in the history of the GAA, with 500 players from over 30 teams taking part in the event.
Brian Clerkin, PRO of the European County Board, predicted that Gaelic games are going to really take off with the next generation. In Brittany, there are 1,600 adults playing Gaelic games -- and 6,000 children doing it as part of their PE activities.
"It's the Celtic connection -- there's a feeling that this is part of their identity," he said.
As captain of the Belgian side, Mr Donovan said his team contained two native Belgians and a Canadian who have no connection with Ireland whatsoever.
"I don't know how they even found out about Gaelic football," he said.
He first realised the far-spreading appeal of the games on his arrival in Brussels, when the player he was marking began to shout in French.
"I was fairly shocked. I thought he was an Irish guy," he said.
Having qualified as an engineer over three years ago, Mr Donovan searched for a job unsuccessfully for over nine months, so knew he would have to leave Ireland.
He got a job with a UK firm to fit air conditioning units which involved him moving to Brussels. But relocating alone at the age of 23 was a daunting prospect.
"I was feeling a bit desperate, wondering how I'd make friends. So I thought of a GAA club," he said.
He said the game itself is played a little differently abroad. The teams are 11-a-side to allow for the narrow soccer pitches they play on. But the standard of football is lower, he concedes.
"You can't compare the standard in Europe with the football at home. The population of Irish isn't high enough to bring up the standard. It's a bit off -- but it's increasing rapidly," he said.