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Sunday 22 September 2019

'The mother couldn't believe it!' - Michael D Higgins' attendance at GAA Australasian finals gets quite the reaction

President Higgins and his wife Sabina on a visit to King's Park Botanic Gardens in the city of Perth Pic Maxwell's - No Repro Fee 6-10-17
President Higgins and his wife Sabina on a visit to King's Park Botanic Gardens in the city of Perth Pic Maxwell's - No Repro Fee 6-10-17
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

"Well, the mother couldn’t believe it when I said Himself, The President, would be here," Catherine Monahan said, as she waited for Micheal D Higgins to arrive at the GAA Bateman Grounds in Western Australia.

"I’ll have to Snapchat or get a selfie with Mickey D for proof, you know?"

President Higgins and his wife Sabina continued their tour of Australia by attending the GAA Australasian Championship finals.

Around 700 people gathered pitch-side to cheer on the ladies football final.

It was between Western Australia and Victoria, while the men’s hurling final saw Western Australia go up against New South Wales.

The Perth Rose of Tralee was among the crowd, and sat with her sash proudly in place, looking suitably lovely and fair.

The 19-year-old cosmetologist said she is suffering a severe bout of "Tralee Blues" since returning from the Kingdom of Kerry.

"Some of the Rose Sisters are meeting up in Frankfurt later this year. I can’t go to that, but I FaceTime them all the time. It’s taken a while to get used to reality after Tralee."

As the sun started to beat down, supporters made a beeline for the club house.

Large dispensers of Factor 50 were placed around the room, and it was applied liberally to many necks.

Others queued for curry chips, while waiting for the President to arrive.

"They don’t serve curry chips everywhere in Australia, so it’s a real treat," Siobhan Cadogan told me. The 29 year old comes from Wexford, and is now working for the Australian Health Board in Perth.

"But today’s a special occasion", she added.

Children from the Gaelic Games Junior Academy were lined up to form a guard of honour.

"Hold the line," their coach told them, as he made sure their jerseys were spic and span.

When he arrived, Sabina and the Man Himself shook hands, and chatted informally before taking to the stage.  

The President of the GAA, Aogán Ó Fearghail, had also flown over for the occasion. "It’s the first time the President of the GAA and the President of Ireland have been together at a GAA match outside Ireland," Ó Fearghail said.

"It gives the GAA here a great boost. Meeting the President before the match gives them status and confidence."

There are 465 GAA clubs outside of Ireland, and 57 of those are in Australasia.

"It is strengthening and growing," Ó Fearghail said. "Twenty years ago we had three clubs in Perth, now we have fourteen.”

It makes sense that the number of clubs have grown; they aren't simply a sports association, n Irish but a community to connect with when you’re 10,000 miles away from home.

“It’s where you find you’re new family, friends - and jobs,” Caitlin McGinley from Mountcharles said. Caitlin moved to Australia six years ago.

“We joined the GAA on a Wednesday, and by Monday my husband had a job. You’re plugging into a community and a culture.”

Different generations of Irish ex-pats crowded on the sidelines as the Ladies Football teams moved into overtime.

There were first generation Irish-Australians, people who had left the home county 50 years ago, and others who had touched down in recent months.

Garry Ryan (26) from Ennis moved to Perth six months ago, after graduating from medical school.

“I went from winter to winter,” he said. “So I’m glad the sun is out today.”

His friend, Killian Tuite from Rathmines (26), had moved six months beforehand.

“Most doctors we know are moving to Australia when they graduate,” he said. “The working conditions are better here.”

Eoin McSweeney (75) from North Cork moved to Australia 50 years ago.

“The matches are a great social occasion,” he said. “The only other time I see everyone is at funerals. It’s nice coming back to the club because it reminds me of my youth, and it’s nice to see the next generation carry it forward.”

There were also swarms of children and babies wearing strips and sport socks. 

Nadine Brennan sat on a picnic blanket with her three children, Ava (6), Izzy (2) and Darcy (one month).

She moved from Ireland to Sydney 13 years ago, before settling in Perth. “I met my husband Andy through the GAA in Sydney. Now we have three kids - and he’s coaching the Juniors team here. It’s about the culture, and the President being here today adds a real buzz.”

As the ladies final drew to a close Victoria were triumphant.

“You’re gracious hosts letting Victoria win,” Sabina told the crowd.

Then the Ladies Football Team made way for the Men’s Hurling which was also an enjoyable, albeit less dramatic final.

When Western Australia won, the crowd erupted.

The team posed for photos. “The drinking ban is over!” one of them shouted.

Today, the President will visit Government House and take part in a 'Welcome to Country' smoking ceremony.

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