Friday 17 November 2017

From Laois hurler Paddy Ruschitzko to Mayo's Shairoze Akram: How immigrants are playing increasing role in GAA

Sons and daughters of immigrants are playing an increasing role on Ireland's GAA fields

Mayo's Shairoze Akram in action against Cork's Ryan Harkin
Mayo's Shairoze Akram in action against Cork's Ryan Harkin
Mayo’s Shairoze Akram solos the ball during the first half of the Under 21 All-Ireland final against Cork this year. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

IN 1949 a Laois man with an interesting surname led his county to the All-Ireland senior hurling final. Fifteen years earlier he played in an All-Ireland minor final, and he remains the last man to captain a Laois team to a Leinster senior hurling championship. Notable as those achievements were, it was his name that set him apart.

Even today, a player called Paddy Ruschitzko would stand out on a team list and tickle curiosity, let alone when Ireland was a more insulated society. A report published this time last year revealed that one in eight people living in Ireland comes from abroad. Data from January 2014 showed that Poles made up the largest grouping of non-nationals in Ireland at 22 per cent (or 118,042), followed by British on 21 per cent, with Lithuanians seven per cent, and Latvians and Nigerians four per cent each.

Recognising those population patterns, the GAA has been keen to accommodate. This year Shairoze Akram became the first Pakistani-born player to win an All-Ireland when he helped Mayo capture the under 21 football title. Hearing Akram being interviewed afterwards in a pronounced Mayo accent offered a powerful message of changing times. Wexford hurling and football has unveiled Lee Chin, the son of a Malaysian immigrant and Irish mother. Each new example is helping to break down barriers and normalise the process of integration.

Ruschitzko didn't have the same close ties to foreign lands as Akram or Chin. Reports that his father was Polish, which still circulate, are not true; it was actually his paternal grandfather. Neither was he, as previously claimed, born in New York; his birthplace was Bagenalstown in Carlow, before his father Francis moved the family to Laois, where Paddy picked up his hurling.

But the Polish lineage is genuine and the name is unmistakably untypical of the Gael. Even to this day the Ruschitzko name is still the most exotic to appear on an All-Ireland final match day programme.

"As he said himself, if he had any other name he wouldn't have been half as remembered," says his son Paul lightly. Ruschitzko passed away in 2004, having lived long enough to see Ireland become a hugely popular destination for immigrants.

The Polish connection goes back to Andrew Ruschitzko, an immigrant who arrived in New York in the 19th century, where he married Mary Spittle, a Kilkenny woman. They had two sons. Ruschitzko's premature death, believed to be the result of a car accident, led to his wife returning to Ireland with the two boys. One of those, Francis, was Paddy's father. Next April will mark the centenary of Paddy's birth.

In 2009 the GAA, in its Strategic Review, signalled its ambition to be demonstrably more inclusive of ethnic minorities. By 2016 it wanted to have "an outstanding reputation for attracting and retaining members from all sections of the community", adding that it welcomed "people of all nationalities, religions, ages and abilities into our Association and make it easy for everyone to take part. We champion equality within the Irish sporting landscape and communities overseas."

Inclusion and integration models for schools and clubs were to be introduced and a DVD launched with basic instructions on Gaelic games in Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Chinese and French. The GAA also appointed an inclusion and integration officer, Tony Watene, to promote greater inclusivity.

In Gort, they were already ahead of the game. A large Brazilian community, up to 2,000 at its peak, came to work in a local meat factory during the boom years. With a huge influx imminent in the local primary schools, some local teaching and GAA interests went to Croke Park with a proposal to smooth integration by introducing the Brazilian children to Gaelic games. The GAA partly funded a GAA coach to work between the schools and the clubs. With the language difficulties that existed, Gaelic games became a useful and effective way of integrating the two communities and making it easier for the new arrivals to blend in.

One of the local delegation who went to Croke Park was John Commins, the former Galway goalkeeper and All-Ireland medal winner from Gort. With the resources provided they managed to get Brazilian children involved in Gaelic games in the schools and then the local GAA club. Commins has a photograph at home of the Under 12 team he was involved with that reached the county final in 2008. Of the Brazilian kids in the picture, some have gone back home, and one of them famously went home but came back.

Leonardo Gomes told his story on Up for the Match on the eve of the 2015 All-Ireland hurling final. He was centre-back on the Under 12 team in 2008 and one of the club's most promising underage hurlers. But the downturn in the economy forced the family to head back home in 2010. Before they left, the club arranged a function where Commins says emotions were raw.

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King Henry: Henry Shefflin celebrates his ninth All-Ireland medal in 2012. Photo: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

"He got a Leinster jersey from Henry Shefflin (above) and we gave him hurls and sliotars, and everyone hated to see him go. There were tears, he was part of our club," says Commins, who has a son who played on the same underage teams as Gomes. But after five years in Brazil, with his second-level schooling complete, he made the decision to return to Gort having been motivated by Galway's run to the All-Ireland final last year- and in particular the form of Conor Whelan, who he had marked in underage club hurling.

"There was great excitement when he came back," says Commins. "As he said to me, when he rang to say he was coming back, that he was coming back home. He was here since he was three or four. All his schoolmates were his hurling mates. Even looking at the Under 12 team here from 2008, 12 lined out in the Under 21 final a few months ago."

Gomes went back hurling immediately on his return and played in the Under 21 final recently. It took him some time to get his touch back. "He would be the first to tell you that himself," says Commins. "He was out in Anapolis (in Brazil) and he said you are the only one out there who can play hurling. You are hitting it off a wall and you get fair bored with that."

They now see him as a strong candidate to play senior hurling with Gort in 2017. "I would love to see him wear a senior jersey for Gort," declares Commins.

They still have some Brazilians involved in the club, though not as many since the economy crashed. There is a boy of an Eastern European family who is also making waves in his mid-teens. "It is brilliant for clubs to see young boys from wherever playing our game," says Commins. "Their parents wouldn't be getting involved in the coaching side of it but they are great to bring them to matches. They are genuinely interested."

Two years ago Dacel Fwamba won a Tony Forristal (Under 14) medal with the Kilkenny hurlers, and a county Under 16 A championship with O'Loughlin Gaels last year at the age of 15. A student at St Kieran's College, he was a goalscorer when the school won the Leinster juvenile hurling final last year. Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he became immersed in hurling when he attended St Canice's primary school, where hurling and Gaelic football flourish.

Niall Bergin is a former chairman of the O'Loughlin Gaels juvenile section, and says: "He stood out in terms of his athleticism and got a lot of hurling into him. His skill improved as time went on. He strikes you as the sort of chap who would prosper at whatever he turned his attention to."

O'Loughlin Gaels is the closest GAA club to the heart of the city and sits in close proximity to Nowlan Park. The area has seen a population boom in the last 15 years. "A lot of housing estates shot up around here," says Bergin, "and Dacel is from one of the first groups to come here that is now close to adult level. At juvenile level we have Polish and Latvians at Under 10s and 8s. Our numbers are good at underage level but we welcome people from all walks of life and do our utmost to try and hang on to them."

Shairoze Akram has attributed the influence of Andy Moran to his introduction to Gaelic football at 11. He moved to Ballaghaderreen in 2001, aged four, with soccer and basketball his early sporting interests. But Moran's persuasiveness got him involved in the local GAA club while in sixth class in primary school and it took off from there. He went on to attend St Nathy's College in the town, where Gaelic football has a strong presence, before making the Mayo minor team as a wing-forward in 2014, playing against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final.

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24 July 2016; Lee Chin of Wexford arrives before the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship quarter final match between Wexford and Waterford at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Being the target of racism is an obvious potential hazard. Lee Chin (above) became embroiled in a case which led to the GAA suspending two club players charged with making racist remarks, having been cited by the match referee. In the 1990s there was a claim that Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, born on an island off Fiji to a native mother and Irish father, was also the subject of racist abuse. Israel Ilunga, the former Westmeath minor footballer, also complained about abuse in a match in 2013 in which he was sent off. His dismissal was later overturned on appeal and he was allowed to play in the Leinster final. Ilunga came to Ireland from the Democratic Republic of the Congo along with his sister, fleeing a war-torn country to foster care in Castletown.

"If I laugh and smile in someone's face it's going to hurt them more than if I hit him in the face," said Ilunga of the abuse issues he encountered on the field, having learnt to deal with provocation in the best way possible: by ignoring it.

The brute ignorance that inspires incidents is, as ever, entirely a reflection on the empty-headed villain of the piece. Ilunga, Gomes, Fwamba, Chin, Akram and all the others who have become involved because of a love of the games they play have the best wishes and support of the great majority.

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