Friday 16 November 2018

True GAA values are inclusion, participation and respect

Love for hurling has come to define Ó hAilpín and Chin - and it helped them settle in their communities

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín (left) and Lee Chin share small-ball stories at Centra’s ‘We Are Hurling’ campaign in Cork
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín (left) and Lee Chin share small-ball stories at Centra’s ‘We Are Hurling’ campaign in Cork

Marie Crowe

When Seán Óg Ó hAilpín sees Lee Chin's hurley he is fascinated. It's only 34 inches long. They are close to the same height but Ó hAilpín always used a size 37. He is curious about the benefits of the smaller stick but also quick to point out how long his reach can be with the bigger hurley.

Ó hAilpín stretches in the air as if he was reaching for a ball to illustrate his point and it's like going back in time. Chin is mesmerised, and it's clear his childhood memories of watching the Cork man come flooding back.

Chin and Ó hAilpín are in Na Piarsaigh GAA Club in Cork for Centra's 'We Are Hurling' campaign. They are there to talk about their different backgrounds and experiences but it ends up being so much more than that.

They hit it off immediately and have endless questions for each other, starting with how hurling came to be in their lives. For Ó hAilpín, it all started in Sydney, where he spent his formative years with his Irish father and Fijian mother.

"In Australia it was rugby league I was interested in first. When I was five or six I thought I was going to be a Canterbury Bulldogs professional player and I was going to win a Premiership with them," recalls Ó hAilpín.

"It came as a shock to me when Dad came back from a trip home to Ireland in the early 1980s and brought a hurley with him. I hadn't a clue what it was. I thought it was a funny-looking cricket bat. He brought a sliotar too, which to me was just a softer version of a cricket ball. I played for about five minutes and threw it into the corner of the shed. All I was interested in then was the oval ball."

Unlike Ó hAilpín, Chin was born in Ireland. His mother is from Wexford and his dad was from Malaysia.

"My dad emigrated to Wexford in the late 1980s because his aunt was living there. She was running a Chinese restaurant and he came to work for her as a chef," says Chin. "My mother was working there at the time and that's where they met.

"My hurling introduction didn't come from either side. I don't come from a big sporting family. It was just something I picked up on the street at home with my friends and at school. The teachers were great with me. I was brought up in a hurling culture. It was the 1990s and Ireland was all about hurling and so was Wexford.

"My dad loves all sports too; he loves watching hurling even though he hadn't a clue about what it was when he first came here. Now he really gets it. He came here as an adult, he was 25 years old. He's at every game now. I loved all sports when I was a kid. I always wanted to get better and be better, but I really loved hurling from the day I picked up the hurl."

"I despised it, I hated it," chips in Ó hAilpín. In 1988, the Ó hAilpín family relocated to Cork and moved into a house near the Na Piarsaigh GAA club. The children joined underage hurling and football teams in the club. It was the start of a journey in Gaelic games that would prove to be very successful. However, it wasn't always smooth.

"I was able to transfer some of the Aussie rules skills to football and I was comfortable enough playing Gaelic football initially," says Ó hAilpín. "I felt I could survive in football, but hurling was a different story. My dad really wanted me to play but I wasn't comfortable. I'd look at kids and what they were doing was like Master Yoda with a hurling stick - I couldn't even get the grip right. As a kid you don't want to embarrass yourself and you don't want to put yourself in a vulnerable position. It took a lot of convincing to get me to give it a go.

"But I stuck at it. I figured out as well that if I wanted to hang around with the lads I was friends with I'd have to play hurling because they did. Then in 1990, when I'd been in Ireland for two years, Cork won the double. They came around to the school with the cups, and everything changed.

"I saw the euphoria and excitement and I realised what a big deal it was and that maybe I needed to get on board with this. Also, Tony O'Sullivan was on the Cork team and he played for Na Piarsaigh. He became my living legend. I'd go to Munster finals to see him and then two days later he'd say hello to me walking up to the club. It was amazing for a 12-year-old kid.

"I never said it to him, but he had a massive impact on me, and a few years later he gave me a pair of shorts and socks. It felt like Christmas for the next 20 years was covered."

Slowly but surely Ó hAilpín began to master the game of hurling and also began to enjoy it. Off the pitch it was helping him settle into the community too.

"Obviously we carry a lot of mum's features so we look different," he explains. "From the early years in Cork it was challenging because we looked different. Only for me playing with the GAA club, I don't think I would have settled into the community. I've parked all my GAA achievements. The true values of the GAA for me are inclusion, participation and being respected by the community - and that's what Na Piarsaigh gave me."

Chin's experience was a little bit different to Ó hAilpín's.

"For me, I knew I was a little bit different-looking to a lot of my friends who I grew up with. I always felt like I was accepted though, I think maybe it was because I was born here. When I joined my GAA club I really felt part of something and I learned a lot, like the importance of respect, discipline and honesty."

"I understand that," adds Ó hAilpín. "The likes of Setanta and my other younger siblings feel the same. Setanta was only about three when we moved over so he never saw himself as any different. He always played hurling; he never had an Australian accent.

"I did feel different. When we arrived here we were the talk of the estate, it was like the Martians had landed, there weren't that many half-black people going around Cork at that stage so there was a lot of ambiguity. That's where the GAA was paramount, it broke down barriers and within a short space of time I was known as Seán Óg from Parkdale instead of 'who the feck is he?'.

"Hurling gave me an identity that I would have struggled to find in anything else. We have come a long way since then and Ireland is becoming very cosmopolitan. It was tough going in the early years, but I always felt when I was on the pitch that was where I was most comfortable because it is a level playing field. No one cares about the colour of your skin or where your mum or dad are from, it's 50/50, win the ball, simple as that."

Chin can relate to that. He sees a hurling pitch as his safe place. He can express himself and do something he loves.

"Sport was something I was into in a big way at a very young age, but the area I grew up in and my family, society wasn't pushing me towards sport. It was just all inside me that I knew I loved everything about it . . . the physical and fitness aspect, I wanted to challenge myself.

"In my teens I could have gone another way, dropped out of school, gone out to work like a lot of my friends, but once I made that jump towards sport it gave me a fulfilment and happiness. For me, to grace a hurling field gives me a sense of where I belong, it's my safe place and it's where I get fulfilment and happiness."

Chin grew up watching Ó hAilpín. It was the 1990/2000s and hurling had captured the imagination of the country. Looking back, the Corkman sees a different game to the one being played now.

"The biggest change of all is the strategies teams play - gone are the days when goalkeepers pucked it out as far as they could and everyone went for it," he says.

"Living proof of that is if you take an aerial shot today and compare it to one 20 years ago. Everyone used to hold their positions back then, now they are moving in different ways. Another obvious change for me are the body shapes. There was a time when you could go through the league with a pot belly and then as the summer went on you would get trim again. Those days are well gone.

"The game is much quicker as a result and because the players are more prepared now, it's more attritional, the impact and the collisions."

Chin enjoys hearing someone who inspires him talk about the game, especially as he was one of the original 'athletes' in GAA. "If you look at teams now and their physiques, all 15 players are Seán Ógs," jokes Chin. "Every team in Ireland now has tactics and that is why they we have such a level playing field."

Before they leave, Ó hAilpín gives Chin a tour of the Na Piarsaigh club, obviously taking great pride in everything it has given him.

They are players from different generations and two of the biggest stars the game has produced. Their stories are special. They will leave a mark on GAA history.

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