Sport GAA

Friday 24 January 2020

Setanta documentaries help to keep the flame alive

Setanta is continuing to show others the way with documentaries on Irish sport, writes Eamonn Sweeney

the Dubai 7's stadium, which was the location for the 2013 Gulf Games. It's also the stadium where the Dubai Celts train
the Dubai 7's stadium, which was the location for the 2013 Gulf Games. It's also the stadium where the Dubai Celts train
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

A new film in two parts, Home from Home, is perhaps the finest Irish sporting documentary I've seen. Perhaps that's because it was made in such a spirit of pride, affection and joy that it evokes the same affections in the viewer. It's hard to come away from this one feeling unmoved.

The premise is simple enough, a look at the phenomenon of GAA overseas seen through the experience of four clubs, Dubai Celts, Durham Robert Emmets in Toronto, Fr Murphys in London and, perhaps most compellingly of all, Christchurch McKennas in New Zealand. But it's the way the idea has been executed by director Andrew Gallimore and Midas Productions which makes Home from Home such a triumph. This is a great story brilliantly told.

Gallimore has form when it comes to sports documentaries; he directed the excellent history of Irish amateur boxing, Tales from a Neutral Corner, which aired on Setanta a couple of years back, and won an IFTA award with In Sunshine and In Shadow, about the Barry McGuigan-Eusebio Pedroza world title fight.

Setanta has become the go-to spot for thoughtful and intelligent documentaries on Irish sport. You can just imagine the cack-handed job RTé would have made of this subject; we'd have ended up with Craig Doyle or Kathryn Thomas dressed in a kangaroo suit taking 21-yard frees across from the Sydney Opera House. The Setanta model, on the other hand, is all about protagonists telling their own stories. In doing so the passionate, funny, lively people in Home from Home reveal themselves to have more character and personality than a skip load of 'celebrities'.

We meet the likes of Stephen Joyce, the messianic Connemara man determined to steer Christchurch to victory in the first ever New Zealand championship, Mike Reilly from Westmeath, who worked his way up from digging tunnels to a Harvard business degree paid for by his trade union, Bill Bonham, who's been 60-odd years in New Zealand and built six houses for his children with his own hands, and Larry O'Leary of Fr Murphys recalling how he climbed a tree on Hampstead Heath to try and get a better radio reception for an All-Ireland final.

What's striking is that though the documentary points out that today's Irish emigrants tend to be better educated and better paid than their forebears, they seem to be cut from the same kind of cloth.

Mike Reilly's revelation that if an Irishman arrived in his union office looking for work, "If he played football or hurling, he never left without a slip. It was tough when I came and if I could make it easier for people that would be done," is echoed in the advice given to modern-day emigrant Michael Hanily as he left for London, "Pack the boots. They'll come in handy."

And you can hear something of the can-do spirit of someone like Jim Howlin, who left rural Wexford for London when he'd only been to Wexford town once in his life and worked digging trenches by hand; in Cork woman Fiona Walsh's comment that, after the Christchurch earthquake which almost levelled the city, "It made me feel there's not much I can't deal with now. If I can get through this then I can get through anything."

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The people who founded so many clubs in London in the late 1940s would surely feel a kinship with James and Liam, the two lads who take the afternoon off work to line the pitch for the New Zealand finals.

Home from Home is an inspirational documentary because it contains so many inspirational people. There's been a tendency in the past to focus on the extremes of the Irish emigrant experience so you'd get the impression that we either ended up becoming President of the United States or living rough in London. But this programme gives voice to the many decent people who, seeing that there was nothing for them in Ireland at the time, succeeded in building a decent, hard-working life abroad. They missed home but the GAA was one way in which they managed to assuage that loss. There is a striking lack of complaint or self-pity or bluster from these witnesses. Instead you have a kind of no-nonsense, slightly self-deprecatory, humorous way of talking about their experiences which seems typically Irish. They'd make you very proud.

In a way, nothing is as Irish as emigration. And the GAA clubs abroad serve as a kind of mirror image of the clubs here. When things are bad for clubs here they are good for the likes of Durham Emmets. But when they picked up, the Toronto club struggled to field teams, its members even wondering during the Tiger era, in the words of club member Eddie Mangan, "What the hell did we leave for? They found out soon enough and chances are that the emigrant GAA clubs won't be short of players for a while yet.

And when you hear Mangan describe how his club's, "ragamuffin team" were so heavily defeated in their opening year that he appears to have blanked out the score before triumphantly revealing that a few years later they won both the league and championship, you realise that these clubs have traditions as proud as any here. From the Celts, whose matches only last 15 minutes because of the Dubai heat, to the Emmets who started underage teams when they noticed their Canadian-born teenage sons and their friends kicking around behind the goals during games, to Larry O'Leary of Fr Murphys getting the last train home from London to Hampshire carrying his hurl, to the McKennas, driven on to win the New Zealand championship by the memory of club member Owen McKenna from Monaghan, killed in the earthquake, and after whom both club and trophy are named, there are great and memorable stories here.

There are people who condescend to those who keep the GAA flame alight abroad. But that is, funnily enough, an extraordinarily parochial attitude to take. After all, great cities are largely great because they're multicultural and this arises out of the fact that immigrants bring a bit of home with them. The flowering of the GAA abroad is proof not of fear and insularity but of confidence and pride.

It made me recall hearing the great London-Irish musician Jacqueline McCarthy say how her Clare-born father Tommy had taught his family to respect the many cultures of the mixed area where she grew up and to remember that her own culture was one of them.

You've got to watch Home from Home. It is, among other things, a fine social history of emigration as well as an example of the powerful positive effect sport in general, and the GAA in particular, can have on people's lives. My only complaint is that I wish it had been longer. I'd gladly have watched a separate documentary on each club. Long may those clubs, and the people who crew them, sport and play.

Beautiful work folks.

'Home from Home' will be shown on Tuesday and Wednesday night at 9.45pm on Setanta Sports

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