Love of the Irish: why are Gaelic games so popular in Asia? | Thailand

IOn a lighted pitch, 20 women run along a pitch kicking, bouncing and passing the ball during a game of Gaelic football. Sweating it out, players with more experience “pair up” with new members to show them basic skills before they step onto the pitch.

It’s a weekday workout like any other, except it takes place in the humidity of Bangkok, where Gaelic games – including hurling, handball, rounder and camogie – are gaining traction. popularity.

“I love the historic aspect of it and how there’s so much love for your own community,” says Indian sports science strength and conditioning consultant Rajveer Chowdhary, who started playing the Gaelic football with the Indian Wolfhounds in 2018 and now plays in Bangkok.

After practice on a Tuesday night, the players meet for a beer, catching up on the antics of the weekend and enjoying the ‘craic’ as much as staying in shape. “The welcoming and welcoming sense of the GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association] communities around the world is why I love GAA,” says Mozz Piokliang, a business development manager who has been playing Gaelic football in Bangkok for six years, pitching for four years and now refereeing matches.

Similar scenes are repeated across Asia. According to the Dublin-based Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) – Ireland’s largest sports organization – there are 22 Gaelic sports clubs in Asia.

But it is the women’s Gaelic games that are currently experiencing the strongest growth in Asia, says Gérard Duignan, president of the Thai GAA. The VietCelts women’s Gaelic football team in Hanoi, for example, has grown from 12 players in 2018 to more than 30 in 2022 and is coached exclusively by women.

The Viet Celts, from Hanoi, retain the ball against the Singapore Gaelic Lions. Photo: provided

The games provide an opportunity, especially for women, to escape any potential cultural confinement, says Seoul-based Joe Trolan, former chairman of the Asian County Board, or Asian GAA, which was founded in 2012.” Sports in general can be a place where you can walk through the stadium doors and leave the rigidity of the culture behind.

In Vietnam, playing sports for fun is not yet popular among women, says NGO worker and VietCelt member Phuong Nguyen, but getting recognition that women can play Gaelic football “is a great feeling” .

The lack of pressure to start at a good level is a contributing factor to his popularity, says Nguyen. Piokliang agrees, noting that both rugby and football expect a certain degree of knowledge. “But in Gaelic football…everyone understands that it’s a new sport and nobody has played it before in Thailand.”

At most Asian clubs, the majority of players are non-Irish, says Trolan. He thinks the appeal is the community ethos inherited from Ireland.

The Asian Gaelic Games have been in existence since 1996, and the South Asian Gaelic Games were established in 2008. During this time, the number of participating teams has grown from around six to 72.

While players cite Gaelic sports’ community spirit, socializing and inclusiveness as reasons for its popularity, a push from Ireland itself is also likely a contributor.

The Irish Government, through its Diaspora Strategy 2020-2025 and Emigrant Support Scheme, aims to “strengthen the international Irish community and its links with Ireland” and provides millions of dollars each year to Irish diaspora organisations, including the GAA, in the hope of doing so.

Viet Celts (Hanoi) vs Thailand GAA
The Irish Diaspora Strategy has provided millions of dollars in funding to help organizations such as the Gaelic Athletic Association. Photography: Matthew Walsh

Renting land, training first aiders and buying equipment mean there are significant costs involved with running a Gaelic sports club, says Duignan. Off Bangkok’s central thoroughfare, the team rents land from an international school. The support from the GAA and the Department of Foreign Affairs is what he calls “a lifeline”.

The department understands that the way to connect with communities is through sports, says Trolan. “[Its goal is] to improve the Ireland brand here and they know the GAA can be the face of Irish people abroad.

The GAA now has over 400 clubs outside Ireland.

“We’ve had local ministers and mayors show up at our games and that’s how the brand is built,” says Trolan. It can work. Piokliang says he only knew Irish stereotypes before playing Gaelic sports, but now knows more about the country and plans to visit. “It changed the way I see Ireland, Irish people and Irish culture.”

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