By Kevin Egan
29 years ago this June, the Irish people voted to allow the Dáil to ratify the Maastricht Treaty, a European Union treaty that introduced European Citizenship and allowed for greater freedom of movement across state borders.
The Treaty was officially designed to “safeguard the common values, fundamental interests and independence of the Union”, and now, three decades later, the city in which it was written, a community of 125,000 people, has coincidentally become a safe home for the common values and fundamental interests of GAA people in Europe.
With 92 clubs across 24 countries, continental Europe has seen an explosion of interest in gaelic games in recent decades and is very much at the forefront of the global growth of the association. Maastricht Gaels were part of that, founded just 16 years ago by two Dublin men – Tony Bass and Chris Marley – as well as Shay O’Doherty from Tipperary.
Initially, it’s the typical story. Irish emigrant meets the barman and chef from the local Irish pub, and between them they decided to get the Gaels off the ground.
On the field, success came quickly for the new club. The local university provided a steady stream of players, and this cohort was augmented by a wide variety of newcomers to football, hurling and camogie, players of all backgrounds and ages. In 2006, Maastricht Gaels men won a European Shield championship in the games in Barcelona, but it has been the club’s ability to put down real meaningful roots in the Dutch city that has been the real success story.
Thanks in no small part to Tony’s vision and hard work, Maastricht Gaels were included when the city set about building four high-quality multi-sport facilities to serve the needs of the local population, and that facility has since hosted eight European finals and become the ‘county ground’ for Europe GAA.
“One thing you learn quickly when you come here is that the traditional model we’re used to in Ireland, where units of the GAA have to find, fund and develop their own pitches and facilities, is that this isn’t how things work in most European cities” Tony explained.
“Here in Maastricht there were municipal facilities dotted across the city, but for good practical and cost reasons, the decision was taken to sell them all and put the money into high end, properly shared public facilities that are designed to accommodate all sorts of sports.
“I managed to convince the Wethouder (city alderman) responsible for sport to expand the proposed rugby pitch enough to fit in a full-size GAA pitch.
“The main pitch has latest generation astroturf, TV standard floodlighting, 1m perimeter fence, team shelters, lines for rugby (white), GAA (red), lacrosse (yellow) and American football (red). It is surrounded by a 600m jogging track with a basketball court at one end and boules courts and outdoor gym equipment at the other” is how Tony describes their home.
“A two-level clubhouse has three bars upstairs with 12 team dressing-rooms; two referee’s rooms and a laundry room, a first aid room, equipment stores and offices below. Elsewhere in the sports park there is a baseball field, one astroturf and four grass soccer pitches.
With each club paying only for the time they actually use on the pitch, there has been no capital outlay for Maastricht Gaels and yet at the same time they’ve been able to establish a base in a facility that is ideal for their needs on an ongoing basis, while also fully capable of hosting the European finals, which has become a massive event for the association.
“The beauty of organising games across Europe is that we can be incredibly adaptable, we can make changes to suit whatever situation arises at any time” said Tony.
“I remember when we started out first and the instinct would be to take the Irish approach, and over time you realise that that doesn’t work, you need to do things differently, to suit the unique situations out here.
One of the key changes was to move from the system where clubs played seven games all across Europe in a calendar year, with the best five results counting in terms of qualifying for finals. As more and more clubs were added, breaking the territory down into different geographic regions became an option.
“Europe GAA is split into five different areas to try and reduce travelling times, we’d be part of the Benelux region which incorporates clubs from Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the western part of Germany, and then there are the Iberian, North Western, Central & East, and Nordic regions” said Tony.
“Clubs travel for blitz-type weekends within their region, points are awarded based on your results almost akin to how they might be in Formula One, and then everyone is seeded at different levels for the European finals.
“I’d be delighted to go elsewhere for the finals sometimes because there’s a lot of organisation involved, but there’s no question that this is a great location for it.
“Once we give sufficient notice, we can take over the entire Sports Park and use all seven pitches, including the baseball pitch. Through GAA funding we have temporary goalposts that we can put on all the pitches, and the whole place becomes a hive of activity.
“Most European competitions are either 11 or nine-a-side to reflect the fact that clubs are using soccer pitches for training and games, but we can play 15-a-side on the main pitch here if needed. We might have 700 or 800 players here for the finals, constant activity from one end of the day to the other across the whole facility, and you see some very high standard action.
As a fully-qualified referee and refereeing tutor, Tony has seen gaelic games played all across the globe, including back home in Dublin where he served as Cuala club secretary, and while he believes that Europe teams could be quite competitive within the framework of All-Ireland competitions, he’s happy to maintain a focus on high levels of participation, growing the base of the game, and finding ways to embed the sport into the awareness of not just Irish people living in Europe, but natives of the host countries.
“Our pitch to the Maastricht city officials was tricky in that we didn’t have recognition from the National Sports Council here, which is rolled into the Olympic Committee. There is an official list of sports that are recognised by Olympic Committees and we’re not on it, so we set ourselves out as a good way for people to learn the English language through sport, and also the tourism angle – that if they build the pitch, people will come here to play. There are maybe half a dozen airports within an hour’s drive of here, so that was a big selling point.
“As things stand, our clubs have access to the All-Ireland series in both the GAA and in ladies football, and it was suggested to us that we might want to explore taking part in competitions like the Lory Meaghar Cup, to see how we fare. I certainly don’t think there would be any problem getting players of the highest standard, but there would be obvious practical difficulties with picking a county team from all across Europe and getting them together to prepare.
“It’s something we might look into again down the line, but to be honest if we can get some underage development going, I’d be delighted to see that and would consider that a higher priority. “We did try and do this before, but we probably went a bit early, the ideal time to do that is when the first generation of people in the club have their own children. There are different approaches to that, some clubs out here do Cúl Camps, others go into certain schools, others have collective training a few times a month, it varies.
Bass, who was part of the Cuala club at a time when the 2017 and 2018 All-Ireland club hurling champions were fielding just one underage team, doesn’t expect to see a similar explosion here in Maastricht. However he does anticipate that in a club where there are currently ten different nationalities represented among their adult teams, that casting a similarly wide net will yield a rich harvest in terms of local youth.
“We draw a lot of people from the local university, it might be the some Irish students go in, recruit their friends, and then in time those people move on, in some cases bringing gaelic games elsewhere to their next stop, and that’s great.
“We can’t rely on that, we need to look at the next steps in terms of development. Just a few years ago we were barely able to field a team, now we’re back up with very healthy numbers again and it’s all about making sure that this continues, and that football, hurling and camogie continue to be played here in Maastricht for the long term.
On foot of his remarkable work with Maastricht Gaels and with Europe, as well as his contribution to refereeing and to his home club of Cuala, Tony Bass was given the International Award as part of the 2021 GAA President’s Awards, recognising a lifetime’s work that has made an indelible imprint on the GAA landscape.