Asian GAA clubs rose to the challenge in 2020
By John Harrington
In the face of considerable adversity in 2020, GAA clubs in Asia showed great resolve and imagination to rise to the challenge.
GAA on the continent is in a stronger place now than it was this time last year which is remarkable really considering the difficulties posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The GAA has always been a community organisation as much as a sporting one, and that has been the main reason GAA clubs in Asia didn’t just survive, but thrived in 2020, thanks in no small part to significant help from the Global Games Development Fund which has always been a vital lifeline for our international units.
When the pandemic hit, all the Asian countries quickly locked down which meant that plans for cross-continental tournaments had to be quickly shelved.
Clubs were told to focus instead on their own individual communities, and to take care of the mental as well as physical health of their own members.
According to the Asian County Board’s Assistant Development Officer, Joe Trolan, every club rose to that challenge with a heart and a half.
“Thankfully, actually amazingly, clubs really took it on themselves,” says Trolan.
“Our smaller clubs in South Asia were brilliant. In Vietnamyou had Saigon Gaels, you had Na Fianna Ho Chi Minh City, you had Viet Celts in Hanoi.
“You had Cambodia Phnom Penh, you had Taiwan, you had Thailand, You know these clubs really stepped up to the plate as did clubs in Singapore and Malaysia. Likewise, China really took on the mantle of 'I'm going to lead here'.
“And part of that was because of the Global Game Development Fund, it gave them a tool, and give them the opportunity where they you know they could engage in their local community thanks to that funding.
“Because a lot of the members in these countries potentially lost their jobs, potentially had limited jobs, limited income.
“You know, not everybody who lives in Asia is here on one of those expat salaries. Many of us are teachers, many of us work for NGOs, so they always have that worry in the background about the economic cost of of participating in a club.
“The fund allows that to be de-stressed so that the players can focus on just fun and community. And this year, thanks to those clubs, community has been a big focus. To give an outlet to those members in the community.”
GAA activity across Asia increased in every way in 2020. There were more matches played on a local level, and bonds between clubs across the continent were strengthened despite the absence of tournaments.
Taiwan Celts are a good example of a club that went from strength to strength. They finished their 25th anniversary year on a high by hosting a domestic tournament for men and women that saw 90 players represented on six teams, the largest they've ever held.
“The number of local games increased massively,” says Trolan. “In Vietnam, you had cross-community work between the sports organisations, AFL, soccer, great engagement, and it was the same in Cambodia, the same in Thailand.
“Taiwan, Shanghai, Singapore, Beijing, Japan all likewise. All focused on the community. The support from GAA HQ, and the support from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has allowed this to grow.
“You know we could have had a smaller footprint, but the funding and support from back home has allowed that footprint to grow. And that's the amazing thing.
“We've had virtual runs, we've had virtual quizzes, 80-90 people engaged on a computer screen that maybe wouldn't talk to each other for six months are now laughing and joking together.
“Or a virtual run, we've had so many online engagements. We had our AYC (Asian Youth Championship) virtually where we had kids clubs from Japan Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Malaysia, all doing online skills challenges in different circumstances but community based.
“It's not about winning it's not about losing it's just about engaging and enjoying it. And that's down to the funding from the Global Games Development.”
GAA clubs outside of Ireland have long been as much a social outlet as a sporting one.
Traditionally they were hubs for ex-pats to meet up and feel a connection to home, but in most cases they’re now much more than that.
The real success of international clubs has been the way they’ve opened their arms to the local community and encouraged non-Irish to get involved in Gaelic Games.
We saw in Ireland how the outstanding work of GAA clubs to help those who have needed it the most during this pandemic has deepened the sense of the club being the heartbeat of the local community.
That same sense of togetherness has also been strengthened by the proactive attitude of GAA clubs in Asia to ensure those in their local community were happy and healthy.
“The overall idea was we wanted to focus on ensuring our club members would have access to an outlet that would help probably mental fatigue, or isolation that they have,” says Trolan.
“Whether they're fantastic at football, hurling and camogie or absolutely terrible at everything, we don't care and have never cared.
“There's always a place for somebody in Asia to play a sport at different levels, different engagement. If you want to come a couple times and play and have fun and then just socialise after, that's fine.
“This year was stressful, but thanks to support from Aine (Gibney) and Kayleen (Iwasaki) in the international office in Croke Park and from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with the Global Game Development Fund, that stress was taken away.
“It's allowed us to really engage with clubs. And, from my perspective, I didn't really have to be overly engaged with the clubs because they took it on themselves. They were proactive about it. And I was able to stand back and just make sure that everything was going well and to help where needed if there was problems here or equipment was needed there.
“The clubs were proactive, the clubs saw a need to engage with the community. And their focus was community, their focus was making sure that their members were fine.
“And it was absolutely amazing to see and a lot of it was down to the security of knowing that there was support and funding there behind the scenes to cover extraneous costs such as pitch rentals, such as equipment that we don't have, it was there for them.
“And I would say this year even though with the pandemic even with the COVID-19, our clubs have engaged more between themselves than ever before.”
To extent to which GAA clubs abroad are now proactive in their wider community was underlined by the response the floods and landslides in Vietnam late last year that displaced around 100,000 people.
Saigon Gaels, Na Fianna in Ho Chi Minh city, and the VietCelts in Hanoi raised over €1,500 for those most affected by the natural disaster and further donations were made by GAA clubs across the continent.
When the need was greatest in Saigon, 650 families in the Central Vietnam region were supported thanks to donations from sporting clubs in Saigon, including Saigon Gaels.
“The three Vietnamese GAA clubs were really at the forefront of sports clubs in Vietnam of raising money for equipment, food, blankets, and other supplies,” says Trolan.
“Shanghai also donated money to them, other clubs have donated supplies. The Asian County Board, we raised over €500 with a virtual run.
“The main thing was community and the smaller clubs and the clubs in general have really taken that mantle on and focused on community.
“And when we focus on community we knew we were going to battle and win any concept or any ideas of isolation, mental fatigue, physical fatigue by supporting the community.
“So I'm very proud of our clubs, I'm very proud of the support that we've had from the county board, and I'm extremely proud of the support, even during tough times in Ireland, that the GAA, and the LGFA, the community organisations and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has shown us, despite probably immense pressure at home financially, economically, they have not forgotten us out here in Asia.”