Brittany GAA's 'Mother Goose' has a growing flock
By John Harrington
18 years ago, Wicklow woman Anna Marie O’Rourke joined the Rennes Ar Gwazi Gouez GAA club in Brittany.
Ar Gwazi Gouez translates as The Wild Geese, and it’s a testament to the impact O’Rourke has made in her time there that she’s known as ‘Mama Gouez’, the Mother Goose of the club.
Now also Vice-Chairperson of Gaelic Games Europe, she has been a central figure in the remarkable rise of Gaelic Games in Brittany and across France.
When she moved to France in 2003 there were just two GAA clubs in Brittany and one in Paris. Now there are nine clubs in Brittany and 25 in total in France.
Brittany is very much the beating heart of Gaelic Games in Europe, and what’s most remarkable about how the game has blossomed there is that it has been so organic, with key to this growth the success in establishing gaelic football as part of the sporting curriculum in schools.
Just this week an agreement was inked with the education authorities that will see gaelic football coached in primary schools across Brittany which is another huge step forward.
Gaelic Games are already long established in many secondary schools in the region, thanks in no small part to O’Rourke herself.
“When I joined in 2003 the club was already quite forward thinking in terms of having a long-term strategy,” she explains.
“They were in touch regularly with a teacher by the name of Jean Paul Laborde who was very instrumental in getting Gaelic onto the schools curriculum in Brittany.
“He was a secondary school teacher in the international sector of secondary schools and successfully advocated Gaelic Football as a way of promoting bilingualism through sport and school exchanges.
“From 2004 I went into this Lycée twice a week on a Tuesday and a Friday coaching the pupils there and five or six of the girls I coached who were aged 16 or 17 joined the first ladies football team of Rennes. So that was the first success we had tapping into the potential of youth development.
“Then there were reforms in the education system and from 2011 you could effectively do Gaelic Football as part of your Leaving Cert exams.
“That had a big impact as of course did the creation of the French federation in 2004 and the Breton League in 2008 because everyone’s objective was the same – we have to work on youth development.”
What makes Gaelic Games such an easy sell in Brittany is the fact that Bretons identify themselves as Celts.
Culturally they feel a really natural affinity with Ireland, and Gaelic Games offer a perfect sporting outlet for them to express this Celtic identity.
“Broadcasting Gaelic Gports in Brittany is an easy job to do,” says O’Rourke.
“You don't have to convince anybody, they're all up for it.
“In 2019 the Mayor of Vannes officially opened our Finals. They had a pipe band and all these kids teams walked out before the adult teams.
“It was in the rugby stadium in Vannes which was a big deal for us. You had seven or eight hundred players turning up, the weather was glorious, and we had a great level of football.
“But, of course, the GAA can't come into places like Brittany and Galicia, where you also have a strong Celtic culture, and dictate how it should be done.
“They have developed at their own rhythm and it is adapted to their own cultural mindset. They love Gaelic Games and they will bring them forward, but in their own way.”
It has now gotten to the stage in Brittany where Gaelic Games is almost a victim of its own success.
The demand is there, but servicing it is not so easily done on a small budget and when qualified coaches are at a premium.
Forming partnerships with the local education authorities in Brittany to have Gaelic Games included on the school sporting curriculum has helped somewhat to overcome these challenges, and now the plan is bring that model nation-wide across the whole of France.
A proposal has been submitted and the French education authorities have reacted very positively to it.
It’s fair to say that the prospect of Gaelic Football becoming part of the official school sporting curriculum across the entirety of France is a potentially revolutionary one for the sport.
O’Rourke agrees, but cautions that if the project is to get off the ground and realise its full potential, considerable financial challenges will have to be overcome.
“If you're going to roll out something like that then you're going to need the resources to go along with it,” she says.
“If Gaelic Football gets the green light to be played in all schools across France, then we will need coaches on the ground to be ready to do training weekends with the teachers.
“Money needs to follow, unfortunately, to help support this. The schools will provide a lot of it, but there will be extra expense because at the start of this you will need to coach the teachers.
“If the French Education Authorities take it on, then we will still need to partner them at the beginning to make sure it's done properly.
“We have to look at all angles. There will be child protection and vetting issues that need to be addressed, the teachers delivering gaelic football in the schools will need to be coached.
“So, what we will really need here is a Development Officer who can collect data and support schools and clubs who need information and to have coaches trained
“It all comes down to the fact that we're all just volunteers here, there are no full-time GAA staff in France.
“That's not a criticism of anyone, but the reality is that without some formalisation of roles and the strategy plan of a Development Officer, then it will be hard do all we need to do.”
Working hard to develop Gaelic Games in Brittany and beyond is something that O’Rourke has always been willing to do with a heart and a half.
Be it playing, coaching, coach tutoring, refereeing, or doing her bit at committee level, she’s worn every hat on the rack.
At times it has surely been a slog, but she can’t imagine either how she would have made Rennes such a home away from home were it not for Gaelic Games.
“It has been the backbone of my life for years in terms of making friends and learning the language because at the start I found myself training with French men and there was no English spoken so I had to pick up the French," she says.
“I've always been very passionate about being Irish, that's always been strongly part of who I am. And Gaelic Football is another way of expressing that.
“I was never an All-Star player but I wasn't a bad player either and there's a certain pride when you're teaching other people our sports. It has made me feel valued, to be quite honest.
“My work as a palliative care nurse is very important to me too but Gaelic Football gives me ‘équilibre’, it's my pendulum, in terms of being able to hang out with young people, hanging out and having the craic.
“Gaelic Football has frustrated me too at different times over the years but it has also given me a great sense of pride and value.
“It’s nice to be able to go to training on a Saturday and everyone comes up to you to say hello. You feel part of the community now and I’ve created my own identity here.
“Most of the players can speak English but they'll never speak English to me, they'll only speak French. I've become part of the roots of Gaelic Football here.”
The satisfaction O'Rourke takes from how much Gaelic Games have developed in Brittany since she arrived in Rennes has in no way dulled her edge.
As far as she is concerned, there’s a lot more work to do and she intends to remain on the front line with her sleeves rolled up.
“I just see it getting bigger and bigger but I’m only a small part in this,” she says. “I could give you the names of 15 other people in Brittany who are working just as hard.
“But I am, of course, immensely proud to see how it has changed. There are not many of us still here who were here 17, 18 years ago. There's a few of us still running around and we all look at each other with a sense of pride to see how much it has come on.
“But we're also not sitting on our smiles going, "aren't we great", because there's still so much left to do.
“There's point saying it's a job well done because the job isn't done. It won't be done until we have Gaelic competitions in every region in Brittany, the four departments, and you'll have at least 100 games a week and you have Brittany teams giving the very best out there a run for their money.
“That's when you can start saying it's a job well done, but we're still a long way off that.
“There's so many people committed to making it happen and developing the youth and that's the best long-term strategy. It will continue to grow and I'm looking forward to watching it happen.
“I'll be one of these aul ones who'll wreak havoc in a nursing home unless you put me in a wheelchair and bring me off to watch a match somewhere!
“I’ll be shouting and roaring at them thinking I'm still the coach!”
By then her coaching days might be over, but O'Rourke will always be the 'Mother Goose' of Gaelic Games in Rennes.