Cáirde Khmer creating lifelong friendships in Cambodia
By John Harrington
Cambodia is known as the Kingdom of Wonder, so very much a fitting setting then for the success story that is Cairde Khmer GAA club.
Founded six years ago and based in the capital city of Phnom Penh, Cáirde Khmer have quickly estabished themselves as a vibrant community as well as sporting hub both for the ex-pats living there and local Cambodians.
The manner in which the club has opened their doors to the latter in particular is especially heart-warming. Their Cambodian players typically come from tough socio-economic backgrounds, and the opportunity to play organised team sports, especially for women, are usually few and far between.
Cambodians now make up 85% of the club's playing numbers and the enthusiasm with which they have embraced Gaelic football is why Cáirde Khmer were nominated by the Asian County Board to represent them in the non-Irish category at the World Games this July in Derry.
We chatted to one of the club's founding members, Rónán Sheehan, about how the club has blossomed and the considerable fund-raising challenge they now face to get their teams to Derry in July.
GAA.ie: Rónán, Cáirde Khmer GAA club was founded in 2017. Can you tell me how it all started?
Rónán Sheehan: Yeah, we're going since 2017. What happened initially was there was a lad who was based in Malaysia and was involved with Orang Eire GAA club for years and pretty prominent on the GAA scene. He's Paddy Campbell from Cookstown in Tyrone.
He relocated to Siem Reap in the north of Cambodia where Angkor Wat is, the massive temple site there. He's stone mad for GAA and because he was up in Siem Reap and it's quite a small ex-pat scene up there he reached out to Phnom Penh which is the capital city of Cambodia, trying to find out if anyone was interested in getting a GAA team together.
He was quite keen to get a team to the Asian Gaelic Games that year in Bangkok. So he reached out to Phnom Penh and word got through to a good friend of mine, Conor Wall, who'd be from the Inniscarra club in Cork. Conor has been here for about 20 years and is pretty prominent in local sports anyway. So it was natural enough that it would have got through to him and Conor was intrigued by it. I think we were all intrigued by it. We didn't even realise there was a Gaelic games scene in Asia and now here was this mad man from Tyrone filling us with stories of fantastical tournaments that would be happening a couple of times a year and all these Paddies congregating from all over Asia to have the craic with each other.
So we said, yeah, we'll try to put together a team, which we did. We got together a fairly rag-tag bunch of mostly Irish ex-pats with a couple of English lads and one Canadian. Honestly, we didn't know what was going on. We managed to get enough to make a team and went off to Bangkok and were blown away by the size of the tournament. It was massive. There were teams coming from 13 to 15 countries around Asia, mostly in the far east of Asia, and there are around 300 players congregating over the weekend.
We had an absolute ball and when we came home we started thinking maybe we could keep this going and we did. Basically what's happened since is that it has snowballed. It went from the ragtag bunch to a group who tried to take it a bit more seriously. So we started recruiting players and what were were noticing was that local players were starting to jump in with it as well. We knew a few local players from playing soccer so we started inviting them to come play GAA. Of course they had never seen anything like it before, a bunch of rosy-cheeked eejits running around a field, and weren't sure if they were playing soccer or rugby or basketball.
But they got into it and they started getting their friends going and the whole thing started growing from there. So what initially started as just a weekend trip for the craic has really snowballed into what it is now.
GAA.ie: How many players are involved now?
RS: At the minute we average 40 to 45 players per training session, that's both men and women, so it's good stuff. To put that into perspective, out of those 40 to 45 players on the women's side of it, there's one French girl and one Canadian-Chinese. And on the men's side of it there's one French fella from Brittany, two Australians and one English fella. Then everyone is else is Cambodian, everyone else is Khmer. So there's massive numbers of native Cambodian players at the minute which is absolutely great to see. There's a whole new wave of young fellas coming up which is lovely. It's nice to see there's a changing of the guard a small bit as well. We're pulling in big numbers at the minute.
GAA.ie: What do you think is attracting them to it? And how are you publicising the club, is it just word of mouth?
RS: It's a few different things. What we initially would have had coming through would be fellas we knew from our soccer days. Now, those fellas, they come from difficult backgrounds, to put it mildly. They would have been coming up through NGO centres and what they were doing was reaching out to lads that they were in the centres with and telling them about what they were doing.
Now, what we've always been very aware of is that this is a very poor country in many ways and we wanted our club to be an equitable one in so far as people would just pay whatever they could. So we charge foreigners for training and stuff and kits and whatever else it might be. But for Cambodians we were staunch that they wouldn't ever have to put their hands in their pockets to play. Not for training, not for kits, not for travel, not for anything. Because we knew they didn't have it. We're not attracting affluent Cambodians to our training, we're very aware of the background of the players that we have and we know they don't have much. I think that's one big selling point for us. They know if they come down that it's pressure-free, they can just jump in and play and it's not going to cost them anything. It's a free run around and a free way to get out and socialise and meet other people.
That's massive, especially for the women who take part, because organised sports here for women is almost non-existent. There's quite a stigma around it. It's a very patriarchial society here, to be honest. Men run the world here, women don't really get much of a say in anything. So for them to have a women's team to be a part of is huge from a social as well as sporting point of view.
Then, obviously as well, we try to look out for them outside of the club as well. So, job opportunties, and whatever else, like all GAA clubs abroad where there's a great network when it comes to getting work for members. It's the same thing for the Cambodian lads as well as the ex-pats, they get that side of it as well.
Another reason why they've been joining up as well is because we get to travel around Asia to different regional tournaments. They're usually held in Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand and our Cambodian players would never get a chance to get outside of the country in their wildest dreams, for a lot of them. We'd obviously look after flights and accommodation and getting them to tournaments so that lure is there as well.
We have such a great life here in terms of getting to travel around South East Asia to play matches and it's just fantastic that these guys are able to get involved as well and see what it's all about.
GAA.IE: Are they enjoying the sport itself?
RS: They are. What we're noticing as well is that the first wave of lads that we got through we only had a handful who came from any kind of a sporting background. Some were playing soccer and picked it up quite quickly but a lot of them didn't come from any sporting background so they were a bit slower on the uptake but they've stuck at it and are quite good. That's also noticeable on the ladies side. As I've mentioned, there's no organised team sports for women over here really so they were starting from scratch too and have come a long way too.
We've had a lot of crossover too between us and the local AFL club and because the sports are so similar a lot of our players play both AFL and Gaelic games. We have a bit of craic with that as well. We do International Rules throughout the year against the AFL club which creates good bonds and a community around sport which is something you can take for granted back in Ireland and all the perks that go with it. It's really nice to be growing that in some far flung corner of the World.
The new wave of players that are coming through now are coming from a sporting background. We have a couple of young fellas who are out of soccer academies from the cambodian premier league and they've taken to it like ducks to water. In 2019 we did very well in Asia. We won the men's Junior Championship in the main Asian Gaelic Games tournament and also won the South Asian Games Junior men's team category. So they're handy enough for players who have only been playing the sport for a couple of years.
GAA.IE: Where do you train and play? How do you source playing equipment? Have you gotten funding from the Global Games Development Fund, for example?
RS: Absolutely, we've gotten funding from every hook, nook, and cranny we can! We're always searching and scraping for everything we need to play. So, yeah, we avail of the GAA grant through the Department of Foreign Affairs and we lean on that quite heavily in terms of covering the cost of training for our Cambodian members. In terms of equipment, we often reach out to clubs who are hosting those big tournaments because they usually get a big influx of gear in terms of balls which is the big one. Like, we can get a lot of stuff here like bibs and cones and we get goalposts made here too. But balls is the big one for us. So we'll usually hit up those clubs and try to get any balls leftover, via good will. They know the situation we're in and are very supportive.
The Asian County Board are also massively supportive of what we do. They're very aware of the demographic of our club and help us out with that as much as they can as well. And, to be fair to the GAA HQ, they're very, very generous in terms of the grant money they clear for us every year. They look after us really well.
In terms of where we play, we used to have a local school where we used to train regularly. If there was a bit of rain at all, Flanders in 1916 at the height of World War 1 would have looked better than this field. It was a bit of a kip, but it was home and quite cheap for us to rent. Unfortunately the school closed the field and built a centre foir ping pong, badminton, Tae Kwon Do, and Bokator because they'd be bigger sports for the locals.
So, at the minute, getting space to train at the moment is at a premium. It's quite hard, because soccer is huge here and training time is prime soccer time. So we have found a pitch where we can train at 8pm at night which is late for here because most Cambodians are in home by nine o'clock and we've also got a quite a few younger players so we have to be wary of that. And because it's a patriarchial society, women being out late is frowned upon so getting them to train until nine or half nine is a big deal but we're managing it and getting it done.
GAA.IE: In July Cáirde Khmer's entirely Cambodian men and women's teams will represent Asia in the non-Irish category of the World Games at Derry's GAA Centre. I understand you've undertaken a big fundraising drive to make that possible?
RS: Yeah, we have, it's a huge challenge. A fella asked me last night when we thought we were ready to go do Derry and would be able to pull it off. The straight up answer is that we never thought of Derry at all, we never even thought of the World Games, it never crossed our mind.
I mentioned that DFA grant earlier, and to get that grant you have to show your future plans for what you hope to achieve with the club and we put it down. But, being realistic, we exist very much day by day and it can be quite precarious. It's a hard sell, this game. Look at Gaelic games in Ireland. Some counties don't play much Gaelic Football and most counties don't play much hurling and that's in the home of GAA. So trying to get it going here is hard.
It can be a bit precarious and we go up and down, so we never thought we could make it to Derry. We did so well at the 2022 Asian Gaelic Games that we got invited by the Asian County Board. The invitation was extended to us, did we want to represent Asia in the up coming World Games in Derry? Now, we were vaguely aware of the World Games. We knew a couple of fellas from Thailand who had gone in 2019 so we were aware of what the World Games were, but we had no ambitions of it.
So when they invited us we were wary of how much work it was going to be and then we set about doing it and obvoiusly the first month or so the excitement is massive. You're getting stuff out there and waiting to see what you'll hear back. But, man, the amount of work is just a gargantuan task. The figure we're trying to raise on our Go Fund Me is €70,000 which is fairly daunting. It's literally our Mount Everest, a massive task.
There's only four of us running the club and we're pretty stretched to the seams at the minute, to be honest. We're trying to cover everything from media, sponsorship, fund-raising, recruiting players, organising training, making sure everything is just running smoothly. It's been a huge challenge and personally I'm feeling a bit shattered, but we're over half-way there now. We have it down from €70,000 to €33,000 which in itself doesn't feel like a big achievement because we're only half-way there, but aftewards when we look back on it I think we'll realise how well we did. I'm trying to tell the lads we've come really far and what we've done so far is nothing short of amazing because after the first month we realised what we were up against.
That's the thing with this club, it just refuses to die. We like to paint a picture that we're always going from strength to strength, but, being realistic, it does ebb and flow, yet it always refuses to die. When anyone ever says that we can't do something, we come up good and get it done. We're at every tournament, we're competitive, we win some. We always manage to pull it out by hook, nook, or cranny, and I'm confident we'll make it to Derry, though it's going to take a lot of work.
GAA.ie: The club has come a long way in a short period of time. How do you see it developing in the next five or six years?
RS: What we're hoping the next five or six years will bring, and we're hoping Derry will be a big catalyst for it, is maybe hoping to hand the club over. It's been the baby of three Cork lads so far, mysef, Conor and Peter Downey from Bishopstown, who have been running the club. Obviously we get help and have a number of Cambodians on the board as well, both men and women, but the main running of the club is still the three of us.
In the next five or six years we'd love to be able to hand it over to our Cambodian members but that won't be easy. In Cambodian society there isn't a strong club culture, there's not a strong organised sport culture, it doesn't really exist. It's very family orientated and the whole idea is that when you're a certain age you're getting married and starting a family and that's your lot. Everything after that is about family. So maybe handing over the club won't be all that easy, but we're hoping the Derry thing will kickstart the realisation of just how big and how far they can go with this club if they put their mind to it. What they can actually grow and what they can actually achieve. I think it would be very interesting to see what they could do it with it.
GAA.ie: How satisfying has it been to build up the club and provide such a great sporting and community outlet for local Cambodians, many of whom as you say come from tough backgrounds?
RS: I take a lot of solace and satisfaction from the fact that we provide something for them. Be it a chance just to get away from it for an hour a week, being able to provide them opportunities to study somewhere else or find jobs, I do take quite a lot of satisfaction from the fact we do offer that.
Growing GAA and Gaelic football is one thing, but the nucleous of sport is the coming together, connection, and solidarity that you grow from it. I look back on my days of playing sport and there are some sporting memories that stand out, but it's the craic and camaraderie on and off the field, the bonds that you make, that's the stuff you really look back on stands to you over time.
GAA.ie: It sounds like you're trying to be a community hub as well as a sporting hub in the best traditions of the GAA?
RS: Yeah, absolutely. A couple of times a year we'll do blood drives. We've parntered with an NGO called the Blood Bus and they provide blood with kids who suffer with a rare blood disorder called Thallassemia. Going through that NGO and knowing that blood is going to where it should be going is quite satisfying. We do clothes drives as well as couple of times a year, getting clothes out to communities around Phnom Penh that need them most.
Our players come from tough backgrounds and it's good to give back to the communities where they originally come from. It's good to keep that sense of connection with those communties as well. A lot of foreigners or ex-pats here tend to live in a very ex-pat bubble. They've got their own thing going on and they don't really engage with the local community and culture but we've always found that to be a very important side of what we do. You've got to realise where you are and it's hugely important to integrate with the local community.
We've always had it in our minds that this is a Cambodian club and we're hoping it will always remain that way. We get to live a very privileged lives ourselves here and this country has been very good to us in terms of coming in here to live and work. I don't think giving a bit of blood and doing a bit of community work is that hard to do and it's one way to being able to show your appreciation back to a country and a people who basically opene up their arms to welcome you with question and without fail.
I know there are many other things I could be doing that would be far less stressful, taxing, and time-consuming, but the positives far outweigh any of the negatives. It's a hell of a journey that we're on and I'm not even talking about Derry.
I hvae no idea where it will end, but, long may it continue.
* To find out more about Cáirde Khmer's fundraising drive to bring their teams to the GAA World Games in Derry in July, go HERE.