Gaelic Games are blossoming in the Middle East
By John Harrington
Much of the Middle East is covered by desert where very little grows, and yet the GAA has managed to put down deep roots there and is flourishing.
You’d see that for yourself if you visited Sheikh Zayed stadium in Abu Dhabi today for the culmination of the Middle East GAA Championships.
Over the course of two days 104 teams have played approximately 150 fixtures and tonight around 1,400 people will pack out the Park Rotana Hotel in Abu Dhabi for the post-Championships banquet.
Since Middle East GAA was formally established in 2013, the growth has been astonishing, with more than 100 new people joining one of the 15 GAA clubs in the region every year and new clubs popping up on a regular basis.
Most of the club-members are Irish-born teachers who have moved there for work, but Middle East GAA is very much a non-discriminatory, non-gender bias, inclusive organisation so they’ve welcomed people of all backgrounds and nationalities with open arms.
The rapid growth should be sustainable because huge efforts are being made to develop Gaelic Games at underage level in the region.
Last week 137 children from six different clubs and one school in the region competed in an underage tournament, and the plan is to get Gaelic Games on the PE curriculum in as many schools as possible.
Tadhg Flahive, a native of Listowel in Kerry, is the hard-working Chairman of Middle East GAA and can’t help but marvel himself at how far Gaelic Games have come in the region in a relatively short period of time.
“I’m over 20 years in Abu Dhabi and I’m one of the founding members of our club Abu Dhabi Na Fianna,” Flahive told GAA.ie
“It started with just four or five of us kicking a ball around in the park in and now our club has 23 senior teams covering camogie, hurling, football and ladies football.
“We’re the fastest growing county board in the world with 15 clubs in six countries.
“We’ve created a monster, but it’s a good monster. To me it’s what the GAA epitomises. A sense of parish, a sense of where we come from. It’s a badge of honour and we take great pride in it.
“And the Irish are well-liked here because they get on so well with the Emiratis. We share a sense of family and a lot of other values so there’s a great synergy between the Irish and the Emiratis.”
Middle East GAA welcomes all-comers, but in the senior grade of their club championships the standard is very high with many of the competing players having previously played at inter-county level at underage or senior level.
Senior teams train three nights a week and the Championship is taken extremely seriously.
The quality Gaelic Games in the Middle East has been underscored by the fact that their teams have been dominant forces of the GAA World Games since their inception in 2015.
In fact, Abu Dhabi hosted the first World Games in 2015 and current Abu Dhabi Na Fianna Chairman, Trevor Buckley, was one of the driving forces behind its inception.
So, if you take your football, hurling, or camogie seriously then you’ll easily find a club for you in the Middle East.
But, perhaps more importantly, the experience of playing GAA in the Middle East is also a social lubricant that helps Irish ex-pats settle happily in the region or get ahead in whatever line of work they pursue.
“Let me put it this way, it means life-long friendships have been formed,” said Flahive. “I’ve gone to a wedding every year since I’ve been out here. So many people have met through their involvement in Gaelic Games out here.
“We gather, we play the games we love. We have an instant network of liked-minded individuals and Gaelic Games give us a focal point.
“We watch games from back home together, we bond together, we blend together. I’ve gotten so many e-mails from parents who were thanking me because their son or daughter came out to the Middle East and it was such a release for them to have a ready-made network of like-minded people that they could just walk into it.
“A lot of our players had never actually played before they came out here, so really the GAA also acts as a network that helps people to integrate into society here.
“We’re a nice safety net. We look after them and I love that about the Irish. No matter where in the World you are, we look after one another.”