Jonny Lajeunesse with two Argentinean players at the 2019 GAA World GAmes in Waterford.
Jonny Lajeunesse with two Argentinean players at the 2019 GAA World GAmes in Waterford. 

Gaelic Games is all about a sense of belonging for Ottawa's Lajeunesse

By John Harrington

If you were at either of the last two GAA World Games, chances are you bumped into Jonny Lajeunesse.

The Ottawa Gaels clubman is a sociable sort, and by the end of the 2019 World Games in Waterford estimates he got around 300 fellow players from a large variety of teams and countries to sign his Canadian flag.

He’ll be back in Ireland for the 2023 FRS GAA World Games in Derry next July, and is already looking forward to an experience that feels like a homecoming of sorts.

“To be honest, yeah, totally, it's a homecoming,” says Lajeunesse. “It's a real honour because we'll never be able to say hey, we got to an All-Ireland final.

“But we get the opportunity to say I got to put my country's crest on the front of my jersey and was able to represent my country.

“It's a real honour and privilege to be able to do that and going to Ireland to do it just makes it that much special because it is the Mecca of GAA.

“It’s where the GAA started and it’s also where my family started because my mum is from Belfast, so that makes it even more of a pleasure.

“I also just love the aspect that we get to meet and interact with people that you would never expect to meet in your life and you almost have that connection and automatic friendship because there's something that you both can say that you've done and it's represent your country.

“You're playing a sport that not a lot of people actually have seen. So you have that other connection and it just becomes an automatic bond with the people and I think that's kind of awesome.”

Lajeunesse is a talented footballer and hurler, but for him Gaelic games has always been as much about community as it is sport.

He’s gone through some challenging times in his life where the support of the wider Ottawa Gaels community was an invaluable source of strength.

“To be honest, it's kind of been a saviour,” he says. “I will admit I've gone through bouts of depression, and the only thing that has been able to really help me is the community that's been around me and having the sports to be able to release the stress of life.

“If I didn't have that I probably wouldn't be as happy as a person I am now if I didn't have the sport to be around me to help me with things. Yeah, I think I'd be a totally different person.”

Jonny Lajeunesse in action for the Ottawa Gaels hurlers.
Jonny Lajeunesse in action for the Ottawa Gaels hurlers.

His connection to Ottawa Gaels goes back to 2005 when the club decided to introduce Gaelic football into schools run by the Catholic School Board in the city.

Ulster GAA provided some coaches to support the initiative, and Lajeunesse was quickly won over when he played his first game of Gaelic football.

“I just absolutely loved it,” he says. “Because I have the Irish background, I wanted to kind of reach out and touch those roots a little bit more and to play my heritage sport. So I kept playing and kept playing. And then we had someone like Noel McGinnity, he decided to do a little raffle during the school tournament that we had.

“And he decided to call all the kids that left their number on a raffle ticket to see if they wanted to play for the Ottawa Gaels. He called me up and I was like, ‘I would love to play but sadly I don't have a ride’.

“And he just said, not to worry, he put me in touch with the club president at the time who was Pat Kelly and he picked me up and drove me to the majority of the games and practices for the first year of Gaelic football and I just kind of loved it ever since.

“Loved the community aspect, loved that I got a to participate with something from my family background. And it's brought me all over the world and I just of love it.”

Jonny Lajeunesse in action for the Ottawa Gaels footballers. 
Jonny Lajeunesse in action for the Ottawa Gaels footballers. 

Lajeunesse believes Gaelic games are an easy sell in a sports mad country like Canada where many people like him grow up playing other sports that lend themselves to learning the skills of hurling and Gaelic football.

“What I immediately loved about Gaelic football and hurling was how multifaceted both sports are,” he says.

“Like, for Gaelic football you have the combination of soccer, rugby football, American football, basketball, volleyball, all kind of mashed up into one crazy, crazy sport played at a super-fast pace.

“Then I transitioned to playing hurling. I loved baseball and I've always played hockey so I had that hand-eye coordination, the reflexes with a stick. I've also played lacrosse for a few years so it was like all the sports that I kind of played and have always enjoyed they were all kind of pushed into these two magical sports.”

The number of people playing Gaelic games in Canada is growing steadily year on year thanks to a combination of Irish people migrating to cities like Vancouver and Toronto, and a more organic growth in the East of the country among native Canadians.

Ottawa Gaels continue to coach Gaelic games in local schools and Lajeunesse estimates that the club’s training sessions for children regularly attract between 150 and 200 players.

Jonny Lajeunesse, front row second from left, and the native Canadian Gaelic footballers pictured at the 2019 World Games. 
Jonny Lajeunesse, front row second from left, and the native Canadian Gaelic footballers pictured at the 2019 World Games. 

His experience is that Canadians will embrace Gaelic football and hurling if they’re given the opportunity to play them, and that’s why he anticipates significant further growth of the games in the coming years.

“100 per cent,” he says. “Last year we had our first official national championships and they seem to have been very successful.

“So I can't see these clubs that we have now not being able to thrive and push forward with the amount of people that was are attention. There were so many people just coming off the streets and asking, 'what is this sport? Where can we play it?'

“So I can't see this sport not striving and thriving inside Canada because it's such a unique sport. It's so easily available.

“The majority of the pitches that are set up at schools have uprights over soccer nets, so the majority of the places are perfect for it. It might not be the exact measurements, but the equipment is there. So it's not like they're going to have to invest that much more to actually do it.

“So I see I can't see them not wanting to push it and it not being able to be pushed. Ottawa Gaels are doing great work growing the game and it’s definitely the community aspect that everyone gets into.

“It's just a big, big close-knit family more than anything. As much as I love hockey, and I've always played hockey, I feel like the people on these teams have my back a lot quicker because it is more of a family base compared to anything else.

"That's what makes playing Gaelic games something extra special."