NZ Champs keep the GAA flag flying in Christchurch
By John Harrington
GAA clubs across Ireland and most of the world are sadly still shuttered by the Covid-19 pandemic, but in New Zealand the lights are on and burning brightly.
This weekend 27 teams and over 300 players will take part in the NZ Champs, an annual tournament that draws Gaelic Football, Ladies Football, Hurling, and Camogie teams from all across New Zealand.
It’s possible because the New Zealand Government has successfully implemented a ‘Zero Covid’ policy which means the virus does not exist in the country anymore and life has returned to normal.
The 2021 NZ Champs will be hosted by Canterbury GAA and it’s perhaps fitting that the location is Hagley Park in Christchurch, a city that has overcome the adversity of a devastating earthquake in 2011.
Christchurch has been remade in many ways since then, and this year’s NZ Champs feels like a rebirth of sorts too.
Last year’s NZ Champs in Auckland were cancelled because of Covid-19 as were the Australasian Championships which were due to be held in Christchurch and hosted by Canterbury GAA.
You only really realise how much something means to you when it’s taken from you, which is probably why there has been such an enthusiastic response to this year’s NZ Champs.
The two men who have done much of the heavy lifting to make it possible are Galway natives Damien Dunne and Brian Higgins who are President and Vice-President of Canterbury GAA and have been planning this week’s event since last October.
“We didn't expect it really to get as big as it has,” says Meelick-Eyrecourt man, Dunne, a brother of former Galway camogie star Molly Dunne.
“But we have over 27 teams now and 300 plus players playing in a weekend so it has really taken off.
“I have played in a good few of them out here but I've never seen as many teams entered in a long time with so many teams travelling from Auckland, Wellington, Queenstown.
“It's going to be the first year they'll have a camogie final in years because they'll have three or four teams playing.
“With so little other GAA action on right now back home in Ireland and around the world, this is a great opportunity for us to show our games. We're the furthest part of the world away from Ireland but we have a great GAA stronghold.
“I think when we had to cancel the NZ Championships last year you really appreciated what you were missing because of Covid and that’s why there’s nearly more of a love for it here this year than ever and why we have such an influx of clubs taking part this year.
“Everyone here would be in touch with home too and hearing how it's tough on people at home not being able to play the games at the moment and that makes you appreciate it even more yourself down here.”
There will be an extra touch of poignancy to this year’s NZ Champs because they’ll mark the 10-year anniversary of the deaths of Irish men Owen McKenna and JJ O’Connor who were both killed by the 2011 earthquake.
McKenna was heavily involved in the GAA in Christchurch, and to honour his memory the Christchurch GAA club renamed themselves Christchurch McKenna's.
A minutes silence will be held before the NZ Champs Finals on Sunday for Owen and JJ and to also mark the 2nd anniversary of the Christchurch Mosque shooting.
Remembering your history has always been a big part of the Irish identity in Christchurch.
The Christchurch Irish Society was formed in 1948 and if you visit their Hall at Domain Terrace you’ll see photos on the wall of hurling and camogie teams from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.
On Sunday the oldest living player in Christchurch, Martin Cartwright (85), will present the Hurling Cup to the winning team.
Canterbury GAA have formed a strong relationship with the Irish Society which is a real social hub and one of the reasons why Martin Dunne is one of many people who ended up staying in Christchurch when they thought they were just passing through.
“I'm here four years since January,” he says. “I came from Eyrecourt in Galway at home. Myself and my partner wanted to go travelling and we came out with the intention of meeting friends out here and thought we’d spend a year in Christchurch.
“Then when we came out here we fell in love with New Zealand in general, it's just such a great country.
“I thought coming out I had had enough GAA at home in Galway to last me a lifetime from playing so much of it but now here I am now President of Canterbury GAA and promoting GAA.
“When you get out here, you just can’t help getting involved in it. Christchurch is like a small town back home, something like Athlone, it’s a small community and you get to know the Irish people really quickly.
“You say when you go to these places you'll hang around with Kiwis, but you still end up with an Irish community, and I just love it out here.
“I've gotten more involved in the GAA and have met great people through it. Put it like this, I couldn't see myself going home in a hurry. The way things are now at the moment, it's just a great place to be.
Brian Higgins has been in Christchurch for twice as long as Dunne. A quantity surveyor, he arrived over on St. Patrick’s Day in 2013 to work on the rebuild of the city after the earthquake two years previously.
He was part of a big influx of Irish at the time and a good core of them are still there, but a major focus now for GAA clubs in New Zealand is to get as many locals involved rather than rely on travelling Irish to make up the numbers.
Higgins is one of the main drivers behind this in Canterbury and has worked hard to develop relationships with local rugby clubs and also extend the hand of friendships to Australians living in the area who play some AFL football.
There’s an increasingly concerted effort to develop youth coaching and plans are also in the pipeline to introduce Gaelic Football and Hurling to local schools.
The relationship with the local council is a really strong one. Canterbury GAA clubs play on pitches which are lined for them for free and there’s grant money too that can be accessed for big events such as this weekend’s NZ Championships.
The four GAA clubs in Canterbury – Christchurch McKenna’s, Waimak Gaels, Canterbury Cusack’s, and Christchurch Celtic Wolfhounds – were founded by Irish immigrants, but Higgins knows that further growth of Gaelic Games in the area will require forming stronger connections with the local population.
“There's definitely a strong Irish community here but it's a finite resource,” he told GAA.ie.
“We need fresh fellas coming through and we want to get it out there that Christchurch is a great place for Irish people to come to and play Gaelic Games while they’re here but also a very welcoming place for locals.
“The next step for us is to plan for where are we going to be in five years time and what’s coming behind the current generation of players.
“The big thing for us is to leave something behind us so that there's always something there to build on.
“A of the people who have been here for a few years now have kids who might aged from five to nine so we do kids training every Sunday and it's not just Irish kids, we have Kiwis there and lots of other nationalities as well.
“I got chatting to a Kiwi fella there one day and he was a carpenter and he made his own hurl for his son from oak, I think. I got a hold of it and I was thinking it was a bit heavy for the young lad!
“But it’s good to see that more and more parents are stepping up and taking charge of it.”
They’ll come to Christchurch from all over the two islands of New Zealand this weekend.
Celtic Auckland, St. Pat’s Emerald City, Marist Rangers and Harps GAA Auckland will all fly in from Auckland, and Wellington and Queenstown are sending teams as well to challenge the best of Canterbury.
It’ll be a celebration of community as well as sport. An opportunity once more to share the joy of playing Gaelic games in a spirit of collegiality, even if there won’t be any quarter taken or given on the pitch.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and everyone involved in this weekend’s NZ Champs are counting down the days to Saturday.
“We're making a pretty big deal of it,” says Dunne. “We have marquees, gazebos, food vendors, all of that, in for the weekend.
“We have a stage for Irish dancing and different entertainment. We're having an exhibition shinty game because some of the lads out here that play our sports are Scottish.
“We're getting a Pipe Band to lead around the teams before the Finals with the Camogie Final the main event.
“We’re trying to make it as big as we can and every couple of weeks for the past few months someone has come up with a new suggestion and we’ve thrown it into the mix.
“We’re just really looking forward to it now, it’s pretty awesome for us to have it.”
The very best of luck to them. If you can handle the envy, Canterbury GAA plan to broadcast the NZ Champs live on their Facebook page HERE.