John Alan O'Sullivan won an AIB All Ireland Club JFC title with St Mary's Caherciveen in 2011.
John Alan O'Sullivan won an AIB All Ireland Club JFC title with St Mary's Caherciveen in 2011.

O'Sullivan relishing another Asian Gaelic Games weekend

By Cian O’Connell

Just over a decade ago John Alan O’Sullivan was in Croke Park winning an AIB All Ireland Junior Football Championship with St Mary’s, Caherciveen.

That O’Sullivan was chairperson of the club at that time merely added to the sense of satisfaction at GAA headquarters.

O’Sullivan remains as passionate as ever about Gaelic Games with another busy weekend ahead for the Asian County Board. As Asian GAA chairperson O’Sullivan continues his involvement, and it has been a worthwhile journey.

“My own club is St Mary's, Caherciveen so I played with Maurice Fitzgerald and Bryan Sheehan until I left,” O’Sullivan recalls.

“When I was 27 years old I came back from Australia, I took over as chairperson of St Mary's for five years. That was a bit of a roller coaster.

“We won the All-Ireland Junior Club final in 2011, beating Swanlinbar from Cavan.”

It wasn’t O’Sullivan’s only role. “I was playing wing back that day, I was wing back and chairperson,” he laughs.

“Then I came out to Asia, I got involved in Hong Kong as secretary. I could see the passion was there, I was asked to get involved as secretary of the Asian County Board, I was secretary for two years.

“Joe Trolan stepped down after his term and the board members asked me would I take over. This is my fourth year, next year will be my fifth year, we have implemented the five year rule.”

Challenges have been embraced, but O’Sullivan stresses the importance of involving others. “I have been very lucky,” he adds. “One thing I learned when I was chairperson of my own club back home in Kerry was when my mom told me that a chairperson is only as good as their secretary and it is all about delegation.

“If you try to do all the stuff on your own it is very lonely at the top. I've been lucky to have very good lieutenants in the County Board, Joe Trolan and Emily Ward, who is from Japan, with no connection to Ireland at all. She got involved with Japan GAA.

Cathal Cregg, Connacht GAA games manager, speaking at the 2018 Asian Games.
Cathal Cregg, Connacht GAA games manager, speaking at the 2018 Asian Games.

“Derek Cahill is from the Cuala club in Dublin, and he is like the Daddy of Singapore GAA. We have Cian Hulme as a PRO - I'm happy to delegate, that is the key to getting stuff done - when to take stuff on and when not to take stuff on. That is one thing I learned in my own club St Mary's when you have field committees, lotto committees, underage, fundraising.”

O’Sullivan is well versed in trying to stitch different things together. So the fact that the Asian Games tournament returns this weekend is most welcome.

“At the moment we are working at a 50 per cent capacity,” O’Sullivan explains. “Due to the fact, as is well documented in the news, you have restrictions in China so China clubs cannot travel. In Hong Kong restrictions were only lifted in the last few weeks, but it was too late.

“So we are missing clubs from Japan, China, and Hong Kong - that is a good chunk of the people that do attend. Normally we would get up to 800 people, I'd say this weekend we will have around 400.”

Significant work has taken place in Kuala Lumpur and O’Sullivan acknowledges those who will make the event a success. “One of the main organisers in the club is a guy called Pat Gorham, he is from Belmullet,” O’Sullivan says. “He is the main organiser from a Kuala Lumpur perspective. He received a Gradam an Uachtarán in 2019 from John Horan, he has worked on previous Asian Games.

“He is a very dedicated person to the Association. He owns a company in Kuala Lumpur, he gets a lot of his employees involved on the day in terms of logistics.

“We host it at the Polo Grounds in Kuala Lumpur, they have four pitches 100 x 50 metres, so that is the set up for the day.”

Plenty of assistance is provided. “From an Asian County Board perspective we have a games co-ordinator, who is also our development officer and former chairperson, a very proud Derryman Joe Trolan,” O’Sullivan states. “He works with whoever the contact in the host club is to make sure all of the logistics in terms of the grading of teams, working out the financial logistics.

“There is a lot of logistics involved, especially co-ordinating with so many clubs in so many regions and different countries.”

Such a willingness to include various communities is critical in the long term according to O’Sullivan. “It is very vibrant, it is a tournament like no other,” he says. “I've been lucky enough to play Gaelic Football around the world - Paris, New York, Boston, Melbourne, I played in the State Games in 2006, but this thing blows you away.

“When you see the diversity of players from different regions and different countries. Cambodia are a decent enough outfit. It isn't just Irish that are playing, you have a lot of locals.”

Members of the Orang Éire GAA club in Kuala Lumpur.
Members of the Orang Éire GAA club in Kuala Lumpur.

O’Sullivan is adamant about this approach. “We try to be inclusive,” he adds. “We aren't here to just support Irish emigrants leaving Ireland, we are here to grow the games.

“We try to reach out to the grassroots. In Singapore they are teaching Gaelic Football and hurling in the schools, in some of the regions in Hong Kong they have underage training, and in Korea too. That is one thing that stood out in 2019 when John Horan attended, he watched more of the junior level games.

“Traditionally the senior games are practically all Irish lads - county senior championship level players, maybe intermediate level, back home. John Horan was more interested in the junior level games because it was more inclusive in terms of the local people being involved.

“We have a very diverse bunch, we try to grow the game amongst the community - not just the Irish community. It is very vibrant. Next year marks the 25th year of the Asian Games and hopefully we will be back to the full amount of clubs to have 800 or 900 people.”

O’Sullivan learned many lessons during a stint playing in New York with Rockland GAA. There was a guy called Noel O'Connell, he passed away a couple of years ago,” O’Sullivan says.

“I liked what they were doing there, they were growing the game amongst locals. Half of the team were Americans, it was great.

“That was one thing I was looking for - just playing with different people from different cultures and backgrounds. They predominantly were kids of Irish people, but they were American kids. That is one thing in Asia that we do try to sell the game to everybody.”

O’Sullivan remembers the late Brian Mullins bringing a team of international students from UCD to the Asian Games. The manner in which the Orang Eire GAA club hosts the tournament always impresses O’Sullivan. “They row in behind this, they deliver,” he says. “It is a massive what they do down here and they get it right every time. It runs like clockwork.”

Ensuring Gaelic Games remain relevant and offer value to participants is critical. “You don't want a situation where we all move home and there is nobody to look after the games,” O’Sullivan says.

“We need to have people that will take up the game, to grow the game amongst themselves - where we don't have to depend on people travelling out emigrating or migrating. We want to leave a footprint here that will be here forever: that is the most important thing.”

A GAA festival takes place in Kuala Lumpur this weekend.