The making of the Asia Gaelic Games - 1996 to 2005
By Peter Moloney
The sky darkens over a lush green field, where two exhausted football teams battle ferociously for the coveted trophy. Still too early to think about the ‘Ta athas orm an corn seo a glacadh’ speech!
The players have trained hard in all weathers for months and any mistake now could squander that effort. Losing is not an option and the noise around the ground is deafening.
Then, from the sideline, we hear a familiar voice crackle out over the rusty PA system, adding to the electricity in the air. It’s Micheal O’Muircheartaigh himself and he’s in fine form, ‘And it’s the Chinese-born forward, Jack Meng, running at full speed towards the parallelogram, where he hand passes to his team mate, Brendan Lynch, a logistics director based in Seoul. He sprints past Davy Hayes, the insurance salesman, who is now wishing he had better coverage. Brendan takes aim and blasts one over the bar from close range. Culin alainn do Seoul!’
We are not in Croke Park, McHale Park, or even Austin Stack Park. It’s 37 degrees Celsius and the humidity is stifling. From the sideline, the crowd can see elephants roaming in the surrounding fields. The vista beyond the sidelines is a sea of swaying palm trees and the dark purple sky is about to unleash a spectacular tropical thunder and lightning show.
This is not the GAA as you’ve known it: this is the Asia Gaelic Games (AGG), and the time has come to discover the grandfather of international Gaelic football tournaments.
The AGG is not just an Irish story. Reflecting the creedo ‘ni neart go cur le cheile’ (unity is strength), it has included thousands of non-Irish players and dozens of local board members over the years. In a region with a limited number of Irish participants, attracting locals of all creeds and colors has proven to be one of the main achievements of the tournament, benefiting its longevity, stability, and diversity.
Many wonderful people fall into this category, including Emily Ward, long-time Japanese-American ACB secretary; Americans Catherine and David Tulauskas in Shanghai; Cece Lindqvist, the Swedish national who learned football in Shanghai and later set up a ladies team in Stockholm; and Chinese veteran of 14 tournaments, Michelle Surlis.
If the majority of these names are women then it is no coincidence: the AGG has fostered an enormous expansion of the women’s game, accounting for more than 40% of the current player pool in Asia, driven mostly by non-Irish players. Many of these female players are attracted by the inclusive community side of GAA, an English-speaking environment, and the safe space provided in many countries that do not enjoy a tradition of amateur female sports. The AGG was practicing diversity and inclusion for years before the rest of the world caught up.
And the Games don’t just feature football. In keeping with the spirit of diversity and inclusivity, there is also a place for the ‘small ball.’ While the poc fada competition featured in the early tournaments, it was initially quite ad hoc. However, as the Games grew, so did the interest in hurling and camogie. In 2010, in Hong Kong, reflecting the GAA’s One Club model, we witnessed the first official inclusion of hurling, followed by a camogie exhibition in 2011. Today, these sports have gone from strength to strength, with six hurling and four camogie clubs in the region.
In a way, the existence of the AGG shouldn’t be a surprise. Through the generations, from Buenos Aires to Bangkok and from Stockholm to Sydney, Irish emigrants have set up club outposts all over the world. In the past 30 years, Asia has become a new emigration hub for many Irish. Once in a new location, the recent arrivals soon need their Irish cultural fix and some kind of vehicle to connect to their fellow expats and locals alike. What better vehicle than Gaelic football to experience the three ‘C’s’ any emigrant wants: community, culture, and craic.
The origins of the AGG lie in a combination of well-known Gaelic games characteristics: passion, loyalty, a refusal to accept defeat, and a generous sprinkling of meitheal (the Irish term for ‘it takes a village’).
Surprisingly, the story starts on a small island in the Pacific in 1995. When the new crop of Irish FAS graduates arrived in Taiwan that year, their plan was to launch their careers with top Taiwanese technology companies, discover an exotic culture, and have an adventure. FAS had started its Asia exchange programme in 1989 and had already offered many young Irish people a starting point in Asia.
In some ways the culture in Taiwan was vaguely familiar: they had merely substituted a small island in the North Atlantic for another one in the South China Sea. However, they also quickly realized that they were a long way from home, more than 6,000 miles from Tralee to Taipei. If they were to make a go of it here, they would have to find an outlet to keep their Irish identity alive and relevant amid a vibrant Chinese cultural environment and a cosmopolitan expat society. To our grads, Gaelic games seemed like an obvious place to start.
The original AGG founders included Dave Healy, John Roberts, Kieran Pollard, Enda Cunnane, Noel Lennon, Brian Cummings, Mark Bird, Frank Boland, and Derek Brady. For tragic reasons, Derek would go on to play an especially significant role in the tournament’s future, but we will get to that soon.
Most of the founders of the AGG had played Gaelic games throughout their youth. After a few months in Taiwan, some had found a place on expat soccer or rugby teams and attended tournaments throughout Asia. With this experience, the idea of a Gaelic football tournament in Asia didn’t seem that far-fetched and this idea surfaced often during social gatherings. Taiwan in the 1990s was a good as anywhere to start: its culture fostered a frontier mentality, which encouraged innovation and risk in the pursuit of wealth and growth. This crucible of creativity only emboldened our new arrivals.
Despite this innovative environment, the founders initially had difficulty convincing local expat leaders, whose support would be essential. On more than one occasion, their idea was laughed at. Still, they persisted. As the founders of the GAA could attest, any change of mindset is bound to hit some potholes. In 1884, Maurice Davin, Michael Cusack, and the other GAA founders also faced organizational and financial challenges and were not taken seriously by some. It is not a stretch to claim that the spirit of determination and passion for the game that drove the GAA founders in 1884 to overcome those challenges also drove the ‘never say die’ attitude of the AGG founders in 1995.
So how do you create an international Gaelic football tournament from scratch? The first requirement is the right people, preferably a stubborn and capable core group of organizers. Second, you need sponsorship. Unsurprisingly, this was a challenge until Guinness stepped in to get the ball rolling. Third, you need connections, and this was where Michael Garvey, head of the Institute for Trade and Investment in Ireland in Taiwan, stepped in to add a crucial layer of credibility beyond the reach of the recent grads. Once fondly described to a live audience, including Garvey, by Noel Lennon as the ‘oldest living sponsor of the AGG,’ Garvey would continue to offer crucial moral and financial support for the project for many years.
In a pre-Facebook and LinkedIn era, the AGG had to rely on good old fashioned fax machines, personal contacts, and the networking opportunity offered by those unofficial Irish embassies all over the region: the ubiquitous Irish pub! No better place to get the message out to the locals of all nationalities and to hook those interested in playing the game.
And so, in 1996, the inaugural AGG took place in Manila, with a grand total of 8 teams from half a dozen countries. It was a modest start but a successful one. The competition featured serious and not so serious teams and all had an enjoyable time. By the autumn of 1996, plans were afoot for the second annual tournament, again in Manila, and spirits were high. Unfortunately, fate was about to intervene and hit the games organisers for six.
Derek Brady never intended becoming the tournament talisman that he has. Like most freshly minted graduates, the Navan native wanted to travel, work, and play a bit of football in Taiwan. At 21, the world is your oyster and tragedy is the last thing on your mind. But sometimes fate deals us a bad hand and we don’t get to choose.
Derek was a force of nature and to meet him was to be impressed by his humour, authenticity, and intelligence. He was immensely passionate about sport and especially protective of his friends. For Derek, there was no such thing as an easy kick about: his natural competitiveness infused all his sporting activity. On one occasion, at a Taipei training session, he was furious when someone suggested the A and B team players train in mixed teams: in Derek’s mind, we might be team-mates but the best deserved to play the best. He also loved a good prank and when he engaged you in conversation you could almost see the wheels in motion behind his glint as he sized you up and thought of ways to involve you in some future good- natured mischief and, let’s not sugarcoat it, there was no guarantee that you would not be the victim of that prank.
Derek’s plans came crashing down in October 1996 when a freak traffic accident in Taipei put him in a coma in a strange land. His parents, Liam and Marie, rushed to his side but it soon became clear he would not make it. To his parents’ credit, they donated his organs to local Taiwanese organizations to give others life after Derek’s had ended. In death as in life, he gave everything.
After this heartbreak, Derek’s friends in Taiwan and elsewhere quickly realized that their tournament now had to be more than just a fun weekend getaway. Their response would have to do justice to Derek’s memory and reflect his passion for sport, his pride in his heritage, and his good humour. Mike Tyson once said that ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’ and the AGG organisers had taken a haymaker.
Their shaping of the tournament after 1996 is testament both to the impact Derek made in his short life and to his friends who used this immense grief to energize their plans and make it an event worthy of Derek’s memory. And it was not just a symbolic gesture, because from 1997 to the present day the winners of the football tournament have received the Derek Brady Memorial Trophy, a magnificent piece of Cavan Crystal, commissioned by his parents, in the likeness of the Sam Maguire Cup. Admittedly, while it has had a few close calls over the years, it has miraculously remained intact, and is now safely encased at Croke Park.
The first three tournaments were held in Manila but, in 1998, the organisers felt that a change of scenery would help the tournament grow and sought a more central Asian location. So, in 1999, Singapore hosted the games, offering an easier location and a more convenient travel experience. It was at this point, with growing numbers and a clear potential to break new ground, that the games arrived at a crossroads: would it continue as a pet project run by a small number of expats or would it grow its ambition and professionalise in a way that would allow growth, institutionalize the event within the growing GAA global family, and codify the rules of the game itself, which had to take into consideration the heat and the large number of novices attracted to the sport.
Over the following three years, the tournament experienced a significant turning point in its development. From 2000 to 2002, the Thai city of Phuket hosted the Games and it was here that its scale and ambition genuinely transformed, with help from both obvious and less obvious quarters. First, the talents of then organisers Peter Ryan and Mick Shannon ensured the Phuket Games were the best attended to date. For more than 20 years, Ryan, the current Irish Ambassador to New Zealand, has been the networking cornerstone of the Games, thanks to his inexhaustible dedication to the AGG mission and his long career in multiple Asian countries, where he has connected far-flung clubs and expats like no other. If the AGG is today the most successful and diverse international GAA tournament, it is in no small part due to him.
Perhaps most significantly, the visit of President Mary McAleese and GAA President- elect, Sean Kelly, in 2002 helped attract increased coverage and gave a seal of approval from the highest level. Both visitors were clearly impressed by the scale and energy of what they saw and spread the word. President McAleese even shared her experience with fellow world leaders, including Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who, unlike most Irish people, has actually hit a sliotar around Croke Park.
Serendipitously, on an official visit to Thailand, McAleese was convinced to attend and present the trophies thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Peter Ryan. As a result of Kelly’s experience in Phuket, he invited Ryan to join the GAA International Committee. The AGG had entered a new phase.
A year after Phuket, Ryan signed up the services of Paraic McGrath, an Irish expat most associated with the Singapore Gaelic Lions. With McGrath’s connections within the GAA, access to qualified referees, and a strong organizational ability, the pair set about creating the codes, structure, and funding to ensure the event’s future stability and growth. It was a potent partnership, resulting in the creation in 2005 of the ACB, official status at the GAA Congress, and the kind of financial security the founders could only have dreamed about. But it was far more than just another county board. Within a few years, with the underwriting help of China-based Cork businessman, Liam Casey, they created a business forum for Irish and local entrepreneurs to network and explore investment opportunities. Finally, they developed the social support side of the organization by ensuring a portion of the
Board’s revenue was donated to worthy causes. Meitheal is not just a vague term within the ACB, it is a core pillar of their mission statement.
By the time the tenth Games opened in Shanghai in 2005, the ACB was established and recognized as a dynamic force within the global GAA. Just as Irish society transformed dramatically from the 1990s, so too did the GAA, often guided by its international boards. To the present day, the ACB model is held up as an inspiration to other county boards to achieve ambitious goals, promote inclusion, and make the most of the resources at their disposal. As the Games finally return this month in Kuala Lumpur, after a forced 2-year Covid hiatus, and in a region that is still living with strict pandemic rules on travel, it is testament to the dedication of the current ACB and the global GAA family. However, this should come as no surprise to those familiar with the origins of the Games, the founding committee, the Brady family, and the GAA itself: in the end, we may not be such a long way from Hayes Hotel in Tipperary. Michael Cusack and his co-founders would have been proud.
‘It is so much more than a sporting occasion. I was completely captivated by the Games, such a profound ambassadorship for everything that is good about Ireland.’ - President Mary McAleese
‘The Asia County Board (ACB) is the biggest county board by geography. From 2005, it has brought money, organization, and a constitution. Today, the Games feature 67 teams from 24 clubs in Asia, fielding 900 players from 46 nationalities. In practice, only a handful of Asian cities are large enough to host it.’ - Paraic McGrath, former ACB Chair
‘The AGG was a genius idea, is not owned by one group, and Derek Brady’s parents have carried his memory brilliantly within the tournament culture.’ - Ambassador Peter Ryan
Meitheal in motion: Appearances can be deceiving
The founding members of the Asia Gaelic Games provided the genius and determination to get the tournament off the ground. Facing huge odds, they succeeded in launching an international Gaelic football tournament like no other that has gone from strength to strength over the past 26 years. While it involved a lot of work, there were some lighter moments too. For example, in the build up to the first tournament, several of the members were consistently working late in their Taipei offices sending faxes and communicating with the other teams about the upcoming games. On seeing this effort, their bosses insisted on giving them a pay bonus, presuming they were working for the company, unaware of their real activity.
Meitheal in motion: Networking, old school
In the early days, it was challenging to get football and hurling equipment shipped half way around the world. You had to use whatever opportunity came your way. This was the case in 1996, when then Minister for Tourism and Trade, Enda Kenny, was on official business in the region. Using his Mayo connections, founding member, Enda Cunnane, succeeded in getting Kenny to throw a few hurleys and sliotars into his diplomatic baggage and delivered them safely to Taipei. Is there any other way to describe this, other than ‘lovely hurling, Endas’!
Meitheal in motion: VIPs
Over the years, many VIPs have joined the ranks of the average football fan to watch the action. These include President Mary McAleese, the iconic Micheal O’Muircheartaigh, who attended and commentated on at least six occasions, GAA Presidents Sean Kelly and Joe McDonagh, and playing legends Eoin Liston and Brian Mullins. Their presence, thanks to the efforts of ACB leaders, Peter Ryan and Paraic McGrath, helped launch the AGG to the next level and gave a seal of approval that established the Games as an essential event in the global GAA schedule.
Meitheal in motion: The Derek Brady Cup
Following the untimely death of Taiwan lynchpin, Derek Brady, in 1996, his family commissioned an extraordinary Cavan Crystal trophy resembling the Sam McGuire Cup. Awarded to the winning men’s team since 1997, this trophy stands as a memorial to a founding member who embodied all that is valued in Irish sports: courage, dedication, loyalty, and fair play. The trophy keeps Derek’s legacy alive and well in a tournament that, a quarter century after his death, continues to place his memory front and centre of the Games.
Meitheal in motion: There’s only one…Noelie
We can’t speak of the AGG without a mention of the one and only Noel Lennon, the AGG Hall of Famer who has had the distinction of attending all 24 Games held to date. Only Covid stopped him achieving a mythical 25-in-a-row! Starting his
distinguished AGG career in the small village of Dou Liu in Taiwan, Noelie literally ran with the tournament idea and spread it all over the region, most effectively in Shanghai, where he has been a stalwart of the local club for years. Noelie’s playing career might have been cut short by various injuries but his role in growing and representing the Games is the stuff of legend. For an example of Noelie’s organizational abilities in the face of adversity, we need to look no further than him attracting the People’s Republic of China brass band to play ‘Amhran na bhFiann’ before the final of the 2005 Shanghai Games. Multiple witnesses have confirmed that many tears were shed seeing this surreal spectacle, topped off by the in-person commentary of Micheal O’Muircheartaigh. Sometimes truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.
Meitheal in motion: Raising their Games
When the tournament came to a crossroads in the early 2000s and its future seemed in doubt due to the sheer time and money required to run an event on this scale, we were fortunate that several key people stepped in to take it to the next level.
Individually, and as a team, Mick Shannon, Ambassador Peter Ryan, Paraic McGrath, and Liam Casey were among those who jumped onboard to bring their diverse talents to create a better-funded, more ambitious, and professionally organized international event that was more closely linked to the global GAA organisation.
Meitheal in motion: More than just a game
Today, the ACB generates annual revenue of more than $150,000. While most of that is ploughed back into club funding, equipment and future events, the ACB has also donated significant amounts to various charities in the region. As a testament to the Games creedo ‘ni neart go cur le cheile’, many Asian-based charities have benefited from the generosity of the Board. For example, after the Phuket Games in the early 2000s, the Board donated to the HDF-Mercy Centre in Bangkok, run by Fr. Joseph Maier, helping Fr. Joe in his mission to rescue slum kids and run refuge shelters in the city.