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Monday, August 27, 2012

2011 Asian Gaelic Games – Suwon, October 15-16, 2011.

Part I.
Christy Cooney told the crowded hotel’s function room that when you go to the airport in Sydney you can tell exactly where every Irish person there is from by the county colours they are wearing proudly on their chests. This he said was a testament to the role of the GAA in Irish people’s identity when they are forced to emigrate to. But when he said this, Christy Cooney was nowhere near Sydney; he was in fact, a little over 8,000 kilometres away from there, about the same distance as it would be to fly half-way from Dublin to Sydney, in the main hall of convention centre attached to the Ibis Hotel in Suwon, South Korea. Regardless, his comments were not out of place.

South Korean flag

The hall itself had a steadily growing number of men and women all dressed proudly in their team colours, some listening to Cooney, others were busy piling their plates high with food or filling their glasses with beer. There was a gurgle of excitement as the GAA president’s words half drowned out the sounds of people meeting and greeting. For some it had been over a year since the last time they had the chance to share their stories of sporting glory, among other things. The crowd of teams, while mostly consisting of people from Ireland, came from places as far away as Bahrain and Jakarta, and had arrived in Suwon for the 2011 Asian Gaelic Games. 
Over fifty teams from fifteen countries in Asia were scheduled to play over the weekend in the largest ever gaelic games tournament ever organised in Asia, and the first ever in South Korea. The Seoul Gaels, Korea’s oldest and most established GAA club had finally been given the honour of hosting the event which is now in its fifteenth year.
As the crowd increased in volume it was clear that teams weren’t made up of only Irish people, and entourages included what looked the whole family in some cases, and even a few toddlers were been kept up late to celebrate the opening ceremony, which included an address by An Táiniste, Eamonn Gilmore, a drumming performance by children from a local orphanage, and music by Bard, an Irish trad band made up of entirely Korean musicians. 
Although it wasn’t all fun and games. Declan Griffin from Dingle in Kerry, an old friend of mine from my first years in Korea, was keeping away from the bar and focusing on the games the next day. “I’m looking forward to this”, he told me in the middle of the hub-bub, “I’ll have a drink on Sunday”. He stood to the side taking in the atmosphere with a small smile on his face. For many, this event was the culmination of a year’s training and preparation. Griffin was a member of the Seoul Gaels’s A team and would be going head to head with the biggest clubs in Asian Gaelic Games, Hong Kong GAA, Singapore Gaelic Lions, Dubai Celts, Qatar GAA. 
The Seoul Gaels were founded in around 2001 and are one of the most successful teams in the Asian Gaelic Games, having won it three years in a row from 2002 to 2004, and were runners up on a number of occasions following that. Recently with the large number of Irish people leaving Ireland, including a number of former inter-country players who have gone to Dubai and Hong Kong, Korea’s best team have struggled to reach their former heights. This year they were hoping on home advantage to take them far. But it would be a tall task to ask of the Seoul team, as Korea lacks the attractions of the bright lights of Dubai and Hong Kong for many who have left Ireland.
You could clearly see this difference on the pitch. Standing on the touchline during the final on Sunday between Hong Kong GAA and Singapore Gaelic Lions you could see that both teams’ players were bigger and stronger than many on the Seoul Gaels team. Indeed, it is hard to compete against two of the most successful and biggest clubs in Asia. Hong Kong has won the competition seven times, considerably more than any other team. While from a club basis both have large memberships and even manage to field men’s, women’s, and juvenile teams. Unfortunately the community in Seoul is so spread out, so the team mostly only trains together at the weekend.
While of course it goes without saying that plenty should be said about the big teams at the games, it’s hard to not mention that these games displayed further examples of the spread of GAA around the continent, and in particular in Korea. 
This year’s games featured three new teams, two from Korea and one from Mongolia. That meant that the number of teams coming from Korea totalled thirteen; the lions share belonged to the Seoul Gaels who fielded six teams, three men’s and threes women’s. Newcomers Daegu Fianna brought two men’s teams and one women’s team, and fellow newcomers Laochra Busan also had a men’s and women’s team. There was also the Dokdo Pirates, a team formed of Seoul Gaels castaways, and a Korean Peninsula team which was made up of players from scattered locations around the country. 



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