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Love of the Irish: why are Gaelic games so popular in Asia? | Thailand

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In a floodlit field, 20 women run the length of a pitch kicking, bouncing and passing the ball in a game of Gaelic football. Sweating it out, players with more experience “buddy up” with new members to show them the basic skills before they take to the pitch.

It’s a weekday training session much like any other, except that it’s taking place in the humidity of Bangkok, where Gaelic games – including hurling, handball, rounders, and camogie – are surging in popularity.

“I like the history aspect of it and how there’s so much of a feel of love for your own community,” says Rajveer Chowdhary, a sports science strength and conditioning consultant from India, who began playing Gaelic football with the Indian Wolfhounds in 2018 and now plays in Bangkok.

After the training, on a Tuesday evening, players hang back for a beer, catching up on the weekend’s antics and enjoying the “craic” as much as keeping fit. “The welcoming and accepting sense of the GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association] communities throughout the world is why I love GAA,” says Mozz Piokliang, a business development manager who has been playing Gaelic football in Bangkok for six years, hurling for four, and now referees games.

Similar scenes are being repeated across Asia. According to the Dublin-based Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) – Ireland’s largest sporting organisation – there are 22 Gaelic sports clubs in Asia.

But it’s the women’s Gaelic games currently seeing the biggest growth in Asia, says Gerard Duignan, chairperson of Thailand’s GAA. The women’s VietCelts Hanoi Gaelic football team, for example, has grown from 12 players in 2018 to more than 30 in 2022 and is coached exclusively by women.

The Viet Celts, from Hanoi, hold on to possession against the Singapore Gaelic Lions. Photograph: supplied

The games provide an opportunity, especially for women, to escape any potential cultural confines, says Seoul-based Joe Trolan, a former chairperson of the Asian County Board, or Asian GAA, which was founded in 2012. “Sport in general can be a place where you can walk through the stadium gates and leave the rigidity of culture behind you.”

In Vietnam, playing sport for fun isn’t yet popular among women, explains Phuong Nguyen, an NGO worker and member of VietCelts, but having it recognised that women can play Gaelic football “is a great feeling”.

The absence of pressure to begin at a good level is a contributing factor to its popularity, Nguyen says. Piokliang agrees, noting rugby and football come with an expectation to have a certain degree of knowledge. “But in Gaelic football … everybody understands this is a new sport and nobody has played this before in Thailand.”

In most Asian clubs, the majority of players are non-Irish, says Trolan. He believes the appeal is the community ethos carried over from Ireland.

The Asian Gaelic Games have been running since 1996, and the South Asian Gaelic Games were established in 2008. In that time, the number of participating teams has grown from around six to 72.

While players cite the community spirit of the Gaelic sports, socialising and inclusivity as reasons for its popularity, a push from Ireland itself is likely a contributor too.

The Irish government, under its Diaspora Strategy 2020-2025 and emigrant support programme, aims to “strengthen the international Irish community and its bond with Ireland” and provides millions in funding each year to Irish diaspora organisations, including the GAA, in the hope of doing so.

Viet Celts (Hanoi) against Thailand GAA
Ireland’s diaspora strategy has provided millions in funding to help organisations such as the Gaelic Athletic Association. Photograph: Matthew Walsh

Renting pitches, training first aiders, and getting equipment means there are significant costs involved in running a Gaelic sports club, Duignan says. Off Bangkok’s central artery, the team rents out pitches belonging to an international school. Support from the GAA and foreign affairs department is what he calls “a lifeline”.

The department understands the way to connect with communities is through sport, Trolan explains. “[Its goal is] to improve the brand Ireland over here and they know the GAA can be the face of the Irish abroad.”

The GAA now has more than 400 clubs outside Ireland.

“We’ve had local ministers and mayors show up to our games and that’s how the brand is built,” Trolan says. It may be working. Piokliang says he only knew of Irish stereotypes prior to playing Gaelic sports but now knows more about the country and plans to visit. “It’s changed the way I see Ireland, Irish people and Irish culture.”

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