Growing up you in the country side you can remember walking, cycling or getting a lift from a neighbour to your local GAA pitch. Here in Seoul, where the GAA still is an integral part of the Irish expat community, we take a taxi, bus or subway to training.
Seoul Gaels was set up in 2002 after some Irish guys went to watch our national soccer team in the Korea-Japan World Cup. These men decided to stay, some of whom are still here, and they loved the Korean way of life, but craved some GAA. They set up the club, won the All Asian Finals that year, and the club has grown from strength to strength.
Fast forward to 2013 and the club is looking forward to its 11th season. There were over 80 members last year, the majority being English teachers living in the Seoul Metropolitan area. The club is comprised of people from Ireland, England, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Malaysia and of course some Korean locals.
Picture your local GAA pitch at home in Ireland. Now cut the pitch in half. Put sky scrapers, subway lines, bicycle tracks, a river and 20million Korean people around it. This is the setting that we have for our 2 hour training sessions every Saturday in Seoul, from April to October. The main problem here is that Seoul is one of the largest cities in the world and land is at a premium in this concrete jungle.
Getting a pitch to train on proves to be the most difficult thing every year. Last year we trained in over 6 different locations, sometimes a dirt pitch by the river, but most of the time we were fortunate to train on synthetic turf pitches. Having our own plot of land with our own pitch would be ideal, but for now, we continue to search for a good pitch in a good location week after week.
There are now three GAA clubs based in Korea and this resulted in the ‘Korean League’ being set up in 2012. This league is run throughout the season with one day of games per month. The other two teams, Daegu Na Fianna and Laochra Busan have helped to make this a very competitive and successful competition. We play each game as 9 a side for 7 minute halves. You might think that 7 minutes is very short, but it’s nonstop, full intensity and hell for leather. It’s fun, exciting and most of us out here could not imagine our lives here without it. The league has allowed each team to travel around Korea, play some competitive football and get to know each other with a few social nights out.
Seoul Gaels is more than a football club for all of us living out here. Some people have been with the club from day one, others have just landed, but there is an instant connection to home the second you lace up your boots and solo that O’Neill’s football. 9,000 kilometres is a long way from home, but this great club makes it feel much less.
Last year our men’s and ladies teams travelled throughout Korea, we went to Beijing in June and we played in the Asian Gaelic Games finals – the main competition every year - in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in October. We took silverware from each of those tournaments and we aim to be even more successful in the coming year.
As a club, we always try to develop year after year. We already have some fundraising plans in place for this year. We have a proposed ‘Fight Night’, which has proved to be very successful for many GAA clubs at home, and we hope it will be just as successful over here in Korea.
The planning has also begun to for an exhibition game during the Connaught Senior Football Final this coming summer. We hope to have local Korean kids demonstrating their skills for all to see. The kids will learn a new game, learn the English language and experience a whole new culture.
For anybody at home who thinks the GAA is all about community and loyalty to where you’re from – You’re right! We certainly don’t forget our clubs back home where we grew up kicking a ball off a wall, walking to training and giving it everything with my friends, brothers and sisters. The magic of the GAA now is that it has developed all around the world and continues to go from strength to strength.
As a Laois man, I want to send my best wishes to the county footballers and hurlers for the year ahead. The Laois jersey is worn with pride, and gets plenty of funny looks, as I take the subway to training every weekend.