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Children in Vietnam are mad about GAA thanks to our inspiring expats

GAA is one of the fastest growing sports for women in Asia.

GAA HAS FOLLOWED Irish people across the globe – with clubs established across Europe, the US and Asia.

This week the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, was in Vietnam and met with the Irish community in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

That passion for Irish sport was commented on by the President, who was present for the official launch of the Asian Youth Championship (AYC).

The championship will see teams from Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Korea compete in underage gaelic games.

Vietnam Ireland President Michael Higgins with his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang during a joint press briefing in Hanoi. Source: Tran Van Minh

Vietnam has a small Irish community – but that group has been enough to see a number of active GAA clubs flourish.

There are 320 Irish citizens registered with the Embassy of Ireland in Vietnam, but it’s thought that the total number of Irish citizens is around the 600 mark.

A large proportion of them are young, with many working as teachers and using the schools they work in as a starting ground to inspire a passion for the GAA among students.

The Saigon Gaels club in Ho Chi Minh City and the Viet Celts in Hanoi keep many players, both men and women, busy. The Viet Celts will host the inaugural AYC in Hanoi on 19 November.

Membership of these clubs isn’t just made up of Irish people, it also includes Vietnamese and expats from other countries.

unnamed (1) SIS players with Coach John Shoulders Source: Jim Kiernan

Club Secretary with the Viet Celts, Jim Kiernan, has been in Vietnam since 2008 and joined the club a week after he arrived.

He told TheJournal.ie that for Irish people abroad, GAA clubs around the world act as a centre point.

He described how Irish arriving in a new place can immediately meet 30-40 people as soon as they arrive in a new country. “This helps new arrivals settle and they can find out a lot of information about their new country from club members who have been there a while.”

This was reiterated by Rebecca O’Keefe who arrived in Vietnam about nine months ago to teach English. She came on her own and didn’t know a single person.

She is now a team captain and is one of the organisers of the team. She told TheJournal.ie:

I figured the best way to meet people was to join the gaelic team. It’s amazing that no matter where you go in the world there is always a GAA team, we’re everywhere! But it really is fantastic to be so far away from Ireland but have a bit of home right here.

“Now I hadn’t played GAA in years but that didn’t matter at all because the team was so welcoming. I was pleasantly surprised to see girls from all over playing with us and there’s a huge interest among the expat community. We have Irish obviously, Vietnamese, Australian, British, Dutch, Filipino.”

Kiernan has played in 24 tournaments for the Viet Celts over the last eight years.

The camaraderie on these tours is always excellent. I’ve made many friends for life who come back to visit us in Hanoi or who I look up when I’m back in Ireland.

Kiernan told TheJournal.ie, “The club has 60 players at senior level and 100 players at youth level”, he added that “most of those children from the teams are Vietnamese”.

“The Viet Celts exist as an umbrella organisation at youth level in that we have a number of schools playing … as well as a children’s foundation that looks after children from disadvantaged backgrounds called Blue Dragon. ”

unnamed (2) Action from Blue Dragon U15s v HIS U15s Source: Jim Kiernan

The first All-Vietnam Schools Cup was organised in 2010, but Kiernan said that it wasn’t an easy process:

Organising Gaelic Football at youth level in Asia takes a lot of time and work because we’ve had to build up the structures ourselves from zero. However, Vietnamese and other Asian kids would not be playing Gaelic Football only for the fact that some of us ended up here randomly.

“Over the years, the Viet Celts have had nationalities from every continent, apart from Antarctica, and most of the clubs in Asia are in the same boat. There are about four different playing levels in the system in Asia so with this structure, it’s possible for people with no background in the game to get involved, gain a foothold and improve over time.”

He added that an all-Japanese ladies team won their competition in the Asian Gaelic Games (AGG) two years ago.

In the last number of AGGs more than 50% of the players have been women and again, this is another great development. Gaelic Football is one of the fastest growing sports amongst women in Asia.

unnamed (3) Source: Jim Kiernan

O’Keefe added that while team are competitive – the social element to the club is also a big factor:

We participate in several tournaments throughout the year with varying degrees of success but it’s more about the social side anyway!

“We always play our rivals Saigon Gaels at least once which is always a great game, we go to the South East Asian Games, Asian Games, and the Central Vietnam Games so we get plenty of travel in which is always good. We actually won our division in the last southeast asian games in Bangkok.”

unnamed (4) Source: Rebecca O'Keefe

Giving an example of the passion that some of the young Vietnamese girls teams have for GAA, Kiernan described how one team in his school in Hanoi would borrow the equipment and train on the three days that they didn’t have training.

This was on top of the two training sessions a week he organised with them.

I was amazed by this because I can’t ever remember doing this with my friends as a youngster. Gaelic Football was always organized by a coach through school or a club back home and here were a group of girls in Hanoi organising extra sessions off their own initiative.

Kiernan added that looking around a pitch to see to Vietnamese kids coming to grips with the skills of the game is a great feeling as an educator.

Read: Taxes, hospitals and crime: What expats really love and loathe about Ireland>

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