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'Up Mayo': How this documentary about GAA in Ireland's most diverse town went viral

Maurice O’Brien has had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to his film about Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo.

The Guardian / YouTube

THIS DOCUMENTARY ABOUT the Mayo town of Ballyhaunis was published on the Guardian website last week.

It tells the story of Ireland’s “most diverse” town, and focuses on how the local GAA club has been successful in bringing people together against a backdrop of the crisis in Direct Provision, the system where asylum seekers live while they await a decision.

The video went viral and was one of the most popular articles on the site for days afterwards.

Earlier this week, caught up with documentary filmmaker Maurice O’Brien to talk about the film, how it came about, and the overwhelmingly positive reaction to it.

Pitching up

“It’s already one of the most viewed videos ever on the Guardian,” he said. “They look at stats for people who watch it right through to the end, and it’s right up there.”

O’Brien said that he moved back to Ireland recently from abroad, and had wanted to make a film about the GAA in some way.

“I heard about the fact that Ballyhaunis was the most multicultural town in Ireland, and a journalist called Eoin Butler wrote about the GAA club doing an integration day, so I just went along and spent some time there,” he said.

For me it was a positive story. The GAA is the social fabric in a lot of these towns. You can really see how it takes on an even more important role in this film.

The documentary presents a compelling account of the local GAA volunteers who put in the long hard hours for the teams of all age levels, the children of over a dozen nationalities who play on the teams, and some of the parents of the children who have lived in Direct Provision.

O’Brien said that it was a good way to highlight how far Ireland has come.

“Immigration still feels like a new thing in Ireland,” he said. “I’m sure there are schools in Dublin where a large proportion of children speak another language at home, but it’s not as common in towns in the west of Ireland.

I think, overall, Ireland has done pretty well. Ballaghaderreen is just down the road in Roscommon has many Syrian families there. To see the welcome that the local community has afforded these people is heartwarming.


O’Brien said his experience filming in Ballyhaunis was a welcome change from the traditional narratives around immigration, particularly “across the water”.

“I think we should highlight the positive elements of people from different cultures coming together in the same community,” he said. “Look at the Brexit debate over in the UK.”

He said that away from the “endless negativity” about immigrants, a counter-narrative needed to be portrayed.

The nationalities of children playing GAA in the documentary range from Polish and Lithuanian, to Nigerian and Syrian.

“There are always challenges with everything, but there are some inspiring stories, too,” he said.

O’Brien said that this documentary struck a chord with many people, which was reflected in the comments under the original Guardian piece, and the emails he’s received since.

Direct Provision

One story that features in the documentary is that of Desmond, a boy who has spent most of his life in Ballyhaunis. A keen GAA player, the small Mayo town feels like home.

His mother, Francisca, came to Ireland from the Ivory Coast and spent over eight years in Direct Provision.

In the documentary, she expresses frustration that she wasn’t able to work during this time, and O’Brien said that is a massive problem for the people he’s come into contact with.

“She was appreciative of the fact that she got a roof over her head, and got food, but it was a big problem that she wasn’t allowed to get a job,” he said.

It’s one thing living in that accommodation, but not allowed to be useful either? People are not allowed to feel like they’re being of some use.

Francisca thought that she would leave Ballyhaunis when her time in Direct Provision came to an end but, with she and her son sowing roots there in the community, that is no longer likely.

“Desmond has been there all his life. All his friends are there. He’s a Ballyhaunis boy,” O’Brien said.

The filmmaker said it was never the intention to “overly sugarcoat” the issues with the documentary, but simply to highlight how hard it is for some people and the way a positive community atmosphere can pull everyone together.

With over half a million views already and counting, O’Brien has certainly helped to get the message about Ballyhaunis out there.

Read: ‘They’re just regular young people like us’ – Teens scoop top prize for welcome given to Syrian refugees

Read: Roscommon town prepares for refugees by building a wall… of welcome

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