Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Tuesday 31 January 2023 Dublin: 8°C
INPHO/ Tom Honan
Column ‘We train indoors, unless it clashes with a kids’ birthday party’
As Ireland’s young people emigrate, GAA clubs are springing up in unlikely locations – and becoming centres for a unique community, writes Philip O’Connor from Sweden.

ALAN BROGAN NEVER had to put up with this.

It’s April, and the last of the snow of winter is finally starting to melt in Stockholm, six months after it first fell.

But the ground is still frozen solid and training is still done indoors – unless of course it clashes with a birthday party or an under-nine’s basketball game, both of which seem to be far above Gaelic football on the priority list when it comes to booking halls.

It didn’t stop there. A kindly man named Ove Eriksson gave us access to a soccer pitch to train on with – wait for it – real grass! We were over the moon, until he showed us the asphalt cricket crease that had been laid right in the middle of it.

“By the way, you’ll be sharing it with the Indian and Pakistani lads as they had nowhere to go either,” said a smiling Ove cheerfully, not realizing the effect that whizzing cricket balls was going to have on our training sessions on those early summer evenings.

In the beginning it wouldn’t have been a problem; back then there was only ever about five or six of us kicking a ball. But since the Stockholm Gaels were founded in 2010 and won the Scandinavian Championship at the first attempt, Gaelic games have exploded in the Swedish capital.

And though the men’s side is still made up mostly of Irish lads over here working or studying – some for a few months, others for many years – it is the girls that have grown the most.

Training side by side with the men was frightening the girls away, and by the end of the season we only hsad a handful of them left. Something had to be done, so separate training sessions for them were scheduled on winter Tuesday nights at nine o’clock, mostly so as not to clash with the kids’ basketball and the birthday parties.

The first week a dozen or so players turned up, including one woman who had lived in Sweden for 12 years and had little contact with her compatriots since she moved here. Others were working for Bord Bia or Enterprise Ireland; still more had met Swedish lads and moved over to be with them.

‘The same couldn’t be said for the men’

After two weeks the hall was filled to bursting as girls from Ireland, Great Britain, Sweden, France, Canada, Estonia, Germany and God knows where else latched on to Gaelic football. The space was getting so cramped that the thaw couldn’t come quick enough.

There was an immense feeling of togetherness and joy as the girls learned the basics together, helped by their more experienced counterparts. Soon there were social gatherings starting to happen outside of training, and it was starting to become a focal point both for Swedes and ex-pats of all hues.

The same couldn’t be said for the men. These lads came from all over Ireland, and most of them had been serious footballers in their clubs back home; failing that, they took their football seriously.

Some had Sigurdsson Cup medals, and a few had played at minor level for Roscommon or Clare. There was even one lad who had played senior football for Antrim in the not-too-distant past.

Sure, there was an influx of new players as the jobs market in Ireland hit the wall and students sought refuge from college fees and tough exams in Stockholm University. Some come here with Swedish partners, others just pack up and leave, reasoning that the damage done to Ireland by the unbridled greed and political stupidity of the last decade is going to take a while to fix.

For me, I was one of the ‘love refugees’ – after five years in Dublin, my wife suggested we try living in Sweden “for a year or two”. Twelve years and two children later, it doesn’t look like I’ll be going anywhere soon.

But getting the Swedes involved was proving tough – those who did try it found it difficult to get up to speed quick enough, and you can hardly blame them for packing it in rather than taking the hits every week until they improved. I know I wouldn’t be hanging around for long if some cheeky pup from Kildare was swiping the ball off me all the time.

‘The mammy back at home’

But the cheeky pups from Kildare or Dublin don’t have it all their own way either. The club is a great source of help and information, and one of them struck gold last year when we helped him find an apartment.

Decent apartments for reasonable rents are like hen’s teeth in Stockholm, so Brendan was overjoyed when he got sorted out and started college. Then one day he called me.

“I’ve a question for you about cooking,” he said.

“What’s that?” I replied.

“How do you do that?”

For the likes of Brendan, and the mammy back home in Dublin who took such great care of him that he couldn’t even make a cup of tea, there must be some comfort in knowing that there are clubs out there that provide instant social networks for their offspring.

Needless to say, Brendan hasn’t starved, even if his first attempt at making Bolognese out of stewing steak didn’t end too well, and his mate Peter was able to stay on and work here for the summer after his Erasmus year – there was no job for him at home to go to.

The Stockholm Gaels are just one of 400 clubs in all corners of the world – in some, there isn’t an Irish person or even an English-speaking person involved, but for the most part they are the hubs of the Irish communities abroad, where jobs, apartments, romance, camaraderie and a sense of belonging are all available to a greater or lesser degree.

For those of us here for the long haul, Gaelic games gather us together and give us a reason to stay. For those that are here fleetingly, they provide a springboard and a safety net.

And for the mammies and the families back home, they provide a sense of security, as any good club or parish would.

Time to go dodge some cricket balls. It’s championship week.

Philip O’Connor is the chairman of the Stockholm Gaels GAA club. His book about the travails of playing GAA in Sweden, A Parish Far From Home, is published by Gill & Macmillan on September 9 with a foreword by Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. It is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Your Voice
Readers Comments