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Gaelic games in Brussels: a 'social anchor'... and not just for the Irish

13:48 02/11/2015
Sometimes sport acts as the force that holds a community together. Brussels has a thriving Gaelic games club for children and adults, Irish and other nationalities - and new members are always welcome to try out Gaelic football and hurling.

Gaelic games are played on a club and county level in Ireland, and have expanded worldwide, with clubs springing up wherever large groups of Irish expats have converged. That includes here in Belgium, where the club has been described as "the social anchor for Irish people in Brussels" by Ireland South MEP Sean Kelly.

"A lot of people who play, socialise and support the club, wouldn’t otherwise know each other," says Kelly, who was the former president of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) from 2003-2006 and is the honorary president of the Belgian branch.

The GAA is the governing organisation of native Irish Gaelic games, the most popular of which are Gaelic football and hurling. (See below for description of the games.) Ladies Gaelic Football and Camogie are the women's versions of football and hurling respectively with very similar rules. 

Caoimhe Ní Shúilleabháin, a player for the club's ladies football team, emphasises its importance on the lives of many Irish expats in Brussels: "It's our community, our family. It's been an important part of my life since coming here. Without the GAA, I may not have stayed in Belgium."

Non-Irish clubs and players

Aside from strong membership among the global Irish diaspora, non-natives are showing keen interest to play. In the ladies football team, membership includes a diverse range of nationalities including Belgian, Serbian, Colombian, French and English. "Our captain is actually Spanish," adds Ní Shúilleabháin.

The club's secretary, Jelena Radakovic from Serbia first became acquainted with Gaelic games in 2008 while she was a student working in an Irish pub in Brussels. "GAA in Belgium is a good place for foreigners to start playing it," she says. "There are many nationalities and it's not too threatening to start it when you are bit older. We're on the same plateau."

Niall Goodwin, the club's hurling officer, based in Brussels since 2012, said non-Irish team members fit in well: "They pick up the skills very quickly. They're great athletes and some become our most important players. In the hurling team last year we had a ginger-haired guy, who couldn't look more Irish and his name was Mick, but he has no Irish links whatsoever. We call him Mick the Belgian."

The Belgium GAA's teams play at organised weekend tournaments with others around Europe. Goodwin says: "In hurling we had four tournaments with teams from cities like The Hague, Paris, Zurich and Dresden. In Dresden they have only one Irishman on the team but they've run us close a couple of times."

The future

There are ideas of appointing a full-time development officer, which Sean Kelly MEP believes makes sense especially for promoting the games among children, adding that this has been a huge success in the US. There is huge interest among children - the junior club, the European Communities Gaelic club, train at the ADEPS site in Auderghem, usually attracting 50 to 60 children at their fortnightly Sunday sessions. "We've had players graduate into the senior club from that in the past two years," Ní Shúilleabháin adds.

The club's funding comes from membership fees, sponsorship and fundraising, which Radakovic says are massively important: "All the money goes into the club. The excellent facilities don't come cheap and we need equipment."

Training will start up again in February on Mondays and Thursdays at the VUB. Goodwin says anyone is welcome to come along: "We're a very inclusive club, we always need players," he said.

Gaelic games: how they are played

Hurling involves 15 players on each team, who use a wooden stick known as a "hurley" or "camán" to hit a small ball called a sliotar between the opponents' goalposts, which bear similarity to those used in rugby. Over the crossbar gains one point, while under the bar for a goal is worth three points. The sliotar can be caught in the hand and carried for no more than four steps, struck in the air, or struck on the ground with the hurley. It can also be kicked or slapped with an open hand (the hand pass) for short-range passing. It is mandatory for players to wear helmets since 2010. Camogie is the version of hurling played by women with some slight differences.

Gaelic football, similar to Australian rules football, involves the same number of players on each team and the same scoring rules. The objective is to score goals and points by moving the ball towards the opposing end by a combination of combination of carrying, bouncing, kicking, hand-passing, and soloing, the latter involves dropping the ball and then toe-kicking the ball upward into the hands.

Games in both last 70 minutes (35 minutes per half) while the women's game lasts 60 minutes (30 minutes a half). The games are played on an amateur basis.

Belgium GAA train every Monday and Thursday at 20.00 at the VUB, Boulevard de la Plaine, 1050 Ixelles (from February). A fundraiser for Belgium GAA is taking place on Thursday 5 November at the Old Oak, Rue Franklin 26, Brussels.

Written by Owen Stafford